You might have heard of Ms. Vanessa Chilango from Blantyre or Ms. Joyce Ngwira from Lilongwe, the two women who were publicly stripped naked for wearing what was deemed indecent. The former was harassed for wearing a miniskirt and the latter for wearing pair of trousers. Every day, we are reminded of how extreme the policing of women’s dressing is in this country. Just last week Chief Njolomole passed a decree that banned female students from the Malawi Adventist University from wearing trousers and miniskirts around Njolomole village where the school is located.
To back up this decree, Chief Njolomole, said he wants to preserve the reputation of his village that is well known for upholding “cultural norms.” Sounds familiar? It should, because in a non-democratic country, in 1973, the then president,Dr Kamuzu Banda used similar words to back up the Decency in dress act which targeted women’s dressing. The Information card stated that “according to Malawi custom, it is not regarded as proper for women to publicly expose any part of their leg above the knee”. A restriction was put against the public wearing of short dresses and skirts. Shorts and trousers were also deemed unsuitable women’s attire.
Dictating women’s dressing does not only violate women's rights in a democratic world, it also puts them at a high risk of harassment. The perpetrators believe they are justified to shame, strip or attack women, as they believe in doing so, they are helping in preserving “Malawian Culture.” We should not be surprised that whenever a woman is raped, the most likely asked question is “what was she wearing”? As if what the victim was wearing excuses the crime committed. The continuous need for men to control what women should and shouldn’t wear exposes how women and girls are viewed and valued in society_ sexual objects and passive beings. The objectification of women is the culture we need to move away from and that is a huge problem that needs to be addressed once and for all. Culture should not be used to justify the control which men have over women.
Everything starts with an idea, a thought, and dangerous statements like that lead to chaos. You would be surprised that years from now someone, somewhere will use a statement by Chief Njolomole as a justification for harassing women in the name of protecting the culture. Our Community leaders should be the ones on the fore front protecting girls and women's rights. They should not be the ones setting the new low on how women and girls should be treated in the society.
This is a democratic country, and everyone has the freedom to dress however they want without fear of anyone. Culture should not be an excuse for rights and freedom infringement. People evolve, so does their culture.