As we walked down a street in Grahamstown recently after a long day of learning about the fundamentals of social accountability, I observed my companion tracking the women around us on campus with his eyes. They were flaunting carefully selected fashion-conscious outfits. Bountiful pear shapes were hugged by skinny jeans and stretchy colour-block dresses that swished to the rhythm of their gait. There really are few things more delightful than the sight of a woman flouncing about in an outfit that makes her glow with confidence.
“No wonder the rate of rape is so high in this country,” he said. Just like that, my bubble of enjoyment burst. My own invisible blanket of security shriveled in the cool, sunny air. Danger lurked everywhere and male menace strode right next to me, ruining a pleasant stroll. What had just happened?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the politics of hair for women of African descent. There are basic conventions to follow. Every morning as I wrestle my fierce afro into submission with the help of coconut oil and a Black Power metal-toothed comb, there is no confusion in my mind as to what it will communicate to the world at large. But when it comes to selecting an outfit, I find the social calculations harder to make. The fact that nudity is not an option is vexing enough. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations can give me conniptions.
Every day I face the gauntlet of choices about depilating and deodorising and re-odourising and taming my natural curves. Absolutely no detection of my menstrual cycle is allowed in public, hence a battery of products to manage the regular shedding of my uterus lining. Restrictive garments for the bits that move when left loose, and outer garments to conceal whichever parts of me are out of public favor. Shoes heightened to tilt my hips back and thrust my bra-shaped tits forward – often paired with items that, confusingly enough, help me maintain the requisite amount of sexual aloofness. We haven’t even talked accessories yet.
And woe betide me if I get the balance wrong. If my skirt is too short for the social gathering it will say the wrong things about my sexual mores, and if it is too long it will still say the wrong things about my sexual mores. How long a hem does a girl need to attract the attentions of the right kind of guy? Is it three-inch heels for “I’m ready to settle down in a spiritual union if you are” and nine-inch heels for “bring the whiskey, I’ve got the handcuffs and we can take turns playing the naughty police officer”? Or is it other way around? I forget.
But most importantly: what’s the rape signal, exactly? Because I would hate to send a “please attack me, traumatise me, and destroy a part of my soul” signal by mistake when I only meant to say “it’s a little hot today”. Maybe I should have asked my companion on our walk. The weight of male irresponsibility that women’s garments are made to bear is heinous, and it is depressing how the threat of sexual violence is used to enforce the rather restrictive concept of female respectability.
Since I choose to believe that the roots of this “respectability” business are firmly planted in patriarchal fears of the sacred feminine, among other things, I put some effort into avoiding its strictures. My home, Dar-es-Salaam, is cosmopolitan, the beneficiary of centuries of cultural intercourse, and it shows in the range of ways residents choose to dress. There is plenty of secular space to work in, even if we have to make allowances for our Muslim sensibility and our Bantu Christian conservatism.
The default rule in the performance of respectability is that the more you cover, the higher you score. In a city where the humidity rarely drops below sticky and the heat ranges between miserable and suffocating, one must employ a little sense when selecting a daily outfit. It can be hard not to resent the shirtless men cooling off their skin whenever they please, but since most of them work in physically demanding jobs there are visual compensations.
Years of navigating and negotiating Dar’s particular combination of expectations has taught me that it comes down to the nuances of a given environment or, more specifically, the weight that is accorded to the male gaze, even in women-only spaces. Not enough ink has been spilled over the politics of dress for women of African descent, at least none that avoids the profit-seeking of the fashion industry on one hand and the sexists on the other. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations might be challenging, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the political aspect of it.
There are benefits to mastery, the primary one being physical safety. I like to think that I have become a seasoned politician in this arena. Although a nudity-embracing society remains the unattainable ideal, I do enjoy a wardrobe that includes neck-to-feet gowns, plunging necklines and a little red string bikini that I am rather fond of – all without incident so far. For the most part all is well with the world except for those times when I stray outside the familiar, and a handy chauvinist reminds me that the lines of propriety have shifted, giving me the horrors in pretty little Grahamstown.