#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. 

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