Kameel Premhid
Kameel Premhid

Fighting patriarchy, one dress at a time

Last week, the latest incidence of parliamentary sexism occurred in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature. Reports noted that the DA’s deputy provincial leader, Jane Moloisi-Sithole, was called out by an ANC MP for allegedly dressing like a prostitute. The DA walked out when its leader, Anthony Benadie, was ordered from the Chamber by the Speaker who ignored his objections.

Rebecca Davis, who does an excellent job of consistently calling out sexist behaviour directed at female politicians, wrote scathingly of this episode. In the Daily Maverick, Davis said:

‘‘Dressgate in the Mpumalanga legislature has a number of unsavoury strands. The most obvious is the policing of women’s bodies and appearance, and the attempts to shame them into silence by publically sexualising them. Another is the use of the label ‘prostitute’ to denigrate a woman, which serves to further vilify sex workers. A third is the allegation of political bias on the part of the Speaker, which — if true — suggests that protecting the rights of women falls behind the mandate of protecting the ruling party. Any way you look at it, it’s women who lose — and little wonder that women might be more reluctant to seek public office if they can expect to be shamed for their appearance in this manner.’’

Davis is, of course, entirely right. Not only do women have to overcome a double burden, of systemic disadvantage and ignoble abuse, upon entering public life; it undercuts the inclusive nature of our democracy. Women must be represented — it is not only fair but in our interest too: artificially limiting the leadership pool to men only is simply stupid.

However, one aspect of discrimination left unchallenged, by both Davis and Benadie, is the validity of ‘‘appropriateness’’. Davis sought the opinion of a fashion consultant (who proclaimed the dress to be ‘‘extremely conservative’’) while, according to his statement, Benadie and the DA ‘‘firmly believed that (she) was dressed appropriately and [in a] dignified manner’’.

They both miss a crucial point. Why should anyone be instructing an adult woman how to dress at all? They fail to acknowledge the importance of individual autonomy (including how one dresses as an expression of identity) and underplay how patriarchal seemingly “neutral” things, like dress codes, are.

Constitutional law expert, Professor Pierre de Vos, in the context of commenting on the Pillay case (which focused on whether a Hindu student could wear a nose stud to school despite being prohibited by the code of conduct), writes as follows:

‘‘The case … places a heavy burden on any institution to accommodate those … whose beliefs and practices are not embedded in the institutional culture … through its codes and rules. So often those who form part of the majority do not notice that the rules and codes they have adopted reflects their own cultural beliefs and practices — often seeing the rules and codes as natural and normal expressions of what is required for the institution.’’

This is particularly relevant for women (who have legally and socially been excluded from the political process) and black women in particular (who bear the brunt of society’s prejudices). These dress codes are value-laden and seek to impose male-centric constructions of what is acceptable. They originate from the fact that Parliament was a men’s only club and when women arrived, at first in a trickle and then later in floods, they were thought to be a distraction. ‘‘Dressing appropriately’’ became doublespeak for making women dress in a way that would ‘‘not tempt’’ men. Men keeping their lecherous thoughts to themselves was, of course, impossible.

Requiring women to dress ‘‘appropriately’’ today, perpetuates the original dominance afforded to men. It excludes a plethora of identities that do not conform to what is ‘’appropriate’’ by Western, male-centric, standards. And it should. Our democracy was not only about reversing racial discrimination, but about challenging the deeply patriarchal structures it established too.

Davis and Benadie did a good job in calling this out. And so they should have. Its offence was easy to identify. But not all forms of censorship are that easy to detect. It is imposed by frameworks that do not represent who we are and which we are expected to uncritically accept as being neutral. But they are not. The patriarchy is strong and cunning. And as Hermione Granger might have said, zero fucks must be given in dismantling it. All of it.

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