Nigeria's Immorality Is About Hypocrisy, Not Miniskirts
A bill that seeks to stop women dressing indecently shows how warped our notions of culture have become
My friend Funmi Iyanda hosts a talk show on Nigerian TV in which she interviews state governors, actors and pastors. Her social consciousness is crusading without being self-righteous, her journalism intelligent and honest, her mind deeply kind. One day last December, on her way back from Lagos, she was stopped by policemen. They pointed at her knee-length dress and called her a prostitute, a harlot, a useless woman. They told her she was immoral, that women like her were the reason Nigeria was in such a bad state. Other women have no doubt experienced similar harassment, but things will become worse, horrendously so, if the senate passes a bill that would criminalise "indecent" dressing: necklines must be two inches or less from the shoulders, and the waist of a female over 14 must not be visible. It would be hilarious if it weren't so dangerous.
When I told a male friend who lives in Lagos that this bill is an attack on women, he said it was not about women because the senator who sponsored the bill is a woman. Very facile reasoning, I thought. Gay people have supported institutionalised homophobia. Black police officers in the US have carried out anti-black racial profiling. I know men and women who don't accept any oppression of women. I know men and women who do. That the senator is a woman does not make the bill any less targeted at women. As Reuben Abati wrote in the Nigerian Guardian: "Men are quick to complain about how they are exposed to sexual intimidation from women. They do not talk about indecent dressing among men."
As always, gender will be complicated by class: women who do not have cars, who have to hitch up their skirts to climb on okadas (motorbike taxis), who do not know a Big Man or Big Woman to call for help, who will be vulnerable to rape at police stations - these will be disproportionately harassed.
Many Nigerians have pointed out how silly the bill is when we have serious problems with power, health, education, roads, water. Still, to offer these alternatives is to give the bill a legitimacy of sorts. If we solved these serious problems, would it then be acceptable to punish a woman in a putative democracy who chooses to wear a miniskirt?
This bill is, in a larger sense, about societies for whom women are safe scapegoats, and Nigeria is only one example. The country is immoral, and we must legislate morality by imprisoning women in miniskirts. (Most Nigerians use "immoral" to mean sexual. They rarely use the word to refer to real immorality: institutional corruption.)
Even challengers of the bill have mostly agreed that it might be a good thing to regulate immoral dressing, but best to leave it to private organisations. This is the populist way to reason in a country where a majority of people choose to be rigidly conservative when it is convenient. (But is dressing ever really an issue of morality?)
I was once asked to leave my church in Nsukka because my blouse had short sleeves (I refused); apparently my bare arms would tempt the otherwise pious men. To accept that dressing is a moral issue is to accept this: a woman must not tempt a man. We focus on Adam eating the apple because Eve gave it to him. We don't focus on Adam's responsibility, on why he did not say no. This Judaeo-Christian-Islamic notion of controlling the female temptress so as to save the helpless male dehumanises women and insults the dignity of men since it assumes that men are incapable of restraint at the sight of a woman's flesh. Or incapable of simply looking away.
"Culture" is the other justification. We must preserve our culture, and miniskirts aren't our culture. Rape and incest and sexual abuse of children are not our culture, even though they happen all the time. There are accounts of rape all over Nigeria, especially in urban areas, yet a collective silence reigns. This bill is particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood of women being blamed for rape: if she hadn't worn that blouse, she would not have been raped.
Perhaps it is time to debate culture. The common story is that in "real" African culture, before it was tainted by the west, gender roles were rigid and women were contentedly oppressed. There are men and women who, while holding their imported cellphones and driving their imported cars, say that women should conform to certain gender roles so as to preserve our "real" culture. The historical truth is that most of these reductive gender ideas came from Victorian England.
But assuming that we agree that there is such a thing as a "pure" culture and that we would like to return to it, then we would go back to pre-colonial west Africa when gender roles were fluid, when there was little gender differentiation in Yorubaland, and when Igbo women could marry women. The culture-preserving senator would be surprised if she were transported back to her home in 1800. Never mind low-cut blouses. The women trading in the markets would be bare-breasted.
There has always been a strange dissonance between the public and the private in Nigeria. We say what we think we should in public. This bill has many supporters who must surely know that the moral decadence in our society is not because women are wearing miniskirts but because men and women are stealing and publicly thanking God after they have stolen; because the ability to speak honestly is compromised by a literal and figurative hunger; because we have embraced and codified the culture of hypocrisy. And it is this culture of hypocrisy that the bill will preserve.
· Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, which won last year's Orange prize for fiction; next Monday she will be discussing her work with the writer Jackie Kay at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London