It's fair to say I am not afraid of causing the odd murmur of disapproval.
I enjoyed the look on my teachers' faces when I showed up at my posh secondary school with bum-length blonde braids (think Destiny's Child circa 1996) or scribbled away at my A-level exam papers with inch-long nail extensions. It wasn't mainstream to get your tongue pierced when I did, at 16, and my parents reacted accordingly.
But these were fairly predictable acts of teenage rebellion. If they weren't designed to deliberately shock, then the odd adult complaint was hardly unwelcome. Eventually I grew up, and these days I consider myself a very respectable 31-year-old. So I was shocked, frankly, to discover I am regarded as a scandalous person in Ghana, where I now live. The first inkling came when I went to see my dressmaker – a very talented, very Christian woman who usually has a knack for copying my favourite designer dresses with locally bought bright African fabrics.
Once I took her one of my more low-cut numbers, a lovely fitted mini-dress with a deep V-neck and short skirt. She promised to copy it exactly. Two weeks later, she looked extremely pleased with herself as she returned an unrecognisable garment. It had a neckline more befitting a nun and the skirt had been lengthened by at least 3in. She had copied it, but with improvements. The original was "no good", she offered by way of explanation.
It was then I started to notice that displays of flesh are not that prevalent here. I was boarding a plane recently, arms up shoving luggage into the overhead compartment, only to feel a strange tugging sensation around my waist. An old lady sitting in the aisle had taken it upon herself to rearrange my outfit so as to eliminate the possibility of any midriff coming on display. And as for my large hoop earrings – an elderly aunt told me I looked "like a prostitute" when I ventured out in a pair of those.
I have always thought of Ghana as a liberal society where, among other things, people from the diaspora arrive in droves every Christmas to party hard. The latest Ghanaian dance – Azonto – is becoming a worldwide trend, for goodness sake.
But it turns out this liberalism is not as widespread as I thought. One night recently, after what I considered to be a pretty conservative evening out, I returned home at around 1am only for the night watchman to poke his head through my open car window, point his finger right at my nose, and exclaim: "You! You are a bad woman!" Friends reminded me that, for many people here, it's still considered improper for women to go out at night unless accompanied by a husband.
It transpires I'm not the only "bad woman" in Accra. A very sociable friend who recently moved here from London has been receiving blackmail texts from someone who observed her comings and goings when her husband was away, assuming she could only be conducting an illicit affair. "I will send your husband videos of you going out at night," the culprit threatened. Her husband – also a Londoner – found the concept of a brown envelope arriving on the doorstep containing "outrageous" images of his wife meeting friends for a pizza pretty hilarious, although she is a bit more spooked.
Ghana is not Saudi Arabia. There is nothing explicitly banning women from going wherever they please, and even such risqué behaviour as large hoop earrings are perfectly within the confines of the law. But that's just more confusing. There is the illusion of liberalism, when in fact old-fashioned attitudes prevail.
For someone like me there is only one option: locate a tailor with equally loose morals, find a supplier for my beloved hoop earrings and – it's lucky I got all that practice doing this as a teenager – flaunt it regardless.
Eva Wiseman is interviewing Grace Coddington and will be back here next weekThis article was written by Afua Hirsch, for The Observer on Sunday 25th November 2012 00.05 Europe/London
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