Monday, 3 February 2014

Fashion, Gender, and Government Control in Uganda

Short dresses for sale on the roadside near Kabalagala in Kampala, Uganda
Copyright: Amy Fallon for The Guardian.

It is possible that in December, the Ugandan government will pass a law banning the miniskirt. Women who wear the miniskirt in public could face arrest if they refuse to cover up. Government officials have suggested that the anti-pornography bill, in which the proposed ban of the miniskirt has been included, will outlaw 'provocative' female clothing alongside censoring film and TV and restricting Internet use.

The era of director Idi Amin witnessed the banning of short skirts by degree, and if the bill is made law, these skirts will once more suffer this fate. Many Ugandans, however, oppose the idea, inspiring a Twitter hashtag #SaveMiniSkirt. Simon Lokodo, Uganda's ethics and integrity minister, argued that women who wear revealing clothing invite sexual violence and assault: "We know people who are indecently dressed: they do it provocatively and sometimes they are attacked. An onlooker is moved to attack her and we want to avoid these areas".

The proposed bill suggests that anyone found guilty of abetting pornography faces a 10m shillings (£2,515) fine and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail. The likes of Madonna and Beyonce will be banned from television due to their "provocative" attire and dance routines. Lokodo defended this by stating: "Certain intimate parts of the body cannot be opened except for a spouse in a private place". Sam Akaki, international envoy of Uganda's opposition Forum for Democratic Change, criticised the proposed bill, suggesting that it "will discriminate people on the basis of gender".

Above: the likes of Beyonce could be banned from Ugandan television.

Rita Aciro Lakor, executive director of Uganda Women's Network, opined that the issue centres more on control of women in a patriarchal society: "It's about going back to controlling women. They'll start with clothes".

One is similarly reminded of Jacob Zuma's trial in 2009 in South Africa amidst discussions of female fashion, gender, and immorality. Lokodo argued that women invite rape and sexual assault through the clothes they choose to wear - similarly, Zuma suggested that he believed that the rape victim had invited him to engage in sex with her because of her kanga clothing and her 'suggestive' position. The key argument in the trial centred on the expectation in Zulu culture that a man fulfil the desires of a woman if he interprets her being 'aroused'. Zuma's followers argued that women usually fabricate stories of rape as a means of accessing money and power. Unsurprisingly, the rape victim was accused and denigrated as a manipulative seductress, serial rape accuser, and a pathological liar.

Richard Waller (2006) has suggested that fashion is a means of allowing youths, particularly in African urban spaces, to construct their own identities and values. Fashion promotes individuality. If the miniskirt is banned in Uganda, it will be interesting to see how Ugandan women refashion their sense of self and their ideas of individuality. Will they use other items of clothing to convey a sense of their personality, their identity, and their personal makeup; or will the loss of this garment signify a male appropriation of what 'proper' female sexuality and conduct is believed, or even supposed, to encompass?

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