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Swaziland: Women Rise For A Culture of Equal Rights

Alleged ban of miniskirts raises issues about the policing of Swaziland women's bodies and the failure of many governments to address equal rights.


When the Swazi Times ran the front page story “Miniskirts Illegal” one week after a medical student was gang-raped in New Delhi, India, the Southern African publication did more than add to its archive of absurd headlines. The Times of Swaziland is known to publish sensationalist stories (one of which recently resulted in understandable outrage and an online petition against the newspaper).

Local news of the alleged ban of miniskirts in Swaziland exploded on global media sites such as the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Indian Express. The story of the control and patriarchal policing of women’s bodies gained more cultural currency during the global coverage of the protests against gender violence in India.

The notion of Swazi police arresting women for wearing miniskirts while the law turns a blind eye to scantily clad women in traditional attire is significant beyond the implied double standards. The supposed “ban” began when a 1989 law was conveniently enforced after the recently launched Swaziland Young Women’s Network walked the streets of Manzini to protest the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Police in Swaziland reportedly blocked the march against sexual harassment based on the fact that some members of the women’s network wore miniskirts. The irony of a government halting a demonstration against gender violence was highlighted a continent away, by an Indian protestor’s placard that stated, “You can get raped but not protest against rape.” These are not isolated events. They are connected by invisible threads of patriarchal politics.

A week after young women marched in Swaziland, Wendy Hleta, a Royal Swaziland Police Force spokesperson explained why women should be arrested for wearing miniskirts. In her statement to the Swazi press, Hleta perpetuated the myth that women provoke rape by wearing “revealing” clothes. Hleta said, “The act of a rapist is made easy, because it would be easy to remove the half-cloth worn by the women.” The media brought international attention to her sexist statement, which may have influenced a government spokesperson to later deny the existence of a miniskirt ban.

The language that Wendy Hleta used to speak about rape breeds the preposterous idea that victims are responsible for the crimes of perpetrators. This wrongfully legitimizes victim-blaming women who experience acts of violence. The fact that a woman in public office perpetuated this myth shows that patriarchy does not discriminate - a culture of rape can be accepted by individuals regardless of their sex.

This type of troubling discourse is not limited to “developing” nations such as Swaziland or India. In the USA, Todd Akin used the expression “legitimate rape,” which received a powerful response from Eve Ensler, a rape survivor and author of the Vagina Monologues. The ongoing debate about the correctness of the concept of “legitimate rape” is still making headline news. Behind the discourse, the often unseen and unmentioned war against women’s bodies continues.

A week after the peaceful protests for gender justice in India, another student was gang-raped in Pretoria, South Africa. The latter created no more fuss than a newspaper headline. Two weeks ago, a group of boys allegedly raped a girl in Ohio. This weekend, another gang rape reportedly took place on a bus in India. When will the women who experience reoccurring violence be seen as more than simple statistics? When will we stop allowing a global culture of rape to continue?

At a local level, some women in Swaziland have decided to arise for their rights. Cynthia Simelane, a Swazi activist has said, “It is a scandal how the authorities refuse to take women seriously when we are holding the country together.” Simelane addressed the misconception that by striving for equality, women’s advocacy groups in Swaziland are breaking from cultural norms. She explained that Swazi women have a long tradition of “organizing” within their traditional regiments. In this way, she unsettles the idea that there is a duality between traditional Swazi values and Western concepts of gender justice.

At a global level, Eve Ensler is calling on men and women to stand against gender violence on 14 February through her campaign One Billion Rising. Ensler has travelled from the United States to Bukavu in the DRC and New Delhi, India. She has addressed the women of Zimbabwe and she is calling on more to join her campaign. Already, people from 182 countries have committed to rise on Valentine’s Day this year. If the momentum continues, perhaps “Amaanat” did not die in vain. Perhaps women in Swaziland will be free to rise, whether they wear miniskirts or not. Perhaps these moments of resistance against gender violence are taking us closer to some semblance of equality for all.

Story by OKA Contributor: Mona Hakimi

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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

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Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

***

"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


***

This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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