negotiating humanity: why are women being stripped in kenya?
Women are conditioned to live in fear. All over the world. Don’t walk on those streets, don’t wear those clothes, don’t be too intimidating, complex, complicated, loud, because men don’t like that. We live in patriarchal societies in which we pander to male preference.
In Nairobi, men on the streets got to do what every misogynist desires: shame, disgrace and put women in their place.
A few weeks ago, an unidentified woman at a bus stop in Nairobi was stripped naked by men who decided she was indecently dressed and deserved punishment. According to The Guardian, ‘dozens of men surrounded the woman, tore off her clothes and forced her to the ground.’ An observer took a video that later went viral.
A woman had been stripped and women took to the streets to protest. The nation was angry. Well – part of it was. The rest of it wondered why she was wearing that in the first place or why she’d walk on those streets like that. Because she’s to blame, partly to blame for this barbaric act.
Women in Nairobi have been dealing with the fallout of the violence – of which there have been increasing amounts. They have had to negotiate their humanity, to explain to men why they have the right to wear what they decide, to walk freely on the streets in the clothes of their choice without fear of intimidation or as it has now come to, being stripped naked.
But Nairobi women refuse to take all this lying down or cowing in fear. Because the world is vast; vast enough for men and women to coexist. The campaign #MyDressMyChoice was born. The hashtag allowed Kenyan women (and women around the world) to assert that they, in fact, are in control of what they wear.
Let’s check our facts: a woman was publicly humiliated and assaulted; thousands blamed her. Therefore a campaign was necessary to convince the public that stripping a woman is wrong and that women have the right to wear whatever they want.
In her essay ‘Silence is A Woman’, Dr. Wambui Mwangi states that in post-colonial Kenya, ‘…women’s bodies are subversive bodies. Women’s power deployed in this way (through what they wear) can only be oppositional, always a challenge, always-already embodying and performing the power to refuse. Yet, women’s bodies do not have to be unclothed for significant utterance. A woman’s daily clothing is already a mode of speech about her life and about her relationship to the situation of her embodiment. In contemporary Kenya, even the banality of women’s everyday clothing appears to pose a threat to masculinist domination’.
The stripping is about so much more than what some deem appropriate to wear in public. It’s about more than female sexuality. Mwangi is asserting that this is about denying female agency, and reasserting male control in the public sphere.
This manner of gender power relations is imported. Women in pre-colonial Kenya did not face such constraints related to their mode of dressing. In 1902, Kenyan women, then regarded as uncivilized, walked with their breasts hanging in the air – yet this did not seem to tempt the men of that time.
Pastor Nate Pyle writes to his son on this Huffington Post blog: ‘Unfortunately, much of how the sexes interact with each is rooted in fear. Fear of rejection, fear of abuse, fear of being out of control. We fear each other because we have been taught the other is dangerous. We’ve been taught a woman’s body will cause men to sin. We’re told that if a woman shows too much of her body men will do stupid things. Let’s be clear: a woman’s body is not dangerous to you. Her body will not cause you harm. It will not make you do stupid things. If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things. So don’t contribute to the fear that exists between men and women’.
This Western-originated fear of the female body that Pyle refers to is the basis for the understanding that women are responsible for men’s violent acts. It trades on the simplistic notion that male sexuality is animalistic and uncontainable, and that woman must be accountable for keeping it in check. Otherwise, they deserve any violation.
This is rape culture.
The stripping in Nairobi not only demonstrates that we continue to hold women responsible for male violence, but that men are increasingly upset that women take up space in the public sphere. They are uneasy about female freedom – stripping is an act of domination and control.
When will we be seen as equal? When can we stop justifying our presence? When will we be able to exist in any way we choose, without being afraid of infringing on male will?
Negotiating your humanity is not an easy thing. To explain to another person why and how you are a human being just like them – hands, feet, brain, nose and all – is tiring. Negotiating your humanity for the same opportunities, rights and privileges as another is exhausting. I pray the day comes soon when I can walk on the street without fear. For I am very tired.
Wawira Njiru was born in Kenya and is studying a Masters in Nutrition at a Nairobi University. She is the founder of Food for Education and a bad-ass feminist.