Gender Links (Johannesburg)

4 December 2012

Zambia: GBV Begins in Parliament!

Almost two weeks ago, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mkhondo Lungu stirred a hornet's nest when he cautioned Member of Parliament Dora Siliya over her outfit. The incident is one in a long line of insults to women who dare occupy "male" spaces in our society - a stark reminder that patriarchy is alive and well even in the hallowed halls of parliament as we observe another Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

Siliya rose to contribute to the budget debate in parliament, only to hear a point of order being raised by Nathaniel Mubukwanu, Deputy Minister of State. Mubukwanu demanded to know from the Deputy Speaker whether it is "in order to enter the chamber while improperly dressed", referring to Siliya's dressing.

The Zambia Daily Mail reported that Siliya wore a tight black skirt, green silver sleeveless body top, black high-heeled shoes and silver bangles which matched her ear rings.

Ironically, the incident happened on 24 November, the eve of the international Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence

Any fair-minded person might have expected the Deputy Speaker to protect Ms Siliya from such blatant and vulgar male chauvinism. After all, the Deputy Speaker is a former Minister of Home Affairs and one would expect him to be familiar with Article 23 in the constitution that protects citizens from gender discrimination.

Instead, Lungu cautioned Siliya over her dressing, advising her "to dress properly in parliament" because improper dressing "lowered the status of the house." The Deputy Speaker did not send Siliya out of the house as has often happened in the past, even to a serving cabinet minister.

Sexist references and blatant stereotypes about how women should dress and conduct themselves in public are still rife the world over. Male politicians often make sexist remarks to their female counterparts and this pattern of verbal abuse has trickled to the streets where male touts verbally or physically harass women that they view as "improperly" dressed.

In Zambia, the parliamentary dress code requires men to wear a jacket and tie, whereas women are "required to cover up properly." In practice, this seems to mean that they cannot reveal their arms or knees and are not allowed to wear trousers.

If the same rules were applied in the Mother of Parliaments in Britain, then both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher would have been denied entry to parliament.

Women who hold high-level political posts the world over are still treated unfairly in the public space by the media and their male counterparts. Men and the media often reference women leaders by their sex appeal, power dressing and looks, or the lack thereof. Men on the other hand are generally ranked by their abilities, strengths and achievements.

The media has sarcastically said that for Angela Merkel, the Germany Chancellor, fashion does not come to her as natural as economics and some bloggers describe her as the world's most scruffy politician. Yet, she is a powerful president leading a powerful nation. Joyce Banda, the first female president of Malawi has been criticised about the way she dresses.

In South Africa, Helen Zille made headlines when she admitted to using Botox to "boost her looks." Zille, the leader of the strongest opposition, has never received such extensive reporting on her progressive traits as a female leader.

In October 2012, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard criticized opposition leader Tony Abbott for misogyny and sexism. Abbott is well known for his comments and views on abortion and single women. Abbott has said in the past that "abortion is the easy way out" and "what housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing" during a debate on the carbon tax. In response, Gillard came said that, "if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives. He needs a mirror."

Ironically the Speaker himself insists on dressing up in weird medieval European fashion, wearing a long wig and long skirt - an obvious case of cross dressing. Although the Speaker is allowed to wear a skirt, Siliya is not allowed to wear trousers in parliament.

The incident involving Siliya and Mubukwanu is just the tip of the iceberg of the various forms of sexual harassment suffered by female members of parliament at the hands and tongues of male chauvinist MPs.

The most common form of harassment takes the form of endless sexual remarks and insults, along the line that women members of parliament are sexually loose, or 'hule' (prostitutes), and have achieved their positions by means of "bottom power."

Outside of parliament, the situation is worse. Edith Nawakwi, the leader of a small opposition party, the Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) is currently giving testimony in court against a former national youth chairperson for another opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), Joe Kalusa.

Kalusa publicly threatened to organize a gang to rape Nawakwi after she called the leader of UPND, Hakainde Hichilema a "male chauvinist pig." Hichilema has a history of making sexist remarks in public.

If the relations between women and men are ugly in parliament, then they are worse on the street. Smart and attractively dressed young women are not safe on the streets. When the kaponya (street thugs) decide that a young woman is not properly dressed, the punishment is worse than anything meted out by the Speaker.

A young woman who is not "properly" dressed will be stripped naked for transgressing the kaponya's dress code, which is even more arbitrary than the Speaker's. If or when the police rescue her, they will make no effort to arrest the perpetrators. The police will take the young woman to the police station for a lecture on "proper dressing."

Kaponyas are male thugs on the streets, often poor and unemployed. Their male pride and sense of superiority is terribly wounded by the sight of a well-dressed, confident and successful young woman. She is a walking rebuke to the kaponyas self-evident failure. They can only reassert their sense of male dominance by humiliating the young woman.

It is precisely the same psychological disorder, usually known as male chauvinism, which affects male parliamentarians, when they see the small minority of women in parliament outwitting men. The male chauvinists are still living in the dark ages where women were not allowed to claim their space in public.

Parliament should champion legislative initiatives to counter sexual harassment, instead of being part of the problem. Only when male politicians start respecting their female counterparts will they be able to speak strongly against the kaponyas who harass women on the streets.

Sara Hlupekile Longwe is a gender activist based in Zambia and GL Board Member. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

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