The mini skirt: fashion crime or symbol of sexual freedom?

Natalie Curtis's picture
Natalie Curtis Senior Editorial and Stories Manager

This week, reports of women stripped in the streets of Nairobi started circulating online. Their crime? Wearing a mini skirt.

Worse still, the victims were protesting their right to wear – you guessed it – a mini skirt. Or anything else they want, when and wherever they choose. Stripping women for wearing allegedly ‘indecent’ clothing doesn’t just happen in Kenya. We’ve seen it in Uganda, Malawi and Egypt, to name a few.

So it got me thinking, what’s so offensive about the mini skirt? And why are some people so threatened by it?

Twiggy dancing on Make A Gif

Ancient miniskirts

Skirts it seems have always been a way of making a public statement.

The skirt itself is the second oldest garment known to man – predated only by loin cloths. For hundreds of years, a long skirt was a statement of wealth and prestige because fabric was so expensive.

Reconstruction of one of the Taureador frescos at Knossos showing a female athlete wearing a mini skirt.

Photo: WikiCommons user Lapplaender.

But some scholars believe that miniskirts were common in the earliest civilisations. Archaeologists have unearthed ancient mini-skirted figurines in some of Europe’s oldest villages (5400-4700 B.C) and ancient Egyptian frescos show female acrobatic dancers wearing mini skirts in a show of power and daring.

The ‘feminist’s favourite’

Mary Quant, who brought the mini skirt to London in 1964, said “a mini skirt was a way of rebelling”.  She considered it practical and liberating, allowing women comfort, “with the ability to run for a bus.”

Mary Quant fashion show on Make A Gif

The bottom edge of the skirt had to sit halfway up the thigh and fall no more than four inches below the bum.

In an era of revolution and change, the mini skirt had a ‘marmite’ effect. Some saw it as symbolising empowerment and independence, others vulnerability and a desire to sexually please men.

When I asked my mum and aunties how they felt, their response was unified: “ever so fashionable and ever so popular with the boys”.

Sexual aggression

Perhaps it’s this mixture of sexual and female empowerment that so threatens certain men the world over? The concept of women owning their sexual power challenges a culture where men routinely call the shots.

fT5kLY on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs

Some governments have been so threatened by the mini skirt that they’ve banned it under the guise of ‘protecting’ women.

The ‘Slut Walk’, a global movement of protest marches, started in response to a Toronto Police officer saying “women should avoid dressing like sluts" as a precaution against unwanted sexual attention.

Their message is clear: Rape should never be explained or excused. Woman should have control over their own bodies without fear of sexual aggression or judgement.

Street harassment

Yesterday I received a video from Kenya, made undercover by women on the streets of Nairobi. In it, they documented their daily struggle against street harassment simply getting the bus to work. None were mini skirted.

So mini skirts or not, what it comes down to is control. Control over women’s bodies, women’s choices and women’s freedom of movement.

This has to end. Women being able to decide what to wear, on their own terms is a first step, whether that’s a short skirt or a black bag. It’s all about choice.

Now… where’s my mini skirt?


Richard Herring on childhood, Subbuteo and the meaning of Christmas

Richard Herring's picture
Richard Herring Celebrity guest blogger

British comedian, writer and podcaster, Richard Herring, shares his take on the best things about childhood and Christmas. Read this exclusive Q & A below and find out how you can help give a future to a child living in poverty.

Photo of Richard Herring in his school uniform in his school days
Richard Herring in his school days
Photo: Richard Herring

Being a child

What three things were best about being a child?

I loved school (I know), being cheeky and being able to spend all day playing.

When you were small, what were the three things you couldn’t live without?

Subbuteo, jokes and family.

Imagining the future

When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

A clown to begin with, then I wanted to write stories. Then be a comedian. So I essentially knew what I wanted to be at four years old.

How did you envision the future as a child, what did you think it would be like? How is it different to what you imagined?

I wrote a story called 'Time Bomb' in which the future was exactly the same as the 1980s, as science had run out of inventions. Embarrassed by their failure to live up to sci-fi predictions they painted everything silver and put switches on things and pretended they worked automatically. I was wrong. Turns out we had a lot more inventions in us.

What piece of advice would you give to your 10-year-old self?

Never listen to advice sent back through time by your future self.


What were the best and worst Christmas presents you were given as a child and why?

6 x 3 snooker table was the best. Book tokens instead of a Scalextric was probably the worst!

What one thing would you change about Christmas?

It comes round too fast. Once every two years.

What if Richard hadn't gone to school?

We love the fact that going to school was one of Richard's favourite things as a child. Let's face it, without going to school, it's unlikely he'd have become the succesful comedian and writer he'd apparently dreamed of being from the age of four.

Millions of children in developing countries don't get to go to school. No education often means no livelihood, fewer choices and a bleak future.

This Christmas, we're asking you to help a child go to school and, like Richard, realise their dreams. Please consider giving a child the chance of a better future this Christmas.

What is it about the Christmas ads that captures our hearts?

Michelle Lowery's picture
Michelle Lowery Communications Team

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, it will not have escaped you that the Christmas season is upon us. The big retailers are ringing the bells to say “it’s here, it’s launched”. John Lewis, as part of its annual tear-fest, has given us Monty the Penguin. M&S has Christmas fairies spreading festive kindness far and wide. Sainsbury's has pulled out the big guns for their First World War truce. No doubt there are more ads to come.

But what is it about these ads that captures our attention and makes them so heart-warming that people up and down the country find themselves wiping away a tear?

Elisa (third from the left) posing for a photograph with some of her family outside their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Elisa (third from the left) with her mother and four of her ten siblings outside their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Photo: Kate Holt/ActionAid

Well, they highlight the joy of giving, of spreading cheer to loved ones, but they also tell a story, a story that captures the magic of a child’s happiness. A little boy whose imagination is so vivid that to him his toy penguin is real, so he buys him a playmate for Christmas to give him the same love and companionship that the boy sees all around him. Even the most cynical of us can’t fail to have our hearts a little melted by the sentiment of love, friends and family.

Our Christmas campaign

Today, we launch our Christmas campaign, and we hope that we can inspire some of the same sentiment to help children urgently in need. This Christmas, for thousands of children living in some of the world’s poorest countries - including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, and Myanmar - their story is not a happy one, but one of desperation and fear of an uncertain future.

Children like 6-year-old Elisa from the Democratic Republic of Congo are hungry and scared. Instead of going to school Elisa (pictured above) spends her days working with her mother, carrying heavy loads of glass bottles so they can earn enough money for their family to eat just one meal a day. You have the power to change that.

Give a child a future

Child sponsorship doesn’t just help one child, it benefits their loved ones and neighbours too. Just £15 a month, or 50p a day, helps ensure children get enough food to eat and the chance to go to school.

At ActionAid we’re asking if, this Christmas, you could sponsor a child like Elisa, and change their story to a story in which they too can experience joy and happiness and the chance of a better future.

Photo: ActionAid/Kate Holt

Giving birth in an Ebola epidemic: 1 in 7 women could die

Sarah Alexander's picture
Sarah Alexander ActionAid Ambassador

Last year, actress and ActionAid Ambassador Sarah Alexander visited health centres and maternity wards in Bo, now one of the worst Ebola hit areas in Sierra Leone.  Here, in a guest blog for ActionAid, Sarah talks about the huge risks for women giving birth in the heart of the Ebola epidemic.

Sarah Alexander, with a new mother in a small but functioning birth waiting home, built with support from ActionAid
Sarah Alexander with midwife Mary Angela and Iye Mammy, 25, holding her newborn baby, Bo, Sierra Leone
Photo: Greg Funnell/ActionAid

A year ago, I was sat in a medical centre with Mary – a midwife who delivers a baby a day across 15 communities - discussing the importance of increasing the medical services available to pregnant women. She has one pair of forceps and sometimes delivers two babies at the same time.

Before ActionAid built the medical centre Mary worked in, women often died during labour, as they had to make a five-mile journey on foot to the nearest hospital.

Having given birth twice, I couldn’t begin to imagine going through it on my own, in the middle of the bush, with no help and no support, let alone any drugs.

1 in 7 women may die in childbirth

So it saddened and shocked me when I heard that, in Ebola affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, one in seven women could die in childbirth.

Imagine giving birth in the middle of the Ebola epidemic:

  • You’re too afraid to visit health facilities because of the fear and stigma around Ebola.
  • Back home, no one will help you, because they’re afraid of contact with bodily fluids, which is how the virus spreads.
  • So eventually you travel all the way to a health facility but they turn you away as they’re already overstretched trying to cope with Ebola patients.
  • Tired and alone, you end up giving birth in the streets, with no one to help you because people fear coming near you, and feeling vulnerable and scared for the safety of you and your newborn baby.

This is the reality for many women in Ebola affected West Africa right now.

Ebola ‘Miracle’ baby

The medical centre I visited in Sierra Leone was basic. The delivery room was small and, compared to the UK, pretty run down. But the women I met were receiving the care and attention they needed. It breaks my heart to think that now, because of the fear of Ebola, even the most basic of care is being denied to women at their most vulnerable.

ActionAid has told me about a woman they’ve been helping in Liberia, who was forced to give birth on her own, because everyone around her – even the nurses - were too scared to touch her, in case she had Ebola. Luckily she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, who she named ‘Miracle’.

More help needed for women

In Sierra Leone, ActionAid will soon be working with the government’s District Health Management Teams to provide cleaning materials and protective equipment to keep hospitals safe for pregnant women, as well as running media campaigns to encourage pregnant women to visit hospitals.

But more must be done to stop this horrendous prediction of 1 in 7 women dying in childbirth coming true. We have to ensure that pregnant women get the care they urgently need otherwise we will see the rate of maternal deaths skyrocket. Ebola has taken enough lives already.

Further reading on Ebola

3 things we must do right now to fight Ebola

Anjali Kwatra's picture
Anjali Kwatra Head of News

As the Ebola death toll nears 5,000 and the World Health Organisation warns of 10,000 new cases a week by Christmas if we don't stop the spread, we asked Dr Colin Brown, Infectious Diseases Registrar at King's College Sierra Leone Partnership what three things we must do right now to fight the Ebola crisis in West Africa. This is what he said.

Dr Colin Brown, Infectious Diseases Lead, King's Sierra Leone Partnership

We need to do them right now. We're running out of time. And we need your help.

  • £25 can pay for cleaning and disinfectant materials for three families at risk from Ebola.
  • £50 can buy three sets of personal protective equipment for volunteers supporting people under quarantine.
  • £100 can provide training to a community on how to keep themselves safe and help stop the spread of Ebola.

Learn more about Ebola

In this guest blog, leading HIV and AIDS activist and former CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust, Sir Nicholas Partridge draws comparisons between the fight to defeat HIV and AIDS and Ebola and looks at how we can use this knowledge to limit Ebola's spread.

Sir Nicholas Partridge addresses an international audience of HIV/AIDS activists in Lisbon, Portugal
Sir Nicholas Partridge addresses an international audience of HIV/AIDS activists in Lisbon, Portugal
Photo: Terrence Higgins Trust

Thirty years ago, the little known HIV virus brought illness, isolation, stigma, fear and anger to the UK. The terror and fear felt then, now haunts Sierra Leone and Liberia. They are grappling with the horror of Ebola and its power to devastate and inflict an appalling death on loved ones.

The differences and similarities between the spread of HIV and AIDS and the Ebola outbreak

While there are some obvious differences between HIV and AIDS and Ebola, there are many very real similarities. Before the advent of anti-retroviral drugs, HIV was too often a death sentence for all who contracted it, albeit on a longer time frame than Ebola; seven in ten will not survive the Ebola virus but will die within weeks of showing symptoms.

Long-term HIV survivors in the UK can empathize with the anguish those in Liberia and Sierra Leone must feel, knowing that effective treatment is unknown, uncertain and unavailable.

The underlying causes that drove the rapid spread of the HIV virus were complex and in the eighties still unknown. Yet we already knew that the impact was much worse in the USA, so were fortunate to gain early, important lessons from Americans who were sharing our pain: how to build effective community support through buddying, the importance of education and prevention campaigns and the critical role of good evidence, robust science and rigorous medical intervention.

We also saw rash and foolish decisions which did nothing to halt the spread of the virus – travel bans, alarmist and misinformed messages and attacks on those affected. We even saw children banned from schools as happened recently in the north of England with an eight year old child from Sierra Leone.

Stigmatization of those affected and infected by the Ebola virus

We understood very quickly that invisible walls, such as border controls or the stigmatization of those affected and infected, created fear and panic and impeded the open dialogue which should align activists, scientists, health workers and government on the same side; working together to deliver education, care, effective prevention and accelerated treatment options leading to positive solutions. And neither should we underestimate the importance of the rapid scaling up of medical treatment and its delivery by skilled and committed staff, as is now vitally necessary to contain Ebola. 

In the case of HIV, early investment and genuine honest dialogue with all stakeholders including affected communities, local health services, scientists and the voluntary sector created an alliance which had a dramatic effect on the growth of the epidemic in the UK.

We also understood very early on that this positive alliance had to be strengthened across borders and around the world. We saw the changing nature of the epidemic in those who came forward for help and we knew that the pace of the virus in Africa would need intense in-depth response.

When Noreen Kabila of ActionAid came to speak to me in the eighties I shared what we had learnt from the USA. She went back to Uganda and TASO, The AIDS Support Organisation was born. It became the most successful community mobilization initiative in Africa working on HIV/AIDS and its lessons were carried across the world.

A key learning was that it is only through the impressive efforts of community leaders like Noreen that the real challenges serious infectious diseases pose in terms of fear, stigma and exclusion can be addressed.

Ebola response must be swift, committed and serious

As with HIV and AIDS, so with Ebola. The response must be swift, committed and serious. It must also be inclusive and global – a world alliance of scientists, international agencies such as ActionAid, MSF and the Red Cross with their complementary range of approaches, institutional funders, governments and most importantly community organisations working together with compassion and integrity – and with the right resources and commitment.

The Ebola virus can only be defeated by sharing learning and investing in the critical responses that are needed – robust health systems, effective surveillance, positive community involvement, empathy and proper evidence. And response must be to scale. As Dr David Nabarro, the UN’s special envoy on Ebola said, a "20-fold increase" in the global response is needed compared to efforts at the end of August.

Nigeria has shown Ebola can be controlled with swift action, effective surveillance and containment. That’s based on the lessons they learned from their battle with Polio. Although Ebola is now ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, it can still be slowed and eventually halted if enough capacity and resources are dedicated to supporting the sick and their families, stopping transmission and dealing with Ebola’s social consequences.

Success or failure of West Africa’s battle with Ebola is our responsibility as much as theirs

What HIV shows us is that the success or failure of West Africa’s battle with Ebola is our responsibility as much as theirs and our problem as much as theirs.

This is an epidemic that needs a global response. We are tied together by bonds of obligation, the consequences of inequality and poverty and also by our own failure to support those institutions, be they health ministries in West Africa or the World Health Organisation, that are essential to halting the suffering and the threat of the virus.

With all the similarities however, there is one big difference. Given Ebola’s very short cycle of contagion, sickness and transmission of infection, time is of the essence. The lessons and approaches that took years to evolve in the fight against HIV and AIDS must in this case be done in weeks.

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