In between the daily cacophony of digital beeps that connects this electronic world of ours, it is easy to forget that there is another world out the there; an analogue world where modern thoughts cannot penetrates.
A woman called Lubna Hussein is facing the lash in Sudan for wearing trousers; this has caused global outrage but it wasn’t so long ago that such attitudes persisted in the west.
Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn caused a stir in the 30’s when they wore trousers; most professions in the West required women to wear skirts till the 70’s.
When women first wore trousers it was as a sign of equality but today it is for convenience or to convey a certain message. Trousers are just another weapon in the visual arsenal available to women; for example, Stella Rimington (a former head of MI-5 intelligence in Britain) would always wear cold trouser-suits in internal meetings but dresses and skirts in public press conferences.
She had to project power within her organisation but project middle-class normalcy to a public suspicious of shadowy spies.
When companies are headed by a woman they are perceived more favourably and are more likely to have corporate responsibility projects but this fact has evaded most of the top companies only 3 of the Dow 100 are headed by women.
It is hard to even find women on the boards of these major companies and they make up less than 10% of board members.
So no wonder women in the harsh working environment have to adopt the dress-code and mannerisms of their chauvinist male colleagues.
The reverse never happens; although once in the 70’s an Italian bank permitted trousers for women and as a sign of protest the men wore skirts; they soon realised how stupid they looked and abandoned the idea.
We in Rwanda never wore trousers until the 1900’s but we none the less adopted them, along with the baggage, we denied women the right to wear them; so like in Europe they became a symbol of emancipation to earlier generations.
The symbolism of trousers has even given us the expression “she wears the trousers in that relationship” – meaning the wife is the boss.
Dennis Thatcher, husband of Margaret; was always used to playing a back role to his wife. One day Mr. Thatcher was asked “who wears the trousers in your marriage?” he laughed and said “I wear the trousers but she makes me wash and iron them myself.”
Indeed that is the kind of man he was; a quiet balancing influence on his temperamental wife, as well as being self-reliant.
So trousers have become a symbol of a wider struggle between the sexes, both literal and metaphorical; when Lubna Hussein wore trousers in a conservative Islamic country going through turmoil she was ripe for use as a scapegoat.
In the Islamic world, as well as formerly traditional African countries, the clothes women wear can be elevated to ridiculous prominence; the symptom of change comes to be seen as the agent of change.
Mini-skirts caused an outcry in the 60’s and yet my mother’s generation wore them with pride; the real change was happening in the mindset but manifesting outwardly in different dress-codes.
So in prosecuting Ms. Hussein, the Imams are signalling that that kind of mindset is not permitted in Sudan. The real issue behind this is the gender-balance in society; of men trying to hold on to the means of production and women wanting a balanced control of the means of production.
We might have a new feminist icon in Lubna Hussein but it shows the multi-speed effect of social change happening at slower paces in some countries; when some women are astronauts in space and others are stuck in the kitchen.