The recent media reports that Education Minister Mutula Kilonzo advocated for school girls to wear the skirts they feel comfortable in has elicited a lot of responses, particularly from religious leaders.
The fact that there was a comment by the minister that school girls should not be forced to dress like nuns is unfortunate, but I think the whole matter has been blown out of proportion.
As a country, we are definitely faced with much more serious issues especially facing the girl-child than the length of a skirt, which should be the least of our concerns.
What concerns me most, however, is the issue of linking the length of a woman’s skirt with morality and African traditions.
All those commenting about morality and traditions need to know that in the real African culture — or at least in most of the Kenyan cultures that I am familiar with, girls never wore any clothes.
They only had a small piece of skin that covered the private parts. Dressing as we know it today, particularly in the form of a school uniform, is a very foreign practice.
Surprisingly, many of those who introduced uniforms to our continent no longer wear them in their own countries. This is what I find most ironic, when we decide to defend practices as African, yet they are completely foreign.
There is nothing African or Kenyan about long skirts in the name of school uniforms.
Culture changes and it is different from place to place. Some years back, I used to facilitate training at the Kakuma refugee camp, at a time when banditry attacks were quite common.
I recall being advised by colleagues there that for my own safety, I should always travel in trousers but not in skirts because in case of an ambush, the bandits would not rape a woman in trousers.
To them, a woman in trousers would be a prostitute and in their wisdom, they would rather rape a decent woman than one they consider of loose morals. In that case, being in a skirt, whether long or short, was a security risk.
Of interest is the fact that women’s dressing always seems to elicit a lot of interest, particularly from men. We hardly have women discussing how men wear their clothes or even how they look.
The claims that the way a woman dresses can be the reason for sexual abuse always makes me very angry. Blaming a woman’s dressing only helps to make men appear completely out of control and all they can do when they see a woman’s body is to violate her.
We all know that there are still many communities where dressing is still foreign, yet these are not the places with the highest incidence of sex abuse of women and girls.
The nun’s habit that the priests are supporting has been an issue of much debate even within convents, resulting in several nuns’ congregations allowing their members to wear clothes of their choice rather than be in uniform.
One thing that has always bothered me is why it is the nuns who have to walk around in uniform while the priests (the ones complaining) are not required to wear uniform apart from a collar, which they wear only when they wish to.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that some congregations have done away with the habit altogether since an individual’s morality cannot be judged by the length of the dress they wear.
Dressing, like any other cultural and trait, is dynamic, and what may have been acceptable in years gone by may be unacceptable today.
I get very amused when I see my mother’s teenage photos. She appears almost naked — yet that was quite acceptable in the age of miniskirts, and it did not make her any less morally upright than she is now.
The point I am trying to make is that dressing has been used as a way of controlling women and when they do not follow the rules of the game, they are either accused of provoking men into raping them, or being of loose morals.
If dressing had anything to do with morality then many African communities who wear nothing would have the worst morals and the rates of rape in those areas would be highest. But that is far from the truth.
It is rather in those churches where the loudest noise is coming from where we have had documented cases of all sorts of sexual abuse, especially of children.
Prof Kamau is a consultant on gender (email@example.com).