The Law and Indecent Dressing in Nigeria

Since we were children, our society has made it obvious that indecent dressing will not be condoned. It is almost impossible to ignore the deep knitted frown on the faces of our mothers when they are suddenly confronted by a woman wearing a skirt a tad too small or blouses with necklines that plunge deep within the valleys of the known unknown. Men are not exempt from condemnation as fathers warn their daughters to stay away from men who wear dreads or pierce their ears or sag their trousers. Men who carry bushy hair are also labelled ‘irresponsible’. Lest we forget about the Police force and how they target men who fall under the above categories.

It begs the question, is it a crime in Nigeria to actually dress in a manner termed as indecent, which is largely subjective?

It should not come as a shock that most people, especially youths, like to dress in a manner that feels best or most comfortable to them. People’s dressing depends largely on the venue or location of the place in question.

Recently, one of the catalysts of the 2020 End SARs protest was due to profiling of young men by Police and SARs operatives. This led to brutality and in some cases death of these young men that were profiled by the Police or SARs.

This has resulted in multiple arguments and questions as to where our law stands regarding this issue. In order to know the position of the law on this issue, it is important to first understand what Indecent Dressing is all about.

What is Indecent Dressing?

What does it mean to dress up in an indecent way?

Some may define indecent dressing as wearing clothes which reveal certain parts of the body that should be covered up. Others may define it as putting on clothes that are too short or too revealing. It is important to note, that the decency or lack of of an attire is subjective.

Illegal or Not?

A critical examination of the main criminal laws in Nigeria, i.e the Criminal Code and Penal Code, reveals that there is no section of the law that penalises anyone who puts on clothes seen or perceived to be Indecent.

Under the Criminal Code

Rather than a provision for Indecent Dressing, the Criminal Code made provision for Indecent Acts. This can be found under Section 231 of the Criminal Code where the law states that:

Any Person who;

  1. willfully and without lawful excuse does any indecent act in any public place or; 
  2. willfully does any indecent act in any place with intent to insult or offend any person is guilty of a misdemeanor, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.” 

Of course the above stated provision does not in any way either expressly or impliedly make indecent dressing a crime.

The provision of Section 134 (1) and (2) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State is exactly the same with the provision of Section 231 of the Criminal Code as stated above.

Under the Penal Code

The Penal Code in trying to curb indecency provided in Section 200 that

whosoever to the annoyance of others does any obscene or indecent act in a public place shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine or both.”

It is clear that the above provision of the Penal Code does not in any way prohibit putting on indecent dresses whatsoever.

Going up north, the provision of the Kaduna State Penal Code law has a provision similar to that of the above stated Section 134 of Criminal Law of Lagos State. Particularly, Section 168 captioned ‘Obscene or Indecent Acts’ provides;

whoever to the annoyance of others does any obscene or indecent act by whatever means to the public shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of not less than two Years or with a fine of not less than Two Hundred Thousand Naira or both”

Also the above in no way makes a crime a personal decision to put on any clothes of choice even if tagged indecent.

Under Sharia Law

It should however be noted that by the provision of the Sharia Law which is only applicable in 12 Northern States which are: Zamfara, Kano, Sokoto, Katsina, Bauchi, Borno, Jigawa, Kebbi, Yobe, Kaduna, Niger and Gombe, Indecent dressing is frowned at and the punishment for its contravention ranges from a couple of months imprisonment to an option of fine.

It should also be noted that the said Sharia law is only applicable to Muslims and does NOT apply to Non-Muslims unless such Non-Muslim decides to be guided by the Sharia Law.

To corroborate the above stated, the various Sharia Courts have jurisdiction only if the persons concerned are Muslims or decides to be governed by Sharia Law and if not the law does not have jurisdiction.

Conclusion

Now, considering the various provisions stated above, it can be deduced that there is no law that specifically criminalizes putting on indecent dresses aside from the sharia law in some Northern states which is only applicable to Muslims or other persons who decides to be governed by Sharia Law.

It is therefore wrong for the police or other security agency to arrest or detain anyone for putting on any cloth of choice as such arrest or detention will be illegal and a breach of the person’s fundamental rights. The exception of the Sharia Law should always be remembered as stated above in the applicable states.

It will be right to then say the uproar on indecent dressing is more of a religious or moral critique than a legal offence.

E.I Onanuga Esq (Olojumeta)

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