As an avid listener to the BBC, I recently listened to a story of women in South Africa campaigning against the taxi touts of Johannesburg who undressed a woman 25 year old Nwabisa Ngcukana, because she was dressed in a mini skirt. Many argued that the men were wrong to undress the woman. In fact some like the National House of Traditional Leaders argued that women often wore short skirts in traditional ceremonies. Others argued that the men were even of the same cultural group (presumably Zulu?) which has skimpily dressed cultural wear for women. The woman then organized a match supported by the owners of the taxis to protest against the way their fellow woman was treated. However this demonstration met with a lot of hostility from the taxi touts.
Interestingly, in another BBC broadcast, some thing interesting was happening in a different part of the world. A Court in Italy stopped Italian men from scratching their crouches in public, an act they allegedly often performed in public as a way of warding off bad luck 'with a quick grab at what are delicately called their "attributi". According to the story, the Rome Court said that public genital-patting "has to be regarded as an act contrary to public decency, a concept including that nexus of socio-ethical behavioural rules requiring everyone to abstain from conduct potentially offensive to collectively-held feelings of decorum".
These two stories got me thinking especially about how human rights are respected or abused in the world. However it got me thinking about the different views regarding human rights( and decorum) in the world. I condemn the way the men treated the poor woman by stripping Nwabisa naked. It was a total breach of the South African version of Uganda's Article 24 of the Constitution which prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Such actions indeed ought to be condemned. As alluded to above, we are talking about a country which has one of the most famous traditional/cultural Umhlanga, or Reed Dance ceremonies which involve dressing up in very skimpy clothing.
|Umhlanga or Reed Dance-Swaziland|
Of course there are those who would argue that it serves the woman right for dressing up in such a way and in a predominantly male work area. Indeed in Uganda today, any woman who dresses up in a similar way risks being undressed by taxi touts and drivers in any of our designated taxi/matatu parks. However, I suspect that others would argue that people have a right to dress up as they deem fit and comfortable - a right which should be respected and protected. We can certainly continue these arguments ad nauseum.
|Reed Dance March|
Instead, I would like to propose a middle ground here - a proposal that is based on my reading of the concept of legal realism - ; that is, whereas women (and men) have a right to dress up the way they wish, ( a right that can be justified also as a cultural right if we are to take the reed dance ceremonies into consideration), they ought to take note of Article 43 of the constitution which is to the effect that in the enjoyment of one's rights and freedoms, no one shall prejudice the fundamental and other human rights and freedoms of others or the public interest. The crux is the interpretation of Public interest under Article 43(2)(c) of the Ugandan Constitution, which does not permit any limitation of the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms beyond what is acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society or what is provided in the constitution.
Therefore we need to question whether the three activities mentioned, that is, wearing a mini skirt, undressing women in public or crouch scratching would (at least in the Ugandan context) be acceptable and demonstrably justifiable in our free and democratic society. It seems to me in all these scenarios, the reaction of the society does not seem to suggest that such activities are either 'acceptable' or 'justifiable'. Of course this is a view that some readers might not agree with. Infact one famous leader has argued elsewhere that there is no such thing as society -but i digress.
However, I am of the view that the South African taxi touts would not have undressed such a woman if she was dressed up in an attire that is considered more 'decent' in that society or in that area. I also think that if she was dressed like this for the Umhlanga, or Reed Dance ceremony or related traditional ceremony or performance, the reaction would have been different.
|Reed Dance RSA|
In the same way, the men in Italy would not have been taken to court for scratching their crouches (presumably in the enjoyment of their rights under our version of Article 29) and yet to the utter disgust of those who were watching them.
|Michelle Obama in Indonesia|
This therefore means that some rights are not absolute. That is why for example, although someone has the right to drive his/her vehicle, that person, should respect the traffic rules that abide in the country. If such person did drive in total disregard to the traffic rules, they would certainly face the scorn of fellow drivers as well as the long arm of the law. In the instant however, I am aware that others will argue that those offended by an attire or activity should simply look elsewhere since everyone has a right to their body, to what they wear, to when to wear it and to how they wear it. At the same time however, I am also aware of the maxim 'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do'. This is best exemplified by the way the Queen of England wore a head scarf on her visit to Saudi Arabia, and Michelle Obama, the First lady of USA wore a scarf on her visit to Indonesia and her husband removed his shoes at some point. I will however add, that it is true that 'terms and conditions' apply.
|The Queen of England adorns a head scarf|
My advice therefore is that in order to avoid being stripped naked, maybe the lady should forego the miniskirt when moving in that particular environment. Similarly, in order to avoid being sued any further, the accused italian men ought to resist scratching their crouches until they are in the privacy of their bathrooms.
In so doing, I believe we shall have a 'win-win' situation and everyone's human rights respected at least in this context.
By Daniel R. Ruhweza Esq
[Any rebuttals are welcome]