Blantyre: It's been 18 years since the late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda's "indecency in dress" laws were repealed in Malawi, but mobs of men and boys in the largely conservative southern African country have recently been publicly stripping women of their miniskirts and pants.
On Friday, hundreds of outraged girls and women, among them prominent politicians, protested the attacks while wearing pants or miniskirts and T-shirts emblazoned with such slogans as: "Real men don't harass women." A recording of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" got a loud cheer when it was played during the protest. Men also took part.
"Some of us have spent our entire life fighting for the freedom of women," Vice President Joyce Banda told the protesters. "It's shocking some men want to take us back to bondage."
During Banda's 1963-1994 dictatorship, women in Malawi were banned from wearing pants and short skirts. Banda lost power in the country's first multiparty election in 1994 and died three years later.
"Life President" Banda led the nation to independence from Britain, only to impose an oppressive rule. Whims that reflected a puritanical streak were law. The U.S.-trained physician and former Presbyterian church elder, himself always attired in a dark suit and Homburg hat, also banned long hair on men.
"We fought for a repeal of these laws," Ngeyi Kanyongolo, a law professor, said at Friday's protests. "Women dressed in trousers or miniskirts is a display of the freedom of expression."
While Banda is gone, strains of conservatism remain in the impoverished, largely rural nation. Some of the street vendors who have attacked women in recent days claimed it was un-Malawian to dress in miniskirts and pants. Some said it was a sign of loose morals or prostitution.
The attacks took on such importance, President Bingu wa Mutharika went on state television and radio on the eve of the protest to assure women they were free to wear what they want.
Other African nations, including South Africa, have seen similar attacks and harassment of women. Last year, women and men held "SlutWalks" in South Africa, joining an international campaign against the notion that a woman's appearance can excuse attacks. "SlutWalks" originated in Toronto, Canada, where they were sparked by a police officer's remark that women could avoid being raped by not dressing like "sluts."
In Malawi on Friday, protesters also wore T-shirts with the slogan: "Vendor: Today, I bought from you, tomorrow, you undress me?" Street children and vendors have been accused of carrying out the attacks.
The president ordered police to arrest anyone who attacks women wearing pants or miniskirts. Police had already made 15 arrests.
"Women who want to wear trousers should do so as you will be protected from thugs, vendors and terrorists," the president said in a local language, Chichewa. "I will not allow anyone to wake up and go on the streets and start undressing women and girls wearing trousers because that is criminal."
Vice President Banda has speculated the attacks were the result of economic woes in a country that is currently racked by shortages of fuel and foreign currency.
"There is so much suffering that people have decided to vent their frustrations on each other," she told reporters.
A vendors' representative at Friday's protest, Innocent Mussa, was booed off the stage. Mussa insisted those who were harassing women were not true vendors.
"I'm ashamed to be associated with the stripping naked of innocent women," he said. "Those were acts of thugs because a true vendor would want to sell his wares to women, he can't be harassing potential customers."
Mussa blamed the harassment on unemployed young people.