21 February 2013

Namibia: Mini-Skirt Firestorm Scorches Ndeitunga

Photo: DuncanCV/Flickr
(file photo)

Windhoek — Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga made a dramatic volte face this week saying he was misquoted, dismissing media reports that caused public outrage over his alleged threat to have any woman found wearing "short and revealing" mini-skirts arrested.

"I did not say we will arrest those in mini-skirts. I was talking about indecent dressing. It's his own words (the reporter)," maintained the police chief, adding that his warning was aimed at hooligans in public, such as young people drinking openly on the streets. He said that the reporter changed the story to suit his own motives and said he could not have said something like that knowing that it would interfere with women's constitutional rights.

Ndeitunga said the reporter first referred to the Rundu incident where 40 women were reportedly arrested for wearing 'hot pants'. "Then he brought up this thing of mini-skirts. As a lawyer, I know what is prohibited or not prohibited," he added, saying that it is women's protected freedom of choice to wear what they want as long as that does not violate public indecency laws.

The mini-skirt saga has sparked so much debate that a group calling themselves 'Namibians Against Mini-skirt Banning' has decided to don mini-skirts tomorrow to protest and demonstrate their unhappiness over the alleged police warning. Ndeitunga said the protesters are free to do so, as long as they are peaceful and added that it was within their rights to express unhappiness.

Ricardo Mukonda, a human rights lawyer at the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) said indecency has a definition, which among others refers to offending public policy by exposing private body parts that have a sexual connotation. He said that exposing legs or thighs could not be termed indecent exposure and that the courts would have to interpret what is indecent.

He added that mini-skirts were not necessarily indecent and said he is uncomfortable with the fact that learners had to be turned away from schools for wearing what is considered short skirts. The LAC lawyer questioned what was un-African about mini-skirts when in some African cultures, like the Ovahimba, women's breast are exposed. "We can't hide behind culture. It is very unfortunate to instill morals in such a way," said Mukonda, adding that it would be better if it were done through education rather than threatening people.

The executive director of Women's Action for Development (WAD), Veronica de Klerk, said this is a free country and women are free to wear hot pants or mini-skirts, unless they are exposing their private parts. She however, cautioned that women should not contravene the law that prohibits public indecency and maintained that schoolgirls should abide by school rules.

"But still, no one should prescribe to women how they should dress," she said. According to De Klerk she has not seen women dressed in an indecent manner on the streets, unless it is in nightclubs where she does not go. She also said the police should not look at women only, but also men who expose their private parts in public when they urinate. "They just get out of the car wherever and pee in full view of the public," she said.

Hafeni Muzanima, a member of the public said there is a lot to learn from the mini-skirt debacle. According to him in all liberal democracies, when one proposes an action based on his "moral, religious or cultural inclination", he becomes the object of study where dirt is dug up about him or her and something is usually found that completely ridicules his or her vision of 'morality'.

"When civil rights are impinged upon, it opens a claustrophobic door and the fear of a state where personal liberties are absent, as well as the fear of living under a dictatorship," he said, adding that "no one likes to feel trapped and ostracised, because of their personal choices. The constitution guarantees equal rights and opportunities for all human beings regardless of their character traits and beliefs."

But Ngamane Karuaihe-Upi, the acting director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) supported the alleged warning to women attributed to Ndeitunga and said the dress code of women is pathetic, although he disagreed that they should be arrested for it. Karuaihe-Upi added that public decency was mostly one-sided - targeting women mostly and based on archaic laws. He also reasoned that mini-skirts contradict the "my body, my temple, my body, my dignity" claim, saying that the history of the mini-skirt was and may remain a question of a woman validating herself through physical appearance, instead of character and personality, talent, integrity, charm and accomplishments. He said that was an insult to all efforts to bring about gender equality.

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