(CNN) -- Malawian women protested Friday to demand an end to attacks on those who were stripped naked on the streets for wearing pants, leggings and miniskirts, instead of dresses.
Street vendors accused women of defying cultural norms and attacked them this week in Lilongwe and Blantyre, two of the nation's largest cosmopolitan centers.
"They beat them up and stripped them naked, claiming they did not follow the tradition," said Seodi White, a rights activist and protest organizer. "Attacking women in trousers is an outrage. We are a democracy, they're taking us back to the dark ages."
Protesters wore pants, miniskirts and leggings in a show of solidarity as they gathered to condemn the attacks.
Others wore white T-shirts that said: "Today we buy your merchandize, tomorrow you strip us naked!" Written in the local Chichewa language, the words were a reference to the vendors carrying out the attacks, organizers said.
"Women have a right to wear what they want," White said by phone from a protest in the commercial capital of Blantyre. "This is an embarrassment to our nation and an outright contempt for women."
Crowds chanted, "we are strong, we are strong," in the background as they demanded an end to the attacks.
Protesters met in closed spaces to avoid confrontations, she said, with her group gathering at a hall with supporters of both sexes.
The attacks have drawn the attention of the nation's president, who ordered police to arrest anyone attacking women over their attire.
In a speech on state media, President Bingu wa Mutharika warned the perpetrators to stop the attacks, saying women have a right to wear what they want.
Malawi banned women from wearing miniskirts and trousers during decades of dictatorship, but repealed the law in 1994 when the nation adopted multiparty democracy, White said.
Attacks on women wearing pants have occurred sporadically in other African nations as well, including Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Malawi guarantees gender equality in its constitution, but disparities remain in almost all aspects including education, employment and political power, according to human rights groups.
"Like a lot of Africa, there is a culture of instilling fear in women because people know they are voiceless even though they are guaranteed equality on paper," said Faustace Chirwa, executive director of Malawi-based National Women's Lobby Group.
Chirwa blamed the attacks on young men frustrated with the system who were venting their anger on women because they were easy targets.
"A lot of men in Africa believe they can dictate what women can do," she said. "We need tougher laws to protect women."
Chirwa said the Friday initiative is a step for women in Malawi to regain their constitutional rights.