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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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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

And that's what inspired us in the curation of this year's list. Our honorees use various mediums to get the job done—DJ's, fashion designers, historians, anthropologists, and even venture capitalists—but each with the mission to clear the road ahead for generations to come. Incredible African women like Eden Ghebreselassie, a marketing lead at ESPN who created a non-profit to fight energy poverty in Eritrea; or Baratang Miya, who is quite literally building technology clubs for disadvantaged youth in South Africa.

There are the builds that aren't physically tangible—movements that inspire women to show up confidently in their skin, like Enam Asiama's quest to normalize plus-sized bodies and Frédérique (Freddie) Harrel's push for Black and African women to embrace the kink and curl of their hair.

And then there are those who use their words to build power, to take control of the narrative, and to usher in true inclusion and equity. Journalists, (sisters Nikki and Lola Ogunnaike), a novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite), a media maven (Yolisa Phahle), and a number of historians (Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Leïla Sy) to name a few.

In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

100 women 2020

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The story revolves around the lives of three young friends from different socio-economic backgrounds, with completely varied attitudes towards life, but bound by a deep friendship. There is Asma, the conservative academic genius who dreams of going to medical school and hails from a modest family. Hibo, a rebellious, liberal, spoiled girl from a very wealthy family who learns to be a better friend as the film evolves and finally Deka. Deka is the binding force in the friendship, a brilliant though sometimes naïve teen who finds herself torn between her divorced mother's ambitions to give her a better life having saved up all her life for her to go to university abroad, and her own conviction that she wants to study and succeed in her own country.

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