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Funmi Iyanda
Lagos, Nigeria
Funmi Iyanda is a multi award-winning producer and broadcast journalist. She is the CEO of Ignite Media and Executive Director of Creation Television
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Monday, October 05, 2009

Grace Ushang’s Death And the indecent dressing Bill

By Asma’u Joda & Iheoma Obibi

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)


truthfulhurtingthoughts said...

Thanks for helping to educate the mis-educated about the unruly rantings and weaknesses of men masked by jungle justice. certain things are disgusting. the parliament should focus on other things rather than indecent dressing. its a shame that we africans make a caricature of ourselves always.

Bola said...

This is very sad and unfortunate. I pray that God console the family of Grace Ushang. To the lawmakers in Nigeria beware of the effect of what you approve! Note that we have so many uneducated, jobless and many half literates in this nation and who may chose to interprete whatever you say in your chambers to suit their selfish and wicked purposes. What happened in Afghanistan should be a lesson to us; where women used to be treated as 'devil' when God reacted to the plea of women, the whole stronghold built round women and all these wicked decress were brought to rubbles within minutes! May God punish every workers of evil in this country.

Anonymous said...

its been a minute since you blogged Funmi.How are you?off to read

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness this is so sad!How can a young girl die like that?Icant believe the Director General said those words!!I am in shock!SO even if they consider it a crime for her to wear pants so how does raping her correct that?Did they mean she was asking for it?I heart bleeds for her family and her friends!May her soul R.I.P...Those men will surely reap what they have sowed

ChinChin said...

If the parliament would just concentrate on creating laws that would make us a first world nation, as opposed to distracting themselves with issues that have no bearing over the economy, perhaps Nigeria would be moving forward.

StandTall-The Activist said...

This is wicked! This is absurd! It has got nothing to do with dressing and it's high time we focused on crime eradication and zero tolerance on any from of violence as they have got no justification whatsoever. Rest in peace Grace and may your assailants be brought to book!

TMinx said...

It really doesn't make any sense. We still behave like animals and not enlightened people. Even some traditional attires are not 'decent' under this bill so we can't even say its a function of ancient traditional values.

seun said...

hmmmmph..... this is so so saddening.grim.gloomy... i am trying to imagine the look on her face...plus she is not the only victim.she is just the one on spotlight today!.....
the perpatrators obviously commited a crime and where in no way dishing out justice for her "indescent dressing".... I'm speechless

Anonymous said...

I read this story in NEXT and I was sad, then mad as hell at the statement of the DG. I've said it before and I will say it again, "a rapist is a rapist; it doesn't matter if the woman is fully clothe like a nun or stark naked".
I was molested as a kid between the ages of 4 and 10 by an uncle and house boys. The first time my parents found out they beat up the man and they beat me up too. I was a child and for some bizarre reason they felt i had anything to do with the sexual act as opposed to the fact that i was RAPED. This didn't happen once, as you may have guessed, as it happened again and again till I was mature enough (at age 10) to fight for myself. I never told anyone about the other times because I was afraid they'd beat me up again. Till this day no one in my family has ever spoken about those horrible experiences. No one has ever asked me how i've recovered from those awful experiences. My mother wonders why I can't commit to a man as I am now 30, even as she conveniently forgets about my experiences as a child. I am so angry and bitter and it makes it worse when i see and hear stories like this and when our government tries to pass bills like "Indecent dressing". As a nation we are digging a deep hole for ourselves and our children and i'm afraid that with time we won't know how to climb out of that hole.

histreasure said...

i watched that day's proceedings live on TV and was so mad i felt like pulling my hairs off..
i kept screaming - is that what we sent this women there to do? yes, she represents a district in my state and i am so ashamed of her cos every right thinking human being can see the mayhem this ill-advised route of hers will bring to the already emasculated women of Nigeria.

It's so sad what has happened to Grace, so heart-wrenching that i do not even know what to say..
May her soul rest in peace and May Senator Ekaette's bill never see the light of day. Amen!!

elusive kate said...

my heart goes out to the family and relatives of Grace Ushang.it is unfortunate that at a time like this when we need our female legislators most, they are unusually silent.instead they prefer to vent their marital fustrations on us by sponsoring bills against women.if they are so interested in our rights,why not sponsor a bill that imposes the death penalty on rapists?perhaps then most men wouldnt be so eager to let loose their uncontrollable libido on us.

wanda said...

Dear Funmi,

This is a very sad occurance. Its a shame to know that in this modern day, men think that the only way of dominating women is by raping them. This men fail to realise the fact that they are projecting themselves as weak. I have been following this story and my organization is working on it.My boss co-wrote this article you have on your blog. We have a lot of activities lined up in memory of Grace Ushang. Something needs to be done about this and its high time we stopped being complacent and take action.A petition is due soon. My organization would love to work with you on this issue. Is there any way of contacting you? Many thanks for the good work.

Anonymous said...

This is so sad. it not only reveals the carnal nature of men, is rape/death the punishment for an "offence"? Or they were only acting true to their nature?

This terrible crime also exposes the inadequancies of the so called NYSC Programme. Daily, the programme exposes our young people to unkonwn dangers/atrocities all in the name of national service. In my view the programme should be scrapped as it benefits no one.

It is time for us as Nigerians to stand up to fight for what is right. The advocate of the so called indecent dressing bill should in my view be shot for thinking up such an explosive bill. Should it be passed, the consequences cannot even be quantified. We all need to stand up and esnure that the bill does not see the light of day.