It is confirmed by overwhelming evidence that throughout history, women have also been actively participating alongside men in the broader struggle for freedom and human rights in Malawi since the colonial era.
One fascinating account of the immense contribution of women to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Malawi that is seldom talked about, is that of urban women who started to openly protest during the first half of 1991 by wearing in public the attires that were strictly prohibited by the Dress law of 1973.
Under the Dress law of 1973, women were not allowed to wear see-through clothing, have visible cleavage, trousers, or wear skirts or dresses that went above the knees. The only exception to this was at vacation resorts and country clubs where they could not be seen by the general public.
For men, the Dress Law of 1973 stipulated that the hair had to be no longer than collar length. It is reported that male visitors from other countries were given mandatory haircuts upon arrival at the airport if necessary. A man with long hair could be seized by police and subjected to an involuntary haircut.
In the first half of 1991, a number of women who defied the Dress law of 1973, were arrested, tried, convicted and duly sentenced. The Police later had to respond by expressing an outrage through the newspaper and threatened to punish any person and women in particular who dared to violate the Dress law.
In reaction to this, a monthly magazine called Moni published a letter to the editor challenging the interpretation of the Dress law by the police. The writer of the letter happened to be a law lecturer at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba. Both the writer and the editor were hunted down and eventually detained for two days. They were threatened with sedition charges.
Remarkably, this was way before the pastoral letter by Catholic bishops against the human rights abuses of the one party state was issued on 8th March 1992 and also before the arrest of a veteran trade unionist Chakufwa Chihana at the airport in Lilongwe on 6th April 1992 upon his arrival back to Malawi when he openly challenged the tyrannical one party state.
One can safely conclude that this defiance by women in the urban areas marked the genesis of the debate on the Dress law that culminated to its repeal in December 1993 as part of the transition to multiparty democracy in Malawi.
Today, there are some people who tend to question whether any demonstration or protest action by the masses on any matter has ever been effective to yield positive outcomes in Malawi. This particular protest by women in the urban areas in 1991 against the Dress law leading to its repeal two years later, could be one appropriate counter example in this regard.