Is your dress really your choice?

Friday March 3 2017

Various women activists demonstrating along

Various women activists demonstrating along Kimathi Street in Nairobi on November 17, 2104 against women harassment demanding arrest of men who stripped naked a female over what they termed as indecent dressing, under their slogan #MyDressMyChoice, they presented their petition to Inspector General David Kimaiyo and Chief Justice Willy Mutunga. PHOTO| BILLY MUTAI  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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On the November 17, 2014, Kenyan women took to the streets to protest the brutal stripping by Embassava matatu touts of women deemed to have been dressed indecently. For the next few days, the hash tag ‘#mydressmychoice’ trended worldwide. But while it made waves across the oceans and elicited worldwide support for Kenyan women, did the movement actually change anything for us in the months and years following?

Numbers that tell tales


The Gender Inequality Index (GII) is a number used by the United Nations Development Programme to measure a country’s gender equality. It measures reproductive health, empowerment and labour market participation between men and women. This index then determines how progressive a country is – in other words, the smaller the gap between men and women, the more developed that country is. There is currently no country in the world with the perfect GII score, which is 0.00 (ie, ‘zero’ gender gap).




The current global GII is 0.449 (only a fraction up from 0.429 five years ago). This means that the world is experiencing a 44.9 per cent loss in human development due to gender inequality.


Where is Kenya?


Out of 155 According to UNDP’s 2015 report, Kenya comes in at number 126 of 155 countries, with a score of 0.552 (four place up from number 130 at 0.627 in 2011).


Who’s the lowest?


Slovenia is at the top with a GII of 0.016, while Yemen ranks last at 0.744. Kenya is ranked with Yemen in the Low Human Development group.

I asked 10 women in Nairobi if they feel comfortable dressing as they please today. Two and a half years after the My Dress My Choice campaign, seven of them still replied that they would dress for where they are going. “If I am going to the city centre I wear jeans because men in town, especially the matatu people are likely to harass you,” says 32-year-old Gladys, who lives in Mountain View. “But if I’m staying in the suburbs, I feel more comfortable wearing a short dress or shorts.”

The modern woman’s wardrobe dilemma

Jean Kariuki agrees with Gladys, “If I’m driving I’ll wear what I want, as skimpy as it is, but if I am using a matatu, I feel more of a need to cover up. I have never been threatened with a stripping, but even the lewd cat calls you get from men are worrying. I don’t feel safe.”

Men are not any more educated than they were two years ago, either. I meet James* in an upmarket coffee house in Nairobi, and he tells me: “You feminists contradict yourselves. So you don’t want to be objectified by men and then you turn around and rally behind Beyonce – this hyper-sexualised (pop star) – and say she is a strong woman who represents freedom.”


When I ask him his opinion on stripping women who are ‘inappropriately dressed’, he says, “It’s like a man going into a high crime area at night and flashing some cash. Obviously he will get some predatory attention. It does not make sense that women must be allowed to dress (and behave) as provocatively as they wish while men are expected not to be provoked – not to objectify.”

It doesn’t end there. Men in positions of authority and influence still see it fit to denigrate women simply because they are women. Outspoken Mbita MP Milly Odhiambo is on record as stating, in the National Assembly, “I got threatened that I am going to be stripped (sic) because I have a different opinion on political issues with some people.”

On November 16, 2016, two Nairobi gubernatorial contestants, Miguna Miguna and Esther Passaris, appeared on the Jeff Koinange Show for a live debate. Besides Miguna calling his female counterpart ‘a socialite bimbo’, he made comments that brought the show to the end of its run on that particular television station. “You are so beautiful, everybody wants to rape you,” he said.

Kenyans on Twitter went into overdrive, starting the hash tag #MigunaRespectWomen. Many women of note spoke up in Passaris’ defence. Veteran politician Martha Karua tweets “The crude attacks on Esther Passaris are unacceptable and an insult to all women, more so by an aspiring leader.”

The attacks took on a new dimension a few days later when Passaris wore a black sheer-panelled dress to a beauty pageant show, and the dress appeared to show the expanse of her thighs. One Twitter commentator posted: “Her mode of dressing is alarming. Why behave like a teenage girl?” Passaris replies “My great grandmother walked with less than I do. So did Eve. No apologies to make”. A string of replies to Passaris carry the words ‘Bimbo’, ‘…spreading your womanhood’, ‘…dresses like she’s in a brothel’, ‘My dress my choice makes some people walk half naked’, ‘As much as we condemn Miguna, let our women carry themselves in an unquestionable manner’.


The moral (ity) of the western story

Passaris is right. A few short centuries ago, being excessively covered up was considered a sin – and then colonialisation happened. In the book Facing Mount Kenya, the late president Jomo Kenyatta wrote: “There is great tendency among the young men to adopt the system of wearing European clothes (which in this case means full-body clothing as opposed to the African dress which covers the genitals and for adult women, the breasts). The only system of the population which is not so much affected is the women. They look upon European dress as form of ugliness and as a screen to hide deformities. Some will not entertain the idea of having a son-in-law who has adopted the European clothes unless he undresses before a witness.” 

Even after colonisation and the spread of religion, Kenyan women’s dress codes were not dictated as strictly as they are now. Everyone with a mother or an aunt who was in her youth in the 60s will undoubtedly have a collection of pictures of her in the shortest miniskirts.

However, as much as we would like to call ourselves progressive, it would seem that we have actually retrogressed when it comes to women and their wardrobe.


Three years after Kenyan women created a global movement, the discussion among the Kenyan genders is yet to reach a rallying point. The My Dress My Choice YouTube channel is an interesting snapshot of how we, as a society, feel about women and their dress. Comments on one of their videos', posted as recently as January 2017, prove it. “Ugly b*&%#. Can’t even awaken my d*&^,” says one Maina Chege. “Dress up and you will earn respect.”

 “All these women are mistaken,” says Jon Kihoro, “If they (dress) like that in some lanes of Nairobi they will be breaking news. This is Africa and they know they are causing bad attention and they have to mind men and general public feelings. If they are tired of wearing good clothes then they (should) walk completely naked as in days before civilization. Just wear smart and you will comfortably walk to your daily duties.”

The one question that no one will answer is this: What does ‘decent’ mean to all of us? Is ‘decent’ in Dubai the same as ‘decent’ in Malindi? The day after the My Dress My Choice march in Nairobi, female parliamentarian Cecily Mbarire addressed the National Assembly and said, “I have had many men, including some members of this house, who are saying it is wrong to strip but you ladies must dress decently. And I ask, who defines decent?” Indeed, who defines decent?