Women’s Rights Get a Dressing Down: Mini Skirt Attacks in South Africa

By Louise Vincent.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Roland Barthes pointed out that dress is serious and frivolous at the same time. Dress codes, fashions and conventions have the ability to express individuality and difference at the same time as normalising and reproducing dominant mores. Through dress dominant constructs of masculinity and femininity are confirmed or questioned, enacted or subverted. Choices about clothing, then, act as a meeting point for relations of power, be they of gender, class, race or sexuality.In fashion we find not only fictions of the self but also fictions of a more social kind – of national identity and political selfhood.

In July 2007 a woman in Umlazi township near Durban, who was wearing trousers while hanging out her washing, was stripped naked and her shack burnt down. This followed a demand by men in the area that all women wear skirts or dresses. In Feburary 2008 a woman travelling from her Soweto home was set upon by taxi operators. They stripped her, doused her in alcohol and sexually assaulted her as ‘punishment’ for what they said was her indecent dress. She was but the latest victim of what is a common practice. This paper examines ways in which these incidents might be read as moments in a contestation of gender power relations that is taking place in South Africa’s democratic order. In particular the paper is concerned with how appeals to the putative authenticity of ‘African culture’ which needs to be preserved in the face of an onslaught of foreign ways are used as a mechanism for the legitimisation of violence against women and for reinvigorating the argument for women’s continued subordination.

Keywords: Women, South Africa, Culture, Fashion, Sexual Harassment

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 6, Issue 6, pp.11-18. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 536.505KB).

Prof. Louise Vincent

Acting Deputy Dean and Professor of Politics, Faculty of Humanities and Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa

I was educated in South Africa and at Oxford University in the United Kingdom where I read for the M.Phil. (Political Studies) and D.Phil. degrees. On returning to South Africa I took up a lectureship at Rhodes University where I have worked for the last 13 years. I have published widely on the subjects of women in representative politics and the politics of the body including recent articles on traditional male circumcision and on virginity testing in South Africa. I teach at both the undergraduate (political philosophy) and postgraduate levels (methodology; body politics).

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