"Indecent acts": African women fight to dress as they choose
This has been a bad summer for women in Africa – particularly for those who demand the right to dress the way they want. Back in July, journalist and UN employee Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein was arrested at a Khartoum cafe along with twelve other women and charged with wearing pants, a crime that the Sudanese penal code labels “public indecency.” Ten of the women pleaded guilty and received forty lashes in public. On top of that, they had to pay a fine of 120 dollars each. Al-Hussein, who has a reputation as a fiery women’s rights activist in her country, along with two other women insisted on going to court. The journalist even printed up 500 invitations to her trial and "my whipping." She was found guilty on September 7 and, while she escaped the lash, she was nevertheless given a choice between paying 198 dollars in fines or spending a month in jail.
Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein
Here is the passage in the penal code that provoked her arrest:
Article 152: Obscene and Indecent Acts(1) Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with fine or with both.
(2) The act shall be contrary to public morals if it is regarded as such according to the standard of the person's religion or the custom of the country where the act takes place.
Al-Hussein chose the jail time to raise awareness of the plight of women all across Africa. However, a relative of hers quickly paid her fine and she was back on the street the next day. “I told all my friends and family not to pay the fine," she told the Reuters press agency. “I am also not happy because there are more than 700 women still in the prison who have got no one to pay for them." She claims that thousands of women have been flogged for this same “offence” over the past twenty years without any international attention whatsoever.
Conditions in Uganda are, if possible, even worse. According to journalist Rebecca Harshbarger of Women's eNews, on September 11 male rioters on the outskirts of the capital Kampala began stopping women in the streets. Those wearing dresses were allowed to pass, but the men surrounded some twenty women wearing pants and forcibly stripped their clothes off their bodies in public. These women were then forced to continue on their way home dressed only in their underwear.
This action comes as part of broader social unrest in this troubled country, as tensions rise between different tribal groups and political districts within the country. The kingdom of Buganda, the largest region in Uganda with five and a half million inhabitants, is taking an increasingly aggressive stance against other regions and rejects the importation of what it sees as “Western” customs. This month, the Kayunga region declared its secession from Buganda, but not from the Republic of Uganda. When the king attempted to visit the troubled area, he was turned away, sparking more violence. At least fourteen people have died in the unrest in and around Kampala. As always in these situations, women end up at the receiving line when it comes to violence.
Ugandan woman in traditional clothing
Women in Buganda are expected to wear long skirts. So what’s the big deal? defenders of such traditions ask. It’s just a skirt, after all. No, it’s more than just a question of choosing to wear a skirt or pants. Behind this choice stands the choice to do many other things as well: choose a partner, a career vs. (or in conjunction with) motherhood, a place of residence, a political party, a religion – in fact, just about anything that women in Western countries take for granted. Until women are granted the right to choose the clothes they wear on their backs (and over their legs), they will not be free to choose a self-determined life in dignity. But isn't that the whole purpose of women's dress codes in the first place?