Michael Francis
Michael Francis

Blaming sexual violence on women for dress sense is un-African

There have been a number of blogs on Thought Leader about sexual violence and rape. One of the things that leap out at me is the number of comments by self-proclaimed Africans (haiwa tigere for one) that echo the comments by a Zambian conference delegate as relayed in Jennifer Thorpe’s blog.

The notion that women should dress modestly as a way of preventing rape and sexual violence really galls for many reasons, but one thing that struck me was “how un-African”.

The suggestion that women should where long skirts and cover up is not an African ideal from any mythologised past. African women until fairly recently went rather scantily clad as embarrassed missionary accounts attest to. Bare breasts were the norm and the bottom parts almost non-existent even compared to the shortest mini-skirt. Where did this notion arrive from?

It came from Victorian times and missionaries who imposed Victorian standards of dress on Africans. It reminds me of a missionary account from Polynesia where a missionary lamented that the “natives lack sufficient self-contempt” to be converted to Christianity. It seems that “self-contempt” was imposed and is doing very well in Southern Africa. I won’t even discuss other parts of Africa as Islam brings a whole other level of female oppression/contempt with it in northern and west/central Africa.

Europe has moved past Victorian standards of dress and norms, why is it so many so-called “traditional” spaces seem so stuck in this a-historical past? I am certain the Evangelical missionaries that still traipse across Africa have also not moved on, which does not help.

At least the Zulus got it right with the masses of bare-breasted maidens dancing about at the Reed Festival. I could care less if someone has their breasts out or a miniskirt on. I may notice, but would not ever see that as an excuse to touch, harass or even whistle or openly ogle.

A little side note about the reed dance; I do not object to the maidens dress or their gathering, but do object to the virginity violation/testing rubbish.

I have been to nude beaches in parts of Europe and topless beaches in Australia. It was completely normal and nobody harassed the women as a consequence of their scant or complete lack of clothes.

If women are harassed and even attacked because they are scantily clad that is a reflection on the men and the community that engenders such behaviour. Respect for individuals rights must be given no matter their dress, appearance or state of intoxication. This I refer directly to haiwa tigere who had claimed that a tea drinker is given more sympathy in his village than a scantily clad woman or a woman who is drunk. I loathe the comments and even the people that blame victims for such acts as rape and violence. I would suggest his village take a hard look at itself and its sexist, violent attitudes towards women. Those values and attitudes are un-African in a historical sense. The problem lies in their internalisation and current expression as an unassailable African essence. These horrific values have become lodged in communities that allow gender-based violence to flourish as a consequence.

I have no illusions that pre-missionary African villages were idyllic settings for women and their rights (neither was Victorian UK for that matter), but I do know that any violence against women was not premised off of their dress or deportment. The current discourse reflects a damaged society with damaged forms of African masculinity dominating the scene. The current rape crisis of 494 000 rapes a year in South Africa. This appalling number has nothing to do with low-cut blouses or short skirts, it’s about men, male sexuality and social dysfunction.

These issues need to be tackled up-front and urgently and not just through policing and prosecution, although that clearly plays a huge part in creating accountability and spaces to report rapes. A good hard look at male sexuality and behaviour needs to be addressed and clearly some community introspection is needed.

Yes there are alternate African sexualities and masculinities that are not violent. These need to take root across Africa and replace out-dated values that hold women hostage and to account for men’s behaviour. Now how to do so is the really difficult part.

  • Haiwa Tigere

    you are rather naive Michael.I am not a self proclaimed african. I just am.Ozzie came later much later.Everybody knows the promise of nakedness is more alluring than nakedness itself. Naked breast at the reed dance etc is not sexually exciting its not even porn.

    Do scant clothes incite people to rape -not a normal person no. But a it can tip an abnormal person (monster) over.A drunk woman alone in the dark does not make a person rape someone.To the socially maladjusted(monster) it might just be the ticket.God knows there is a lot of people out there looking for an easy lay.
    I dont give a rats behind if I upset you. I grew up in a village I can only speak of sentiments in the village. They will never condone rape but will have less empathy for scantliy clad and drunken women they will always demand lobola at marriage and dont mind polygamy. like it or lump it but there it is.If you want to change it i can give you the name of my village and you can go and start saying your piece there.
    We in your world of ivory towers can all agree with you as indeed I do. drunkenness or scant clothes is no reason for rape but the rapist are not reading these blogs.There is a sentiment out there and you can not wish it away

  • Judith

    Spot on and the same feelings around attitudes world wide. Women are violated to suppress them by men who believe “they asked for it”. However, rapes include tiny babies and elderly women, so there is an element of “vengeance is mine” against females, for what ever reason. Patriarchy (particularly militant Taliban) is completely irrational, because, if it achieves its objectives, the human race will cease to exist. Which might not be a bad idea

  • Shaman Sans Frontieres

    Well said, Michael Francis. The sense of history, of cultural layering, of paradox, of complexity of identity, is virtually non-existent in this part of the world. And sadly, as you testify, so is a sense of respect for other people and their bodies. As you rightly say, this is a damaged society. I think its way beyond anything that government interventions and public campaigns can sort out. It requires a massive national renewal at grassroots, a reaming out of the crippled shadow self of the collective, a huge process of inner healing. Just how, beats me.

  • Jon Quirk

    In narrowing it down purely to the matter of dress, the writer has missed the critical point in that Africa, and traditional male African values are straight out of the stone-age as regards the status and treatment of women, and there seems to have been no discernible change over the past fifty years, in fact since independence the male dominance has, if anything, been even more imposed.

    I see no signs of the “big man” syndrome receding, or the notion of “droit de signeur” being anything other than strengthened.

  • lizkzn

    I’m really glad you are speaking out, Michael. The whisper (if not silence) on the subject of masculinities by men that troubles me in comparison to the roar of public complacence (viz Jen’s blog). Worse though, is the acceptance of those masculinities and feminities that oppress by women.

  • IM

    Well, yes in the past (some)Africans weren’t unduly concerned about nudity and didn’t see it as immoral and that was their culture…at that time. But, and this is the important bit, cultural norms change(as you pointed out RE: Europe. you wouldn’t say that the way Europeans dress now is not part of their culture because their ancestors dressed differently, would you?). Just because that was the way then doesn’t mean that any African who considers covering up as part of African culture NOW is wrong, irrespective of where it came from.

    The thing is, I don’t really disagree with you RE: violence against women, but the argument you have presented here is very weak. Having said that…

    Who the F- do you think you are to tell us what is or isn’t; what should or shouldn’t be “African culture”?

    “Europe has moved past Victorian standards of dress and norms, why is it so many so-called “traditional” spaces seem so stuck in this a-historical past? I am certain the Evangelical missionaries that still traipse across Africa have also not moved on, which does not help.”

    Oh, I see, Europe has changed and we should all change with it…and next time they acquire new “values” and abandon the present ones we should still hear people like you berating us for our backwardness in not following suit…are you that different from those missionaries you seem to deride?

  • http://hardcopyink.com MLH

    I think I’ve found a male feminist! Congratulations.
    Yes, there’s no accounting for it. I still can’t get my head around the fact that some girls are raped or abused because they wear mini skirts (ok, at least they’re showing more than is wise), others because they wear slacks (surely well enough covered?) and others because they don’t want to sleep with males (how would this cure them?)
    While I don’t believe that in Utopia women should suffer for their choice of dress, I do believe that in our imperfect world, women with sense who wish to avoid trouble do not dress too suggestively.
    In the same way, I try to keep my purse safe and out of sight if I don’t want it stolen. That too, doesn’t always work…

  • Sibu Khuluse

    Well put, Michael. I also share your views, that if women in southern Africa walked around with minimum clothing for years and this didn’t invite any violence from the men of those times, why is it that we are now quick to blame it on the way a woman was dressed. This view puzzles me especially in South Africa where a large proportion of rape victims are children some as young as three months old – what excuse do we then give, that the infant’s Huggies nappy was “too skimpy”. Rubbish – the problem is with the mentality and socialization of these rapists and nothing to do with the victims.

  • Thandinkosi Sibisi

    It is common for those opposed to “pornography” (for “moral” reasons) to blame it for the rise in sex related crimes.They usually cite “statistics” to support their argument for the banning of pornography. Of course those opposed to the banning of pornography (claiming that it restricts “freedom of expression” )usually counter this argument by claiming that the “statistical” arguments presented by abolitionists are flawed.

    Similarly, those who want to impose their own tastes and “dress sense” on women argue that short/slit skirts , skin tight pants as well as semi-transparent pants, skirts or blouses have the same (“pornographic” ) effect of “depraving and corrupting” men (resulting in a higher level of sex related crimes) and hence should be controlled.

    It is interesting to note though that short/tight/semi-transparent trousers and shirts for men are in short supply!

    Personally I am inclined to think that the “fixation” on nude or semi-nude women by men is a remnant of the influence of Victorian thinking and puritanism on sexual matters. The question though is whether it is “un-African” or not. That may well depend on idiosyncratic definitions of what is “African”

    I agree with you though that 150 years ago young Zulu women went about bare breasted, panty-less and had only a token cover for their frontal private parts. Everything was there for all those interested to see! I’ll bet though that only the missionaries were ogling!

  • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

    The big problem with crime in general is that we somehow give blanket absolution to criminals who were politically or religiously motivated. Rape in particular has this stigma that it is somehow a product of society and therefore the criminals are somehow less responsible for their actions, or somehow do not deserve to be labelled as monsters for their deeds. This is partially caused by our criminal politicians and morally bankrupt leadership who want to paint crime as a result of hands being forced, due to socio-economic circumstances or the past political situation. Like fraudsters, rapists are not products of society but are criminally minded individuals who should know right from wrong. If they do not, they should be locked up in an asylum. If they do know the difference, then there is no excuse and they need to be brought to justice. It does not matter why a rape is committed, or whether it is African or not, just like it does not matter why fraud is committed. To suggest otherwise compromises our legal system, our constitutional rights and our integrity.

  • Benzol

    “If women are harassed and even attacked because they are scantily clad that is a reflection on the men and the community that engenders such behaviour.”

    Not always!! Some women use their ability to flirt to dangerous levels. They keep on teasing without reading the warning signs of the (lesser controlled) men.

    Some dogs allow for taking their bone away, some dogs growl when you try. Do you still take the bone of a growling Rothweiler or not??

    Does a woman goes on flirting and teasing for an audience of “growling” (or drooling) men? This kind of “foreplay” behaviour hardly ever makes it to the court case. Foregone conclusion: the man is the beast and the woman the poor victim and the truth will never be told.

    Do not take me wrong, I do condemn this kind of behaviour but the blame is in some cases (and maybe very very few cases) not entirely with the male section of our society.

    Technically speaking, women can -at any time in a relationship- start calling rape and abuse when they feel like it. The man has very little defence (see my comment in Jennifer Thorpe’s blog).

  • Siobhan

    Africans lived for a million years ‘au naturel’ without spawning a culture of rape. How do today’s African men who blame female attire for rape account for their own history?

    One consequence of colonisation is the infantilisation of the subject population. At best, African men who insist that women must dress modestly, are saying that they prefer to remain sexually immature (like repressed Victorian white men and today’s Islamists) rather than regain the natural dignity and maturity of pre-colonial African men for whom a semi-clad woman was not an excuse for rape.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Jon Quirk – Actually African values and norms in the stone age in Southern Africa were incredibly egalitarian. At the time only the Khoi and the San were present and lived in small band societies that had very low levels of violence and no hard and sharp gender divides excepting specific activities. It was the advent of the iron age that brought other pressures to bear such as larger populations, land pressures, new forms of identity and so forth. Don’t dis the stone age it had some decent features.

  • http://subliminalmessaging.org Andrew

    So, Haiwa Tigere doesn’t actually see attitude change as possible. Is that what his comment suggests? Yet, we know that it is! He should be arguing for such change rather than any form of subjugation in the face of hostility.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Garg Unzola – Trying to explain the reason behind a crime is not a form of excusing it. There is a need to understand why certain crimes happen so that they can be stopped. And yes there is a need for punishment for crime. To take fraud as an example, it is necessary to explain the why and how so it can be stopped it is not merely a question of greed but how was the opportunity to defraud granted to a an individual. As for rape, it needs to be understood from a behavioural and societal level to understand what conditions create the opportunity and the drive. Society and its norms clearly play a role or else rape statistics would be equal around the world. They are clearly not, so what is it here that makes it so common? And it has nothing to do with the women’s dress sense. The rape statistics here would be the same if women wore Burqas.

  • Benzol

    Many a crime (or tendency to crime) seems rooted in the “entitlement” attitude based on the perception that “it is my human right” to do xyz.

    While paying one of my purchases, the cashier was having a nice conversation with her friend standing next to the till. So, I asked the cashier to concentrate on the transaction upon which the “friend” gave me a lecture on her “human rights” to chat with her friend.

    This kind of attitude (entitlement) seems to be one of the root causes behind crime today.

    Solving the problem? Begin to emphasize obligations that go with rights.

  • haiwa tigere

    @Mr Francis”The rape statistics here would be the same if women wore Burqas.”
    On what basis can you possibly say this.This is an obvious thumbsuck and you expect us to take you for a serious blogger. Strewth.

  • Vimbai_Naye Chatitai

    You’re very disrepectful. What do you mean by:

    “I won’t even discuss other parts of Africa as Islam brings a whole other level of female oppression/contempt with it in northern and west/central Africa.”


    These are the sort of statements that fuel terrorist sentiments in the Muslim community.

  • Benzol

    @Vimbai_Naye Chatitai: “These are the sort of statements that fuel terrorist sentiments in the Muslim community.”…from the same people who keep telling us :”peace be with you….etc.”

    Which is exactly the kind of “tolerance” that makes Muslims so suspect the world over. Please, let’s not go there.

  • brent

    haiwa tigere please comment on Siobhan’s blog: ie the blog not on the person she/he makes a good point for all of us be we white/black/male/female/other – what THOUGHT Leader is all about.


  • brent

    Benzol, no women flirting wants to be raped. Flirting is a wonderful social construct (world over across all cultures) that has developed over literally thousands of years. Your point followed to its logical conclusion means we should for safety sake ban all flirting. I have a better idea, lets ban rape.


  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Vimbai_Naye Chatita – Slavery is still practiced in parts of North west Africa – I wrote a blog on it you can look at. I suggest you follow the links and read the material firsthand. I said I do not wish to go into it but one could mention female genital mutilation, religious violence in Nigeria, female segregation, females denied schooling, etc

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @haiwa tigere – It’s actually Dr Francis and rape is not about sex but power enacted through violent-sexual means. I know you will never accept this as you shift the focus to what women do as opposed to what men do. The rape crisis (494,000 a year in SA) is about masculine identities and societal standards that allow this violent sexual expression to occur with such frequency. Your nostalgic takes on your village show some of the larger tropes in operation that enable men to shift the blame from their actions to “she was drunk, flirting, showing knees, etc”.

  • Benzol

    @Brent:”… Flirting is a wonderful social construct (world over across all cultures) that has developed over literally thousands of years…”

    Please read my comment again.

  • X Cepting

    @Dr Francis – So if rape is not about sex but rather about power enacted through violent sexual means (agreed) why do you conclude that the cause is a problem with the male identitie and societal standards rather than the far more obvious conclusion that it is all about disempowerment of people in a situation where there are so many competing for resources and the gap between the haves and havenots is getting ever bigger? It is not a male or African problem but a male solution to a global problem. Disempowered women have their own violent means to protest unbearable lifes. If sexual violence is the only kind a disempowered male can get away with, that is what they will use to protest their situation.

    I sometimes wonder what feminists will do with their time if women should ever become equal and how will bloggers get the ratings if society has no ills left.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @X Cepting – If the problem lay with the difference between have and have nots (a situation that exasperates social ills for sure) then poor men world wide would rape with impunity. And to make it worse it is also the rich who rape in South Africa as well as those in powerful and wealthy positions who abuse that position with many unequal sugar-daddy relationships with multiple partners.

    I have no doubt the poverty and powerlessness feeds into the situation but it is the way that is played out that reflect societal norms and standards. Those cultural factors are what create and engender the response to powerlessness. Just as a powerless man in Palestine feels it is right to strap a bomb on to his chest and walk into a cafe or bus and kill. So perhaps eradicating some of the social ills would prevent some of the violence the violence is ingrained in society (see my other blogs on violence perhaps?).

  • haiwa tigere

    @Mr Francis”The rape statistics here would be the same if women wore Burqas.”
    On what basis can you possibly say this.This is an obvious thumbsuck and you expect us to take you for a serious blogger. Strewth.
    Still an ongoing thumbsuck I suppose?
    @Siobhan-“..are saying that they prefer to remain sexually immature (like repressed Victorian white men and today’s Islamists)” wow you judge harshly dont you. Sexually immature according to who- you????? yipes.Your valued judgement does not deserve a reply does it.

  • http://www.victimempowermentsa.wordpress.com Vesa

    Of course blaming rape on dress is completely unjustified, and decidedly un-Africa. But you have to look at it through the lens of what is useful for the prevailing power structures. The idea must be useful to a large group of people, for it to become socially acceptable. No decision about what is acceptable is made without the top reinforcing that idea, and the idea being shared by popular consensus.

    So essentially, if our president suggests that sitting a particular way invites sex, and this idea suits those who believe that they deserve sex one way or another, it will become popular.

  • X Cepting

    Dr Francis, with respect, you are oversimplifying my comment and therefore putting words in my mouth. I have probably read (will check) and most certainly would have commented on your blogs on violence, a subject I have a vested interest through much experience in real life. I am one of the poor and live and interact with as poor, or poorer than myself on a daily basis. (Surprise: it is not just the middle class or rich that has access to TL or knows how to type). The one thing that really frustrates the poor, often the victims of most crime, is the total lack of understanding of the poor, by those who make the decisions, about the poor. The people who rape, or practice various other forms of violence (on us) are not (in many instances) poor in monetary terms, no, agreed. My last attacker wore clothes I most certainly couldn’t afford but would not consider violent acts to earn. That is the majority of people I know, they hope they will have more at some point but would never consider violence to change their status. But then, perhaps we understand different things by the word “disempowerment”. It does not, to me, simply mean a lack of money. If it was that simple, throwing money at the poor would fix most problems.

  • X Cepting

    Violence is rarely committed by contented, happy people and those are usually criminally insane/definitely needs to be locked away. A disempowered person no longer feels a part of society and lacks the skills/support/means with which to change an unbearable situation.

    People who hurt/feel alienated long enough, start hurting back, their targets usually some weaker/innocent person, sometimes even themselves, i.e. through suicide. Quietly ending your life is one thing but throwing yourself in front of a train in rush hour is sending a clear message to the society that failed/alienated you.

    A rich kid growing up in an abusive/lack-of-guidance situation is as disempowered as a street kid in many respects. You have heard the terms “latch key kid” or “credit card orphans”? Why does society turn a blind eye to situations which form the breeding grounds for violent irresponsible, disempowered adults and then gasp and shout “kill!” when these adults commit monstrous acts?

  • X Cepting

    The widening economic gap does not just mean more poor people but less people who can afford health care, especially mental health care, or education, or who have the means to lift themselves out of really bad situations in other ways, i.e. starting their own business. Market prices are set by demand which does not necessarily mean the majority of people but more money in an ever-shrinking group of unapproachable, elite, empowered hands. Rape should not be singled out but researched along with the other forms of violence and the root causes looked for in a dysfunctional, unequal society where all the decisions are made by what appears to be uncaring, short-sighted profiteers.

    This does NOT excuse crime or rapists but is an attempt to actually STOP women/men/children from being brutalised/abused by looking in the one place no-one seems to want to look for an answer: the mirror. Not in my backyard seem to have connotations other than just environmental. And, as said before, the promises many previously ignored South Africans were made for a better life, that turned out to be a total lie, coupled with violent past rebellions, and our current dysfunctional justice system simply is not helping, neither is singling men out for special attention when most PEOPLE are hurting in societies jammed together with no living or breathing space.

  • X Cepting

    Put two people in a room and the crime will be exponentially less than with six people per room. The causes of aberant behaviour are never as simple as the male image of themselves. That is such a patriarchal tack to take and disempower all women even more since it says that their salvation or damnation lie only with men, not the mothers and fathers who raised them or their own actions. Your are effectively telling women that they can’t do anything about the situation, which is untrue. Not what you meant is it? But patriarchy is so embedded in our society it is an easy slip for even the educated to make.

  • IM

    Ah, Mr Francis has ignored my comment…how very not surprising!

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @IM – Your original comment was not worth responding to. If you want to know yes, if values are sexist, out-dated, bigoted, etc then they should be changed to suit general human rights even if those standards are currently reflected in Europe. Or should disgusting practices be allowed merely because they are local custom (however poorly remembered or imagined).

  • IM

    ah, so (modern) African standards of dress are; in your words “…sexist, out-dated, bigoted…”?