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Of mini-skirts and morals: social control in Nigeria

The push to police the way that women dress continues across Africa on the pretext that it causes sexual harassment and violence against women. What really underlies this censorship of women’s expression? asks Bibi Bakare-Yusuf

Women’s dressing has become the site for pernicious policing and debates about social and moral decay in Africa, with calls for intervention within Nigeria’s higher education institutions, by religious organisations, and the media. Over the past decade, some universities have banned the wearing of trousers and any 'revealing' clothes by young women because they are seen as a distraction to male students and lecturers. The argument is that revealing attire has made sexual violation and harassment a marked feature of university life in Nigeria, and therefore imposing a strict dress code on female students is the only way to stop it.

In 2007 the General Overseer (GO) Adeboye of The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the largest Pentecostal church in the country, banned the wearing of trousers for his female church members. The GO’s proscription coincided with the arrest by Lagos State Police of women wearing trousers and ‘skimpy’ clothes, which they claimed was aimed at discouraging vice in the city. Most of the women were arrested on allegations of ‘indecent dressing’ or ‘wandering’, a term from a colonial law that was repealed more than a decade ago.

The pinnacle of attempts to regulate the way Nigerians dress came in 2008, when Nigerian Senator Eme Ufot Ekaette, the female Chair of the Senate Committee on Women and Youth Affairs, presented a Bill titled “A Bill for an Act to prohibit and punish public nudity, sexual intimidation and other related offences in Nigeria” - referred to in popular debates as “The Indecent Dressing Bill”. The Bill’s aim was to reduce the apparent sexual violation and immorality occasioned by women’s clothing. In the Bill, public nudity is defined as a “state of indecent dressing which expose in the public or in the open the breast, belly, waist and lap of a female above the age of 14 years, as well as any part of the body from two inches below the shoulders downwards to the knee”. The subsequent sections of the Bill then define punishments, which include a prison sentence of three months for public nudity, and three years for sexual intimidation. In prescribing enforcement the Bill identifies “the role of religious bodies in moral rejuvenation”, proposing active efforts by government bodies to support this.

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They need Rick Santorum to sort this out. Tom

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