A young Kenyan woman approaches a man to whom she has just sold some boiled eggs with kachumbari*. After giving him the three eggs, she asks for her money. He obliges and pays her, and soon she is on her way.
This is no big news, and shouldn’t be. But, unfortunately, this is not what happened.
Instead, upon being asked for the payment, the man starts calling the woman names. He grabs her and shouts at the men around him to help him beat her up. They go further and strip her. Her sister wants to help her but she too is brutalised. She is later taken to hospital for medical care for the injuries she suffers.
This follows a similar incident at the Embassava bus stop on Accra Road in Nairobi where another young woman was recently stripped because she was “indecently” dressed. The incident was captured on video and shared on social media where it went viral.
Consequently, it sparked a conversation and protest in Kenya termed #MyDressMyChoice which tore opinion across the country three ways. One way condoned the stripping, saying that women who wanted to be “naked” ought to be “helped” through forcibly undressing them. The second group condemned the act, but with a disclaimer; that women should always dress “decently” to keep themselves safe.
The third group vouched for women to dress any way they wanted without fear or threat of violence. To highlight these schisms and general impasse, during the #MyDressMychoice protest, a separate group came in with a counter protest, termed #NudityIsNotMyChoice, which called for “decency” in dressing and blamed victims for their attack.
It was soon clear that the stripping was not a question of “indecency” but of power dynamics. According to Gathara, a blogger, the stripping was only the tip of the iceberg and exposed dominant societal dynamics where a group of people want to exert their preferences onto others. Men are turning to stripping women as a way to ‘punish them” for exercising their agency.
I recently overheard two men in a restaurant having a discussion over the incident, and one of them shared a video of the stripping. The one who was watching the video, said that he thought he would also get the men he knew to do the same for him; that is, have them strip a woman for him.
They guffawed at the idea as they dug into their food, the thought never occurring to either that women had rights to their own personal choices about their boidies.
Social systems failure and re-victimisation
In the same conversation arose the question of victims going to the police to report their cases. This, they reasoned, would enhance the speed at which the perpetrators would be arrested and charged if the claims the victims made held any truth to them.
But it is a commonly acknowledged; not many victims are forthcoming.
This is not surprising in light of the kind of experiences that they undergo in the hands of the police. ‘The Star’ newspaper recently reported an incident where a young woman was raped and locked up by a police officer. Ironically, she had gone to visit the officer to get a P3 form to file assault charges. Worse still, the three-month-old baby she had left at home died when she was away.
The policeman is currently under investigation and the woman has been taken to a safe house.
Sexual violence by the police is rampant. The Daily Nation newspaper reported that two police officers were charged in Nairobi for attempting to strip a teenager after she refused the advances of one of them, while the Star again reports the defiling of an underage girl by an administration police officer.
These cases highlight the fact that police reforms have not been as effective as they should be. Furthermore, the presence of gender desks within police stations is proving ineffective. And so, many wonder; where do you turn to when the people who are set to protect you turn against you and become perpetrators of the same violence you are trying to escape?
It is telling that in most sexual violence cases, victim blaming is usually the first resort for most people.
Why didn’t she break out and run?
Why was she dressed that way?
This is the common line of questioning, which in turn distracts focus from the perpetrator and concentrates it on the victim.
Another issue that has stood out in this scenario is the role that online spaces are playing in such perpetration, and re-victimisation of survivors. From the mass sharing of the Embassava video to the vitriolic statements made by many social media commentators, what has become evident is that there is now need for new modes of activism to enlighten the masses on the increasing means of spreading and perpetuating misogyny.
On a larger scale, the increasing attacks of women and girls in Kenya are a bigger indication of the insecurity issue in the country. For many people, this protest was just a drop in an ever-growing ocean.
Kenyan women do not feel safe at home, at work and on the streets.
We are not safe.
* tomato and onion salad
Main photograph is taken from www.aol.com