Letter from Africa: Miniskirts and morals

African models in short dresses - AFP archive

In our series of letters from African journalists, film maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers plans to ban miniskirts in Uganda.

April has given us a clutch of anniversaries and the usual mix of anxieties dressed as news.

South Africa turned 19, Zimbabwe turned 33 and we wondered what would become of Mali as it was decided a UN peacekeeping force would take over from the French, while the French themselves had an embassy bombed in Libya and Somalia's al-Shabab showed signs of a pulse still beating in its violent heart.

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If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her”

End Quote Simon Lokodo Uganda's ethics and integrity minister

African athletes won a couple of international marathons and Kenya's new cabinet had a woman defence minister for the first time and more was said by financial analysts about the rapid economic growth on the continent.

You would think, then, as an Africa watcher that the usual mix of information filled the newspapers and cyberspace with the political and financial.

But a quick glimpse of the press in Uganda showed us that the month of April was also about "integrity and ethics" because Simon Lokodo, Uganda's ethics and integrity minister, was railing against the miniskirt in his preparation of a proposed anti-pornography bill.

"Any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, is outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her," pronounced the minister in a confusing bid to preserve the nation's modesty.

In truth Mr Lokodo has joined a long list of men - for it is usually men - who have taken offence at what women wear throughout independent Africa for decades.

Hastings Banda in 1960 Hastings Banda, Malawi's independence leader, was a stickler for conservative dress
Cultural colonialism

Hastings Kamuzu Banda's Malawi banned the same skirt and frowned at women wearing trousers back in the days when dictatorship was hip and fashionable - Uganda's Idi Amin did not much like that particular skirt either.

An explosion of cultural colonialism in the form of hip-hop, pop, belly dancing, pole dancing, satellite television - which beams the dramas of other lives into African homes and the fashions of a recklessly cool world youth into African minds - has had the likes of Mr Lokodo scrambling to hold back the waves of moral corruption he imagines are coming his way.

Mr Lokodo's Anti-Pornography Bill has not defined "pornography" as we may or may not encounter it on the streets of Kampala, nor does it tell us what his ministry intends to do about the very real pornography available at the touch of a cursor on the World Wide Web of which Uganda is a part.

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This line of argument fails to acknowledge that people who rape or are driven to drooling uncontrollably at the sight of a female thigh with which they are not well acquainted are provoked only by the demons in their own heads”

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Yet to be fair to the minister of ethics and integrity, a far more insidious vice than women's summer wear has been arriving in African cities, and by chance, in 2012, Kampala police arrested a foreigner who had been recording pictures of himself engaging in sexual acts with Ugandan children.

No law existed to give him more than the two years in prison or a 6m Ugandan shilling ($2,318, £1492) fine on offer under the Computer Misuse Act, and the criminal simply paid the fine and was released - only to be hauled back to jail because of the public outcry which ensued. He is to now face a new trial, including charges of indecent exposure.

The huge net of globalisation that has given us Chinese architecture and mobile phone companies of every persuasion that have opened up our capitals, has not been discriminating about who or what comes in to shred our traditional values and corrupt our young.

Some argue pornography leads to increased sexual violence - although others say it does not.

'Objects of attraction'

The Anti-Pornography Bill up for discussion in Uganda says there has been "an increase in pornographic material in the Ugandan mass media and an increase in nude dancing in the entertainment world… One of the dangers pornography poses is that it fuels sexual crimes against women…" and the bill seeks to slap a 10m shilling fine and/or 10 years in jail on anyone who engages in pornography, dirty dancing and minimalist attire.

Woman on the mini-skirt march in South Africa, 17 February 2012 Last year, South Africans marched in protest against attacks on women in miniskirts

Yet while Minister Lokodo's intentions may have been to protect Ugandans from the morally degenerate, he has taken his very broad assegai (spear) to personal freedoms and ignited the long-running debate about where sexual crimes begin - with the criminals or with victims because of what they are wearing?

Women, he alleged, should not wear provocative clothing and men, he says, are not usually the "object of attraction and can go shirtless" on the beach.

This line of argument gets us all nowhere very fast and fails to acknowledge that people who rape or are driven to drooling uncontrollably at the sight of a female thigh with which they are not well acquainted are provoked only by the demons in their own heads and pander to their basest natures.

As a former Catholic priest, Minister Lokodo would know a thing or two about demons, and know too that the best place to get rid of them is through the church, not via government statutes.

Should prayer fail, there will always be a Ugandan jail. And the miniskirt has very little to do with it.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Dressing is one aspect of human perception that gives an instant classification to an individual without true analysis,Culture and tradition is one thing that Africans are battling to preserve in the face of western influence In typical African society women are seen as the piller of morality and as such is regarded high,but modernization is changing all that,if we loose that part, all is lost.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I agree with 8 - Mr Azvedeo. But I would also add that the problem with a former priest making the laws on morality is that they may bring their own personal preferences to bear on all of us. And to be honest, not so long ago we all wore very very little in Uganda.

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    Comment number 8.

    Mr Sevenzo makes a cogent, engaging and well-written case against the Minister's efforts to turn himself into Uganda's answer to Mary Whitehouse. But like the late English campaigner against social liberalism, for better - or perhaps worse - history is against Minister Lokodo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    This is a typical piece of turning history back to a convenient point where it supports whatever argument you want to make. If he wants to preserve 'tradition' then women would have to go topless and wear animal skins. It was western dress that changed all that. So when you buy into western dress, you buy into its changing fashions. His view is typical of men who want to control women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I personally think that the choice to dress what they wish should be left to women themselves.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Though I would like to see persons dress more modestly, this is only my personal preference. It is not pornography, dirty dancing or minimalist attire that is the direct cause of rape. It is the mindset of a male bullies who feels entitled to consider women as objects.
    Liberian government has zero tolerance to rape & sexual violence; it has made rape a non-bailable offense.

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    Comment number 3.

    Some may argue that you cannot legislate morality. But, I beg to differ. If that were true, no society should have laws. As Africa continue to cling on many of the good things about its culture & tradition, the genie is already out of the box when it comes to western cultures' bad inflence on sexuality/immorality. Blame the internet & the increasingly shrinking world. It is indeed, a small world

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    Comment number 2.

    Lokodo's is trying to establish men's unfair superiority over women. Am so embarrassed of the notion man's nudity doesn,t stimulate women sexual drive? That cant be true. How then does women keep there cool? Lokodo must figure that out and apply it to men. what does he know about africa tradition? Some times if not always ,in some places, some where, some how, nudity is alot part of the tradition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Criminal/victim is not really a debate - why should anyone change what they wear/say because of what another person may do? The criminals (controllers/bullies) will always be in the wrong


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