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Two inches below the neck

The battle to defeat the Indecent Dressing Bill in Nigeria marks another point in the struggle between feminists and the cultural conservatives and faith based fundamentalists who argue for control over individual behaviour

Iheoma Obibi Blessing Oparaocha
19 November 2010

In 2008, Senator Eme Ufot Ekeatte, then chair of the Senate Committee on Women’s Affairs and Youth Development, tabled the “Bill for an Act to Punish and Prohibit Public Nudity, Sexual Intimidation and Other Related Offences in Nigeria” for consideration in Nigeria’s federal national assembly. Her bill called for the public sanction of women’s dress codes - notably in attempting to establish minimum lengths for necklines and hems - and was extremely harsh in it’s response to transgressions of the proposed law, with heavy penalties for those who were deemed to be dressing ‘inappropriately’.

Members of the Nigerian Feminist Forum were among the first to respond by issuing a press release condemning the very nature of such a bill. A leading woman lawyer, Maryam Uwais, was approached and agreed to prepare a legal brief on the bill, which was used as an advocacy tool and distributed to all senators, media houses and diplomatic personnel. With other strategic partners, a series of media interviews, radio programmes, and newspaper adverts were organized to inform the public and raise awareness. The radio programmes provided information explaining the serious and dangerous implications of the bill for women should it be passed into law.

The Bill brought down the age of majority to 14 years; it raised practical problems in implementation - in particular the difficulty of measuring individuals’ clothing to ensure that their necklines were no lower than two inches; it posed a potential threat to women’s bodily integrity given that it would give state actors a mandate to feel and scrutinize women’s clothing; the bill attempted to correlate rape with indecent dressing - suggesting that clothing was a factor in inciting rape with no quantitative proof that this link existed; writers of the bill had lumped together issues of public nudity and sexual intimidation, establishing a causal link that could embolden any member of the public to harass, report or accuse a person s/he considered to be "indecently dressed'. The bill was also insensitive to some traditional modes of dressing.

The public outcry forced the Senate Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development, and Human Rights to announce a public hearing which provided the Nigerian Feminist Forum and its allies such as the regional African Feminist Forum the opportunity to ensure that senators and members of the public who supported the Bill understood the implications of legislating on what women wore.

Although eventually defeated in the Senate, the Bill itself marks another point along a worrying trajectory in Nigeria today. Cultural conservatism and faith-based fundamentalisms are the “isms that breed schisms” – stigmatising the already marginalized, and creating exacerbating inequalities between women and men, and among women themselves. They tend to focus on archaic notions of morality, and focus on controlling individual behaviour, including the way people dress, rather than addressing the structural inequalities that feed social problems such as sexual violence and other inequalities.

Religion has always been a sensitive issue in Nigeria. The population is split between Muslims, mainly in the North, Christians, mainly in the South, and a minority subscribing to traditional African religion. Relations between the two major religious groups have become more delicate since the end of military rule and the subsequent move by some states in the North to implement Shar’ia, or Islamic law. Women inevitably get caught up in this political use of religion, with women’s rights the first to be undermined in a bid to assert religious identity. Most of us need not be reminded of the cases of Safiya Hussein Tungartudu and Hafsat in Sokoto State and Amina Lawal in Katsina State who were sentenced to death by stoning because of their alleged commission of adultery while their male "accomplices" are assumed innocent. While Safiya and Hafsat have been released as a result of local and international campaigns, the fate of Amina Lawal still hangs in the balance.

The dominance of religious views and religious actors in government debates over women’s rights is problematic given the fact that Nigeria is, legally speaking, a secular state. The 1999 Constitution states that the government shall not adopt any religion as state religion, it defines Nigeria as a secular state and guarantees freedom of belief. Equally problematic is the growth of what many term religious fundamentalisms at a popular level - the rigid observance of religious doctrines often born out of frustration at the perceived breakdown of society’s "mores and values", loss of religious authority, failure to achieve economic goals, corruption of political systems, and loss of a sense of local control in the face of the globalisation of culture and economy.

As Nigerian society has changed and evolved so has the position of women, with new demands on women’s time and a diversification in their contributions to the community they live in. Poverty is a persistent factor in the lives of a majority of Nigerian women, as are gender norms that stigmatise women who want to divorce or leave violent relationships. Many women have turned to religion as an answer to economic poverty, bad marriages and the general stress of living in Nigeria. Where divorce is not possible, praying becomes the only option for many women, and is sometimes even recommended by their religious leaders in the place of action to prosecute violent husbands or leave unhappy relationships.

The convergence of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism working in hand with religious patriarchy in its current form in Nigeria, has meant that many women are afraid to voice positions against the status quo, or put themselves in the stigmatised position of being labelled as "different". This raises the point of how critical it is for all those in Nigeria invested in the agenda of emancipating African women to consider strategies to tackle the fanatical rise in cultural and faith-based conservatism - together with blind and blinding nationalist ideology - whilst at the same time taking care to identify and preserve those aspects of culture that are positive. Of course we do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water; it is difficult work to transform our cultures so that we honour our history and our diverse traditions, but also question those aspects that limit our progress and ultimately our freedom. But we should at least try to get it right.

This is the third in a series of articles reflecting on African feminist thought and activism, the impact of religious fundamentalisms, and the role of the African Feminist Forum.

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