A statement from the Swaziland Police that women found wearing a mini-skirt in public would be arrested and face a fine or imprisonment sparked off a frenzy of reporting across the world during the Christmas holiday period.
It started when Swazi Police official spokesperson Wendy Hleta told the Times Sunday newspaper that it would only take one complaint for a woman in a mini-skirt to be arrested. She said police would use a law dating from 1889.
She was commenting after police stopped a march by women protesting at the harassment they received from men when they wore mini-skirts or other clothes such as low-cut jeans or crop tops that displayed their stomachs. The men want them to wear clothes they feel are more appropriate to Swazi tradition. The bus rank in Manzini, Swaziland’s main commercial city, has become a place where women are especially vulnerable.
In the course of the interview Hleta said that men might be tempted to rape women who wore skimpy clothes.
The comment about rape was picked up by the international media and the story went viral: most reports were critical of the law and of Swaziland.
Rather late in the day, Percy Simelane, the official spokesperson for the Swaziland Government, issued a statement saying women would not be arrested because they were protected by the kingdom’s constitution of 2005.
He said that Section 28 (1, 2 & 3) protected the freedom and rights of women to wear what they wished. He also said Section 2 (1) made any law that did not conform to the constitution void, so the 1889 law no longer was in force.
What Simelane said was strictly correct and it made it look as if women were safe to wear what they wished. Therefore, the negative reports were incorrect and all was well in the Kingdom of Swaziland.
But, the reality is somewhat different. It is true that Section 2 makes laws that do not conform to the constitution void, but in practice it has never been used. For example, there are about 30 laws in Swaziland that one way or another restrict freedom of speech in the kingdom and they all contradict with the constitution, but not one of them has been repealed.
Section 28 of the constitution does say that women cannot have any custom imposed on them in which they were in conscience opposed, but the daily reality is different.
But, rather than protecting women, the police are themselves harassers. By coincidence as the mini-skirts row flew around the world, the Times of Swaziland published a letter from a woman who recounted a trip she and her female friend made to Manzini police station to report a crime. She was wearing a miniskirt and her friend shorts.
She said five male officers verbally attacked them. Among the comments made by the police officers were, ‘You b******, go and get dressed or remove yourselves from our presence.’
‘Can’t you hear that we are telling you to go and dress appropriately first? Or have you come to solicit here? This is not a prostitution site.’ And , ‘Go before we do you harm.’
The two women left the police station in tears.
The letter writer wrote, ‘This happened at a place where we thought we were safe. At a place where we are supposed to be protected, a place where the law is supposed to be upheld!
‘The Constitution gives us equal rights with men. It says we are equal and the police should uphold that law. However, we were violated and sexually harassed in a place of law.
‘Those cops have no sense of respect whatsoever for women. They define their own women and how they should behave.
‘Then one wonders if women are still regarded as second class citizens in the police force?’
If we are to believe the Swaziland Government that the constitution protects women’s rights to dress as they please we should now expect two things to happen.
First, an inquiry should be made into the conduct of the police officers in Manzini and if found guilty they should be punished.
Second, next time women in miniskirts are harassed on the streets, police should not move them along, they should arrest and prosecute the men doing the harassing.
Only then will we know the Swaziland Government really believes in the constitution.