Sunday, March 13, 2011

Whoo-eee: Showing a Little Knee

Women in South Africa can, and do, wear low-cut blouses without provoking so much as a second glance. This should not be confused with a lack of modesty. The women I'm most familiar with are extremely modest, but their South African standards are quite different from what we are accustomed to in the US. While both cultures seem to view bare shoulders as mildly indecent for school, work and religious gatherings, the body part whose exposure is deemed least acceptable here may come as a surprise. It is the knee.

A good Motswana woman never bares her knees. It can be well over a hundred degrees, she can be wearing the skimpiest excuse for a blouse imaginable, but her knees will be well covered by a skirt or even pants. The local aversion to the sight of one's knees has been brought home to me on two occasions.

The first occurred many moons ago. I was at a shop in town, visiting my host sister M. A young Afrikaner girl stopped in to inquire about a traditional, Setswana-style miniskirt. M attempted to point her in the direction of the traditional clothes, whose skirts were calf-length and longer, but the girl insisted on a shorter style. M resorted to a blank stare. It wasn't just that she had nothing of the like in stock, it was that it simply did not exist. Traditionally dressed Batswana women did not wear short skirts. They did not show their knees.

The second instance was more recent. An international school visited Loopeng from Hong Kong. They played a soccer game with learners from Moshaweng. I was among the gawking spectators. What were we gawking at? The knees! Our international visitors were dressed conservatively to the best of their knowledge with big, baggy t-shirts and shorts that definitely followed the thumb rule, but there were a lot of knees on the field that day. I don't think anyone was particularly offended by it, just surprised (myself included). I guess that's a good sign. I've adapted so well to the local culture, I've started to take their fashion choices as the norm. Hopefully, I won't be overwhelmed by the preponderence of bare legs when I return to the US.

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