Earlier this month Erykah Badu composed a series of tweets that elicited outrage from a number of people. In response to a New Zealand school’s edict that the girls wear their skirts below the knee so as to not attract sexual attention from their teachers, Erykah tweeted that she agreed.
There was an article ruling that high school girls lower their skirts so male teachers are not distracted. I agreed because…
— ErykahBadoula (@fatbellybella) April 12, 2016
Coincidentally it was my mother’s birthday that day, and she was strict about what I should wear, how to sit, talk, and how I should laugh. As a Tumbuka girl, I had a list of things I could and could not do.
To understand the culture that patriarchal statements come from we have to often dig deep, which many African-Americans did for Erykah Badu’s tweets. Her words hit home for us on the continent as well. Many rightfully pointed to the rape culture that exists in places like the U.S. and South Africa; where patriarchal mindsets hold women down. In that moment my thoughts turned to Malawi as well.
During His Excellency Life President Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s reign (1961 – 1994) every Malawian was subjected to a dress code. Women in particular were not permitted to wear trousers, shorts or skirts that were above the knee. He said it was to instill pride and dignity in women. Erykah’s assertions reminded me of Malawi’s first president. He was a dictator whose henchman threw my father – an academic, in jail. Women dressed in cloth festooned with Kamuzu’s image, over their breasts, abdomens, and derrières, would dance for him to show allegiance. I’ve always wondered where the dignity was in having his face adorning their bodies.
Badu’s song Window Seat celebrates individuality. In the video, when she completely undresses, a shot rings out and she falls, her nude body ‘bleeding’ the word ‘groupthink’. To say that I am confused is an understatement. Uniforms and dress codes as a means to rein in female sexuality – this is an example of groupthink extolled as virtue.
When I was a teen in a uniform of white short-sleeved shirt and light blue skirt, the farthest thing from my mind at school was the length of my skirt.
We had short-lived crushes on teachers, boys our age, on boy band members. When I was in a uniform, I don’t remember anybody telling me (or my friends) I looked like I was distracting men. The Girl’s Boarding House matron had strict rules for the boarders, but because I was a day student, I escaped her glare and decided I was lucky I wasn’t a boarder. Yet, many boarders wore short skirts. I never imagined that they were getting grief about attracting the right or wrong attention, especially from boys or their own teachers. Perhaps they were, but I was not privy to those conversations.
As a transplant from Malawi living in Botswana, my biggest concern with regards to a dress code was the one female members of my family were being subjected to back in Malawi.
Jeans, trousers, pants, jumpsuits, shorts, the awful skort of the 90s, you name it I wore it. When my mother wore trousers it was an event, because we knew what was going on back home in Malawi. I always thought this was her rebellious side, her wearing slacks, as she called them.
In Malawi you could get fined, or you could spend some time in jail, depending on the severity of the infraction. Men weren’t allowed to have long hair, those entering the country with long hair were subjected to mandatory haircuts.
I remember my cousin talking about how she once walked down the street, and a policewoman stopped her and told her to go home and change. She was wearing a dress similar in length to dresses from the 50s.
Two years into multi-party democracy I went to Malawi and wore jeans. The stares and taunts of the men at one marketplace were enough to scare me. I stayed very close to my brother and we agreed to walk very quickly and leave.
Erykah said: “Being attracted to a young woman in a short skirt does not make one a “pervert” it makes them human” – I have so many issues with this statement. Malawi is one of the most stringently patriarchal societies on earth. Child marriage is common, and current rape statistics are baffling a society where the dignity of the woman is in how she is seen by others. The perverts have raped babies and girls not old enough to menstruate yet. It is not the fault of these babies and girls. It is not their responsibility to be aware of how they are perceived sexually by men, especially those grown enough to know better. Erykah’s statements were highly irresponsible in this sense. Our sexuality as womxn and girls should not be what puts us at risk. We also risk denuding men of responsibility, good sense, decency and character.