According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 7th edition, “indecent” means showing that part of the body that is usually covered. Thus, “indecent dressing” is a dressing that exposes some parts of the body that ought to be covered by clothing.
Every country formulates laws that guide the smooth and orderly functioning of their society. In formulating or legislating laws in any society, the difficulty has always arisen as to whether the government or legislating authority has the power to legislate on issues that should be considered within the personal or private realm of the individual. The general question here is that, can the government or legislating authority legislate on issues individuals consider as private or personal. One of such issues is the issue of dressing. There has been a major controversy over the issue of indecent dressing across the globe. Some see the laws against indecent dressing as the violation of human rights especially the rights of women because the issue of indecent dressing centers mostly on the female gender. The law against indecent dressing has been welcomed by some and kicked against by others, which has been a major source of controversy around the world.
Countries and institutions have taken measures to curb indecent dressing; many countries in South East Asia and the Middle East like Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Syria and many more have laws against indecent dressing. Institutions like schools, places of worship, have regulations guarding against indecent dressing. The question that comes to mind is, what constitutes indecent dressing or how can one define indecent dressing, is there any universal agreement on what indecent dressing is? This depends largely on ones orientation and religion. For example in Malaysia, Muslim women are to cover up to their ankle and non Muslims should dress decently. The law in Malaysia is very intolerant of women dressed indecently and such women will be fined when caught. The issue here with respect to the Malaysian position is what constitutes indecent dressing in the case of non Muslim women?
In Nigeria, the Lagos State House of Assembly in 2007 passed a law against indecent dressing. The press and the public condemned the massive arrest of girls and women by the police on the streets of Lagos over what was termed as indecent dressing which resulted in victims illegally detained, allegedly raped and their money extorted. The law was eventually scraped.
There was also controversy over a bill that was brought to the floor of the Senate in 2008 on indecent dressing. This bill was presented by Senator Eme Ufot Ekaete the committee chairperson on women and youths titled “An Act to Prohibit and Punish Public Nudity, Sexual Intimidation, and Related Offences” carrying a jail term of six months. This bill drew a lot of comments from Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), many pressure groups and Nigerians that were out to shoot down the bill. The Senator spoke to the press, noting that indecent dressing among Nigerians has continued to promote all manner of vices in the society; she claimed that the bill she was proposing would address indecency and immorality and she aims to preserve cultural norms and values.
The Nigerian Feminist Forum was concerned that the chairperson of such an important committee in the Senate was trivializing women’s concerns and issues by laying emphasis on a dress code while ignoring critical and life threatening issues affecting women which need urgent and immediate attention.
Nigeria has one of the highest infant mortality rates and the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world. With limited and unaffordable medical facilities and maternal care service, women are at the receiving end due to the poor attention given to health issues. The rampant issue of rape of infants and the aged as well as other issues of sexual harassment of girls in primary, secondary and university environment, issues of female genital mutilation, violence against women, girl-child marriages and child trafficking, are many of the problems that are associated with women. The Nigerian Feminist Forum also sees the penalty of indecent dressing as a violation of the fundamental human rights of citizens and it is not the most effective way to curb decadence in the country.
It is important to note that culture is relative and what is right in one place can be wrong in another especially in Africa with countries having diverse cultural identities – that is to say indecency has no definite meaning. Also there are other issues of indecency and immorality that our societies face. For example, does indecent dressing make a man of 60 years rape a girl of 8 years or a father rape his daughter or even peace-keeping soldiers rape victims of war? These are all issues of immorality that have nothing to do with indecent dressing but carry more weight and need urgent attention. We should look into existing challenges that girls and women face and things that directly affect their lives in their communities. I believe indecent dressing should not be a major thrust in the law of the land especially in Africa where there are so many problems to be tackled.
The issue of indecent dressing should be addressed in homes, private and faith based institutions. But how can they be addressed in homes when parents buy skimpy and revealing clothes for children their children and some of the churches are not helping these issues too.