Malawian women protest over 'trouser attacks'

Women protesters in Malawi Women held up a sign saying: "Real men don't bother women"

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Hundreds of people have protested in Blantyre in Malawi about attacks on women for wearing trousers.

Some women were this week beaten and stripped by vendors on the streets of the capital, Lilongwe, and Blantyre for not wearing traditional dress.

A BBC reporter says women wore trousers and mini-skirts to the demonstration to show their outrage.

President Bingu wa Mutharika has said on national radio that women had the right to wear what they want.

He denied reports that he had ordered women to stop wearing trousers, and ordered anyone harassing women to be arrested.

Until 1994, women in the deeply conservative southern African country were banned from wearing trousers or mini-skirts under the autocratic rule of Hastings Banda.

Men were also banned from having long hair.

Women have also been attacked for wearing trousers in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe in recent years.

'Abominable'

The BBC's Raphael Tenthani in Blantyre says Vice-President Joyce Banda, the gender minister, several MPs, church leaders, university lecturers and other activists attended Friday's protest.

One sign was held up during the gathering with the words: "Real men don't bother women" and some of the women wore white T-shirts saying: "Vendor: Today I buy from you, tomorrow you undress me?"

"The reason why I'm here is because I'm in total disbelief that in the year 2012 women are being stripped naked," Ms Banda told the BBC at the vigil.

Speaker after speaker condemned the harassment of women, saying Malawi could not afford to turn back the clock, our correspondent says.

Start Quote

Women who want to wear trousers should do so, as you will be protected from thugs, vendors and terrorists”

End Quote Bingu wa Mutharika President

"Trousers and mini-skirts for most women in Malawi is a symbol for our hard-won freedom from the one-party dictatorship to the multiparty era," one woman said.

"Therefore it has been a shock... that 18 years after that multiparty [era began] we can sit here and talk about women being undressed in town. It's abominable."

Our correspondent says men and boys also attended the event where there was dancing and singing, with the Bob Marley classic No Woman No Cry getting the loudest cheers.

A vendors' representative at the protest, Innocent Mussa, was booed off the stage by the women, he says.

"I'm ashamed to be associated with the stripping naked of innocent women," Mr Mussa told the crowd.

"Those were acts of thugs, because a true vendor would want to sell his wares to women, he can't be harassing potential customers," he said.

Seodi White, a lawyer and leading women's rights activist and protest organiser, said the women were being targeted by disaffected youth unhappy with the economic situation.

"Is this really about culture or something else in terms of economic hardship people are looking for an outlet to vent on?," she told the BBC's Network Africa programme.

Earlier, Mrs Banda also blamed the attacks on economic woes in Malawi, where there are severe shortages of fuel and foreign currency at present.

"There is so much suffering that people have decided to vent their frustrations on each other," the vice-president said.

Last year, the UK and other donors cut aid to Malawi, amid criticism of its economic policies and its attitude to the opposition and journalists.

President Mutharika on Thursday made a nationwide broadcast, calling for an end to the attacks.

"I will not allow anyone to... go on the streets and start undressing women and girls wearing trousers, because that is illegal," he said.

"You are free to wear what you want. Women who want to wear trousers should do so, as you will be protected from thugs, vendors and terrorists."

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