On 7 August, Liliane Mugabekazi, 24, was arrested and charged in Rwanda for wearing a sheer dress to a concert. She spent 12 days in police custody before being released on bail amidst public uproar. Mugabekazi may face anything between 6 months to 2 years prison time for “public indecency. Since Rwanda is ranked the world’s “6th most gender equal country” with women making up 62% of their parliament and 52% of their cabinet, this exposes the dangers of measuring women’s liberation in terms of how many ‘occupy’ patriarchal public institutions. Reason being that formal representation doesn’t automatically deliver substantive representation of women’s interests or liberation.
Dressing and internalized colonialism
First, we must deconstruct claims that revealing clothes are “Western” and against African culture. Historically, all corners of Africa have dressed semi-nude. We Southern African Bantu, Khoikhoi and San women traditionally wear tiny bead/animal hide skirts, with everything but our sexual organs exposed. African men in most cultures, including ancient Egyptians, merely wore loincloths/animal hide skirts. Historically speaking, nudity is African culture—until Europeans and Arabs colonised us, told us our semi-nudity was uncivilised and imposed their Victorian and Arab conservative dressing.
To illustrate the cultural differences, thousands of American women were arrested in the 1920s for wearing one-piece bathing suits yet in present-day, Eswatini hosts the annual Reed Dance where young women wear their traditional attire exposing their breasts and thighs to celebrate their culture. Claiming imposed ‘modesty’ is our culture is a scam—a scam bigger than African dictators’ election results.
Colonisation runs so deep that we think 19th century Western dressing is our culture, stubbornly clinging to moral standards that subjugated and eroded our cultures. Colonisers shoved their dressing down our throats by promulgating laws criminalising exposed skin, like Rhodesia’s (modern-day Zimbabwe) Immorality and Indecency Suppression Act, 1903, which also prohibited interracial sex.
According to Sander L. Gilman, a cultural and literary historian, in his journal article “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature” these laws were based on the paranoid fantasy of Africans’ inherent, uncontrolled “animal-like sexual appetite [which] went as far as to lead black women to copulate with apes.” I’m a single African woman; if you know a handsome baboon ready for a serious relationship, send them over (note the sarcasm).
Munyaradzi Mushonga, Programme Director for Africa Studies, in the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the University of the Free State in South Africa, points out that a Rhodesian Herald newspaper in 1926 even reported that African women “have more of the animal about them in sex matters and they have not the restraint and control that white women have.” Thus, colonisers saw African women’s semi-nude bodies and attire as an expression of their “primitive sexual deviance” to entrap poor white men who couldn’t control themselves. Policing Black women’s bodies was easier than policing white men’s misogynoir which was an ingredient in their 10-in-1 body wash.
On top of imposing their culture, colonisers further imposed their conservative religions on us: Christianity and Islam, which denounced our indigenous spirituality as heathen and demonic. They threatened us with Hell if we didn’t convert. They weaponised our newfound guilt to subjugate us because white saviour missionaries delivered us from ourselves through purity culture.
In our semi-nudity, missionaries saw sinners living in evil, redeemable only through dismantling our “shameful” culture. Christian/Muslim purity culture sexualised innocence, overemphasizing men’s hypersexuality by instructing women to dress modestly to avoid “tempting” men. This sexualised and slut-shamed African women’s innocently semi-nude bodies, just as Mugabekazi was.
This case echoes beyond Rwanda because it reminds us that we must abolish colonial decency laws which perpetuate an inherently misogynistic anti-Black system. The Rwandan government and penal code throwing around the term “public indecency” without clearly defining it exposes it as a foreign implant based on standards of a culture which was never ours. The catastrophic result is a colonially inherited misogynoir which demonises African women like Mugabekazi. Decolonisation is more than gaining independence and political rights—it’s about challenging every way colonisation pervades all corners of society, including our culture, laws and spirituality, to perpetuate misogynoir.
The logical gaps in conservative critics’ reaction
African conservatives’ refusal to interrogate their biases and use reason is starting to feel like that line of dirt that refuses to be collected in the dustpan no matter how hard you sweep. Conservatism, which is rooted in colonial religion but is often conflated with African culture, exists to make people feel guilty about themselves and their decisions. When colonised conservatives mention society’s alleged conservatism, it’s always to stop someone from doing something that offends them. Because they know there’s already a system of bigots who support their prejudices. They exploit this to repudiate alternative opinions and maintain the problematic status quo.
However, having your problematic views backed by a misogynistic government doesn’t make policing women’s bodies right.. Conservatism is a lazy cop-out to engaging with issues on a logical, sociological, and philosophical level by claiming “our society isn’t yet ready for people dressing as they please.” That’s not an argument, it’s a scapegoat for your biases. Society is never “ready” for change, hence wars and liberation struggles.
White settlers weren’t ready for independence, patriarchy wasn’t ready for women’s voting rights, authoritarian governments aren’t ready for democracy—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try changing the status quo. With that attitude, we would still be held as slaves because slaveowners weren’t ready to stop exploiting black labour.
What’s the point of living if we can’t envision and fight for the society we want to live in? Your reluctance to wear what Mugabekazi wore doesn’t mean other women shouldn’t, because the shame you put on Mugabekazi’s body is not hers to carry. Even if we accept conservatives’ best argument, which is that they are protecting you from the harsh world, the result is condescending. Society infantilizes women as still learning morality and thus must be corrected because their deviant behaviour is a cry for help and a lapse in judgment.
Civil liberties and freedom of expression
Most African countries have the constitution as supreme to every law, court verdict or policy. The constitution must guarantee the right to bodily autonomy and freedom of expression–the rights Mugabekazi was exercising in her dress. Bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty. No other liberties can survive without it because if you don’t own yourself absolutely, you own nothing. Rights are only limited when they detrimentally impact another individual’s rights. Mugabekazi didn’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights, she merely offended opinions. Arresting her violated her right to bodily autonomy, freedom of expression and human dignity. Penal codes that cling to colonial laws on public decency decades after independence must be taken down.
A collective fight for women’s liberation
Mugabekazi isn’t the first African woman to be sexually harassed, prosecuted and slut-shamed–it’s a systemic issue which is normalised and entrenched. In May, I posted a photoshoot wearing a bodysuit and thigh-high stockings. The Aunties™ worried if I was okay because my behaviour was concerning. This was patronising because I’m a 22-year-old woman with critical thinking skills—I literally have a cum laude degree. The photoshoot was intentional–a big fuck you to slut shamers and body shamers because lately I am a farmer, but unfortunately, there was a drought this year and any fucks I could have given didn’t germinate. Don’t slut-shame my African roots and make conservatism an excuse to overstep my boundaries
State prosecution and policing of women’s bodies does feed into the social consciousness that a woman’s body is not hers and vice versa. Sexual harassment indeed remains rife in most African countries. That’s why many Africans are coming to show solidarity through an online petition to free Mugabekazi which so far has over 7000 signatures. Thousands of social media posts are bursting the myth of gender equality and questioning what numbers mean in the liberation of women.
We have seen this organising before in Zimbabwe where women held a miniskirt march to protest widespread street harassment. Ugandan women protested a proposed “anti-pornography” law that would determine the height of hemlines. African states continue to sexualise African women’s bodies.
We’re tired of misogynoir shaping our lives from birth, of our identity being defined by how oppressed we are. Let’s abolish misogynistic anti-African colonial laws and redirect the energy into constructing an Africa that is rooted in equality and freedom, not shame – our ancestors never walked in shame.
Some things are better left alone, like Mugabekazi, for instance. And Liliane, your dress is not up to and should never be up to conservative Rwandans to decide. I, for one, could not be prouder.
Note: Although out of police custody on bail, Mugabekazi still faces charges and could be sentenced to a prison sentence, please sign the petition to continue fighting for charges against her to be to be dropped here.
Feature photo: Kenyan women protest My Dress My Choice via Article19.
Zoleka Mazibuko is a BA Law, French and Political Science graduate currently studying her LLB Honours at the University of Pretoria. When she is not running her events management & decor business or writing her feminist African fantasy novel, she paints African feminist art and blogs social commentary opinion pieces with a feminist and African consciousness angle.