On Short Sleeves and the Church
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The new priest at St. Peters Church is dark-skinned and hawk-like. After mass, he talks about a woman he refused to let into the church for a wedding because the blouse she wore with her George wrapper did not have a high-enough neckline. I was very happy we didnt let her in, he screeches with glee, a glee that strikes me as incredibly childlike.
It does not seem to matter to him that this woman was supposed to be a sponsor at the wedding, and that not letting her into the church must have ruined the wedding. Then he goes on to say that he will soon have people at the entrances of the church, manning the doors, ready to send back any woman in sleeveless shirts.
He makes these threats often, I learn later - he is on a self-made mission to purify the university community, to stop the jeans and short-sleeves the female students have been allowed to get away with. I also learn that this new priest refuses communion to women he considers improperly dressed. And that, as he walks into the church for mass, he stops to tap at women and ask them to leave.
My reaction - after my incredulity wore itself out - was where is the outrage in this university community? My cousin Ujuaku tells me the students were annoyed at first but they all have become so used to it that it doesnt bother them. And
yet Ujuaku makes it a point to sit at the back of the church and never on the edge of the pews because she is afraid he might pick on her. Her dresses are long, her trousers loose-fitting, but she wears sleeveless shirts. The fans are not working, she tells me, and the church is always full. It is simply too hot to wear long-sleeves.
Elitist as this may sound, this priest, and the whole scenario, seemed to me odd in a Nigerian university community. But again, the university is changing in other ways - it is a place where murder is snaking itself in, where armed robbery is becoming commonplace, where people are no longer their brothers keepers. And yet the priest day after day, mass after mass, is focused on the clothes women wear.
After listening to that priest, I could not help wondering who exactly is being protected when a middle-aged mother is sent away from church because of her blouse - are we protecting the women from themselves? The men from the women? The men from some form of uncontrollable canine-like lust? Or are we protecting God from seeing bare female arms?
Mostly, though, I wonder if this kind of monotonous barrage that goes on not just in St Peters Church but in many Nigerian churches, this tugging at womens shirtsleeves, is not demeaning to the notion of faith itself, to the idea of an omniscient God.
That, to me, is the big shame.