It seems like there have been lingering gusts of wind from the “Arab Spring” in sub Saharan Africa. When Malawian women recently took the streets to defend their right to wear pants, miniskirts and short dresses, they were exercising their rights to be liberated from the shackles of Malawian patriarchy. It seemed inconceivable that almost 18 years after being legally allowed to wear what they wanted; a small section of Malawian men (reportedly street vendors) wanted to take Malawian women back. Malawian women were not allowed to wear pants or miniskirts until 1994 after the late dictator Kamuzu Banda stepped down from the Presidency in part due to the resistance of brave Malawian women. In the recent attacks by a few male dissidents, the perpetrators argued, in an odd, misplaced and criminal display of nationalism, that the way in which Malawian women were dressing in contemporary times was contradictory to traditional Malawian culture. Due to this claim, it is important that one dissects what this Malawian culture is that exists in the mind of a few: should practicing “our culture” mean adhering to the whims, tastes, and preference of a former dictator? Perhaps, it means adherence to colonial culture? Or maybe it means adherence to a traditional culture? What is problematic about making claims about traditional culture is that like all culture, it too evolves over time.
What is problematic for me is this imagined idea of “Malawian culture” comes to play when it is convenient for a few. It is important to note that traditional Malawian attire is anything but conservative, and exposes much more then what many ordinary Malawian women are wearing in the street. It was also interesting to note that the photos that were attached to some of the reports about this story featured exaggerated photographs of women with thongs hanging out, women with their derrieres on display, and women in clothing that can be considered inflammatory. Such type of journalism needs to be addressed because it is not reflective of that was occurring on the streets. It is also a part of the problem. The women being attacked were wearing what one would consider ‘proper’ attire in Malawi – some heading to or from regular 9-5 office work. Even if this was not the case, this is where a chance to sensitize the public on democracy can be taken. It needs to be drummed in that no one has the right to infringe on another person’s rights – also that this was a clear cut act of violence not an act of “cultural preservation”. If by “culture” they meant traditional clothing it is a mute point. If by “culture” they meant oppressing women, then there is room for debate. Although important to note that in traditional African culture, the relationship between men and women was more egalitarian. One would need to debate over whether their response, undressing young girls and women in pants are part of what they are referring to as indigenous Malawian “culture”. It become necessary in cases like this to really ‘return’ to our roots and understand our own cultures before using culture as a weapon to oppress fellow citizens along gender lines.
It is important for me to note though that there seemed to be support from Malawian males over these issue that saw the attacks on their mother, sisters, and daughters as problematic. This is not the society that they want to live in. It is also not the society that Malawian women want to live in, which is why they protested. Malawian women decided not to sit down and take this violence quietly. They exercised their voice particularly when it was clear that the elected leadership in Malawi was slow to respond. One would expect such blatant displaced victimization of women to be addressed at its infant stages and not a few days later. It was very problematic that response was slow from the higher offices of the land after one too many women were attacked and after it was clear that both men and females denounced these acts. The significance of the women’s recent protests cannot be understated. The fact that Malawian women joined together in sisterhood to defend their rights, speaks volumes for what they are willing to live with. They continued to wear pants to work in protest! Others threatened to go nude! As one sympathizer that wore pants to work for the next few days noted on facebook, this was the ‘sisterhood of the travelling pants’. Malawian clearly realized their economic power, calling for a boycott of purchasing goods from vendors and demanding the government take action. After the women in Malawi spoke up, it was clear that the state was going to have to act, and that they were going to have to choose a side. The state chose to defend the rights that Malawian women fought for over 18 years ago, when they fought to rid themselves of the oppressive colonial government, an oppressive dictator, and most recently, an oppressive male street vendor.
Kabudula in Chichewa means ‘shorts’, ‘short pants’, or ‘underwear’