You can’t wear that!

Having the freedom to choose what we wear and who we marry should be a concern of our own, not our government, right?

The young woman is wearing a striped black-and-white mini dress that clings to the ample curves of her body. Her feet bear a pair of killer- heel black stilettos that she is working as though Harare’s bustling Leopold Takawira Avenue were a catwalk ramp and the crowds swarming about her a fashion show audience.

Her sleek black weave keeps slapping against her face as she walks, prances rather, to the mix of disapproving groans and lusty stares and catcalls of fellow pedestrians who pass comments she remains oblivious to with each step she takes.

If this young woman were leading a protest march through town, half of Harare would have been trailing her by now. In short, she’s stopped pavement traffic and focused all that’s happening on this warm afternoon onto herself.

“Whore!”
“You are not dressed!”
“You are a disgrace to our culture!”
“Go and wear those clothes in South Africa where they have no morals!”

The insults and disparaging statements are flowing freely, although every now and then I do catch the words of a few awestruck men who can’t believe how “together” the young lady is. In Shona, Zimbabwe’s main local language, beauty can be described by the word kubatana, also a synonym for togetherness and solidarity.

I follow the trail as long as I can, trying to see and hear different folks’ responses to the “scandalous” lady. The women among the throngs either whisper among themselves or shake their heads in disapproval of the passing young woman’s audacity.

Her dress isn’t even that short, which makes the whole incident all the more bewildering. I feel like I am in a time warp witnessing an anachronistic and sour reminder of a Zimbabwe I grew up in, in the 1990s, where women would be heckled and harassed for even showing a knee cap, let alone a peep of cleavage.

I thought we’d moved on from that fixation with women’s dress and that abusive responses to women’s freedom to wear what they want only still happened in ultra-conservative or religious societies and nations, not Zimbabwe in 2010!

Interestingly, in that same week, news broke that a devoutly Islamic district in Indonesia had distributed 20 000 long skirts and prohibited shops from selling tight dresses in bid to enforce a new regulation banning Muslim women from wearing revealing clothes.

Perhaps it was naivety on my part. Perhaps it was hope that respect of women’s freedoms was something more than lip service, something more substantive.

But perhaps, also, I shouldn’t really be surprised.
Two disheartening stories making the headlines in Zimbabwe’s local media last month tell of the horrible injustices that the nation’s women and girls are still facing in an environment that remains heavily patriarchal and insensitive to their rights.

In mid-May, news broke of the suicide of the wife of local sungura musician, Tongai Moyo. She allegedly drank poison after a dispute about Moyo’s decision to bring a second wife into their home. Newspaper reports quoted Moyo as having said that due to his long-standing ill health (from the effects of cancer) he had seen it fit to bring a second wife into the household for extra support. He further added that his wife, Barbara, agreed to the proposal - albeit grudgingly. 

Her death left two children motherless and has also set in motion discussions and debates on culture, polygamy and gender in Zimbabwe.

An equally difficult story to take in was that of the 12-year-old girl who reportedly contracted HIV from rape by a family friend. As the front-page article in the Zimbabwean Herald stated, the young girl was given over by her father to a fellow church member as his fifth wife. The man, who is allegedly HIV positive, then when on to force the girl into having sex with him after her father had left her at the man’s house.

Where, you might ask, was the girl’s mother throughout this whole ordeal? While she was reportedly violently opposed to her husband’s decision to ‘marry off’ her daughter, she felt she had no power to oppose it. "I felt powerless because in our church you can’t go against your husband," she is reported to have said. The difference in settings of the various scenarios portrayed here is vast.  

But each rings with the noise of a woman’s oppression. The plight of women in Zimbabwe, their subordination to the dictates of patriarchy and its hegemonic meanings, remains a rampant ill that we must daily interrogate and fight against.

Which is why I applaud that young woman who kept walking and fighting back - head high and confidence aglow - celebrating her right to choice while the crowds tried their damndest to take that away from her.

Aluta continua!

Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwean writer, researcher, poet and journalist based in South Africa where she works in HIV and AIDS communication. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.
 

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