Trial of the trousers: African women fight for pants to be on the dress code
Women's Month offers a chance to reflect on the freedoms that some women take for granted - and that others are still denied-like wearing pants
Women's Month offers a chance to reflect on the freedoms that some women take for granted - and that others are still denied. For most modern women, pulling on a pair of trousers is as uncontroversial as brushing their teeth. But even in 2017, portions of South Africa remain curiously resistant to the idea of a woman wearing the pants. Literally.
The idea of a woman being stripped naked and forced to perform a public parade of humiliation sounds like a scene from the crazed imagination of a Game of Thrones writer. But in 2007, the township of Umlazi played host to precisely that spectacle. Zandile Mpanza was made to walk the streets naked while her shack was razed. Her crime was wearing trousers.
Soon thereafter, a public meeting resolved that any woman found wearing trousers would risk banishment from the area after undergoing the same treatment as Mpanza.In that particular case, media reports noted that the ostensible reason for the trouser ban was one of safety: the need to be able to tell a potential male predator from a woman at a distance.
The truth is that some parts of South Africa are still hostile towards women in trousers. 2010: officials confirm that women wearing trousers have been barred from entering the traditional Zulu reed dance - even if they are not participants. "Wearing of pants by female journalists and tourists is also not allowed as it is not in line with royal palace protocol," a KwaZulu-Natal provincial spokesperson explains.
2015: reports emerge that in 11 Limpopo villages near Modjadjiskloof, females from the age of five may be fined up to R500 for wearing trousers, a practice described by a local headman as a "sign of disrespect".
Similar cases have played out on the rest of the continent. Post-independence, many African countries frowned on certain items of clothing that smacked of Western cultural norms.
I will never take the ability to wear jeans for granted after growing up in Malawi under the dictatorship of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who imposed a ban on women wearing trousers which prevailed until 1994. Banda said the law was to encourage respect for women rather than to oppress them - but that's not how it felt in practice.
In postcolonial societies, it has almost always been women bearing the brunt of these reactionary dress codes. Banda and his male political counterparts were comfortable in Western-style suits, while seeking to ban women from doing the same.But anxiety about women wearing pants is not restricted to black Africans in South Africa's rural heartland. In historically white Afrikaans universities women were forbidden from wearing trousers on campus until well past the middle of the 20th century; in the case of the University of Stellenbosch, till 1973. When trousers were eventually permitted for wear by female students at the University of Pretoria, they had to be paired with a jacket covering the buttocks.
Many South African schools still do not allow girls to wear trousers or shorts to school. As recently as 2015, eight girls were suspended from Tholulwazi Secondary School, on the East Rand, for refusing to wear skirts. The school principal apparently told the girls not to come back until they "knew whether they were girls or boys". In reality, there may be a good practical reason for allowing girls to wear trousers or shorts at school: one Australian study found that girls were significantly less likely to do exercise while wearing school dresses than if they were permitted to wear pants.
The Tholulwazi school principal's words are revealing, though, in what they suggest about the underlying motive to prevent females from adopting so-called "male" attire: that it is part of a wider desire to protect traditional gender roles. If girls are allowed to wear boys' clothes, such thinking goes, how soon before they are demanding to be treated like boys in other ways too?
Undergirding the anxiety about women wearing trousers, in South Africa and elsewhere, is religion. The biggest church in South Africa, the Zion Christian Church, does not permit women to enter its prayer assemblies wearing trousers. The same holds for the Nazareth Baptist Church, and other conservative denominations.
The orthodox Jewish and Christian prohibition on women wearing trousers is rooted in the scripture of Deuteronomy 22:5, which in the King James Bible reads: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God."