The Politics of the Miniskirt (and hippies) in Africa

This article was first published on MediumRead the edited version on Mail and Guardian Africa. 

The recent #MyDressMyChoice protests in Kenya have rekindled a debate that has plagued Africa since independence in the 1960s. Most African countries gained independence at about the same time two trends were catching on in the West.

The patterns, miniskirts and trousers for women, tight pants and long hair for men, arrived on the continent to find a cultural void. One of the pillars of colonialism was civilisation, essentially to erode pre-existing cultures and instil a new culture that was conducive to capitalism.

Since dress is the most visible cultural statement, colonial governments banned nudity and encouraged the adoption of fashion that instilled Western cultural concepts of decency. At independence, the colonial apparatus abandoned its institutionalized cultural project, leaving African societies grappling for national cultures. There was a common dislike for Western cultural influences because of their colonial and foreign background. Ironically, the nascent governments could not simply abandon suits and dresses and return to pre-colonial dress codes. What followed was a series of national discussions in many African countries on these ‘foreign influences’ and their impact on the youth.

The discussion had a generational and a gender bias. The generational bias was because most of the individuals in positions of power had been born during the height of colonialism while the young people adopting external cultures were born during its twilight. The fight between the two centred on whether the new cultural elements were unAfrican and if they were then what constituted being termed as African. Public nudity as was common in the pre-colonial era was near-extinct, and societies grappled to find a balance between the modern clothing and African ideals.

The gender bias is perhaps the clearer of the two. Although the debate included both women and men, it was skewed against women, often imposing on them a more rigid definition of what was decent and what was not. Efforts to police female sexuality predate the era of colonialism. Social and political units were further developed and encouraged to police sexuality by the puritan ideals of colonial governments. The miniskirt was primarily worn by young financially independent women in urban centres. In a society where such concepts of gender equality were still largely new, the independence was seen as an affront to the traditional position of men.

As a result of these debates, the founding fathers of the African continent sought to ‘defend African culture.’ In 1968, Nyerere criminalised the wearing of miniskirts for women and tight trousers for men in Tanzania. He also banned soul music and unauthorised media. The moral campaign was led by a group called Operation Vijanaa. The initiative called for a ban on makeup, wigs, and other foreign elements that were considered unAfrican.

There was a discussion in the Kenyan parliament about banning the miniskirt in 1969. The discussion, brought to the floor by then Attorney General Charles Njonjo, did not make much headway. A young Mwai Kibaki, who would later become president of Kenya, contributed by insisting that it was boots and not miniskirts that he disliked. His reason was that boots hid female legs which are ‘meant to be seen.’ Although the discussion died out for a while, the issue of policing female sexuality was only just simmering. The forums where the politics of the miniskirt were predominantly male legislatures, bringing to light the real questions of female sexuality that had plagued the continent’s communities for centuries.

Other countries quickly followed suit. Although Zambia’s first president stayed away from the debate, his Vice President Simon Kapwekapwe was a strong advocate of cultural nationalism. In 1971, Zambia’s House of Chiefs passed a motion that stated tha “Women’s dress above the knee should be condemned.” UNIP’s Women’s League, through its leader Chibesa Kankasa encouraged women to wear the chitenge suit instead. The miniskirt was, however, never officially banned in Zambia. There is little statistics to show Kankasa’s chitenge suit became the mode of dress of choice for young Zambian women.

In neighbouring Malawi, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda passed a draconian public decency law in 1973. The statute banned wearing of pants, mini-skirts, and see-through clothing for women and long hair for men. The law, which remained in place until a new constitution was passed in 1995, was oddly precise in its definitions. There were government standards for the appropriate length of a skirt and the right length of hair. In fact, one of the requirements for obtaining a visa to visit Malawi in the 1970s was “Skirts and dresses must cover the knees to conform with Government regulations. The entry of ‘hippies’ and men with long hair and flared trousers is forbidden.” If you landed in Lilongwe with long hair or an unkempt beard, the custom officials would subject you to an involuntary haircut.

In 1974, Kenya‘s then Vice President, Daniel Arap Moi announced a ban on the same elements, and Uganda’s strongman Idi Amin issued a similar decree. Kenya had tried to ban the miniskirt a second time in 1972 but Charles Njonjo, now a married man, had vehemently opposed the motion telling legislators not to look at women if their dress bugged them. Although it is likely these bans across Africa created an unfavourable environment for the miniskirt to thrive as a fashion element, enforcement was lethargic at best in most countries. Governments first banned civil servants from wearing miniskirts or keeping long hair. For men, bell bottoms, denim jeans and long beards were banned. The impact, since most working citizens were civil servants, was a signficant disappearance of these fashion trends from the African landscape. The argument was skewed, but there was a general sense of intellectualism towards how societies advocated bans on foreign elements. The miniskirt fell out fashion in the late 1970s and the debate lulled.

The miniskirt made a comeback back in the early 1990s and inspired a new wave of controversy. This time, however, there were fewer mentions of African cultural erosion. The primary issue was with the miniskirt and what it represented, a protest against the predominantly male authority. This had always been the problem with the trouser for women in Africa as it blurred the gender lines. Opposition to the miniskirt became particularly violent, with public stripping in Kenya, Zambia, and other countries. The offenders were almost always men who occupied public spaces such as taxi stops, bus stations and markets. In a few instances, women actively participated, stripping other women they considered indecently dressed.

When the epidemic of public stripping re-emerged in the mid-2000s, it found a fundamentally different society from the one that had previously passively accepted it. In 2009, Zimbabwe’s Vice President Joyce Mujuru had to battle with rumours that she was planning a ban on hipsters, miniskirts and trousers. While Minister of women affairs in the 1980s, Mujuru banned beauty pageants in Zimbabwe because the newly independent state was experiencing the waves of cultural colonialism that its neighbours had experienced the decade before.

In neighbouring South Africa, there were at least two instances of public stripping in Johannesburg alone in 2008 and 2011. The epidemic quickly spread, with similar events taking place in Sudan, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. In Malawi, then President Bingu wa Mutharika had to issue a statement after a group of men undressed women in Lilongwe and Mzuzu in 2012.

The difference was that the society was no longer quiet about the imposition of such skewed forms of social reinforcement. Almost each event was followed by widespread protests against such violence. The protests acquired the tag ‘miniskirt protests’ because participants defiantly wore miniskirts.

Other countries went the other way. Uganda, Nigeria, and Namibia have considered public decency laws that would have effectively banned miniskirts. At least two of the recently created county governments in Kenya also discussed such motions in their assemblies. The most bizarre, however, would have to be Swaziland’s enforcement of a 123-year-old law on public decency. The Crimes Act (1889) had been latent for more than a century when the Swazi government decided to enforce it in 2012.

It is not only African countries that have considered or actually banned miniskirts. The miniskirt debate on morality and sexuality actually first emerged in Europe where the society was battling the replacement of Victorian maxi-dresses with the skimpy miniskirt. Russia recently banned the wearing of miniskirts by its female police officers. At least two towns in Poland and Italy have considered bans on miniskirts in the last five years. In one bizarre case in India, a terrorist alleged that miniskirts had provoked him to carry out a heinous bomb attack. The common justification is still decency although the ambiguity in definition of what is decent and what is not plagues the debate to this day.

It is not just governments that have such laws. Many churches, institutions, and organisations have banned miniskirts and trousers within their precincts. Educational institutions run by or funded by religious institutions often have select ‘fashion police’, moral police who have the power to declare what is decent and what is not. Offenders are suspended until they can find a skirt that covers the knee, or a skirt suit to replace the top and denims. Half a century after the politics of fashion rocked the continent, it is clear that it has never been about the miniskirt or the trousers. It is because they have always been seen as threats to the cultural notions of authority.

Owaahh, 2014.

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