When she entered Parliament in 1992, the National Assembly observed a strict British-style dress code.
But prophetess Mary Wanjiru, as the media and parliamentary colleagues referred to her, unscrewed the first tight nut on these rules through her dramatic antics.
After several unsuccessful pleas to House Speaker Francis ole Kaparo to allow her wear a religious garb to Parliament, the Kinangop MP stormed the House one afternoon in a flowing white attire, complete with a matching headgear.
Confronted over “indecent” and “unparliamentary” dressing, she went on her knees and started mumbling words of prayer for her parliamentary colleagues and Speaker for his “ignorant acts”.
Colleagues watched her in awe but, at the end of the pious session, MPs unanimously resolved to accord the “prophetess” her space.
The relevant Standing Orders were adjusted to allow members to wear religious garb, including long robes and white caps for the Muslim faithful.
Nearly 15 years later, three days ago, Britain’s House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, gave an indication that the conventional rule requiring male MPs to wear suits and ties may be abandoned.
No doubt, this is news that the former Kinangop MP would gladly welcome, considering her argument throughout her quarrel with Kenya’s parliamentary dress code is that it had “blindly embraced a foreign culture”.
Having consistently fought this very rule since the 1970s, former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere termed the development in the House of Commons “a big blow to our political elite, who have over the years condemned us to slaves of the British culture.”
“We congratulate the British for liberating themselves and call upon our Kenyan brothers and sisters in Parliament to follow suit – unless of course they want to exhibit more British mannerisms that the British themselves,” the veteran politician remarked sarcastically.
WEARING OF JACKETS
A report in Friday’s UK newspaper, The Guardian, quotes the House of Commons press office stating that the wearing of jackets and ties in the House was a relatively modern convention and was therefore within the Speaker’s power to rule on it.
Guidelines issued by the Speaker to MPs about their conduct similarly make it clear that tie-wearing is not a rule but merely a custom: “There is no exact dress code. Convention has been that for men, a jacket and tie is expected; for women the equivalent level of formality should be observed.”
A similar debate on parliamentary dress code is ongoing in the French parliament, where many new leftwing MPs turned up for the new session without ties.
Jean Luc Mélénchon, leader of the Insoumise party, compared his open-collared followers to the Sans Culottes, the working class of the French Revolution: “We have had the Sans Culottes, now we have the Sans Cravates,” he is quoted in The Guardian.
Back home, wearing of a necktie is neither “gentlemanly” act nor a custom, but the rule. And those who break the rule are kicked out of the august House.
Among the victims of the Eleventh Parliament is Awendo legislator Jared Opiyo, who in 2014 was ordered to leave the chambers by National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi for indecent dressing.
Constitutional lawyer, Harun Ndubi, attributes this trend to a fixation with power at the expense of pursuing what is morally and lawfully right.
He cites the instance of former Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, who discarded use of red gowns and white wigs for judges, a tradition borrowed directly from the British law system. But upon replacing Mutunga, new CJ David Maraga re-introduced the white wigs and red gowns.
MAKE POSITIVE STRIDES
“ If only we can stop focusing on power and start looking at people as those deserving our service, then we shall make positive strides,” argues Ndubi.
The lawyer hopes that next Parliament should be fairly accommodative.
Koigi, who has had a long battle with parliamentary chiefs over dressing code, recalls a day in 2003 when he was kicked out of Parliament for adorning a Kaunda suit and had to run across the streets to quickly purchase a necktie and a coat.
“There was a crucial motion coming up, and being its mover I did not wish to miss the session. So I shout at the lady at the stall – “get me a coat and necktie, which you should tie quickly because I have not known how to do it. She did that and I dashed back,” he recollects.
Former AG Charles Njonjo is bound to be disappointed with the latest development. Njonjo, who characteristically wears (to this date) a three-piece striped suit, was the strictest enforcer of the parliamentary dress code in the 1970s and 80s.
“I recently had lunch with him and he still took issue with my ‘African kitenge’ wear, which he remarked gave me a casual look,” says Mr Koigi.