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| Author: Rineke van Dam | Function: Advocacy Officer

BLOG: Our culture but my body, my dress and my choice

Last week in Nairobi, Kenya, a young lady wanted to get inside a matatu – a minibus commonly used for public transport in East Africa. Before she knew what was happening to her, she was stripped naked by a group of men. Tossed around, hands tearing her clothes and grabbing and touching skin and intimate body parts. Her miniskirt and top were shredded until nothing was left but her underwear. It was all filmed and shared across Kenya and the world.


The incident spiralled a strong discussion among Kenyans about emancipation, morals and tradition. On one side many men and women were disgusted by the event, calling for #mydressmychoice, marching the streets of Nairobi in their favourite clothes regardless of the amount of skin it covers. 

But there are other voices too, which claim that this lady 'asked for it' by dressing this way. These voices say she had been taken over by 'western culture' and insulted Kenyan traditions and moral values. The groping men had given her and other Kenyan women a message that dressing this way is unkenyan.


Kenyan Matatu

Progress for women

Unfortunately, the discussion reflects a global division. In many societies the position of women has improved - not enough and unevenly divided but progress nevertheless. Strong drivers of this emancipation are education, family planning and the strong dependency of many developing economies on the - mostly informal - economic activities of women. Media have created popular images of independent women, using their talents to climb the social ladder. They are admired by men and women alike and form role models for girls and young women who copy for instance their way of dressing.


At the same time, resistance against this process of modernisation – against change - is surfacing. People feel they loose grip on their ‘own culture' and ‘own identity’. They don't recognize themselves in the growing heterogeneity and wish to return to their self-created image of the past. We all see the examples around us.

There will be many more of such clashes between created images of tradition and cultural change. The rights of women and girls, as well as sexual and reproductive rights are at the heart of this battle. Even concerning things that never before seemed a problem. In the '60s miniskirts were widely worn by women all over East Africa, including in Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt. Strictly speaking many groups in Kenya 'traditionally' did not cover as much skin as what is now referred to as 'decent'.

With my background in anthropology and a fascination for the great variety of cultures and traditions which our world hosts, I wish to say: yes... people legitimately put effort in protecting 'their' or 'our' culture. But that may NEVER be an excuse to infringe on the integrity of my or anyone's body. My dress will always be my choice.

Rineke van Dam
Rineke van Dam Advocacy Officer