This is a question i have been asking myself for a while. And the reasons as to why that particular question popped up in my head, stem from a couple of observable factors over time.
I would like to speak from an African perspective.
As most African women already know, their mothers placed a lot of emphasis on how their girl children should dress. While growing up, we were told to cover up because that is what is indeed acceptable for a woman and especially if there happened to be men in the vicinity (mostly our fathers), we were required to dress with dignity. A girlfriend of mine would tell us how she and her sister would always tie a lesso (African wrapper) over their jeans trousers as soon as their father arrived before he caught sight of them. This was mainly because she was a pastor’s kid and the rule of the house was that as girl children, they were not supposed to wear trousers of any kind. Surprisingly enough, as soon as she left home for her semester in campus, jeans trousers, shorts, chino pants…you name it, automatically transformed into her daily wear. I myself have had to run for a lesso to tie on top of something i was wearing one time when my uncle showed up at the house without notice and i had been cleaning in a pair of jeans short shorts. It wasn’t something that had been imposed upon me to do then, rather i found myself doing it as a reflex action because i knew it would have been highly inappropriate for him to see me in such attire at his advanced age.
I schooled in a mixed boarding school for my high school education where discipline of the highest standard was upheld. One time, a certain school that also happened to be a mixed boarding school visited and the teachers were appalled upon realizing that we were mixed girls and boys on the same table in the dining hall, physics and chemistry labs as well as classes. In their school, despite being mixed, the girls had separate classes from the boys and sat separately in the dining hall. Well, you should have seen how our school administration gloated afterward over the fact that our school had managed to uphold the highest level of discipline without having to completely separate the boys from the girls. Don’t get me wrong my readers, my school was the best and i don’t ever regret being there. As a matter of fact, i still have very fond memories of that place.
However, you couldn’t help but notice that there were some of those rules that were actually made with regards to the fact that there were boys in the same school. For example, we were only allowed long skirts that were kinda baggy, we weren’t allowed to wear earrings and to style our hair in any way except tying it back if it was permed or cutting it short. I had short hair in form 1 then grew it and permed it so as to make it manageable for the 3 months i was away from home during the term. Boy-girl relationships at school were also highly forbidden and it could earn you a suspension if you were found out. As for those who decided to make their school skirts tighter, it was trouble all the way with the one in charge of girls’ discipline because HELLO! there were boys in the same school. To top it all of at the beginning of each month, it was mandatory for all the girls to undergo a pregnancy test organised by the school much to the glee of the boys who snickered at us while we got called from class by the prefects for it. To make up for the fact that we couldn’t even wear studs on our ears to school, most of us girls who had pierced ears resorted to the common practice of wearing tiny dry grass sticks to prevent the holes from closing up.
Anyways, i have no problem with any of the things i have highlighted above. My only problem comes in when the real message behind all those measures is not communicated clearly to the recipients. When African girls grow up believing that men(including their fathers) cannot be trusted and therefore they have to undertake certain measures to protect themselves. They have to cover up because if they reveal too much, men somewhere are going to lust after them. They have to refrain from interacting with the boys in teenagehood because all these teenage boys want from them is to get into their panties :p Never mind that both the teenage boys and girls are at an experimentation stage. Most African women will agree with me that the real message behind all those measures that were being put in place to protect them from the men while growing up, actually wasn’t communicated at all. The only purpose the measures served was to instill in them a certain fear toward the opposite sex. That if you got too close to your father as soon as you hit puberty and experienced all these bodily changes, he could end up sleeping with you and that dressing in a certain way implied that you wanted men to look at you. And the men know that there is that fear instilled in women concerning them and they use it to their maximum advantage. Never mind that it is infact a baseless fear.
Let me make it clear that a father who lusts after his daughter is actually a pervert and lacking in integrity. It has nothing to do with how close she is with him or how she dressed in his presence or whether he noticed she was becoming a woman or not. If he cared enough, he would have asked her gently to change into something more appropriate, if he noticed she wasn’t appropriately dressed because that too is his job as a parent and not for the mother only, as some African men would like to believe. As a matter of fact, a girl who is growing up should actually be encouraged to dress decently for her own self respect. She should be made to know that she is now becoming a woman and there is nothing to be ashamed of regarding whatever changes are taking place in her body. And as a result of that, as a way to uphold her dignity as a woman, she should dress appropriately so that she will in turn be accorded her respect by men and women alike and not because if she dresses inappropriately some man is going to look and notice and follow her around and get her pregnant or rape her.
The message that should be communicated to this girl is that men are wired differently from women and it is the reason they may act in certain ways that are not similar to how women act. One thing for sure is that men are visual creatures. It is their nature to look. They may look at other women even in the company of their own girlfriends and wives. Surprisingly, sometimes they are just looking at the face in a restaurant because the other woman comes across as pretty and not because of something she is even wearing. It is the same way they noticed you who is in a relationship with them. They looked at you and something in you caught their eye. Men’s first attraction to a woman is actually physical before they start noticing other deeper traits in her. As for the rapists, blame it on their perversion levels as well and their lack of respect for women and not on how the unwilling victim was dressed.
And it is for these sole `fear factor’ reason in women, that i think a section of men feel like they have the right to strip a woman who is supposedly dressed inappropriately in public, because she was dressing for them. She wanted them to see her curves and her cleavage and to turn them on in the process. She should have covered up knowing that men are `dangerous’ and they therefore want to prove to her how dangerous they can be by stripping her in public for all to see what she wanted to initially show them. How come the African men in the olden days never considered their bare chested women as `naked’ or `indecent’? It is because they appreciated the fact that those particular women were dressing the way their environment and culture could allow them to and not because there were men around that they wanted to see their boobs and thighs. I’m almost 100% sure that if those women knew about bras and blouses to cover up, they would have gladly embraced them because they would indeed have seen the logic behind covering up what they used to feed their children and to make them feminine. But all they knew about were leaves, reeds and skin as clothing.
Let me make it clear to men that how a woman chooses to dress depends on her levels of self-respect. It has nothing to do with the opposite sex. But society has since made it to look like how a woman dresses has a direct effect on the male gender. As a matter of fact, we have no mandate whatsoever to try and impose our religious beliefs or integrity on other people who are of a different ideology and belief from us. And it is for this reason that people in Western countries don’t even seem to bat an eyelid when a curvaceous woman walks around in a booty short. It is because they have embraced everyone else’s beliefs and are not trying to act judgmental of others like we do back here. They have also grasped the concept that how a woman dresses is not because of the male gender but for herself. They also know that if they harass her, they will get into trouble with the law because the law allows for a freedom of dress and expression.
As an African female, i just feel that girls growing up in our society should be taught to do certain things in a certain way, like dressing appropriately for example, for themselves and not because the men cannot be trusted in the presence of an indecently dressed woman. If the girl deviates in adulthood from what was initially taught to her, then that is up to her and not to anyone else. We teach our girls to fear men instead of understanding how men are and that is why some end up getting pregnant in teenage hood because what they know is that all men are after one thing. So she gave in, unfortunately got pregnant and she blames herself for giving in while knowing how men can be dangerous. I mean, what does a teenage boy know? He’s no different from a teenage girl. Wired differently yes, but still a teenager. What this girl should have been told is that with raging hormones, sex can be inevitable at times and therefore she needs to consider her dreams and goals in life first before she decides to give in to sex. We teach women to fear their sexuality instead of embracing it and protecting it for their own self-respect. No wonder some will ask, what is the point in covering up because of men? If i dressed the way i wanted with legs showing, cleavage showing, what will happen? What will the men do? And the men know how much we fear them and attack that particular sexuality just to further confirm the legibility of that fear to us which ends up confusing us women more.
If you are parenting a girl child, don’t simply tell her that men are dangerous therefore she needs to do this and that to protect herself. Explain to her the difference between men and women and why she needs to respect herself in light of that.