Sunday, October 04, 2009


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)


Rita 1:23 pm  

So so sad...

Lesley Agams,  8:04 pm  

So so speculative, how did 234Next determinen that her mode of dress was the trigger of the assault? Earlier reports did not mention this. Were their witnesses? Were the perps caught? Did they confess? What was the source of this information? We have determined that dress mode does not instigate rape, isn't that what we should be telling the house of assembly?

Anonymous,  8:45 pm  

Symptomatic of the failed state called Nigeria. Interesting to hear what the highly educated, open-minded intellectuals in the National Assembly think, can't wait to listen their well thought out, logical condemnation of rape as a form of punishment

Anonymous,  8:46 pm  

Which religion prescribes rape as a form of punishment for wearing trousers?

Kate A 9:56 pm  

What a sad story! For more on Lubna, check out the Sudan Radio Project's coverage -

best wishes...

Ayobami 1:26 pm  

The Nigerian government really doesn't give a damn about what happens to corpers, I am currently serving and while this is tragic I am not surprised. In some Northern states, female corpers are actually stoned for so called indecent dressing. Why continue to post corpers to places like that? this is so tragic and one only prays that the perpetrators are caught.
As for the National Assembly, for crying out loud, is that really the issue in Nigeria today? With all the problems on ground, they are talking about dressing. this country never ceases to shock me.

dolapo,  2:33 pm  

how was it determined that she was raped because of her attire when the lady is dead and the perpetrators have never been caught!!! who supplied this information???
Nigeria appears to be a nation that is regressing with each passing year.........what next.allfemales to wear the burkha?

dolapo,  2:33 pm  

how was it determined that she was raped because of her attire when the lady is dead and the perpetrators have never been caught!!! who supplied this information???
Nigeria appears to be a nation that is regressing with each passing year.........what next.allfemales to wear the burkha?

Anonymous,  1:23 am  

.....and rape was her punishment for wearing pants? some punishment!!!!

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