The short answer to the miniskirt debate: Let a woman’s dress be her own choice

Wednesday July 26 2017

For Africans the tradition is to be as transparent as possible, and to show off a girl’s talents for all to see. PHOTO | FILE


The miniskirt has been making headlines this past week from Arabia to Kenya, but for very different reasons.

In Saudi Arabia, it was about a young lass showing off her leg-line while visiting some historical site, while in Kenya some men got the death sentence for stripping and robbing a woman some years ago “because” she was indecently dressed.

The attitudes of some men regarding the way women dress can be funny, though I am certainly not laughing. In the ultra-conservative and hypocritical Arabia, seeing a woman’s leg is almost the same as seeing her naked. For the sexually repressed Bedouin, it is akin to inciting men to commit rape.

But how did the Africans get to this state, seeing as we are much freer than the Arabs?

The Bedouin have always covered up, and Islam only reinforced age-old prejudices about womenfolk. Their inclination is to prohibit anything that can excite men’s libidos, unless it is done in the privacy of the bedroom between spouses.

For Africans, on the other hand, the tradition is to be as transparent as possible, and to show off a girl’s talents for all to see. In some ethnic groups I know of, if a marriageable lass went around with too much textile on her, people would wonder what she was hiding. Maybe a deformity, or an ugly scar.


Victorian mores and Arabian values imported into our countries with the advent of extreme globalisation meant that we became socialised into a prudishness that was not part of our fabric. We even were made to start believing that a woman’s breasts were sexual organs whereas for us that area is simply a restaurant for babies.

This is how one mzungu explorer, Joseph Thomson, described his encounter with the so-called Kavirondo (Luo) to the west of Kenya: “I found myself surrounded by a bevy of undraped damsels, whose clothes and ornaments consisted of a string of beads… I had much to do to keep my countenance and was at a loss where to look." (narrated in Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express).

Despite this blatant nudity, Thomson noted the strict moral code of the tribe, where promiscuity was frowned upon.

So, it is silly to talk of “our African culture” when attacking girls in minis, and it is proper to punish those who harass anyone on account of their dress. The death sentence may sound excessive, but it is likely to be commuted to life, and that should be appropriate.

As for the Arabian girl with her sleek legs, she must be one of those freedom fighters struggling to break out of a cultural cocoon that treats all women as minors who must be accompanied by a male relative wherever they go (this particular girl had one in tow), and where even a woman pilot flying a Boeing 737 cannot drive her own car to the airport.

This is a society in time-warp mode, and there is little possibility of that changing fast. We will continue to witness the kingdom’s subjects going on rampage in foreign capitals, ogling half-naked women in summer and drowning themselves in alcohol; they seem too impatient to wait till the hereafter, where such delights are promised to the righteous.

We do not know what fate the girl with the legs will meet, but she is most likely going to undergo severe punishment. She joins those other women who have been campaigning to lift the driving ban, and who have been posting their own video online showing themselves behind the wheel. It will take a long time indeed for them to succeed in their quest, but their numbers are rising.

Back in Africa, let us unlearn the hypocrisy taught to us by the foreigners who came with their own prejudices. We seem to cling on to ways of seeing matters in a manner that even those who brought such thinking to our shores are no longer interested in.

If we were serious about textiles and the way our women should dress, we would perhaps engage in the debate about banning secondhand clothes imported into our countries, which tend to demean our very personality.

I find it repugnant that such things as underclothes and lingerie worn by someone elsewhere should be sold here. That is what is against our culture, not the miniskirt.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]