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The Various Hues and Hemlines of African Women’s Attire

Portrait of a group of people dressed in traditional attire from a part of Africa.

Any discussion of cultural patterns in Africa immediately runs into the problem of the tremendous geographical, cultural, economic and political diversity of the second largest continent. The late Professor Ali Mazrui coined the phrase ‘Triple Heritage’ to describe the major historical and political factors that have shaped the contemporary cultures of Africa. He pointed to the traditional, Islamic and Western cultural values and traditions.

When people speak of Africa, they sometimes mean the entire continent; at other times, they have in mind the Sub-Saharan region, i.e. the region to the south of the Sahara Desert. The distinction has a lot of historical and cultural validity. North Africa, the region to the north of the desert, is predominantly Arab and Muslim. In spite of the significant differences within these societies, the region can be legitimately regarded as an extension of the Arab-Islamic Middle East.

Sub-Saharan Africa itself is very diverse. There are Muslims, Christians and people whose cosmological beliefs and practices hark back to the thousands of years before the arrival of the monotheistic faiths. South Asia has also had some cultural impact, particularly in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Against this general background, it is not surprising that notions of feminine modesty, which influences the regulation of dress, vary across regions and religious traditions.

In the pre-colonial era, women in some societies were as scantily dressed as men. In others, both sexes had elaborate dressing styles. In the Islamic North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic notions of modesty determine the dressing styles of the majority of women. However, there are variations even among Muslim women. In many parts of Muslim Africa, many women do not wear the veil, much less the niqab (the part of the sartorial veil that covers the face) and do not follow the strict gender physical and social dichotomies that are prevalent in the Middle East and parts of Asia. In those societies, one cannot tell a Muslim woman from others just by the form of dress.

Immigrant groups from Europe and Asia reflect the female social presentation that is characteristic of their societies of origin. Thus, in East African cities, women of Indian and Pakistani origin do not look different from those of the Indian sub-continent. The older women wear saris and the younger women adopt Western-style skirts and other accoutrements.

A major contemporary influence is the impact of the ever-growing cultural processes of globalisation. Young women, especially those of Christian background, increasingly imitate the social presentation of Western – particularly American – women of their age group. This is a predominantly urban phenomenon. With access to the Internet and television, as in other parts of the non-Western world, they are subject to the cultural dominance of the West.

In the first few decades of African independence, there were efforts to reverse major aspects of Western culture that were regarded as a threat to the ‘authentic’ African cultures. In a number of countries, female attire became a major focus.

In Tanzania, miniskirts for women and tight pants for men were banned in 1968. In 1969 in neighbouring Kenya, parliament discussed proposals to ban the miniskirt. In Malawi in 1973, the then autocratic President Hastings Banda introduced a “public decency” law which banned women from wearing pants, miniskirts and see-through clothing and prohibited ‘long’ hair for men.

By the 1990s, the policing of women’s attire had moved from official forums and law books to the street in the form of vigilantism. Assaults and public stripping of women deemed indecently dressed occurred in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Sudan, Malawi, Zimbabwe. Governments have generally condemned such acts.

In 2014, a law was enacted in Uganda dubbed the Anti-Pornography Act. It does not specifically mention miniskirts but bans women from “revealing their thighs, breasts and buttocks and from dressing indecently in a manner to sexually excite”. The Minister of Ethics and Integrity had earlier warned that any woman dressed in “anything above the knee” would be arrested. There were reports of women in short skirts being subjected to harassment and assault. Some women activists responded with protests and a demonstration in Kampala, the capital city.

In the same year in neighbouring Kenya, men and women demonstrated in Nairobi, the capital, after a group of men tore off a woman’s clothes for wearing a miniskirt. There was a small counter-demonstration expressing more conservative values.

In January 2016, the autocratic regime of Gambia ordered all female government employees to cover their hair. Although the majority of the people are Muslim, the government did not specify if they should wear hijabs (veil that covers the head and chest) or niqabs.

A month later, it was reported that in Malawi, a bank had prohibited women from wearing miniskirts and sleeveless blouses at work. Management reportedly stated that “revealing clothes” could be offensive to some people. The prohibition extended to “immoderate and multi-coloured hair styles, dreadlocks and some forms of head gear”. Interestingly, men were also enjoined not to wear saggy trousers or “dress in a shabby style”.

As in the rest of the world, the cultural norms of what is and what is not proper dress are determined by a combination of factors. Traditional cultures, imported religious traditions, social class and the processes of rapid globalisation are the key elements. What is common to all is the role of males as the enforcers of the codes.

African middle-class women have achieved greater independence and autonomy today. They are represented in all the modern sectors of society such as business, the law, academia, the media, medicine and the highest executive offices. Two African women have held the position of head of state in Malawi (Joyce Banda, 2012-2014) and Liberia (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 2006-present). Banda was a Vice-President who succeeded a male president who died in office; Sirleaf was twice elected in her own right, defeating male opponents.

An African middle class woman is less likely to be harassed or lectured by male vigilantes about her dress than a poor, marginalised or dependent woman. Abuse by strangers is more likely in the more anonymous urban settings than the communal and more conservative rural areas.

There is growing evidence that the liberal values embedded in Western cultures are penetrating African societies and increasing women’s autonomy. Virtually all African states have laws and programs designed to enhance women’s rights even when they also, in a few cases, seek to police the female social and public presence. A younger generation of males and females is increasingly supportive of female rights – and even gender equality, though the concept is susceptible to different and evolving interpretations in Africa as elsewhere.

Cover image courtesy Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)