This piece was published on January 27, 2012, in the Nation newspaper, a daily newspaper published nationally in Malawi. It was published under the title “What if the Women Were not Black.”
In the movie Reservoir Dogs, the character played by the American actor Harvey Keitel is riding in a car and having a conversation with his gangster compatriots when he remarks that he has never met a black man who treats his woman well. He obviously hadn’t met too many black men because countless black men treat their women well. Besides, men of various other races are not above mistreating women. Nevertheless, the stereotype persists, particularly in the Western world, that black men are prone to abusing women and are given to rapacious and destructive sexual desires. Unfortunately, the tragic incidents that took place this past week in Lilongwe only serve to lend credence to this stereotype — a stereotype though it is. So, what are the facts regarding what happened in Lilongwe? Some men, allegedly vendors, took it upon themselves to undress women who were wearing trousers and miniskirts.
The reaction from most sectors of society has, quite naturally, been one of horrified reproach. Also quite naturally, given the times we live in, others have introduced their own narratives in talking about these incidents. Some say the men were angered by the lack of foreign currency and fuel. I have overheard some men say the women had it coming because they wore trousers, which are clothes meant for men. The truth, however, is quite simple: The men who undressed women because they disapproved of the women’s clothes behaved like savages and brought nothing but shame upon themselves and the country by humiliating the women in a vain and ultimately counterproductive attempt to redeem their manhood.
The way these black Malawian women were treated was unlike the way I saw a certain white woman treated some years ago. I was in a wholesale shop in Blantyre. A young white couple — or at least one with pretentions of being young, given the way the couple was behaving — entered the shop. Honestly, I don’t remember what the man was wearing: It must not have been anything memorable really. The woman was dressed in a short something — dress, or was it a skirt? It doesn’t matter, it was short — really short! Not surprisingly, I and all the warm-blooded men in the building noticed her the moment the couple walked into the shop. It was not attire you saw every day on a woman in Malawi, especially back then. But she was within her rights to wear what she wore. I spent as much time watching the reactions of the other men in the building, most of whom were black Malawians, as I did observing the white couple.
The couple couldn’t have cared less who was staring and went about its business. Some of the black Malawian men rolled their eyes and gave each other knowing glances. Others were somewhat more audacious and whispered, pointing in the general direction of the couple. But here is the point: none, no one, not one dared to take the woman in the short something to task for wearing an outfit that was so revealing. I have no doubt that any black woman would have been questioned or attacked in some manner for wearing anything only half as revealing — attacked even in front of her significant other. In this case, the men could only roll their eyes, whisper, and point like excited adolescents. I bet any Asian or Arab woman in the same attire would similarly not have been attacked, even if they had seen her walking on the street. Apparently, women of other races get a pass; black women are fair game. Women of all races deserve respect!
I would like to believe that the men who read this article are in a place in society and are civilized enough that they would never forcibly undress a woman. That is what I would like to believe. Just in case I’m wrong, I leave you with something to ponder. I heard this remark made by another American, the comedian Bill Maher. He said you can always tell how civilized a society is by how the men treat the women. The women are more or less already there — civilized that is.