/ 14 May 2015

Fear of the feminine recurs

Fighting back: Kenyans in Nairobi protest against violence inflicted on women.
Fighting back: Kenyans in Nairobi protest against violence inflicted on women.

Last year Nigeria and Uganda passed laws with draconian penalties for people engaged in same-sex relationships and their allies – the Anti-Homosexuality Act and the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act respectively. An equally pernicious law, passed in Uganda at the same time, received less attention – the Anti-Pornography Act criminalised pornography by, inter alia, regulating women’s dress in public.

The Anti-Pornography Act (now under review) described porn broadly as “any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement” – which includes women wearing miniskirts, on the grounds that women inappropriately exposing flesh are guilty of corrupting morality. Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, said the law would target “irresponsible” women dressed to “hurt the moral fibre” of Uganda. Ugandan women’s rights activists reported that the Act, commonly referred to as the “anti-miniskirt law”, emboldened men to sexually harass and sexually assault women in public spaces for perceived indecency.

The policing of women’s clothing has occurred in two broad waves in Africa. The first was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when newly independent nations sought to build national pride by distinguishing themselves culturally from the West. In this, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania preceded Uganda and Nigeria in either banning or attempting to ban items of women’s clothing such as miniskirts and revealing trousers, on the grounds that these were “unAfrican”, corrupted national cultures, encouraged prostitution and led to moral degeneracy.

In 1968, four years into independence, Zambia banned the wearing and selling of women’s miniskirts. In the same year Tanzania’s leading political party Tanu banned wigs, miniskirts, tight trousers and shorts, which it described as “indecent”, “decadent” and antithetical to Tanzanian culture. In 1970 Malawian president Hastings Banda banned miniskirts, a ban repealed in 1994.

A second round of policing women’s dress surfaced in the 1990s, this time driven by the public and coloured with intimidation and violence.

Debates about miniskirts and other provocative clothing also resurfaced in Zambia in the 1990s. In 1992 and 1993 male students at the University of Zimbabwe attacked a model visiting the campus dressed in a miniskirt and, later, women students who protested against the incident by donning miniskirts.

More recently, there has been a rise in male citizens policing women’s dress. Incidents of violent bodily control have included stripping women naked and the assault and sexual assault of women. In South Africa in 2008, a student was stripped, doused with alcohol and assaulted by taxi drivers as punishment for wearing a miniskirt. This sparked miniskirt protests by gender activists at the taxi rank.

Similar protests occurred in Namibia in 2013 after 40 young women were arrested under public indecency laws and imprisoned overnight for wearing hotpants.

These attacks have been accompanied by a discourse that blames the victims of rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault – an argument premised on the specious idea that women could prevent rapes or sexual assault by dressing in ways that don’t arouse would-be rapists.

It’s not surprising that anti-homosexuality laws are often coupled with so-called decency laws that overwhelmingly target women’s bodies. These two kinds of laws are sides of the same coin. They form a buttressing structure that seeks to contain, repress and often violently discipline bodily expression considered deviant or a form of feminised sexuality. This revulsion against feminine sexuality also operates ideologically against gay men, who are seen as feminised.

Masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel conceives homophobia as a male fear of being unmasked, by other men, as not living up to an idealised standard of masculinity. Thus homophobia, specifically the hatred of gay men, can be thought of as the fear or repudiation of the feminine in men.

This shows that the twin structures of homophobia and decency laws are really points of coalescence in the hatred of femininity, especially a sexualised femininity that refuses to conform to patriarchal moulds.

Moral panic is created about wayward feminine sexualities in both men and women, and any kind of feminine sexuality not in the service of patriarchy (not for reproduction or not for heterosexual male sexual gratification) can be constructed as deviant, degenerate and unnatural.

Dr Barbara Boswell works in the Young Women’s Leadership Project at the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town