If you’ve been with the blog from the beginning, you know that I’m not really a fan of Malawi. From their persecution of ‘witches’, to their attitude about polygamy (that women should be under the protection of a man, so men should marry as many women as possible), to their backwards policy about homosexuality - let’s just say that Malawi is not the most progressive place in the world. I don’t know why, aside from the fact that most places in the developing world haven’t yet moved beyond the traditions and superstitions of a pre-scientific age (owing in no small part to the fact that many don’t have access to education), and perhaps the more pervasive influence of religion in that region.
Whatever the various causes, Malawi is not a place where you expect to hear a strong statement of enlightenment princples. Which is why I was so flabbergasted to read this:
Malawi’s president says he has ordered police to arrest anyone who attacks women for wearing trousers in public. President Bingu wa Mutharika spoke out on national radio after several women were beaten and stripped on the street for wearing non-traditional dress. Police said they had arrested several street vendors after the attacks in Lilongwe and the commercial capital Blantyre. Women’s groups say they are planning protests on Friday over the attacks.
Okay, so the whole ‘attacking women for not conforming to dress standards’ thing – expected. The president of the country specifically speaking out against it and encouraging a popular protest against it – definitely not expected. It’s easy to claim to be a country that respects the rights of its citizens – words are free. The real test of a country’s attitude toward human rights is how it reacts when those who have the least power are in crisis. It would have been simple for President Mutharika to say that it was a local matter, or that there was blame on both sides, or even decline to comment at all. For him to speak out on national radio means either that he cares about the issue or, (if I’m being cynical) more likely, that he has been getting pressure from female voters.
Either way, while the statement could use some work:
He said he was surprised that the women had been harassed when wearing trousers is “more protective to a woman than wearing a skirt”.
It is still a welcome development from a country that I would definitely not expect this kind of action from. I will be looking eagerly at Malawi to see if secular and liberal principles penetrate the fog of superstition that cloaks that country.
But it just wouldn’t be the Manifesto if I didn’t also give you an utterly depressing and yet completely typical story too:
Yahya Jammeh has been sworn in for a fourth term as Gambia’s president and promised to “wipe out 82%” of workers, accusing them of being lazy. The former army officer promised to be “even more dangerous than when I was in uniform”. He also vowed to turn his tiny West African nation into an “economic superpower” over the next five years.
Remember this guy? The baby dictator who was just now learning to flex his muscles and release his inner guano-level insanity? Yeah, well now he’s issuing threats against his own citizens. That’s always a good sign – certainly nobody has ever made this kind of proclamation before.
Now, to be fair to Mr. “Billion years rule” Jammeh, it is entirely possible that his remarks are taken out of context. He may have been talking about firing corrupt government employees who shirk their duties. The rest of the proclamations he made in the article – empowering women, employing youth, cracking down on corruption – these all seem like good things. But when taken in context with the other things he’s said and done, it’s kind of hard to justify giving him the benefit of the doubt.
And then there’s this:
Mr Jammeh – who first came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994 – has been criticised by international rights groups for suppressing any dissent. On Tuesday, former Information Minister Amadou Scatred Janneh, a US citizen, was sentenced to life in jail for plotting a coup and distributing T-shirts with the slogan “End to Dictatorship Now”.
Yahya Jammeh – totally down with coups, unless they’re against him in which case they’re totally uncoup.
If there was a hell, that pun would assure my place there.
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