The year is 2017 and in Sierra Leone, a government body has finally issued a public statement decrying the outrageous pattern of security personnel at government buildings who are in the habit of humiliating women in the name of regulating the dress code.
Last year, a female relative came to visit. She has lived in the UK for several years and often jokes about how she escaped Sierra Leone, because of how poorly she feels our society treats women. As it turned out during her visit, she sadly learned not much had really changed. During her visit, she needed to urgently visit a certain Ministry to obtain important travel documents. She had dressed very smartly that morning to go to the Ministry, in a business professional dress suit.
However, she came back home in shock. What happened? Her dress was inappropriate and they (security guards) had not allowed her to enter the building. Why? The dress was sleeveless and her arms were exposed. This was deemed indecent by the personnel, so she was not allowed to enter the building to obtain her documents.
We laughed it off, and tried to see it as one of those Sierra Leone moments that was just another daily trial to overcome. We offered her a scarf to wrap around her shoulders the next day, as the only blouses with sleeves she had were a bit too casual. The next day, off she went, with another dress suit, and a beautiful pink scarf around her shoulders.
She came back this time, greatly incensed. What happened again? The scarf was too thin, and the security personnel claimed they could still see her exposed arms. In fact, the security personnel had also instructed her to go and purchase cotton lappa at the market to wrap it properly around her shoulders, before she could be allowed inside the Ministry.
And this is just one story. There are several cases of such humiliation and it has been written about and pleaded upon. Of course, there has to be a certain dress standard to abide by when entering certain spaces. However, I fail to see how women wearing pants and who expose their arms and knees are offensive and indecent, and are therefore deserving of being shamed. Such shaming, in the name of dress code regulation, is very unfair, unnecessary, and strips women of the little dignity we have fought to claim and continue to fight every day to hold on to.
The judiciary of Sierra Leone has taken the first step in ending this degrading behavior and it is my hope that other institutions will follow. Let’s make up our minds, as a nation, to treat women better and with more respect. See below their recent public notice on the dress code:
By Ngozi Monica Cole, Freetown