#MyDressMyChoice: Why Stripping Victims Do Not Report It

November 28, 2014 § 2 Comments

Early this week, Kenya’s National Police Service called on the victims stripped for being “indecently dressed”, who have since ‘gone underground’, to “report to any police station and make an official complaint in order for the matter to be investigated.” The police said there was no complainant to link the suspects to the offense.

But women are still made to feel like it’s their fault. We are now silencing them by saying we’ll only listen to them if they report. And that unless they report, their experience, their word, isn’t valid. Never mind that even when they report, they still get silenced in other ways.

– Aisha Ali, Did You Report It?

Human beings react differently to trauma from sexual violence such as stripping. Some will fight it out by reporting it and pursuing justice through the legal system. Others will withdraw to deal with their trauma and heal. Drawing from my own experience as a sexual assault victim, here’s a look at some of the messages we send to victims of gender-based crimes and how it impacts their decision on whether or not to report.

“Men Own You”

As with rape and every other sexual crime, stripping is about men seeking to assert power, control and dominance over women. The perpetrator’s intention is to show the victim that they have the power to take away control of their bodies at any time they want. They can strip your clothes off whenever they so desire. This leaves the victim feeling helpless, powerless, and unable to stop the perpetrators from doing whatever they want. The result is an overwhelming humiliation at the loss of dignity and control.

The only way stripping victims can attempt to get back control and start to reclaim what was taken from them is by being in control of what happens next. The victim herself must be allowed to decide what they wish to do next. Reporting can only help the victim if they themselves make the decision to report.

“Report it or Else…”

Insisting that the victim to report it only leaves them feeling very uncomfortable. In effect, we are deciding for them what they should do instead of allowing them to decide. We are telling them what they must do before they can have the police investigate, before they can get justice. We are also telling them that the only way their assault will matter is if they report it. And if they don’t, it’s because they don’t really want justice.

In doing so, we ignore the assault and violation they suffered, the humiliation they feel, the trauma they have undergone and their fragile state of mind. We instead focus on OUR needs and not the victim’s. It’s all about what WE need the victim to do. We need them to report it to policemen and women who are likely to have watched the video of their first humiliation. What WE need matters more than their healing. The message is: ‘your assault is about US – not you. We care more about the police report – not what you went through.’

“It’s Your Fault! You Deserved It!”

In addition to the stripping violation, the victim was also blamed and shamed for their violation. Online enablers of offline violence such as blogger Robert Alai have already made the victim feel like it was their fault for being stripped, like they deserved it.

In many cases, blaming and shaming victims of sexual violence leaves them thinking: If it’s my fault, then what’s the point in reporting? Why bother to report when I will lose the case anyway? With my case already tried and judged in the court of public opinion, how can I then expect justice from the courts of law?

With all this victim-blaming and survivor-shaming, is it any wonder then that the stripping victim should instead decide to “go underground” rather than undergo a second humiliation by reporting?

***

In Kenya, part of the victim-blaming and victim-shaming of survivors of sexual assault comes in the form of a bellicose insistence that the victim report the crime to the police, despite full knowledge that the police are known to perpetrate sexual violence themselves…  In the meantime, the society abdicates any responsibility for ethical thinking or community resolution at all. These processes are out-sourced to state structures and state institutions whose most notable feature is their complicity in the masculinist and misogynist structures of the rest of society.

– Wambui Mwangi, Touting Contempt: Slag Them, Slap Them, Strip Them, Snuff Them

Just a week after the #MyDressMyChoice march, Christopher Gathara, a Kenyan police officer (right) is charged in court alongside Samuel Maina Ngige, a tout, for assaulting and attempting to strip a 16 year old girl

Just a week after the #MyDressMyChoice march, Christopher Gathara, a Kenyan police officer (right) is charged in court alongside Samuel Maina Ngige, a tout, for assaulting and attempting to strip a 16 year old girl

Even when victims of sexual violence report their assault, they often get silenced by the very same police they report to. Kenyan police have a history of dehumanizing, dismissing and refusing to believe victims who report sexual violence and assault. Police in Kenya have also been found to refuse to investigate sexual or gender-based crimes or demand money to do so. Even worse Kenyan police themselves continue to perpetrate sexual violence.

Barely a week after Kenyan women marched under the #MyDressMyChoice banner to protest stripping violations, a police officer was arrested for attempting to strip a 16 year-old school girl. The policeman, Christopher Gathara was charged alongside a tout, Samuel Maina Ngige with assault and attempting to undress the schoolgirl inside a matatu. Media reported that the policeman started seducing the girl and upon seeing that she was not interested, began to abuse her before he was joined by a passenger, who now threatened to strip her. Other passengers and the matatu crew helped in arresting the perpetrators.

If our very own Kenyan police force is stripping us, then who are we to report our stripping violations to? If stripping victims have no alternative but to report to a police force that is incapable of reform, then clearly it’s time for Kenyans to begin looking into alternative avenues of community justice. Audre Lorde said it best when she wrote:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. 

#MyDressMyChoice & the Contradictions of the “African Decency” Argument

November 26, 2014 § 4 Comments

Early last week, Kenyan women took to the streets under the banner: #MyDressMyChoice, to protest against the stripping naked of a woman in Nairobi. The men who stripped the woman did so under the claim that her miniskirt was “indecent” and contrary to the more “modest” African attire. Here are the contradictions and ironies inherent in trying to justify this crime with the argument that miniskirts are contrary to “African decency”.

Pre-Colonial African Dress

Before the missionaries arrived in Africa, African dress – or the lack thereof – was characterized by full or partial nudity. Children mostly went fully nude until the age of puberty after which coverings were used only around the sexual organs. These coverings – typically made of beaded skirts, grass skirts or skin/hide loin cloths, were just short enough to cover the genital areas and nothing else. In fact, the loin cloths that Africans wore before the arrival of Christianity were by far much shorter than the miniskirts commonly sighted on the streets of Nairobi today.

Luo women of Kenya wearing beaded front aprons (1902)

Luo women of Kenya wearing beaded front aprons (1902)

An abundance of vintage photographic evidence supports the fact that Africans were even more “scantily dressed” when the European Christian missionaries first came to Africa, than they are today. For many ethnic groups in Africa, the breasts and buttocks of both adult women and men often went exposed with only the reproductive organs remaining fully covered. Therefore, by true African standards, the only type of dressing that would qualify as nudity or “indecent” is that which exposes the genitalia in adult women and men.

Acculturation & Western Dress

Abolishing nudity was part of the “civilizing” mission of the missionaries; a mission that paved the way for the imposition of European colonial rule in Africa. And neither was this mission to “civilize” Africans undertaken benevolently. The European Christian missionaries would often deny food, medicine and education to as punishment for Africans who resisted the adoption of Christianity and western culture. In many instances, children would only be allowed to attend to school when fully covered in western clothing.

British Christian missionaries in Victorian dress (1866)

British Christian missionaries in Victorian dress (1866)

In his book “The Christian Home”, Peder Aage Rødseth, a missionaries who emigrated to South Africa in 1882, wrote as follows:

“When Jesus enters a home, the domestic life will totally change – also in the outward. The first step is to abolish “nudity” so that the Christian Zulu will start to wear Western clothes.”

Therefore the idea that African nudity and loincloths are immodest actually originated from the European Christian missionaries – not Africans.

Cultural Appropriation & Colonial Brainwashing

“When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”

– Jomo Kenyatta

But the land wasn’t the only thing they took – nor is the bible the only thing they left us. The White Man also adopted our liberal views on clothing and imposed upon us his own conservative Victorian dress culture. When we closed our eyes to pray and then opened them, the Europeans had appropriated our mini skirt and through the process of acculturation, forced us to wear clothing characteristic of the repressed colonial sexuality. And so what we regard as decent African dress is actually European and something that even Europeans themselves no longer strictly wear.

An Italian model poses for a swimwear shoot with Masai women

An Italian model poses for a swimwear shoot with Masai women

Today, mini-clad white girls – protected by the shield of whiteness, are free to stroll the streets of Africa without the risk of being stripped, due to the assumption that they are wearing their culture. However, African girls are not so lucky. When African men violently strip African women for dressing how their ancestors dressed, you realize just how effectively colonial brainwashing has taken root.

African Dress Today

Every culture is rooted in its natural environment and living in the hottest continent on earth, it is understandable why Africans historically went fully or semi-nude. Our ancestors adapted to their natural environment by dressing in the most appropriate manner for the climate they lived in. But in their zeal to police sexuality and root out practices deemed antithetical to Christianity, the Christian missionaries overlooked the origins of this dressing culture and imposed their own.

Turkana women of Kenya - present day

Turkana women of Kenya – present day

But for post-Independence Africans to continue wearing western suits under the scorching African heat, tormenting their bodies with discomfort in the name of decency, is nothing short of sheer madness. Our ancestors wore climate-suitable clothing sourced from locally available natural fibers and materials which also made their way of life more sustainable. Today, we reject our own Africa-made fabrics and materials which are suitable for the African heat, such as the kikoy, leso and khanga. We instead chase after synthetic imports that only serve to benefit western economies while stagnating local textile industries. And we do so while claiming to be defenders of African culture.

It’s also worth noting that our African ancestors did not exhibit any of the materialism and consumerism inherent in western fashion. When they reached puberty and had to cover their sexual organs, they did so with a single loin cloth. They did not stuff their huts full of loin cloths of all styles, sizes, colors, fabrics and designs for different seasons of the year as many Africans do today. Just that one piece of clothing. When it got torn, they mended it. They didn’t just dump their clothes for being ripped, stained or “out of fashion”. When I asked my grandmother the reasoning behind this, she explained:

“Clothing never really mattered. The most important thing was food.”

Fortunately, certain ethnic groups have been able to preserve their traditional dress despite the increasing westernization of Africa. It is not unusual, for instance, to encounter a bare-breasted Himba woman casually strolling down the streets of Windhoek, Namibia today. Other ethnic groups in Africa that remain in full or partial nudity today include the Turkana of Kenya, the Karamoja of Uganda and the San of Botswana.

Contemporary Laws on Dressing

“What we call “our culture” is not a set of fixed, written rules handed down by our forefathers in a leather bound book. Instead, “our culture”, like any other culture, is an interwoven set of constantly changing practices. Culture, a student of sociology will tell you, is constantly in a state of flux: it grows new ideas, it borrows from other cultures, it ceases some long-held beliefs, and it is forever changing. You see, the only permanent culture is a dead culture.”
– Ayo Sogunro

The argument that miniskirts are un-African is flawed and begs the following fundamental questions:
– How can the miniskirt be un-African when the woman wearing it IS in fact African?
– Who appointed the stripping perpetrators judge, jury and executioner on what is and what is not “African”?
– From which laws do these self-appointed morality police derive their authority on the standards of “African decency”?

Africans no longer live in closed communities in which cultural norms are handed down from one generation to the next. We live in nation states governed by written laws relating to culture, dress and decency, amongst others. The only Laws regulating dress in Kenya are enshrined in Article 27 of the Constitution of Kenya as follows:

(4) The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, color, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, DRESS, language or birth.
(5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another person on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (4).

In light of all the contradictions outlined above, the argument that seeks to use African culture to justify misogynistic hate crimes doesn’t hold.

Aggrieved Male Entitlement

Sagging jeans is not African culture. Yet we don’t see men stripping other men naked for walking around in town with their underwear showing. That’s because strippings are not about culture, what the woman wore, what she said or how she behaved. Strippings are a gendered hate crime against women. Strippings occur when African men who feel entitled to African women’s bodies lash out when their advances are rejected. Just like rape, strippings are about African men seeking to assert their power, control and dominance over women.

A young man sagging his jeans and revealing his underwear

A young man sagging his jeans and revealing his underwear

When Africans condemn miniskirts as being “un-African”, the mind-boggling irony is hard to miss. If anything, with the exception of a few ethnic groups scattered across the continent, it is the majority of Africans today who have adopted western culture. It is ironic that all those who are quick to accuse, strip and blame women for being “indecently dressed” in western clothing are in fact casting the first stone while wearing western clothing. If the original African definition of “nudity” and “indecency” consists of exposing the sexual organs, then the only thing that is un-African in this case is the very act of stripping a woman naked.

#MyDressMyChoice & the Future of Leaderful Movements in Africa

November 24, 2014 § 3 Comments

Early last week, Kenyans took to the streets in protest against the stripping naked of woman in Nairobi for being “indecently dressed”. The incident was caught on video and posted on YouTube, sparking outrage that led hundreds of protesters to march under the banner: #MyDressMyChoice.

In the days leading up to the protest march, many Kenyans expressed the increasing disappointment they felt due to the silence of prominent Kenyan women and their failure to take action. They demanded the input of MPs such as Rachael Shebesh, the Nairobi County Women’s Representative. But nothing was forthcoming from her or from any other prominent Kenyan female personalities.

The only well-known Kenyan personality rallying for the protection of women against these rights violations was business woman Esther Passaris. From the get-go Passaris condemned the stripping both on various platforms including talk shows and social media. She even contributed to a financial reward for anyone able to identify the perpetrators in the video, thereby leading to their prosecution. Passaris then showed up at Freedom Corner before the protest march and walked in solidarity with the women until the end.

Well into the march, the women were surprised when several female politicians led by Member of Parliament, Hon. Rachel Shebesh joined them near Kenya Cinema. Nevertheless, Shebesh and her group were welcomed with hugs, singing and dancing as they proceeded to the Head of Police’s office. When the women arrived outside the office of the Inspector General, the politicians began to prepare themselves to make speeches. But that’s when some of the participants rose up and led the chant “No politicians! No politicians!” vehemently opposing their attempt to speak at the event. A decision was then made that as women, this was their cause too, and they were welcome to take part and march along with us. However, because they had failed in taking up a leadership role before the event, they were not welcome to speak. They were instead requested to speak and move policy forward in Parliament, a space in which they enjoy a power they had failed to use until now.

Esther Passaris (right) with a protestor

Esther Passaris (right) with a protestor outside the Supreme Court

The next chant was “Passaris! Passaris!” and from there on, Passaris was designated to speak on the women’s behalf. On that day, the women effectively decided they wanted leaders who would remain by their sides in the trenches, and not those who only turn up after battle to divide the spoils of war.

An End to Hierarchical Leaderships

Shebesh and her group did not join in when the women left the office of the Inspector General for the Supreme Court. And their sudden departure left many wondering: why had the female political class been silent since the stripping incident? Why had they only turned up mid-way into the march? Why did they leave before it ended? Some observers commented that perhaps they had only been drawn by the fact that the march had turned out to be a success; proceeding peacefully with a massive turnout of hundreds of demonstrators.

Therefore, by rejecting Shebesh and her group, the women had in fact saved #MyDressMyChoice from being hijacked and turned into a marketing vehicle for opportunists who seek to take advantage of fundamental issues merely to gain political mileage. In saying ‘no’ to Shebesh and her group, the women had protected the movement from the danger of appropriation by the female political class, the main institutional alternative of the very institution the women were marching against – patriarchy.

Despite being outlawed in the Kenyan Constitution, the practice of stripping women has been going on for decades. At the same time, the female political class has not done anything in their capacity as Members of Parliament to push forward laws and policies to curb this brutal practice. To the women, Shebesh and her group therefore represented the bankrupted traditional political institutions that had already failed to stop the strippings. They served as a stark reminder of a mechanical form of hierarchical organization incapable of reforming itself and paralyzed in the face of big challenges.

The women had taken to the streets because they had already lost faith in the political process. Because they realized that the only way to stop the strippings would be through a truly revolutionary path of protest, rather than just another established political path. The time had come to try something different.

Rachel Shebesh (right) listens to Passaris addressing the demonstrators

MP Rachel Shebesh (left) listens to Passaris addressing the demonstrators

Away with the Cult of Leaders

For many Africans, the idea that a political movement can arise without a charismatic leader is inconceivable. Many believe that every movement needs a leader. Someone to feature on the front-page. Someone to invite on breakfast talk shows. Someone to negotiate with. The “savior” who will rise from the cities, towns and villages of Africa. After all, every previous movement had its figurehead – think Mandela, right?

Wrong. Even Nelson Mandela himself strongly rejected the cult of leadership that evolved around him. Mandela categorically maintained that his accomplishments were the result of collective action achieved by the women and men who he regarded as comrades. This was despite the efforts of the Western media to sanctify him as the individual hero of the anti-apartheid struggle and set him aside from the many women and men who were at the collaborative core of the freedom struggle in South Africa. Mandela sought to reject the depiction of history as the effort of sole heroic individuals in order for everyone to recognize the potential agency of each one of us as part of the ever-growing movement for change.

But the reason why Mandela’s message seems to have missed many of us is because we live in a world and a generation that only knows one kind of leadership, the one whose organizational structure has a decider on the top and worker bees below. Everything about our institutions today, from churches and schools to government and corporations, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Get the answer right, go to the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, and then have a good life.

But today, more and more of us are moving into a world of lateral social networks, enabled by knowledge-based technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share information in real-time. Traditionally, information was the exclusive domain of the top leadership – but not anymore. This new access to information means that individuals are more connected to one another, thereby making the entire movement more interdependent.

Towards Leaderful Movements

Colonization and western influence transformed African societies from community-first entities into societies that promote individualism as a sacred concept, as it is in the West. Going forward, for real change to occur it is important to promote the importance of movements rather than individuals. The way forward for real change in Africa could be “leaderful leadership” – the transformation of leadership from an individual property to a collective responsibility.

A leaderful leadership is characterized by more than one leader operating at the same time. In this way, members do not solely depend on a single individual to mobilize action as decisions are made collectively rather than on their behalf. All members of the movement – not just the leader – remain in control of and may speak on behalf of the entire movement. A leaderful leadership further demonstrates a commitment to serving others, rather than power for its own sake.

Every 21St Century African movement with the hope of bringing about social change must unlock the capacity of its entire people to contribute and empower every willing and capable individual to assume leadership at any moment. We must stop our dependence on masses of subordinates awaiting marching orders from detached politicians who are under the illusion that they alone can fix all the problems. A movement with many leaders instead of just one is also by far stronger than the movements of the past that could easily be stalled or stopped by discrediting, arresting or killing their singular spokesperson.

Hundreds of Kenyans turned out for the #MyDressMyChoice march (Photo: Brian Emmanuel Inganga)

Hundreds of Kenyan women turned out for the #MyDressMyChoice march (Photo: Brian Emmanuel Inganga)

Africa must now rely on networks and groups that create space for the emergence of many leaders – but only those leaders who work as network weavers rather than charismatic demigods. We must now move towards a leaderful world of self-starting network weavers, accountable and transparent in their actions – and away from the traditional world of top-down exploitative leaders relying on spin, secrecy and hierarchy to conduct their business.

***

As it turns out, their failure in leadership was the best gift Shebesh and her group could have given the #MyDressMyChoice participants. Because in so doing, the women were forced to lean on each other and reach into themselves for the strength and courage required for the task ahead. The refusal of the political class to act inadvertently helped the women more than it hurt them because every woman who participated in the march is now able to believe in their ability to initiate social change without the need for heroic leaders. Rather than disempowering the women, the inaction of the political leaders enabled them to discover their own power and capability as leaders and realize that they were in fact able to do by themselves the things they traditionally expected the politicians to do for them.

By their silence, the politicians made #MyDressMyChoice truly a manifestation of people’s power, a people’s campaign, with the participants proving that it doesn’t take an eloquent or charismatic leader to lead a movement. Even ordinary women working together as equals can move mountains.

Could this be the beginning of the end of hierarchical leadership and the cult of leaders in Africa?

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