Columnists Features

Is weather excuse for exposure?

THE hot season has come with its controversial debate on what people should wear in public.
Recently, a member of the Private Taxi and Bus Drivers Association appealed to women and girls not to use the heat as an excuse to wear body-exposing attire that may expose them to harassment.
The driver said bus crews find it difficult to protect such passengers from harassment at stations and bus stops.
Of course it is not me to judge whether his advice was good or not. Harassment of women and girls on the basis of what they are wearing is criminal and should not be condoned in a democratic society like Zambia.
But women and girls should also know their freedoms should not infringe on that of others.
One thing I know is that Zambia is still a largely conservative to semi-liberal society where people are sensitive to what others are wearing.
About three weeks ago, a woman in her 30s or 40s was forced to bolt from a horde of street vendors and street kids on Lusaka’s Chachacha road right in the heart of the capital city in broad daylight.
She was wearing a short and very tight skirt which was making her walking difficult. As she walked along a corridor she kept pulling the helm of the skirt down towards the knees, but it was too short to reach them.
The vendors were heckling her from both sides, rebuking her for pulling the skirt down when she had deliberately worn it to expose the same knees she was now trying to cover.
My own take is that no one has the right to prescribe what another should wear, and that there are laws in Zambia that regulate public appearance.
In fact in our Penal Code, there are such offences as indecent exposure, which set the limits to which individuals can exercise their self-expression and flaunt their anatomies.
However, I would also like to remind women and girls that as they exercise their rights and freedoms there are other people out there who also want to enjoy theirs without being disturbed.
There must be a balance. If in the process of exercising your freedoms and rights you infringe on that of others, they will certainly react, and their reactions could vary.
On Wednesday there was a live programme on QFM radio station and people were phoning in to express their views. The topic was whether or not there must be a dress code for women in the hot season to preserve public decency.
Most complained about women and girls who wear skimpy skirts that do not cover knees and tops that expose their breasts, thighs or backsides.
But I was shocked at the naivety and pretention of some of the women who called in.
One lady, who spoke with a ‘fake’ accent, said dressing is a matter of choice, especially in hot weather like now. She said she is free to wear whatever she is comfortable with, after all Zambia has adopted a lot of western culture.
Another woman tried to defend without success insensitive dressing under the guise of fashion and weather.
She said since we Zambians have copied many things from the west, there is nothing wrong with imitating western style dressing as well.
One man supported her. In fact he was the only one I heard defend indecent or immoral dressing saying it’s a matter of personal choice.
Are you serious, brother? If that is your understanding of freedom, I am afraid it is desperately twisted and needs correcting.
Like any other nation, Zambia operates two sets of laws, which are enforced side by side. There is the written law – the republican Constitution and a whole array of statutes – and the unwritten law, which consists of norms (a set of unwritten but generally accepted and observed rules).
Beyond what is written in the statutes and administered by the modern justice system, there is the unwritten moral code of conduct which is observed as the standard of acceptable behaviour.
The latter law was there even before the British introduced modern law, which is why they retained and allowed the local courts and chiefs’ courts to administer it.
While the written law has set boundaries for the enjoyment of individual freedoms, society has extended these parameters depending on its customs and traditions.
Christianity, with its values, reinforces this moral code of conduct for those who practise it.
There is no written law in Zambia, for example, that bans the exposure of the cleavage between a woman’s breasts. But the unwritten moral code frowns at such exhibition as immoral and disgusting.
It is generally believed that women who dress like that are advertising themselves as cheap sexual commodities.
Equally, there is no law that criminalises the wearing of a top that has the whole world gawking at the bare backside of the woman wearing it, or a dress or skirt that invites every eye to see the colour and shape of a woman’s or girl’s thighs and sacred underwear.
But there is a norm under the unwritten moral code that casts such women or girls in very low esteem. Society will judge the deviants.
If your dressing becomes offensive to members of the public or family, then it has become a social nuisance, a social crime.
Those who are held captive by the fallacy that they are ‘modern’ and are therefore free to dress in any way they like without caring about the feelings of others are living in a world of their, and the sooner they returned to earth the better.
Dressing is a powerful form of non-verbal communication. Whatever you wear, you should know that you are sending a silent message to those who are seeing you.
Different people will respond to your silent statement in varying ways and degrees.
Thinking that no one will and should care about your appearance is sheer naivety.
Every message solicits a response, and you should be prepared to manage the different responses.
Those who do not want other people to react to what they are wearing should dare not venture out but confine themselves to their bedrooms where no one else except, perhaps, their partner will not see them.
Personal freedoms can be exercised and enjoyed only to such extent as they do not trample on that of others.
The English say ‘as you lay your bed, so you must lie on it’. Epo mpelele!

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