Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday said the country's women could wear whatever they liked, after police arrested a gang that stripped women on the streets wearing pants.
"You are free to wear what you want. Women who want to wear trousers should do so as you will be protected from thugs, vendors and terrorists," Mutharika said in a live state radio broadcast.
The president commented for the first time as women prepared to stage a sit-in in the commercial capital Blantyre on Friday to defend their right to wear pants.
Police on Wednesday said they arrested a gang of 15 who stripped trouser-wearing women and then robbed them.
The gang appeared to be a group of street vendors.
Mutharika said he was surprised that vendors were harassing the women when in fact "wearing a trouser is more protective to a woman than wearing a skirt".
Seodi White, a lawyer and leading women's rights activist, said in a statement earlier Thursday that protesters would gather in the commercial capital Blantyre "in solidarity with the victims and to express our indignation at such barbaric treatment of mothers, wives and daughters of our country."
"We are calling on all women and men of goodwill to urgently converge on Friday for constructive engagement on the protection of women and the defence of their rights in a democratic Malawi," she said..
Vice President Joyce Banda, who has fallen out with Mutharika amid a split in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told journalists Wednesday the incident was the result of economic woes in a country that is currently racked by shortages of fuel and foreign currency.
"There is so much suffering that people have decided to vent their frustrations on each other," she said.
Until 1994, women in the deeply conservative southern African country were banned from wearing pants under the dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda.
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