Often, when women speak about the direct impact of the patriarchal ideal of respectability and how it hurts them daily, men are in the habit of countering that while claiming greater injury by the oppressive antics of the patriarchy. But time and again, instances like the one that recently happened at the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) office in Port Harcourt, tells a different story.
Twitter user @lazywritaNG published a picture of a lady he claims was given needle and thread by officials at NIMC to sew up her fashion-appropriate distress jeans. Their reason? “You don’t have respect for the Nigerian government.”
It can be safely argued that Nigeria’s cult of respectability is partly responsible for the excesses of the special police unit that sparked the #EndSARS protests and culminated in the tragedy from the #LekkiShootings. Officials of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had consistently profiled young Nigerian men for; having locs, owning a laptop, dressing in a certain way, or simply existing in a way that doesn’t scream destitution.
A notable case of women taking greater criticism when they break away from the societal ideal of respectability is that of popular actress, Rahama Sadau, who had to offer a public apology after she posted a picture of herself in a backless dress and in doing so, sparked a back and forth debate on what constitutes decent dressing for women, particularly those of Muslim extraction.
By contrast, her colleague Ali Nuhu has featured countless times in Nollywood movies cosying up to women in romantic scenes. A similar thing done by the actress in a music video with singer Classiq attracted controversy and a ban from Kannywood which is now lifted.
Nigeria’s cult of respectability hurts everyone, men and women alike. But it is inarguable that it hurts women and minority groups so much more. It is telling that NIMC officials could give a law-abiding citizen grief simply for wearing distress jeans. It is disturbing to think what their reaction would have been had this person been a non-conforming effete man with nail paint and perhaps dreadlocks.
What is clear is that moving forward Nigerians must continue to resist the notion of respectability that excludes women, young people and the socially non-conforming. It is a random stranger that was humiliated for dressing in a way NIMC officials did not fancy, it will be you and I tomorrow for simply breathing the wrong way in the eyes of a trigger happy police officer.
The more we resist this, the better it will be for us all. Diversity is inevitable, it will be terrible if we allow a culture of restrictions truncate that and keep us huddled and unevolving.