Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

What does the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation mean? Outside of the already well debated interpretations based on the Bible and the Constitution, what does it mean?

My angle in this blog is what I consider a crucial but neglected component of the debate: the declaration’s material effects on lived reality.

Apart from what I can only assume to be its other effects, the declaration has become an authoritative paradigm of censure. It is the big stick used on those ‘missing the way’ and the inevitable authority cited by many people seeking solidarity for their intolerance.

One discourse that strongly draws on this declaration for justification is the one that has declared war on women who dress “indecently”. The brief background to this is that over the years, Zambia has recorded several cases of women being roughed up and even stripped naked by members of the public who feel these women are “indecently” dressed. This practice has continued to polarise public opinion because while some condemn it as the barbaric practice it is, others feel it is a necessary measure to “teach these women how to dress”.

For a long time, the practice has been almost exclusively associated with types like unruly call boys in bus stations and taxi ranks but it has gone on with the quiet approval of many people especially, as irony would have it, women. This time the practice, and especially the mindset that enables it, has grown public support even among well informed types that you expect to know better. I call it public support because now people find it ok to go on radio or online and openly call for the “disciplining” of women who dress a certain way because “it is unacceptable in a Christian nation”.

An example is a panel that appeared on Radio Phoenix’s “Let the people talk”, a talk show that is an influential thought leader in the country, and emphatically expressed their exasperation at the ungodly way people now dress and went as far as calling for the government to regulate women’s dress code in order for it to be fitting of a Christian nation. One of the panelists argued that beating up women and stripping them naked in public may not be good but it should be done if that will help women dress better. A number of us were outraged by this and we reacted on Twitter in real time.

But the real outrage for me was the fact that those panelists were by no means an isolated case but a mere representation of a deeply entrenched and widespread mindset. National discourse, on the various platforms it occurs, is replete with examples of how inciting and discriminatory speech, attitudes and actions against targeted categories are justified as measures to maintain the “dignity” expected of a Christian nation and/or return us to our “traditional roots”. (The latter makes me wonder which roots to return to because I know our ancestors wore imibinde which only covered their privates and no one in Zambia today dresses that skimpily in public but I digress!)

The position of the panelists and countless other commentators within this discourse is that women dress to entice men and so when they are raped they asked for it because what choice did the poor man have? And when they are beaten and stripped they asked for that too because what is a decent man supposed to do about an indecently dressed woman? If you think this is ridiculous, that is because it actually is.

Blaming and shaming a victim for being a victim while simultaneously justifying the perpetrator’s misdeed is the height of illogic. About two weeks ago, a colleague shared how she witnessed a young woman being roughed up and stripped naked by a bunch of call boys who then started taking turns touching her genitals. What struck her even more than the horror of the act was the fact that some women among the witnesses expressed their approval of the incident. She was sharing to express her disgust and yet even that post generated some comments that felt the young woman called the violence upon herself because “indecent dressing has become too much as if we are not in a Christian nation”.

This is just but one example of the many instances in which some people who genuinely believe they are defending what ought to be the values of a Christian nation end up siding with the perpetrators of violent intolerance. This is the danger of dressing intolerance in something as influential as religion because it produces the most resolute and unquestioning of followers. That kind of intolerance is hard to recognise in yourself and even harder to unlearn because the motivation is honourable. Every time your sense of justice questions your intolerance, your religious beliefs take you on a guilt trip and determined not to sin, you abandon the questions and embrace the prejudice. I am not saying the declaration is causing this but that some people are interpreting it to mean that everyone needs to share their dress preferences which they believe to be informed by Christian values. Women already suffer violence for wearing what they choose and backing such aggression with something as authoritative as religion can only serve to further limit the rights of women and endanger their lives.

Already, representations of these ‘indecently dressed women’ construct them to signify an undesirable state of morals that includes being a high health risk (“indecent” dressing is repeatedly blamed for the spread of HIV) and a sexual trap for men. Forget that men have agency and are capable of deciding their sexual interactions, this discourse constructs them as entirely defenceless (and oh sadly so) in their risk of being seduced by these women.

By so denigrating and isolating these women in the eyes of the public, ground for their discrimination is conveniently laid and negative action (beating, stripping you name it) is legitimised as a necessary step to stem “indecency”. And by the simplistic conflation of the spread of HIV with “indecent dressing” which according to this thinking represents “immorality” are we not reversing the many strides that have been taken to de-stigmatise the disease by replacing ignorant perceptions with facts?  Would HIV prevention still be the challenge it is if it was a mere issue of looking at how one dressed and knowing who had it and who did not? The drivers of HIV here are multiple and concurrent sexual partners (the practice patriarchal traditions justify), absent and inconsistent use of condoms, transactional sex, cross-generational sex and the list goes on but it does not include women’s dress choice! Apportioning gendered and I daresay fact-free blame on who is spreading HIV is not progressive. When we ignore the complexity of HIV and reduce it to simplistic interpretations we lose sight of the many circumstances in which it occurs and in turn we limit our own frontline as far as response to the challenge is concerned.

Within their own spheres of influence, people have the right to discourage social behaviour that they believe is valueless and harmful. I do not believe though that it is possible to unanimously name these behaviours and apply a uniform standard across the country. It is not practical not only because not everyone shares Christian preferences but because the faith itself is not an absolutely unified paradigm with identical interpretations of every issue. Within Christianity, different denominations depending on the extent to which they embrace patriarchy accept different standards of “decency” particularly where women’s clothes are concerned. For some, decency means ifitambala (head scarves), no trousers, no short sleeved shirts and dresses etc yet in others all of these are optional. What standard then shall Mr. Protector of Decency on the street use when deciding which woman to beat up? And by the way, this woman can be anybody depending on what the group brain on duty that day decides. It can be me, you, your sister, your wife, your mother, your daughter, your girlfriend, your niece…anybody.

Christian nation or not, Zambia is first and foremost a democracy and that is why I have not seen the relevance to justify in this blog why women can wear what they choose because that is as  necessary as stating that the Pope is Catholic. Commitment to fairness and zero discrimination should not just be exercised when the freedom under threat directly affects you as a person. So while many people are getting carried away inciting discrimination, hatred and violence in the name of a Christian nation, I suggest we consider what precedents are being set here. We need to also be alive to the possibility that one day a zealot for a different cause (far from policing women’s bodies) may come and use the same declaration to hinder rights that are precious to all of us. Is that when it will matter how people are choosing to invoke the declaration in contexts that only serve to curtail the freedoms of others?


et cetera