“To my daughter I will say, when men come, set yourself on fire”
We are very subjective when it comes to defending human rights – it baffles me. We weep for the police officers on duty killed in Kapedo yet we were indifferent for so long to the death and conflict raging through that region. We looked on in disgust when members of the Kenya Defence Forces engaged in looting during Westgate, yet were lukewarm in our responses when, under the guise of operation Usalama Watch, police were practising extortion, exploitation and alleged abuses towards the Somali community.
It is simply not enough to be a human being that has had their rights violated; there are criteria to fulfil, standards to meet, and sympathy and protection of rights must be earned.
Recently a woman left her house wearing a mini skirt, an outfit of her choice; exercising autonomy over her body by dressing it in a way she felt comfortable. She was spotted by a group of men who seemed to have annointed themselves the fashion police, God and crusaders of some form of twisted morality. They concluded that her choice of outfit was improper and proceeded to strip her bare.
A passerby took a video of the incident and chose to upload it on to the internet. Did he ask the woman permission? Did he consider trying to help her and offer her the video to take to the police? Did he contemplate blurring out her face and body parts prior to circulating it on social media? No.
What have we learned from this?
We have learned that in this day and age a woman can easily be violated by a group of men in broad daylight. We have learned that there are men who continue to retain the idea that it is their right to police and punish a woman for taking ownership of her body. We have learned that freedom of choice seems to be but an illusion, an empty promise; a subjective right. We have also learned that these incidents (when they are not happening to us or our loved ones) are a form of entertainment. The victim is insignificant. We are uninterested are in the human who is being destroyed so publicly – the destruction is only significant based upon how many internet hits it creates.
It was not enough that this woman had been abused in an atrocious manner by a group of men on the roadside, there was more. Her supporters took to social media using the hashtag #mydressmychoice to speak out against the actions of these barbarians. Unfortunately, we witnessed in response to this an extension of the same misogyny that had played out in the midst of that street in Nairobi. In an array of tweets, blogger Robert Alai stated that “The lady stripped naked was scantily dressed, then when she was informed she started insulting people correcting her.” He added “The fact that she was walking in public gave everyone around the right an opinion” and “You dress scantily, I will either personally undress you or sponsor your undressing. Let’s not be pretenders here.”
These tweets have since been deleted.
What was more disenchanting than Alai’s views was seeing just how many people concurred, and tweeted similar opinions. Apparently, women who do not dress ‘decently’ have no respect for themselves, thus do not deserve respect from others.
We are still waiting to find out what “decently” means.
As a friend said, “You know what the weirdest thing is about this debate on stripping women? That we are having a debate on stripping women!”
A human being was assaulted, had their clothes removed by a group of thugs and the discussion we are having is about whether this was justified? How has it come to this?
We continue to fail to have the right discussions, trivial issues dominate the headlines and sensationalism takes the day. Where has the discussion been on the very structures in our society which enable this behaviour? Who is to instigate the conversation on the ethics of the video being circulated? Where is the greater debate on the misogyny and collective silence that surrounds us?
Since the woman was stripped in public, there have been debates on TV which mainly seemed to focus on whether her clothing meant she deserved it or not. Robert Alai and others who subscribe to his school of thought were invited on and aired their views. The man who agrees with the stripping of women was the one who ended up on TV.
Of course there is only ever one response given when we question this: freedom of expression. We have the right to freely express our views and opinions. Right?
So everyone possesses and is free to exercise their right to argue that if a woman dresses indecently (whatever that means) she warrants attack, sexual abuse and rape. However, that same freedom of expression does not apply to the female who chooses to wear a mini skirt, who expresses herself via her clothing and so should?
This particular situation, just like that of rape survivor Liz, illustrates once more the warped view some quarters of our society have about women, and the greater issue – that of impunity.
How many have stopped to question what progress has been made regarding the case of 16 year old Liz who was raped by 6 men, her body thrown into a deep pit latrine and when a complaint was made the perpetrators were ordered as punishment to mow lawns. How many have asked about what support the rape survivors of post election violence are getting?
This past weekend, Deputy President William Ruto demanded the perpetrators in the stripping case be arrested. Be it for the sake of public popularity – or out of genuine concern – it is a miracle that he spoke out considering the number of incidents which take place targeting women in this country everyday that are greeted with silence. If nothing is done, will the Deputy President or indeed anyone else follow this case up in six months time?
A 2013 United Nations report states 1 in 5 women in Kenya experience violence at some point in their lifetime. We hear these statistics. We shake our heads at them. Then this week we find ourselves, not for the first or last time, having to explain why there is never a justification for this type of violence. It is not enough that the person attacked was human, it is not enough that her basic right to self determination was infringed upon. No, because every time a woman is a victim of a crime we have to bring out the old arguments: “What if it was your mother or sister?”, “She was helpless/alone/young/old!” as if there is a check-list which must be ticked off to justify her being a victim.
The Kenyan police have requested the woman that was stripped in public to approach them and file a complaint regarding the assault. If they are currently aware of opinions being spouted in the media regarding her “deserving” such treatment, is justice not already an elusive concept? Having been humiliated once, would her potentially fragile state of mind be at ease sitting in front of a group of policemen and women who have seen videos and images of her brutal attack be circulated as if it is to be watched popcorn in hand?
How many women, having seen the response to this case, will now be silenced forever? How many will be deprived of justice because they live in fear of being told their general conduct incited men and therefore it is their own doing?
We live in a society where excuses are made for the rich, the powerful, the corrupt and, frequently, for men.
People will speak out about the Government’s security failings in Kapedo, they will speak out against the corrupt pastors in this country and they will stand on rooftops and condemn all those involved in the land grabbing cases to hell. They will criticize the leaders that take advantage of their position to exploit us, and the police officers who believe that their uniform gives them licence to terrorize us with no fear of consequence.
Yet the same criticism does not apply to a group of men on the roadside who, armed with impunity, chose to carry out an act of violent abuse.