Swazi women may have celebrated too soon when the country ratified the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development in September 2012, a regional instrument that commits all countries in the region to attain gender equality. This follows a ‘ban’ that women must not wear mini-skirts as stipulated in the Crimes Act of 1889. The Act outlaws ‘immorality and offences in public places or places of public resort and control of places of public interest’. Mini-skirts are considered indecent, a clear infringement on women's right to freedom of dressing.
Like most fashion trends, the mini-skirt has been around for donkey-years. The evolving nature of fashion is so interesting - platform shoes, maxi dresses, mini-skirts, afros and colour blocking are just a few of the trends that my mother experienced as a young woman. These same trends are back on the fashion market and making many young women gush.
However, the humble mini-skirt has caused quite a stir over the past two months in Swaziland.
It is alleged that taxi drivers and their ilk at Manzini Bus Rank once in a while pounce on women dressed in a manner that they deem unacceptable. The Manzini Bus Rank ‘attacks’ are time-old and in one extreme case, a group of men sexually violated a young woman for being ‘indecently dressed’.
During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the Swaziland Young Women's Network took to the streets dressed in mini-skirts to demand that women be allowed to dress as they please. As the young women shouted ‘enough is enough’, the perpetrators of violence taunted them. They maintained that they would not change their ways and surprisingly, they got support from the police.
The police cited the Crime Act that mini-skirts are illegal and that offenders will be fined up to US$10 or face a six months jail sentence. Wendy Hleta, the Royal Swaziland Police official spokesperson added that mini-skirts are indecent and that women who wear mini-skirts provoke rape. She maintained that because the men at the taxi rank are not happy with mini-skirts, the police will enforce the Crime Act.
To add insult to injury, some of the women who ply their trade at the bus rank supported the perpetrators and insisted that women need to ‘cover up’ if they do not want to be raped. I can bet that these are the same women who ask women who have been beaten what they did to provoke their partners. Yes, they live and walk among us.
While rape perpetrators have blamed women for dressing provocatively, researchers have found no link between rape and one's dress-code. There is no evidence to support that women dressed in mini-skirts are more likely to be raped than those dressed in ‘unrevealing’ clothes.
Our beautiful traditional attire includes a micro mini-skirt, with immaculate beadwork as its crowning glory. It just about covers the pubic area but I am yet to hear of a girl who has been raped because of wearing the traditional attire.
Baby girls barely a year old and old women who wear layers of clothing - a petticoat, long skirt and blanket - have also been sexually abused. I do not know how their dress-code provokes any man to rape them.
What we are battling to confront as a nation is that rape, like other forms of violence against women and children, is a power issue. The reason most old women and young children are attacked is because the perpetrators want to feel in control - they know that most of the time, their victims are defenceless and physically weaker than them.
In the case of the bus rank ‘employees’, I am tempted to think that these men are intimidated by women who assert their power through dressing. These men often find themselves stuck in dead-end situations where they are exposed to the unforgiving heat - day in and day out - and feel they are stuck in a rut.
The only way they can feel better about themselves is to make other people feel inferior. I am no psychologist but this is my theory and I'm sticking to it. Envy and unresolved anger does strange things to otherwise sane people.
I believe the country has bigger issues to deal with than ‘who chooses to wear what’. This is election year and we should be calling on our legislators to ensure that tougher laws are put in place to deal with people who violate other citizens' rights. We should be discussing how we can better our lives and ensure that our communities are safe for all members of society instead of a select few.
I am yet to be convinced that wearing a mini-skirt is indecent. I know many women who pull off a mini-skirt and still look very decent and professional! I do not think the amount of material used to put together an item of clothing has anything to do with decency - some people can look more decent in a really short skirt than in a pair of pants. It is just about what suits one's body shape.
I say let women wear what they want - be it tight-fitting pants, mini-skirts or traditional attire - the same goes for men!
- Bongiwe Zwane is a Public Relations Coordinator at Population Services International Swaziland. This article first appeared on the Gender Links website.