Fear of the feminine recurs

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 In 1970 Malawian president Hastings Banda banned miniskirts, a ban repealed in 1994.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

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Barbara Boswell A
Guest Author
Second Look Author
Guest Author

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

High court declares Dudu Myeni delinquent

Disgraced former SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni has been declared a delinquent director by the...

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

Openview, now powered by two million homes

The future of free-to-air satellite TV is celebrating having two million viewers by giving away two homes worth R2-million

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday