Friday, January 20, 2012

The Politics of Pants

A very upsetting and unfortunate incident occurred in Malawi on Tuesday. A number of women wearing pants and ‘miniskirts’ (in Malawi, a skirt just below the knee is considered a miniskirt) were attacked on the street in certain areas of Lilongwe. News of these attacks spurred similar attacks in Blantyre and Mzuzu, the other 2 largest cities in the country.

Women were held down and forcibly stripped in broad daylight by street vendors who claimed they were dressed provocatively.  These attacks were to send a message to Malawian women about how they should dress ‘appropriately’.

I can’t believe that this is happening in 2012. I remember listening in disbelief when my mother recounted the tale of her elementary school changing its policy to allow girls to wear pants when she was in Grade 8.  The concept of being unable to wear pants seemed completely foreign and distant. In Malawi, women were unable to wear pants until 1994 at the end of the 33 year rule of former President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The strippings have caused a public outcry with women and some supportive men from across the country arranging advocacy activities including:

-A campaign called ‘Vendor, Lero Ndikugule Mawa Undivule?’ (translates as ‘Vendors - today we buy from you, tomorrow you strip us?’. There has been wide acceptance of this campaign with many people, including myself, boycotting purchases from male street vendors.  
-A peaceful sit-in is happening today in Blantyre, including speakers on Women’s Rights.
-A march is currently happening near the Parliament building in Lilongwe.
-People are being encouraged to wear white in a sign of peaceful protest. Today I donned my white t-shirt and saw some people doing the same. It was tough to tell if this was deliberate or coincidental.

I have felt very angry and upset about the public strippings. These events were a gross contravention of women’s rights and have shone light on some lingering negative societal attitudes. I cannot get over how cruel a violation it is to forcibly strip someone in public.My thoughts go out to the women who were assaulted and those who do not feel free to dress as they choose.

I believe that these assaults erupted in part because of a very tense economic and political situation and hope that these horrific events don't overshadow other major problems that Malawi is facing. 

Getting dressed in the morning has never felt like a political act until this week. I wavered for a very long time at my clothing rack on Wednesday morning. On one hand, almost all Malawian woman were wearing long skirts for safety reasons and it had been recommended that I follow suit. I was also worried that if I wore pants and anything happened, media attention would detract from the real problems the country is facing. I also continue to be conscious of my role as an outsider with regards to taking on issues that are not my own. On the other hand, I am aware that I enjoy a significant amount of privilege by nature of being an upper-middle class white skinned Westerner. It is very important for me that I use my privilege to ally with those less privileged. Women’s rights implicate everyone and it is an honour to champion them in any small way that I can. 

I wore a long dress on Wednesday and felt wrong about it all day. After a conversation with two gender specialist friends,  I put on my pants – one leg at a time - on Thursday and set out for work (pepper spray in hand).

I received a heckling from a man on my walk to work, but a thumbs up from a young woman in a long skirt. The thumbs up far cancelled out the heckling. I am happy with my decision – I am wearing pants today and will continue to do so in support of women's rights.

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