Schoolgirls, Skirts and Moral Panic by Eleanor Higgs

(Cross-posted from Eleanor Higgs)

Since Thursday, Kenyan blogs and media have been reporting on a story about GIRLS WEARING SKIRTS. Of course, the media seems to have blown the facts out of all proportion in order to create a moral panic. I am glad they are reporting it in the first place, I just wish they were covering it differently.

The story is basically this: Pupils at a girls’ school have gone ‘on strike’ in protest against their existing school uniform, and demanding the right to wear a shorter skirt. Sadly, the protest itself didn’t catch the attention of the media: instead, the focus has been on the reaction of the Minister of Education, Mutula Kilonzo.

On Thursday, Kilonzo announced that he was in support of the striking girls, saying: ‘I am in total agreement with [the students]. Why do [the school’s administration] dress a schoolgirl like a nun? These girls do not want to be nuns; they want to be modern like Mutula!’. I’m not going to engage with Kilonzo’s mistake of implying that nuns are necessarily old-fashioned, and that short skirts are necessarily a sign of modernity. Nor even, that Kilonzo manages to make his statement of support for the girls about himself by implying that he is a standard of modernity against which school uniforms for girls could be compared… which sounds to me like he is making lots of deeply class and gender blind assumptions about why the girls are striking in the first place. What I do want to take issue with here is the way his response to the protest has been wilfully misinterpreted and used as an excuse by some to make grand statements about girls and morality and African Culture.

But first, to the fact-mobile! According to the one media source that seems to have paid any attention to what the girls have actually been saying, the protest is over a new uniform, (which prompts me to wonder what their old one was like). Here is the information as represented in the media, in its entirety: ‘The Rwathia students who went on strike three weeks ago had complained that their new purple skirts were too long, ugly and not meant for their age. They however demanded the shorter and more “appealing if not revealing” uniform.’

So, the strike has been going on for three weeks and only when the Education Minister says something that is widely interpreted as allowing girls to wear mini-skirts to school, does it make the news. Girls in secondary education in Kenya are already particularly vulnerable to dropping out of school and have fewer opportunities to attend in the first place. So the fact that these girls are willing to take themselves out of the classroom over this issue tells us that it is very important to them. And the fact that this has been going on for three weeks, tells us that the school’s administration clearly doesn’t care too much that the girls are missing out on parts of their education, or presumably the problem would have been solved within a matter of days.

The specific complaints of the girls are apparently threefold: the length, design, and age-appropriateness of their skirts. The issue of the skirts feeling ‘not right for their age’ is very interesting to me. Often in the UK when girls’ school uniform is debated, the idea of dressing in an age-appropriate manner is used to deny girls their demands. Girls often rebel against the restrictions imposed by school uniforms by wearing (or asking to wear) very short skirts or tight trousers. In that context the concept of age-appropriateness is used by adults (parents and teachers) to suppress girls’ self-expressions of femininity and sexuality (however misguided those expressions may be). High school girls are told, in so many words, that they are basically too young to be allowed to look like that.

In Kenya it is still quite normal of girls to be married at 16, and often at a younger age than that, which is one of the reasons that Kenyan girls are less likely to begin or complete their secondary education than Kenyan boys. The fact that the Rwathia schoolgirls feel their skirts are inappropriate for their age is different to the typical UK situation in that age is being employed in argument for change, rather than against it. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any further information so I can only assume that the long skirts are felt to be ‘too old’ (rather than ‘too young’) for the girls: perhaps they would like to be seen as adolescents rather than as women. But this is speculation because the girls’ actual complaints have barely been reported on at all.

That the skirts are ugly in the girls’ eyes I think is perhaps the least important part of their critique. Ugliness is an universal feature of school uniforms, and if the girls are successful in their quest for shorter skirts I predict that they will be the same amount of ugly as the long ones are.

Both the age-appropriatenessand the ugliness of the skirts seem to be related to their length. These skirts are ankle-length. Whilst I’m sure that fashion and self-expression underlie the girls’ complaints to a certain extent, we need to consider other problems that the girls might reasonably have with long skirts. First of all, in most Kenyan schools, wearing uniform is compulsory and the clothes don’t come cheap. One reason children (especially girls) in poorer families miss out on education is precisely because their parents haven’t the luxury of buying food AND buying a school uniform. Long skirts use more fabric, take longer to make and are bulkier and heavier, costing more to store and transport. They are therefore more expensive to buy, and for that reason I consider that in all likelihood they function to exclude girls from poorer families from that school, whether deliberately or otherwise.

Long skirts also take more time, energy and resources to maintain in good condition. In most Kenyan households there is no washing machine. Girls are responsible for washing their own clothes, as well as those of their brothers and often their other relatives too. Requiring girls to wear long skirts imposes an unnecessary burden on them – and they could be spending the time and energy it takes to wash and repair their long skirts on doing homework or sports. Maybe it doesn’t take many minutes more to wash a long skirt than a shorter one – but when we take into account that the boys already don’t do this chore (in most cases) it seems perverse to add to that imbalance.

The Rwathia girls seem to have also pre-empted the complaints that are now being aired in the press by religious leaders and other opinion-havers, by saying that they want an ‘appealing’ but not ‘revealing’ uniform. These girls obviously knew that their demands would be viewed primarily as relating to their gender and sexuality, rather than for example the practical concerns I have suggested above. Yet even with the deliberate inclusion of this proviso, the media have turned the debate into something else altogether.

So, to the mis-information-mobile! Just to re-cap, the Minister for Education Kilonzo didn’t say that girls should or could wear mini-skirts to school, and the protesting girls haven’t even asked to be allowed to do so. They have asked for shorter skirts, not short skirts or mini-skirts. Bear that in mind, when you read that Newstime Africa characterised the students’ protest as ‘girl students clamouring to be allowed to wear miniskirts in their schools’ … um, well, no, it isn’t actually. Have they even listened to the girls in question? Perhaps they couldn’t hear what they were saying because of the ‘clamour’.

Some imams and ministers are claiming to be outraged by Kilonzo’s comments. Some in the Kenyan Catholic Church rightly complained about Kilonzo’s attitude towards nuns, but also claimed that ‘the cultural and religious values of all Kenyans are sacred and should be respected’, presumably referring to the long-standing Kenyan cultural practice of forcing girls to wear ankle-length skirts during their traditional Kenyan gender-segregated secondary education (/sarcasm). Unsurprisingly, their statement also didn’t clarify what precisely constitutes a ‘cultural and religious value’ nor did they explain why they should be considered a priori to be worthy of respect.

Representatives of the Kenyan Anglican Church didn’t do any better. An Anglican priest called Kenneth Wachiang’a said Kilonzo’s views would expose young girls to ‘immorality’. He is reported to have said ‘the moral standards of the girls will be jeopardised at the expense of their future education,’ and that ‘mini skirts will expose more schoolgirls to defilement.’ Way to go, Rev Wachiang’a! Wait, what? He wasn’t being sarcastic??

(Dis-)Honourable mention should also go to Sheikh Khalifa Muhammed, the national coordinator of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya. He apparently said ‘Mutula [Kilonzo] has degraded our girls. He has disrespected all the Kenyan women.’ and urged the President to fire him!! A bit over the top, considering what Kilonzo actually said was that he supported the girls’ protest against ankle-length skirts. Other religious leaders joined the KNUT (Kenya National Union of Teachers) to characterise Kilonzo’s comments as ‘contradicting Islamic teachings as well as undermining African culture.’ WHAT, you mean that one homogenous Africa-wide culture in which some women wear the niqab whilst others are naked but for some necklaces? You, KNUT, are saying that mini-skirts are contrary to that culture??!!?!!1!!1!!

And last but not least, I turn my scorn towards you, Transport Assistant Minister Ali Hassan Joho, who apparently ‘urged Muslim students countrywide to stick to their faith, saying the minister has no constitutional powers to decide for them.’ ARE YOU KIDDING ME. In no way has anyone, at any time, in relation to this protest or ever ever ever, expressed anything approaching an argument or even an opinion that all schoolgirls in the country be made to wear short skirts. How dare you, Transport Assistant Minister Ali Hassan Joho, make it appear otherwise. Anyone would think you were exploiting this drama for your own political gain.

Now I must stop writing because I’m going off to meet Mirjam for a drink in the city. What am I going to wear? I think I’ve got a mini-skirt here somewhere…
Originally posted on 23/07/12 with the title ‘Kenyan girls express opinion about school uniform, moral panic ensues.’


Eleanor Higgs: I am a feminist and an aspiring academic in London, UK. This is my (infrequently updated) blog, featuring posts related to my Ph.D. research. Topics I am interested in include: the women’s movement in Kenya, especially the YWCA; histories of colonisation and missionary movements in East Africa; African Christianities and theologies; and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly in relation to Christian ethics.




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