The Jezebel Project: Conversations On Women Dressing & Their Freedoms


Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Mekatilili wa Menza, Nana Yaa Asentewa and the the list goes on, from the East to the West to the South, these women’s names ring in the same tone as most fearless. These women fought for what they believed was right, they stood for justice or fearlessly fought for what they believed were the best for the world. In retrospect, history, it may be said, has cast an unfair burden to women since or with stories revolving on creation- Eve the Biblical mother of all was the first to be a ‘deceptive’ wife who made men commit the first sin, it is from here that women, for those who would argue with-inclined to Christianity-descended into the black sheep, the invisible hand in the victories and failure of men, the underdog and the voiceless. From that voiceless pit that women were cast, they have over the years managed to extricate themselves and prove themselves of worthy. However, their struggle has not just been smooth sailing, on occasion, they have met brutal testosterone induced objection and torture. It is at the bedrock of such torture that a Kenyan woman launched the ‘Jezebel Project’.

As the world celebrated International women’s Day on March 8th, we thought it best to bring to light the efforts of Elaine Clark Kehew, an American artist who conceived the ‘Jezebel Project’. The project was imagined after the November 2014 incidents where young women in Kenyan were stripped naked and sexually molested for supposedly indecent exposure, the videos then went viral documenting the ordeal the women went through. The incidents sparked condemnation from various quarters, amid tongues that, strangely, supported the stripping of women. Protests against these cases then bore fruit to the campaign dubbed ‘My Dress my Choice’, here women found a voice to speak against the despicable acts and in unison they marched across major streets in protest.

Kehew however says that was not enough, despite the women standing up for their rights, like Rosa Parks, to condemn the rot in the society, there was much that needed to be done. For that reason, armed with the brush and paint, she begun a project that would see young people openly discuss the topic on the dress code. She was surprised at how societal perceptions and religious beliefs dictated the way women dress as opposed to what is expected of men. Equally baffling was how the women were programmed by society demands and had accepted the society’s expectation of how a woman should dress ‘correctly’.

When asked how a woman should dress, some of the women gave perplexing answers based on their traditional and religious perception. Some women even went as far as condemning the way others dressed and stressing on how ‘disturbing’ it is. At this point it would be of no surprise that fellow women will see stripping of women in the public as a lesson on how to ‘decently dressed’. Jezebel of the bible would also be branded various tags based on her dressing and make-up.

According to npr.org, in 1952 the Fort Worth City Council received a letter from a woman who complained about men and women were openly wearing shorts, when putting on shorts was still indecent then. She complained that showing necked legs was an advertisement for adultery and appealed to the council to do something. She “told the council she was a "decent lady" who resented having to look at the "ugly legs" of men and women in shorts, exposed gams, she added, were a "disgrace to humanity," quotes the NPR.

The question is, if humanity evolved from a primitive culture where men and women were clothed in “nothing but the love of god” as Kenyan writer Margaret Ogola puts it in her Magnum Opus ‘The River and the Source’, then why is it that nudity or a part of it is such scandalous? It is absurd that the more the society evolves into a technologically advanced and morally forward global village the more animalistic it becomes. The freedoms that one hopes to enjoy are the very freedoms that tie them down.

At the ‘Jezebel Project’, were the 36 women representing what the society views as the mode of dressing? And if so, what should be done to enlighten society on the freedom of choice? Kehew believes in opening up discussion on the issues of morality and dressing, engaging both women and men to try and ebb out the parochial attitude. Her art seeks to start the conversation that is why apart from the silhouette paintings she made of the women she spoke to, she includes a 36 minute discussion on the same.

In her art, Kehew drew silhouettes of the women she talked to. “I drew a silhouette of each woman with a cast shadow from a spotlight. I then met with groups of three students at a time, asking questions designed to encourage introspection, cultural examination, thought and reaction. No student was unfamiliar with the incident, and many had given it deep thought. Some responded cautiously and were guarded. Others felt very rebellious. Some felt a need to find the “right” answer to my questions, and I strove to encourage independent thought by giving unexpected and occasionally provocative responses to their answers,” she says.

It is of interest to see how far her efforts would go to try and shape the society and treat a woman with respect. However, given the past events, it is rather hard to determine the motivation of the society to change. Her efforts, like those of Mekatilili wa Menza may be squashed as was the powerful woman’s fight for her people, the Agiriama rights or may be fruitful like those of Rosa Parks that helped set off the black revolution in the US.

It is a matter of time. And as the clock ticks, with it the Kenyan society moves away from the dark times of 2014. The pain dulls away but will every year come and go as we celebrate the woman or the girl child while we forget the outrages committed against her? The International Women’s Day lapsed, but the question remains has it been of great significance to Africa?


Photo Courtesy: Elaine Kehew