I Wear What I Want: Culture As a Weapon Against Provocative Women

[Image description: black and white photograph of four people walking together in low light, beneath the dark shadows of tree branches.]   Andrea Donato Alemanno  / Creative Commons

[Image description: black and white photograph of four people walking together in low light, beneath the dark shadows of tree branches.]

Andrea Donato Alemanno / Creative Commons

When I came into being, or rather when I became conscious of my being, I realized before almost anything else that my body was my first home. I had to bathe it, give it proper sustenance (much to my own irritation at not being able to survive solely on neapolitan ice cream and baked chicken), and clothe it to whichever extent the weather dictated.  When I got older, I realized my body could be more than just my home. My body could mean something to other people, too. The first time I ever saw a woman breastfeed her child, I was on a train to my grandmother’s house. She took her entire left breast out from her bra and gently guided it into her baby’s embryonic mouth. It was an incredibly tender gesture, but it was also pedestrian. Nobody around us blinked. It was a woman doing not just what she had to do with her body, but what she wanted to do. It wasn’t anybody’s business.

As I grew older still, I watched my body become a point of contention between a growing girl trying to love the rapid changes taking place in her, and the people around her who were first intrigued by, and then entitled to, her developing body. These people were almost entirely men, emboldened by the patriarchal structures which protect them. I soon realized that my body could also be a trigger for unimaginable violence from men, simply by existing.

In order to protect myself as much as I possibly could from the lawless and arbitrary actions of men, I had to turn my body into a plea bargain.  I realized it on my own before I had ever heard it from my mother or my father: covering up my body might make that bit of difference when I left the house. It could be the difference between being left alone, dealing with microaggressions, and dealing with full blown harassment - but only possibly.

On Tuesday, May 23rd, at a bus rank in the heart of Gaborone (the capital city of Botswana), a woman was harassed and publicly stripped for being dressed in a way that was deemed inappropriate by some members of the public. By which scale the propriety of a woman’s clothing is measured, I don’t know; if you were to ask the perpetrators of this senseless violence, you would realize that they don’t know, either. Despite any pretension to legitimate moral moorings, the irrational and violent demand for subservience is the only consistent element of patriarchy. Her body that day was a microcosm for the reclaiming of autonomy by women around Botswana, much to the horror of the men who have for so long oppressed them without dissent. The incident saw a resurgence of public strippings, which had long fallen out of favour due to increasing backlash. It was a desperate attempt to restore an increasingly challenged and grotesque patriarchal order.

The justification for the incident given by complicit spectators and perpetrators alike was the same lazy platitude we’ve heard countless times before: young women are becoming increasingly “westernized”, and are disrespecting our cultural values. A culture whose only function now is to provide an alibi for violence against women.  A culture whose traditional attire has often required and exalted bare breasts, tummies, and thighs.  A culture which, almost two decades earlier, had allowed a woman to expose her entire, milk laden breast in front of an awe-struck young girl to feed her newborn baby with no consequence. Whose culture are we speaking of? The fact is, patriarchy’s gatekeepers love to distort the ideals of a culture they ultimately have no intention of preserving to serve their own agenda. Nowhere in our culture does it call for a woman to be publicly assaulted and humiliated for exercising her agency to dress how she chooses.

What happened that day was an attempt to turn a woman’s body into a warning to the rest of us, so increasingly confident in our bodies and in our autonomy. What it did instead was turn her body into a rallying cry. The bus station incident was a prompt for many young feminists in and around Gaborone to take the fight from behind the relative safety of academic circles and social media discussions to the physical spaces which oppress us the most. On Saturday, June 3rd, a protest took place at that same bus station. Aptly named #iwearwhatiwant, the march brought defiant, brave and scantily clad women face to face with their oppressors. As we marched through the bus station together, singing songs of a victory we had already chosen to claim, we watched grown men shrink into themselves. Others tried as best as they could, given our numbers and our police protection, to intimidate us, screaming epithets and threats of what would happen if they got hold of any one of us. Despite their actions – or perhaps because of them - it wasn’t difficult to tell who the victors were that afternoon.

On that day, I learned that my body could be one other thing: I learned my body could be a revolution, and it had only just begun.

Tigele Nlebesi is a freelance writer currently based in her home town of Gaborone, Botswana. She writes on African development and gender issues at The Afrolutionist, and is also an activist and advocate with a passion for an increase in access to healthcare services for LGBTI individuals, sex workers, and women living with HIV/AIDS.