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How are my trousers the church’s business?

“In Jesus name, please tell her to go back home and change”, he said, to which I replied, “In Jesus name, please allow me to listen to the sermon”. If I can wear trousers in the Vatican, why not in certain Nigerian churches?

I went to church earlier this year to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Upon my arrival, I was barred from entering by an elderly man, who I suppose was the churchwarden. He stood by the door like a sentry, and demanded I explain why I wasn’t wearing a scarf. When I told him I didn’t have on he said I couldn’t come in. As I stood wondering whether to return to work, I noticed the main entrance of the church was unguarded, so I sneaked in “unveiled”.

Yes, I walked into church without a scarf, and no, the church didn’t crumble; neither did the priest stop preaching nor the congregants become distracted. Mass continued without a hitch. So why the brouhaha about ladies not hiding their head under a scarf or hat, or about them wearing trousers or shorts to church?

On Good Friday, I made a conscious decision to attend Mass, and since it was my first time in the south-eastern city of Eket, I thought it was a nice idea to experience Mass in a new and different environment. My mom and I arrived a few minutes late, so we had to sit on the veranda as the church was filled to capacity. No sooner had I sat down than a churchwarden tapped me on the shoulder, motioning that I follow him. Naturally, I ignored him. He returned a few seconds later and again tapped me on the shoulder, to which my response was “What is the problem?” He said I should come with him. I declined, saying if he had anything to say to me he could say it where we were.

When he saw I wasn’t prepared to budge, he said I should go home and change because trousers are prohibited in church. My mom, who was seated next to me, began to explain to him, much to my chagrin, that we hadn’t had time to change before coming to church or we’d have been late for Mass. Needless to say, her explanation fell on deaf ears because his reply to her was – “In Jesus name, please tell her to go back home and change”, to which I replied in a mocking fashion, “In Jesus name, please allow me to listen to the sermon”. With that, he gave me the evil eye and walked away.

This last incident reminded me of a similar one that happened when I was 17. I was barred from entering church because I’d worn trousers. As I argued with the churchwardens over my choice of clothing, the Irish parish priest, who wasn’t presiding over Mass that morning, rose from where he sat to tell the wardens to let me in. Later that day, much to my delight, I heard I was the object of his homily in the subsequent Mass he presided over. Although I wasn’t aware of what he said, I know he supported my act of protest because no one bothered me at Mass afterwards.

How is it that women can wear trousers in the Vatican without being harassed, but are banned from doing so in certain churches in Nigeria? The response I hear all the time is, “it’s not our culture”. It’s not our culture? OK, so is Christianity our culture? Are the western clothes we wear every day part of our culture? The people who introduced most of us to Christianity permit women to wear trousers in places of worship, so why can’t adopters of the religion do the same? The truth is men, who have always been custodians of religion, conveniently discarded sections of Scriptures that they found unpalatable and selfishly imposed those sections that are restrictive or oppressive to women. Religion, in their hands, became a front for maintaining unfair social mores that aren’t at all beneficial to women.

A newlywed couple during their church ceremony. Men can wear clothes of any colour, but women are still expected to wear white. Photo: © Lanre Balogun
A newlywed couple during their church ceremony. Men can wear clothes of any colour, but women are still expected to wear white. Photo: © Lanre Balogun

But then religion has long been used as a tool of oppression by those in power. Flip through the pages of the Bible and you’ll find passages condoning slavery, which slave owners were all too happy to highlight in an attempt to justify slave ownership. It’s the same bible, if taken literally, that urges women to submit completely to their husbands. That particular verse is often read ad nauseam at wedding ceremonies to make women believe they should always acquiesce to their husband’s decisions or behaviour, no matter how absurd, simply because he is the head of the household. Why can’t both parties rule the household equally? Does testosterone make one any smarter or more responsible? While society milks that verse for what it’s worth, the preceding verse about men loving their wives as they love themselves is either mysteriously forgotten or mentioned en passant.

Speaking of wedding ceremonies, how come women who opt to marry in church are made to submit their wedding gowns for inspection? Are they little kids that need advice and direction on what they can and can’t wear on their wedding day? Similarly, why are women subjected to pregnancy tests prior to their wedding and berated, if pregnant, while nothing is said to the fiancé? If the Church is averse to presiding over the wedding of a pregnant woman, shouldn’t the man be equally castigated for her “plight”?

Lately, I’ve been wondering why women have to wear white, or shades closer to white on their wedding day, while men can wear any colour they want. Is this society’s way of perpetuating the archaic belief that the woman must be the picture of purity, but not the man? We are still hanging on to the bizarre notion that women have to remain virgins until married, meanwhile men are encouraged to have lots of sexual experiences before marriage. If that’s the reality we’ve accepted, then with whom are these men having sex?

Under Sharia law, a woman caught committing adultery is whipped or even stoned to death, but nothing ever seems to happen to her “partner-in-crime”. If at all any punishment is meted out to him, it’s often much milder than the one the woman has to bear. Likewise, in the biblical story of the adulterous woman, one wonders why the Pharisees brought the woman before Jesus but not the adulterous man. Are women the only ones culpable for adultery?

Religion is like a knife – in the hands of a chef it can do wonders, but in the hands of a maniac it can wreak havoc. History and recent happenings have shown how religious fanatics have used religion as a tool to oppress people or create hell on earth for those with differing views. Moreover, it doesn’t help that some texts contained in these holy books are vague, thereby making interpretation contingent upon the interpreter’s bias. With this in mind, adherents of any faith should tread carefully and constantly pose these questions: what is the aim of the message being preached? Does it sit well with my conscience? Will it oppress my neighbour(s)? If tables were turned and I was at the receiving end of these teachings, would I be pleased? Essentially, one has to remember the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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