Grace Ushang was a young Nigerian woman who had every right to expect a bright future. Now she is dead merely because she was female. On the day that Nigeria celebrated its 49th Independence Anniversary on 1 October 2009, NEXT Newspaper reported that Ms. Ushang from Obudu in Cross River State, a member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) serving in Maiduguri, Borno State, was raped to death by some men still at large, who, according to the story, “took offence because she was wearing her Khaki trousers – the official uniform of the youth corpers.”
The cavalier brutality of this morbid tale of criminal vigilante action is compounded by the official response to it. The Director-General of the NYSC reportedly travelled to Maiduguri ostensibly to discuss this crime with the State’s law enforcement authorities. Rather than denounce this for the crime that it is and reassure our young graduates on national service that their wellbeing preoccupies the highest levels of decision making, the Director-General merely advised Youth Corpers to “take their personal security seriously because whatever we provided is not enough. They must learn to be security-conscious.” Pray, how?
The compounded crimes that killed Grace Ushang painfully return our attention to the pervasiveness of violence against women in Nigeria and the growing resort to vigilante action to police vague notions of feminine propriety and decency.
In 2008, the Chairperson of the Nigerian Senate’s Committee on Women, Senator Ufot Ekaette introduced a bill in the Senate to prohibit so called “indecent dressing”. At the public hearing on the Bill in July 2008, there was a consensus that its provisions portended great danger for the safety and security of Nigerian women. The Bill proposes to grant intolerably dangerous powers of arrest and invasion of the most intimate privacies of the woman’s body imaginable to both police officers and ordinary citizens to undertake vigilante action against women they merely perceive to be “indecently dressed”.
Senator Ekaette’s Bill covers any female above 14 years wearing a dress that exposes “her breast, laps, belly and waist… and any part of her body from two inches below her shoulders downwards to the knee” (such as the much-admired Fulani milk maid). Also liable to become a criminal if this Bill were to become law is any person dressed in “transparent” fabric (such as Lace) as well as men who expose any part of their bodies between the waist and the knee (such as men relieving themselves by the roadside). All these people and more would presumably attract arrest from zealous policemen. If this Bill becomes law, there will not be enough prisons or mortuaries in Nigeria for its victims. It will licence vigilante violence against women, leading to fatalities like the fate that befell Grace Ushang.
Grace Ushang’s story demonstrates the fallacy of the justifications for laws like the Senator Ekaette’s Indecent Dressing Bill. Those who wish to commit crimes of sexual violence need no excuse. They must be treated like the predators they are. If a woman, like Grace Ushang, dressed in regulation clothing prescribed by the Federal Republic of Nigeria is considered to be so indecently dressed as to be put to death by the most vile acts of violence imaginable, how do we guarantee the safety and security of Nigerian women in the uniformed services, such as the Armed Forces, Police, Prisons Service, and Immigration?
The killing of Grace Ushang is part of a pattern of violence against women that deserves urgent attention across borders in this year of the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In some countries of Sahelian and East Africa and the Middle East, women who survive rape get put to death for allegedly bringing dis-honour to their families. Or are charged with zina (adultery) as they “have made love”; as any form of sexual intercourse consensual or non consensual, can be translated to mean “love making”.
Only recently in Sudan, Lubna Hussein, a former employee of the United Nations, along with 12 other Sudanese women, were charged with the offence of dressing indecently for wearing trousers. Sudanese law prohibits ‘dressing indecently’ in public. Absurd? Yes, certainly, by Nigerian standards, where no person bats an eyelid at the sight of women in jeans, or in offices, clad in trouser suits – or so we thought until Grace Ushang was raped to death. Sudan’s laws, however, criminalise a woman’s dressing, prescribing lashing and an unlimited fine for any woman ‘in public’ dressed like a ‘man’.
Lubna resigned her employment at the UN, which would have granted her immunity from trial, to compel the courts to take a stand on an issue she feels (quite rightly) should be a matter of public concern, because they impact directly on her human dignity, freedom of choice and privacy. By her action, Lubna placed Sudanese ‘justice’ in the global spotlight and should, hopefully, trigger change in policy and law in that country.
We may not yet have a law that determines what a woman (or man) can wear but there can be no tolerance of the growing tendency towards vigilante enforcement of notions of indecency. Sudan and Nigeria have similar lawmakers it seems. Surely, someone sat down and determined for Sudan, in his opinion, what is permissible as a woman’s choice of dress, and garnered Parliamentary support for his personal belief that wearing trousers was an abomination that should be penalized. In the same manner, some persons in the Nigerian Senate are unilaterally and arbitrarily attempting to decide for Nigerians what should be the acceptable form or mode of ‘dressing’ for women. No account has been taken of the diversity and the culture in both countries, or even of the fact that in African rural settings, women routinely expose much more, without giving a thought to it being ‘indecent’. Nor has there been any reckoning of the effect that this will have on the safety of women.
As Sudan struggles with the implications of its indecent dressing laws, and its courts struggle to find ways around it, Nigeria’s own lawmakers appear bent on imposing these retrograde and potentially explosive laws over here. While they are looking for ways to move forward, our legislators seem determined to throw us back into the past.
Our lawmakers should focus on passing measures that promote human dignity, preclude discrimination, and guarantee human wellbeing. Instead of a law on indecent dressing, they can accord priority to enacting a law to protect all Nigerian women from the wanton violence and ensure that all perpetrators of such violence are brought to justice. As a first step, the Senate should vote down the Indecent Dressing Bill and firmly close any further arguments on it. In its place, and in memory of Grace Ushang, we need a federal law on violence against women. That would be an appropriate way to commemorate the tragedy of her senseless killing.
Asma’u Joda & Iheoma Obibi are on the Steering Committee of the Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF)