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(Go Woman Africa) Sierra Leone: Women refused entry to government buildings for showing their bare arms

Leaving Sierra Leone with my son. Sitting next to me is former parliamentarian newly appointed Minister of State Isata Kabia. Ms. Kabia sponsored the right to abortion bill that was passed in parliament but that got sent back by the President after giving in to pressures from a male dominated assembly of religious leaders. Photo Credit: Go Woman Africa

Leaving Sierra Leone with my son. Sitting next to me is former parliamentarian newly appointed Minister of State Isata Kabia. Ms. Kabia sponsored the right to abortion bill that was passed in parliament but that got sent back by the President after giving in to pressures from a male dominated assembly of religious leaders.
Photo Credit: Go Woman Africa

I went to the Immigration Head Office in Freetown, Sierra Leone on a Monday to submit a passport application for my son. On this day I entered the building sans problem, I went passed the security, greeted them and asked for Mr. Kakay’s office. They directed me to a desk inside the building. I went there and they said he was on the third floor.

I spent something like 2 hours at the Immigration Office and was told to return two days later at about 10am to collect the passport. On Wednesday morning with my son in arms, I got out of the car and proceeded towards the entrance just as I had done two days before. I said Good Morning and was about to continue on when a police officer stopped me. This was the same officer who I had greeted two days earlier. I knew he recognized me because I recognized him.

“Excuse me?” I asked half confused.

“You can not enter you are wearing a singlet,” he said.

“A what?”

“Sleeveless. Read the sign. You can’t wear singlet in this office.”

He points to a sign that was behind him taped on the side of the entrance that I had not noticed when I came on Monday. From where I was standing I could not see the sign.

I took a breath. A very deep breath.

“OK. I understand but that sign is all the way over there and I didn’t know there was a dress code. I’m just here to pick up my son’s passport”.

“That is not my problem, go and come back,” he said.

Another Police Officer, he looked older standing on the top of the platform brought himself into the conversation.

“Where do you live?”

“In a hotel, but I can’t go and come back to change my top”.

“Ah well you cannot enter here like that, that is the rule”.

I take another deep breath. I am holding my baby so I don’t want to be upset. Since giving birth 5 months ago, I have taken to wearing tank tops to make it easier for me to breastfeed as and when he needs it. They can see that I am holding a baby. They can see that it is hot. They can also see that by the fact that I was there at the Immigration Office which serves that I am also Sierra Leonean, like them.

“I understand you are doing your job. I understand that this is your law. Can you please call someone from inside who can then assist me with collecting my son’s passport while we wait outside.”

“No I won’t be able to do that”, the younger of the two officers said.

At this point of the conversation I had been reduced to 60 percent of self because when you have to deal with micro aggressions whether they be race or gender based that is what happens. You are reduced to feeling less of a person. The rationale for these dress codes is that if you are a woman and you have on a sleeveless top or shirt or dress that you must be there to seduce one of the Immigration staff. That any woman who dresses like that must be there looking for a man. Because that is what we women do, we come with our breasts to shove in their faces.

“As a police officer you know your job is not to just enforce the law but to serve and assist citizens like me right?”

“Me noh know that”, he says.

“I don tell you say you noh dey go inside.”

At this point people start to gather and they start to ask what, and why. I am still holding my son. Still standing under the sun and now being reduced some more, as I am shamed for wearing a tank top by all the additional eyes there present. I am now 50 percent of self. I explain myself to three different people.

One man an older man comes out and says yes you must respect our country. You go back to where you came from and wear proper clothes. You can not come in here.

“Is this not my country too?”

“Me noh know if na you country.”

I am still holding my son. We are still under the sun being refused entry into a building where I spent many many years playing under the desks. Until I was age 10, when we left Sierra Leone, my mother’s office was on the third floor. This was once the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I had grown up, eating groundnut under the tables, with the children of other Ministry staff. After school we would all walk from our various schools, and collect each other and make it to our parents’ office. It was like a unique form of Daycare, that for the most part is probably being practiced in offices in Freetown. You go wait at your parent’s office and you go home together. In this office  I had been locked countless times in the elevator when there was light off. I had lost one shoes, socks, books, and toys countless times.  It was ironic that of all the buildings in all of Freetown that it would be this same one that my mother had served in for some 30 years that I was being refused entry.

I am asked to step to the side. That I should not block the entrance. People have to go in, I was not people, for this morning I was less than that because I had on a tank top that revealed my arms and chest.

“Go over there!’

They point to the side of the building, a little off to the right. I step away from the front. I stand to the side. It seems like it is going to drizzle. Oh no those aren’t rain drops, they are the tears that start to well up whenever I get reduced below 50 percent of self. It seems my tears never can hold below this point.

I will not cry. You must not cry I tell myself. This is what Sierra Leone does, it tries to make you powerless. It tries to reduce you. You must not be reduced. I must say something to fight back.

“You know this is what is wrong with this country?” I say it loud enough for them to hear me.

“We don’t have any compassion for one another. What if I was your sister, or your wife is this how you would want them to be treated?”

I’m not sure anyone even cares or hears me but I feel better saying that. I know that whatever indignity I am suffering here, I know for a fact that it compares not to the indignities women of lower socio economic status have to suffer in Sierra Leone. I reassure myself that I will get in. This is how they are. I don’t even know who “they” are but I know that this is them.

A man comes out and he says he wants to help me. I have caused enough of a fuss I guess, by refusing to walk away and be dismissed. He asks me what I want and I tell him. Then he goes inside and a woman comes out and hands me a very very sheer scarf. I don’t know how many others like myself, having been reduced have shared arm skin on this scarf. I take it reluctantly barely covering with it and walk passed the police officer. The woman I am going to meet is already coming down the steps, someone had told her I was there. She takes me to the passport section downstairs, formerly the protocol division of Foreign Affairs of which my mother was a director of an all male team. It takes me 5 minutes to sign the form and receive my son’s passport. It took me 30 minutes to enter the building.

As I’m signing the register the man who helped me says, you know you are right. We need a little bit more compassion in Sierra Leone. I don’t smile, I don’t make small talk. I’m still suffering from having been reduced. I hand the scarf back to the owner. I walk out of the building and as I leave I say this to the police office;

“Sometimes we see people on the street they are poor and suffering and no one knows why, maybe they suffer because at some point in their life they showed no “sorri heart” to another human being, maybe one day that will be you. God dey.”

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I didn’t bother to read the sign the was printed on A4 and stuck on the inside of the building. I don’t know if the dress code is even legal especially when it only applies to women. This is not the only government building in Sierra Leone where women are subjected to this kind of harassment and indignity. At State House, the Office of the President you will be turned away depending on who you are if you are wearing pants, yes even a corporate style pant suit because women wearing trousers clearly are sexually loose and will come there to seduce their employees. The same goes for the Youyi Building, if you attempt to enter it on foot, and if you are a woman who looks like you are not well off someone will attempt to stop you. Every single day women are being harassed in Sierra Leone, suffering micro aggressions put there to reduce them, and make them feel less. It happened to me, it could happen to anyone and after this incident I read a letter from the nation’s corporate affairs boss, another woman who was subjected to the same reductions.