On January 20, hundreds of raging women and girls protested attacks suffered at the hands of men in public markets in the southern African nation of Malawi.  Mobs of men and boys beat and stripped women in markets for wearing trousers or shorts, rather than traditional Malawian dress for women. Protesting the assaults and beatings, women (and just a few men) wore shirts bearing the logo ‘Real men don’t harass women’, dancing and chanting to the music of the Bob Marley favourite ‘No Woman, No Cry.”

It has been almost two decades since the repeal of ‘indecency in dress’ laws enacted during the government of dictator  Hastings Kamuzu Banda's "indecency in dress" laws were repealed in Malawi. Since then, some Malawian women wear shorts and miniskirts as a visible act of defiance and in favour of freedom. "Some of us have spent our entire life fighting for the freedom of women," Vice President Joyce Banda told the protesters. "It's shocking some men want to take us back to bondage." Vice President Banda has speculated the attacks were the result of economic woes in a country that is currently racked by shortages of fuel and foreign currency. "There is so much suffering that people have decided to vent their frustrations on each other," she told local media.

During President Banda's 1963-1994 dictatorship, women in Malawi were banned from wearing pants and short skirts. Men were barred from wearing long hair. The elder Banda, who lost power in the country's first multiparty election in 1994, died three years later.

"Life President" Banda led Malawi’s independence, but imposed oppressive rule after ousting the British. Banda’s whims were law in the impoverished country.  He was a U.S.-trained physician and former Presbyterian church elder, and was always sombrely attired in a dark suit and Homburg hat.

Strains of nationalism appeared to have stirred the vendors at the markets where women have been attacked recently. Claiming that scanty dress is not truly representative of Malawi, some said it was a sign of loose morals or prostitution. The upset was great enough in the largely rural nation that  President Bingu wa Mutharika spoke on January 19 on state television and radio on the eve of the protest to assure women they were free to wear what they want. The president ordered police to arrest anyone who attacks women wearing pants or miniskirts. Police have made 15 arrests.  "Women who want to wear trousers should do so as you will be protected from thugs, vendors and terrorists," the president said in a local language, Chichewa. "I will not allow anyone to wake up and go on the streets and start undressing women and girls wearing trousers because that is criminal."

Market vendors have been largely blamed for the assaults. A spokesman for the vendors, Innocent Mussa, was booed by the protesters on January 20 who refused him permission to address them. Speaking on behalf of the vendors of Blantyre, the capital city, Mussa told media that  not all of them were involved in the incident in Lilongwe. He said he that women were on a campaign to boycott buying from them. Mussa claimed that the real culprits were hundreds of unemployed youths, who mingle with vendors because they have nothing to do. "I'm ashamed to be associated with the stripping naked of innocent women," he said. "Those were acts of thugs because a true vendor would want to sell his wares to women, he can't be harassing potential customers."

Other African nations, including South Africa, have seen similar attacks and harassment of women. Last year, women and men held "SlutWalks" in South Africa, joining an international campaign against the notion that a woman's appearance can excuse attacks and rapes. Stripping women in public, known as ‘sharking’, has been noted in numerous places in Europe and Japan. These attacks have been recorded in videos and displayed at several websites. 

The Catholic bishops of Malawi deplored the attacks and called for action by the national government.  "The stripping off of women's clothes in Lilongwe and Mzuzu is unbecoming and unacceptable", declared a statement by the Catholic bishops' conference of the landlocked African nation. "There can never be any sufficient and necessary reason for anybody to treat women in such inhumane manner" the statement said.

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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