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.