Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cameroon's Campaign Against Indecent Dressing: Attraction or Distraction?

*By Tanyi-Mbianyor Samuel Tabi
Barrister Tanyi-Mbianyor  Samuel Tabi
Cameroonians often refer to their country with the saying, rightly or wrongly, that l’mpossible n’est pas Camerounaise!  Whatever this statement may mean, I don’t know but all I know is that it suggests that uniqueness that makes us a people from a country. Unique, we really are. Indeed!

   After the most recent revision of the law organizing elections in Cameroon, it is no more news that we have the highest number of women represented in the different facets of government in elective positions more than ever before. Thanks to the reforms. With this, one would think that Cameroon is in for finally granting women the position they deserve in our society. But elas! The introduction of a dress code for all Cameroonian women is like to say the government took a step ahead and then took nine steps behind.

   Early last week, the government of Cameroon through ten of its ministers, held a press conference in which they introduced a dress code for all women in Cameroon. According to them, women should not wear clothes that tend to show cleavage. The reason they proffered was that dressing in “short skirts” for example could invite men to raping women.

   The message from this is problematic as it fetishes women’s bodies. It reduces women to body parts, -which become objects that need to be “covered”, for women to qualify as well-brought up people of the society. It is my take that this reduction dehumanizes women. They are no longer presented as humans, -full subjects with intellect and will of their own. This type of metonymical representation of women legitimizes patriarchy and makes sexist ideas appear natural and like everyday normalcies.

   Not long after the said press conference, a young Cameroonian woman resident in the UK, Monica Nkele lambasted the government on facebook. Within thirty minutes, her post had had hundreds of hits condemning  government for this action. Like Monica, we Cameroonian men and women should be deeply saddened by the sexism and misogyny that women in our country will be made to suffer as men would police them for owning their bodies. The government’s so called campaign for indecent dressing amongst young women in Cameroon is an indecent campaign which should not only be frowned at but should be rejected out-rightly.

   The question that worries most is that even if our women and young girls are found naked, anywhere, should anybody be raping them? I think the government should look at the root cause of the problem, rather than looking for cosmetic ephemeral solutions where they can never be found. On the contrary, this has the potential of creating more problems for our society. It is not in dispute that rape is a very traumatic experience for the victim. I remember as a young lawyer I once had a rape survivor client who told me that because of that experience, she has never slept with a man. Instead, she said, she tried a woman and has remained a lesbian ever since. From that incident, my client said, she did not know if her sexual preference was being a lesbian or not, but she was happy with what she had (and still has) all the same.

   I am not be this saying that rape turns otherwise heterosexual women into being lesbians, but that it does not only traumatize them but leaves them even more confused. Rape in our country, like in some other African countries is fast becoming a scourge and collectively, we must look for ways of dealing with it, head on. Someone must stop the government of Cameroon from this blame-the-victim approach!

   While commenting about the rape culture in Nigeria recently, a Nigerian blogger and social critic wrote, “…rape culprits are having a field day because the onus of proof lies only on the victims. The victim is the one that must provide the bed sheet that was used to rape her. She must provide her pant and not wash herself before going to the police station and the hospital even when it is sure that there would be delays in getting and presenting the report of medical tests because of the nature of our health facilities. She must not urinate, drink liquids or take any other bodily action as these could threaten her evidence”. The Cameroonian situation is no different. This Nigerian blogger clearly captures the Cameroonian situation as well.

   In Cameroon, the CPDM government seems determined to want to take women (and men) back to the dark ages where native laws and customs made the males chiefs in every domain of life, while their pale female counterparts remained with large disproportionate amounts of power. They do it so well and women are even indoctrinated by male-dominated sexist thinking that they do not only endorse, but they are in the fore fronts to propagate the said ideas. Oh yes! Think of it, in practices like female genital mutilation, which is still prevalent in Manyu Division (where I was born), it is women who circumcise other women and not men circumcising women.

   South African Philosopher and writer, Bert Oliver opined that, “ the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray amongst women is quite understandable” because of this kind of macho-dominated indoctrination of even well-placed women in society that they the women in turn now endorse and impose the ideas (sadly) on themselves and their fellow women. Oliver argues that, women are socialized into adopting patriarchal subjectivities, despite their more holistic approach to things. Haven been immersed in a patriarchal value system since childhood, Bert Oliver further adumbrates that women have assimilated the patriarchal myth, that “women are born by nature submissive,” and all it entails sexually. Does it therefor doubt anyone that in a press conference organized by the Cameroon government to launch the so called campaign against indecent dressing amongst Cameroonian girls and young women, there were ten members of government present, but the only two women, Minister for Women Affairs and Empowerment of the Family, Marie Theres Abena Ondua and the Minister for Arts and Culture, Amma Tutu Muna, were the main leaders? This is truly sad.

   Even more sad is that we Cameroonians being as docile as we are, we are wont to letting our government get away with such arrant violations of (our) women’s rights. See the uniqueness in Cameroonians now?

SlutWalk is a world-wide movement that advocates for the rights of women. It started when at a Safety forum held at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto on January 24th 2011, a Police Constable, Michael Sanguinetti, said, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. That throwaway remark sparked the global movement. As a result, a group of women led by a Guelph University student, Heather Jarvis, decided to embrace the word “slut” and remind the world that victims of gender-based violence are not to blame.

   According to Jarvis, “the choice to use the word SLUT in the name of the walk was twofold: firstly it comes from the police officer’s comments and secondly, it’s time women reclaimed the word. If slut is thrown around at so many people day in, day out … fine, we will take it and take it to mean someone who is in control of their own sexuality”.

  The word slut in the name of the walk put many people off but Sarah Britten (a feminist I met in Johannesburg early this year during SlutWalk South Africa) said she liked the way SlutWalk has taken something intended to downgrade and marginalize women and turned it into something empowering.

   It is quite an intriguing venture to be a male feminist but I think that we can change the sexism which is now endemic in our culture if we get more men to internalize more enlightened attitudes and pressure other men into adopting them too. If we want to make real change in the ongoing problem of sexism and misogynist violence, the government has to step up and address the real issues, instead of chasing the shadow, while the real monster is left to knaw our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, nieces, daughters, wives, friends and girlfriends. We have to address even every day modes of speech that normalizes sexist ideas about women.

   As a people and society, we need to engage in serious debates about the ways in which even language operates outside of ideologies and relations of power. Statements like, “behind every successful man, there is a woman”, should be discouraged and deleted from our everyday vocabulary. Truly the so called National Campaign Against Indecent Dressing by Cameroonian Women is a big distraction from the real issues that plague us, it is by no means an attraction.
   In fact, it is my take that this is a calculated move by the government to dissuade Cameroonians from the many problems of a failed government that for thirty-one years, has left people only impoverished to the point where our country has become one of twenty millionaires and twenty million people. Pity. Or is it time for SlutWalk Cameroon?

*TANYI-MBIANYOR SAMUEL TABI is a Cameroonian legal practitioner. He read law in Yaounde and Toronto. He is presently completing a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Terrorism, Peace and Mediation from the University of Walden.


Cynthia Nfor said...

God bless you. You have said it all. My question still stands. What is the definition of indecent dressing? What criteria is been used to detect an indecent dressed individual? Are we saying only girls dress indecently?.

Abiinwi Numfor Christine said...

I took my time to go through your article and I think it has addressed all my worries too. Thank you for standing up for us, for our country Cameroon.

Zo Fem said...

Great Article Tanyi. How great that I am just coming across your article today after months of intense research and online search for persons and entities working on or interested on the Cameroon dress code policing. Even before the socalled 'dress code ' policy, my organisation has started work on this issue...which you can follow on facebook under the harstag #endpolicestreetharassment #dresscode. Link:

Thanks for speaking out so loud against this issue.

In solidarity

twitter: @ZoFem