The long and short of the miniskirt debate

Friday April 26 2013

Ugandan women dressed in short dresses at a past function. A proposed law seeks to ban skimpy dresses. Picture: Abubaker Lubowa

The miniskirt, as they say in Kampala, has become the miniskirt.

If you are not familiar with Ugandese, this means that whereas a miniskirt was nothing more than an elevated hemline for the general outfitting and self-esteem reinforcement of the daring female (and maybe the subsequent viewing pleasure of the well-fated male), it now is the hot topic.

From the front (and even humour) pages to the blogosphere; from radio talk shows to the evening news; from the Saturday night party trash-talk to the Sunday morning sermons — everyone has been talking about the miniskirt.

Trendy, working class twenty-somethings saunter up to the podium for a poetry recital or hang out at the beach in SAVE THE MINI- SKIRT tees. Facebook pundits come up daily with incisive indictment and righteous indignation, liking and sharing with a fury, pictures of miniskirted young women with captions like, “The miniskirt shall not die.”
It is quite “the thing.”

The frenzy was sparked by the tabling of the Anti-Pornography Bill in Parliament early this month. This Bill seeks to clarify the nature of pornography in Uganda’s laws and provide penalties for it.

The government argues that there has been an “increase in pornographic materials in the Ugandan mass media and nude dancing in the entertainment world. There is a need to establish a legal framework to regulate such vices.”


Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo, who presented the proposed law backed by Deputy Attorney-General Fred Ruhindi, said the Bill was needed to curb immorality. He said pornography fuels sexual crimes against women and children.

“Any attire that 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,” he said.

It was at this point that the Anti-Pornography Bill, cluttered as it was with legalese and tricky phrasing, requiring as it did a basic idea to represent it and convert it from just another Bill into something worth the time, became the Miniskirt Bill.

In its current form, the law would not only ban films, music concerts and TV dramas but also authorise monitoring of Internet use. Those found guilty of abetting pornography would pay up to Ush10 million in fines or serve up to 10 years in jail, or both. And that includes those caught wearing miniskirts.

The question is, why is it, with all the other implications of this Bill, (imagine a world without Beyonce, Rihanna, Madonna) that it is the miniskirt that is causing all the uproar?

The answer, it seems, is twofold. First, the miniskirt makes the debate on morality easy, with the divide between the liberals and conservatives drawn clearly at the knee. Everyone knows where they belong: Below the knee is decent, above the knee is whoa!

Second, the miniskirt is somehow symbolic of all that is morally dubious and of Western origin, where female dress is concerned. When your average conservative housewife sees a colour photo of a village tribeswoman wearing nothing but jewellery and a loincloth, breasts firm and twinkling in the sun, it probably won’t even register. Show her the same girl in a miniskirt and high heels and it’s a different story. Nothing flares scornful nostrils or a raises judgmental fingers like a miniskirt.

Miniskirt debates are not uncommon in Africa, especially on the grounds of protecting women from sexual abuse.

In December 2012, police in Swaziland started cracking down on women in miniskirts and midriff-revealing tops, saying they were provoking rape. Offenders would face a six-month jail sentence, based on an existing legislation from 1889.

A government spokesperson later said that there was no real ban on miniskirts, an implication that the police were out of order.

In February this year, Namibian Police Inspector-General Sebastian Ndeitunga issued a warning that, “women will be arrested if they wear short and revealing miniskirts, because it is not acceptable in our African culture.” This sparked widespread social media indignation, with some people claiming it was nothing more than a ruse to divert attention from more pressing matters.

In Uganda, the banning of miniskirts is not new. In 1972, President Idi Amin banned them by decree. This led to the emergence of trendy “midi” and “maxi” dresses, dubbed “A-mini-nvako” which is Luganda for, “Amin leave me alone.”

In modern society, far removed from Amin’s iron-fisted days, miniskirts are common on the streets of Kampala, Mbarara, Kabale and Jinja. They are especially common among the youth — the college girl relishing freedom from parental restriction or the audacious young professional out to have a good time. Rarely (though some will say not rarely enough) do you see a middle-aged woman in a straining mini.

Equally common in Ugandan media are presentations of people engaged in explicit sexual activity, sexual parts such as buttocks or genitalia and erotic behaviour intended to create sexual excitement. Could the frequency with which sexually charged material appears in the media be a sign of something else?

“Uganda is a very sexualised community,” says Rick Mathews, a student from Canada. “Some of the stuff I see in your tabloids would rate as adult content back home, and, definitely, would not be available on display out in the street.”

The fact that media regulation is lax (or that media freedom is excessive) would seem to explain in part why the miniskirt debate is emerging in Uganda and not, say, Rwanda, Sudan or Tanzania. Dress, after all, is part of culture, and culture is fashioned more in this age by the media than by anything else.

But, says Julius Mugumya, a data administrator at a local bank, “It’s just that we are an extreme society. But it is a stable one. Fine, there is a lot of sex in the media, we also put away a lot of alcohol and have lots of babies. But we will pray hard on Sunday, and very devoutly, by the way. We have a lot of life in us. It all balances out.”

Indeed, while many people are willing to admit that mainstream media in the country sometimes takes it too far, very few youth, who in a few years will comprise about 80 per cent of the nation’s population, seem to mind.

Emodek Emmanuel, an entrepreneur, believes that there may be some merit in the move, but the priorities lie elsewhere.

“I don’t know about those guys in parliament. I feel there are more serious things to talk about. This is our generation, miniskirts are normal, they don’t stand out for us. And what is wrong with thighs? You want to tell me old men are now scared of thighs?”

Women have come out strongly in this debate. Rachel Kanyaruju, a marketer, believes if there is any blame, it lies elsewhere.

“It is the guys who are being indecent! Don’t look if your eyes are that holy! My own mum wears miniskirts. And if it doesn’t bother me, her daughter, then who are you?” she says.

Culture is a big argument raised by those who are in support of the Bill. They believe that modest attire speaks a lot about character, and only an irresponsible person feels the need to be so revealing. That may be so; however, there is the counter-argument that culture is something that evolves organically and values are taught, not legislated.

That, to me, is the more important question. After all, while there might be a chance that a virgin, pure of heart and soul, can wear a miniskirt, there is no real evidence that that would be the reason the pervert lurking next door would rape her.

Whether or not the Bill becomes law, it would be interesting to see whether the debate would evolve away from the rights and wrongs of inches and thighs and into the more tricky territory of individual moral responsibility.