The ‘Bare Chested’ Argument in African Culture By #MyDressMyChoice Campaigners

The debate over clothing for women rages on in our society with both sides expressing extremely divergent views on the matter. Social media is the main arena for the war of words between these two groups but street demonstrations provided an extra arena for those advocating for individual choice in dressing. Meanwhile, extremists from the other end of the debate choose to express their views through the stripping of women in their midst for ‘provocative dressing.’ This trend is gaining momentum and it should be a cause of worry for every citizen especially when the definition of ‘provocative dressing’ becomes more obscure each day. Another worrying trend is the misinformed arguments put forth by women’s groups and ‘pro-choice’ advocates. These arguments are fallacious yet laced with jargon and nice-sounding slogans that make it hard for moderates on the other side to decipher and then counter. The arguments misinterpret African culture, ignore clothing as an item of communication and fail to see the precedence they are setting.

‘Pro-choice’ advocates have flooded social media with photos of bare chested women wearing traditional African regalia as a way of justifying mini-skirts and tight clothes. These advocates fail to understand decency in the context of culture. For example, the bare chested Turkana woman is decent and fully clothed according to her customs and traditions. People in other cultures viewing her would interpret her dressing based on Turkana culture and therefore, she would still be fully dressed. Her level of decency would not change even if she walked in Nairobi bare chested because dressing that way is her culture but her level of dignity would suffer. Why is this so? A dress is a tangible item that communicates a message to those around us, which can be intentional or unintentional. It is not her intention to communicate anything to anyone while in Nairobi but some people in Nairobi would still receive a message from her without her knowledge. The receipt of these unintended messages by some people is the reason her dignity suffers and it is even worse if she does not know that she is sending such messages. The same case of lowered dignity applies to a woman who wears a completely see-through dress to town unknowingly i.e. her sense of pride, self-esteem suffers as soon as she discovers this fact.

It is also true that our society as a whole associates scantily dressed women with sexual liberalization i.e. women who are aware of their sexual nature and have taken control of it. This in itself is not a bad thing because their sexual nature is theirs is it not. However, our society also associates scantily dressed women with less flattering traits that include sexual promiscuity, sexual perversion and of course red light districts. Now, we can pretend that this is not so but fill in this sentence, “Did you see her dress? Trying to get my man by dressing like a…” Denying that scanty/tight clothes send messages to people about the character of women wearing them is a recipe for disaster for there is reason why such people think so. It is not a coincidence that women in red light districts choose mini-skirts/tight clothes as their preferred clothing item. They know what messages such clothes send and they take advantage of it. In addition, the ‘sexy’ nature of these dresses is something to look at. Women engage in comparative competition and dressing scantily has become a tool of this comparative competition. This means that dresses would become less scanty by the day simply because women are competing with each other. Does anyone else see a problem with this?

We should take note of the precedence our actions set for future generations. We must do things based on solid reasons that would give proper direction for those to come. For example, imagine a scenario where a family, priest, pedophile and prostitute live in the same building where everyone dresses as he or she pleases. The family composed of a teenage daughter, a small son, father and mother does not know that a prostitute and pedophile live near them. The prostitute wears clothes as she pleases and her clothes communicate something to men everywhere. The priest would rather not suffer from temptation but in this case, he cannot escape it if the woman was to wear anything she pleases. The same case of temptation applies to the man in the family that lives in the same building. The teenage daughter grows up seeing how the prostitute dresses, seeing all the money the prostitute makes and she begins to admire the prostitute for her ‘liberalized’ and independent state. The pedophile dresses as he pleases mostly boxers only and he tries to become friends with the small boy. He invites the boy to his home, asks the boy to ‘loosen up’ by wearing boxers only. Now, imagine if someone tells the mother the truth about everything. Her mind would explode would it not? Society cannot exist without a system that warns us of impending catastrophe. For example, the small boy in the short story should feel alarmed when he is in a room where a man wears his boxers only and/or encourages him to do the same. This is only possible if wearing boxers around people is not the norm. The prostitute should wear what she pleases in a given forum but not in every forum making life easier for the priest and for the man in the family. Everyone wins in this building wins just because of a norm in dressing except the pedophile. Additional measures against the pedophile are necessary but proper dressing is a measure you can start with.

I have associated scanty/tight dressing with prostitution/promiscuity as society does so many women would be offended and I understand that because there are many women who wear such clothes without indulging in such vices. What these women should be advocating for is an understanding of how women feel or want when wearing scanty/tight clothes. For example, men feel comfortable when wearing tight fitting shirts so why is it so hard to understand that women feel comfortable when wearing tight fitting clothes. This is an argument that makes some sense and it preserves the warning systems in society. Men should open their minds to these arguments instead of rushing to judge women. It is clear that we interpret scantily dressed women quite differently from how people in Turkana interpret their bare chested women so let us not bring up this argument again. Continued urbanization is a fact around the globe and it means that we will continually meet people from diverse cultural backgrounds with different sets of customs and beliefs. The only way to make things work is to bring to birth a new culture that recognizes the freedoms and choices of individuals living within that urban setting. This is a weighted choice and not an individual one but we should assign as much weight as possible to the individual. Solid reasoning should inform the weights not brute force.

You may also want to read the following article on the same issue. Click on the link below to find out more.


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