THIS is a controversial question that is constantly raised when women are jeered, taunted or sometimes stripped naked for wearing miniskirts or short dresses.
Unfortunately, some women are also part of this group of people that think that wearing miniskirts sends wrong messages to men and argue that that has contributed to a surge in rape cases.
But the truth is that rape has nothing to do with miniskirts worn by women.
It is a power game where men want to dictate what women should do, sometimes hiding behind culture to suit their arguments, and yet this is a constitutional right for every Zimbabwean to express themselves in any way whatsoever.
What was so sexy in a toothless 80-year-old woman who was raped as she walked down a path from a beer drink at some village? And what was so sexy about the rape of a toddler that still wore diapers?
The world is full of contradictions.
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People consider that women dressed in a “provocative ways” are “asking for it”, but some of these people have been to some nude beaches where no rape cases have been reported.
Rape is no doubt a reflection of the barbaric violence by a screwed-up mentality of a rapist.
“People who think that revealing clothing leads to rape do not realise the psychological process of rapists. They’re interested in the body underneath, not the clothes the girl or woman is wearing,” says Teererai Tatenda Rugare from Mufakose in a telephone interview.
Last Saturday, scores of women dressed in miniskirts and tight-fitting clothes staged a peaceful protest march in Harare against the harassment women are subjected to by touts.
The miniskirt march is one of a handful of such events that have taken place in Harare since independence, targeted at sending a strong warning to the male public and in particular touts, to desist from hurling vulgar words at women going about their day-to-day business in the central business district.
These women and girls have been embarrassed by these touts claiming to be upholding Zimbabwe’s culture.
But rape in Africa goes beyond the way a woman is dressed. Ask those in the war-torn countries such as Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, the Congo, Sudan, Tanzania, Angola, Botswana, South Africa and even Zimbabwe, where warring parties have raped women over decades.
“Sexual abuse, harassment and rape happen everywhere, regardless of culture, faith, and whether a woman is wearing a short skirt or covered from head to foot. It is no longer a question of whether a woman is asking for it if she is attacked when wearing a short skirt; the question needs to be directed to the men who are perpetrators.
“It’s no longer an issue of should women dress appropriately, but looking at why men are committing such criminal activities. These men try to justify their attack on women in miniskirts saying they are indecently dressed hence exposing themselves to ridicule.
“For example, look at what was worn by our ancestors, the Bushmen and traditional women in Namibia, who wear skimpy cloths and yet these women are not viewed as sex symbols or objects of entertainment.
“Some people defend their assertions saying that it is the Western influence on African women but from what I can see, modern women are more covered than what our ancestors were in the olden days,” says Dorcas Bakasa-Roll, a Zimbabwean who lives in Norway.
Watson Takaedza from Tynwald North in Westgate, Harare, said there is a general perception that there are places where a woman can wear certain clothes that are appropriately designed for such places.
“For example a woman cannot wear church regalia to a bar and she cannot also wear party wear to church. Miniskirts are generally associated with loose women and places of entertainment. . .
“A woman wearing a miniskirt in a bar or place of entertainment will not attract jeers or whistles or nasty comments . . . but may instead attract many suitors and drinking partners. . . Such clothes give wrong attention at churches with jeers coming from women, men and pastors . . . women should learn to dress accordingly for different occasions because the fashion police are always out there judging,” Takaedza said.
A journalist, Columbus Sebastian Mavhunga, said: “I think it has more to do with selfishness on our part as men. I choose what I put on and I do not really care what the person next to me thinks about my clothing. I therefore should not be bothered by what a woman decides to wear because it’s her choice.”
Tye Tiyanna, a UK-based Zimbabwean graphic artist, says society has somehow accepted that if a man loses sexual control, then it must be the woman’s fault.
“It is however okay for men to walk aroundwithout shirts, vests and sometimes with trousers that are dropped waist downwards at the back and so on.Women’s bodies have been sexualised too much by the media and that is a big problem. I think men taunt women because it’s a power-and-control game thing,” Tiyanna said.
Beatrice Tonhodzai, a radio personality and Aids activist, noted that: “A woman is a person, just like her male counterpart. She can reason and make choices about her life. The miniskirt march was thus long overdue because for me it was not about promoting the wearing of miniskirts, but an indication that this violation is unacceptable. Today you strip a woman and rape her for wearing a skirt, tomorrow you kill her just because you don’t like how she talks or looks . . . women are human beings who have the right to express their freedom through dressing, go out when they want to, study, aspire for top posts and positions and so on. We are intelligent enough to raise children as mothers alone and yet these men want to dictate what we wear.”
However, Nomalanga Moyo, a UK-based, Zimbabwean broadcaster argues that it is no surprise that perpetrators are often touts or those men with very little or nothing at all to do in terms of economic activity.
“Emasculated either by prevailing economic conditions or their sheer laziness to find something worthwhile to do, they seek to reassert their masculinity by harassing women. These men should realise that stripping a woman naked for whatever reason will not improve the country’s ailing economy.
“Rather, they should direct their frustrations at the ruling party politicians who are the real cause of their misery. In any case, there is nothing mini about the so-called miniskirts that one sees on Zimbabwe’s streets. What we are seeing more and more is a lack of respect for, and violence against, women and those in vulnerable situations, including children and the elderly,” she said in a Facebook interview.
Unless we start addressing the real issue here, we simply cannot make any progress. The first step to overcoming a problem is to identify it. Hence, instead of exhausting efforts on how women should dress, we should more importantly deal with issues such as attitude towards women, educating and creating awareness in men.
Felix Ng’anjo, a veteran former Radio Three presenter from Mabelreign in Harare says, what touts are talking about is in fact all about power and control of a man wanting to satisfy their sexual desires any time of day by force, whether or not with a loved one to boost their small egos.
“I personally think it is pleasing to see a woman in a miniskirt, or a low-cut top because it is refreshing. But suggesting that wearing mini leads to rape is too simplistic an argument. I am aware that some men rather than appreciating glimpses of women’s cleavages and thighs, find it nauseating because such display of womanly flesh is the reserve of the ‘the beholder’ who is either the boyfriend or husband and then only in the closets of their bedrooms.
“There is a mob psychology, where the voice of one person influences the majority and their action appears as if the majority abhorminiskirts. On the contrary, if most touts were pressed to comment why they taunt women they won’t go beyond saying: “. . . Aaah it’s not just right, or it’s just not African . . .”
Ng’anjo also noted that Saudi Arabia, considered to be one of the most conservative countries in regard to the status of women, has strict laws based on Sharia Law that require women to wear a head scarf and loose long clothes that do not reveal the shape of the woman’s body.
Yet that country has one the highest rape rates in the world. “In Canada, which is one of the coldest countries in the world, where woman wear dark and all-covering clothing items to keep warm, a woman is raped every 17 minutes.
“In the simple argument I have posed of these two different countries, where one country because of its patriarchal views decides that women wear loose long clothing not to reveal the shape of their bodies and the other, because of harsh weather conditions women have to simply cover head to toe, women are still raped on a grand scale,” says Ng’anjo, who is also a social worker based in the UK.
Kumbirai Mafunda, spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the topic generated a lot of debate at his workplace this week but stated that his organisation is against any form of harassment or targeting of women whether it is for the clothes they wear or for the work they do.
“Because everybody is entitled to their dignity and bodily integrity, no one has the right to either directly attack or even to make women feel unsafe.”
Mafunda said women should feel safe in whatever sphere they operate in, whether public or private. This kind of harassment that women get is a manifestation of the worst types of patriarchy adding that everyone has a responsibility to break this this down.
One woman who attended the miniskirt march had this to say on Facebook: “The miniskirt march is as important as ensuring that no child is born HIV-positive. The moment we start grading the importance of women’s rights; be it expression, bodily integrity or participation we miss the big picture.”
The issue of harassment, violence, bullying, booing, undressing and hailing of insults at women is a reflection of lawlessness and the tolerance thereof in Zimbabwe, notes director of Tag A Life International (TaLI) Nyaradzo Mashayamombe.
She urged police to arrest anyone who violates the law and the undressing of women, because police are there to enforce the law.