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It’s official: Miniskirts are A-Okay in Africa

Saturday February 06 2016

Mid last month, the Tanzanian government issued a statement that was truly significant.

After a Kenyan publication reported that the strict and tight-fisted President John Magafuli had banned miniskirts, a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “noticed, with serious concern and disapproval, [the] grossly distorted report…

“Unfortunately… [it] was taken [as] factual and circulated widely by other outlets and the social media in Kenya and beyond.

“The ministry deplores… the reckless, totally unwarranted attribution of the imaginary ‘ban’ to the Tanzania Head of State. While it appreciates the enthusiastic, positive reviews of HE President Magufuli’s performance in the Kenyan and international media, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes strong exception to irresponsible distortions and misreporting, such as the one on miniskirts.

“There is no doubt that HE President Magufuli and his government are strong proponents of decent dressing, but the ministry wishes to put the record straight that the president has not issued any ban on miniskirts for any reason.

“The ministry trusts that the distortion in question was inadvertent, not a malicious attempt to undermine the new administration in Tanzania, and that The Standard will show good faith by at least retracting the wrong information fed to its readers.”

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I quote at length because this is the kind of robust statement that one would have expected if Magufuli had been falsely accused of eating his neighbour’s child, or ordering the Tanzanian army to invade a neighbouring country.

Clearly, the ministry was concerned that the alleged miniskirt ban would paint Magufuli as a small-minded reactionary, a closet misogynist out to blame women for all the world’s problems.

That would take away some of the star quality Magufuli has acquired in African social media as a lovable Scrooge and Mr Fix It.

Whatever the case, it was the strongest defence of women’s right to wear miniskirts and, presumably by extension, all dress of their choosing, that has ever been issued by an African government.

In Kenya in November 2014, women’s rights activists took to the streets to protest against attacks on women for wearing miniskirts, in what eventually became known as the “My Dress, My Choice” campaign.

In May last year, the saucy Ugandan singer Jemimah Kansiime, whose stage name is “Panadol wa Basajja” (medicine for men) was jailed over a music video with a woman in a nearly invisible bikini suggestively showing soapy wet bits of her body.

So the forceful denial by Tanzania that it was trying to forcibly cover up its women was quite unusual in a region where these things happens.

The question then is whether it has any political significance. Generally, controlling how women dress, whom people date and can or cannot marry, is good politics in conservative societies, theocracies, and dictatorships because they attract popular support.

After all, last year, Tanzanian authorities banned the wildly exuberant Kigodoro dance, deeming it “dangerous” for the soul of the nation.

If Magufuli is giving up these cheap political points, then he either has a clever plan for generating new sources of political support, or Tanzanian society is changing right before our eyes.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. [email protected]

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