Policing Women's Garb From L.A. to Namibia

Whether it's a Grammys dress code or banned miniskirts in Africa, the madness has to stop.

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Rihanna at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- With all that is going on in the world, one would think that what women are wearing would be of the least concern. We're still dealing with a troubled economy, an obstructionist government, worldwide police brutality (the recent dragging death of a Mozambican taxi driver in South Africa) and so-called adults calling children out of their name under the guise of humor. With all the madness in the world, why is it that we continue to be fixated on what women wear?

In December 2012, 40 girls were arrested for wearing miniskirts in Rundu, Namibia. The outcry over the incident was exacerbated by Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga's proclamation that women wearing miniskirts would continue to be subject to arrest because "alluring dress provokes rape" and is "un-African."

It appears that the inspector general hasn't taken a women's studies course or been paying attention to the global anti-slut-shaming movement -- a title I happen to loathe, but I completely understand the movement. Adult women should be able to wear clothing that suits them without fear of being sexually assaulted by men.

Ndeitunga's cluelessness might get a pass, except that we have known for decades now that rape is about power and violence, not clothing. If someone is intent on raping another person -- male or female, I might add -- then he needs no provocation whatsoever, particularly in the form of dress.

In a recent January 2013 crime report on rape in Windhoek (the capital city of Namibia), the victims included a 28-year-old woman who was raped after being tricked into helping move furniture into a building; a 24-year-old woman who was raped when using the restroom; an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old girl who were forced into marriage to an elder, a case of statutory rape; and a woman whose husband raped her after she declined to have sex with him. There were nine reports in all, and a miniskirt was not mentioned in any of them. As recently as last week, a 7-year-old boy was allegedly raped by a 23-year-old man. The assertion that miniskirts provoke rape is a false one.

The idea that men constantly police women's bodies -- pun intended -- is very real. One has only to look at the United States -- specifically in Los Angeles, where CBS issued a decency dress code for the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. Basically, the network was against problematic displays of flesh "under the curves of the buttocks" or the "under-curvature of the breasts," as well as "thong-type costumes." The examples given of inappropriate attire ranged from Jennifer Lopez's 2000 green dress with a plunging neckline to Toni Braxton's white-hot 2001 gown, which looked as if it was being held together by a piece of tape, and Rihanna's 2011 Jean Paul Gaultier sheer outfit.

The Grammys and CBS have the audacity to focus on how women dress in terms of decency while remaining silent about song lyrics, many of which are completely indecent. How can you feel comfortable calling out women for dressing "indecently" but reward musical artists who have deplorable lyrics, music videos and style? Women have to cover up, but performing with your ass hanging out and in pajama pants falls within the definition of decency, and songs that call women everything but a child of God (Lil Wayne, cough, cough) are nominated for awards? Oh, OK.

The Grammys' dress code and the drama over miniskirts in Namibia, against which hundreds of women are protesting, speak to a larger issue: the continued need for those in power, mainly men, to control the bodies of women, even women who have broken every other social and economic boundary.

People need to take a deep breath and allow women to be who they want to be. Toni Braxton, J. Lo and Rihanna are adults. If they choose to present themselves in a way that is super sexy, then that is their decision. If women in Namibia want to wear miniskirts in an arid country that is mostly desert, then let them. If the women are not afraid, then just why are those in power afraid? Women deserve full autonomy over their bodies, and that includes how they choose to cover or uncover them.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.