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Against Cultural ConservatismBy David Julian Wightman on 27 May 2017
Cultural conservatism is once again rearing its ugly head in Zambia, in strange and somewhat contradictory ways.
First there was that bizarre bit of news, which we later heard was fake, where Zambia Police spokeswoman Esther Katongo was accused of issued a statement that police will start arresting any members of the public found to be indecently dressed. The statement was labeled a fake, essentially an April Fools joke, though nothing has been heard on the punchline.
Then a week later, Joseph Mwenda’s in-depth interview with the Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs had the minister claiming that foreign visitors should be able to see that Zambia is a Christian nation and “respectable” by judging “how decent the women look, the way they talk…” Ummm, excuse me, Honorable?!
More recently and again on the News Diggers website, we read a response to Minister Godfridah Sumaili in which the number one priority of the author is to decry the “skimpy dress code” in Lusaka. “Today those of us that are old fear going into town and streets alike because of the nudity we are exposed to,” claims “Muntu ushiya” (honestly, I’m not making this up, click this hyperlink to see for yourself).
As someone a bit “older” who goes to town and walks the streets often, I can tell you the things to fear most are exhaust fumes and congestion, drunken louts bingeing on illicit alcohol, and traffic police on the lookout for lunch. The last thing anyone has to fear is a girl in a miniskirt.
In fact, the idea that we should police other people’s clothing, condemn them, and even assault fellow citizens whose style of dress we disagree with is not only morally wrong, it’s also ironically an attitude that is deeply colonial. Worse, cultural conservatism if widely unleashed has the potential to drag this country toward authoritarianism. And we don’t want that, do we?
Make no mistake about it: cultural conservatism should be understood, critiqued, and rubbished by all well-meaning Zambians. Luckily we have an historical precedence for challenging such dictatorial attitudes.
In April 1969 the extraordinary technocrat, statesman, and visionary, Valentine Musakanya,* wrote a memo to then-President Kenneth Kaunda, entitled “Memorandum on the Dangers of Cultural Conservatism”. An excerpt of this private memo was reprinted in The Musakanya Papers, truly a must-read for anyone looking for an alternative to the “sanitised” official history of post-Independence taught in Zambia’s schools.
Musakanya took issue with the notion that government should restrict how its citizens dress, and particularly challenged the violent public stripping of young women in miniskirts:
“Those who desire that as a public policy that our national dress comes down to the knees or ankles are unfortunately looking at us through the eyes of the colonial era… On their arrival the colonisers and missionaries found our nudity incompatible with their trade and contrary to the religious doctrines preached by the missionaries. Accordingly, they dispensed calico either freely or for little labour… As time went on, we copied and accepted the Bwana’s dress.”
The period of history described by Musakanya is only a few decades ago, at most 100 years and in some cases still in the living memory of some elders. Yet we seem to have lost any semblance of understanding of what Zambia was like before Europeans. Regrettably, those who chose to see our nation through the “eyes of the colonial era” will fail to aid in the development of Zambia, and can even hinder such progress.
“To pronounce that our cultural heritage before colonial invasion was absolutely glorious is not only a sign of ignorance of human history but [also a] public deception which, if successful, could set the nation on the path of irredeemable stagnation,” Musakanya warned all those years ago.
“[Cultural conservatives] assert that the ‘mini-skirts’ are indecent, violate African culture, and Zambian modesty and sense of values. What is our customary and cultural modesty as regards dress? The truth is that even in my lifetime I have seen my grandmother and her sisters virtually in the nude without this state raising the slightest eye-brow.”
This re-writing of history and cultural norms has profoundly negative implications for the development and social welfare of our nation. To quote Musakanya again:
“My thesis is that cultural conservatism is in inverse proportion to economic and technological development; the more culturally intolerant a nation is, the less capable it is to advance.”
This point is demonstrably true. Even a cursory look at the world’s most and least developed countries proves that those at the top are the most free and accommodating when it comes to religious and social tolerance, while those at the bottom are so intolerant as to be extremist theocracies. If Zambia wants to be a prosperous middle-income nation, clearly we cannot afford to slip into cultural authoritarianism.
In Musakanya’s time and ours, there have been countless women beaten and stripped for wearing “indecent” clothing. The perpetrators of these violent assaults are hysterical men who in their attitude and behaviour are indistinguishable from the “moral guardians” of ISIS who attack people on the streets of the territories they control.
Furthermore, any political figures or officials who condemn “indecent” dress are signaling to those same vigilantes types and should be held culpable in courts of law for any assaults committed by the thugs they enable.
Simply put, the State has no business criticising citizens for how they dress, particularly in this globalized world. Sumptuary laws and the policing of dress codes have no place in modern society, and any incidents of public stripping should be treated as a serious assault not only on the victim but also on our civilization at large.
For those who claim that Chiluba’s “Christian Declaration” gives permission to such conservatism, ask yourself: What would Jesus do if he saw a young woman being stripped of her clothes at Kulima Tower by a gang of thugs? Would he join in the condemnation? What about you, would you throw the first stone?
There is no question that Zambia is a Christian-majority country, however, we should all refuse to accept our nation sliding into a “Christian caliphate” based on the whims or dictates of the State.
* If you have not heard of Valentine Musakanya or have not read his memoirs, the Musakanya Papers, go out and buy yourself a copy. He is without a doubt the most extraordinary Zambian of all time, IMHO.
About David Julian Wightman
David Julian Wightman is a Zambian-Canadian journalist and human rights activist.
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