Molested in the Name of “Fighting Terror”
April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
I have always found security screenings to be invasive, inconvenient and annoying, but I nevertheless submitted to them as I knew I would not be granted entry onto the building premises without them. But ever since the September 21, 2013 attack on Westgate, an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi by Somali militants, there seems to be a radical change in how screenings are conducted.
Before the Westgate attack, security screenings primarily involved the inspection of bags, with the hand-held metal detector being quickly passed over your body, although this was rare still. It was only when my phone or keys inside the bag set off the metal detector that the security screener would ask to search my bag.
But after Westgate, I noticed an increase in personal body searches. This new trend involves the screener pressing their palms onto my clothing to detect any objects in the pockets in what is known as a “pat-down.” They do this while passing the hand-held metal detector over me, just a few inches away from my body.
Pat-downs are done ostensibly to prevent non-metallic threats such as hidden weapons and explosives from getting inside the building, thereby detecting what the standard metal-detectors cannot. But some of my experiences with pat-downs have felt more like sexual molestation.
In one instance, I submitted to a search in order to access the premises of a government-owned hotel. The screener patted my waist then slid her palm down over my bottom and cupped it. It was a firm touch. A fondling. It was sexual contact. My body froze and my eyes locked onto hers, searching for confirmation. She tried to avoid eye contact, but I could read a mixture of guilt and denial in her expression.
The experience was invasive, degrading and emotionally distressing. It left me feeling very uncomfortable and violated. More than a pat-down, this was clearly sexual molestation.
I complained to the assistant hotel manager who confirmed that the screeners are required to use metal detectors while searching guests, as opposed to their bare hands. It helped a lot that the assistant manager was female. Having to report my sexual assault to a man would have been much more difficult and embarrassing. The assistant manager raised the issue with the private security company that had hired the screener, and she was never posted to that hotel again. Had she stayed, I would never have visited the hotel again. Its traumatizing enough to have to live with the fact that you were violated and nothing was done about it. But having to continue submitting to your molester thereafter, granting them power over your body – over and over again would have been too much to bear.
In another instance, a screener outside Tusky’s supermarket brushed her arm roughly over my breast while conducting her search. Again my body froze. I have been accidentally touched before in my life, but this felt different. Still, I entered the supermarket confused: had it really been accidental?
The next time as I headed towards the supermarket’s security checkpoint, I decided to pay attention. As I approached the screening area I could see that particular screener and I felt the dread growing in me. My body recoiled even before her hand reached for my waist. It was my anxiety and fear of being man-handled a second time taking hold. I asked her not to touch me but use the metal detector instead and she complied.
But on my third visit to the supermarket, as I approached her, I could read a look of defiance on her face. She had the metal detector in hand, but once again chose to use it only on my left side, while patting me down with her left hand on my right side. I was now convinced that she had inappropriately touched me the first time. It had been intentional. Deliberate. Her defiant look seemed to be her way of saying she had the power to touch me however she wanted.
Pat-downs appear to be the new search protocol in fighting the so-called “war on terror” in Africa. Upon disembarking the Nile Ferry at Aswan, Egypt, I was required to undergo the full body scan and a pat-down. The female screener ordered me into a back room and asked to search my body. I consented and she put on a pair of white gloves before beginning the search. She patted me down everywhere with the exception of my private parts.
At the post office in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, a screener patted me down from under the armpits to my ankles and then began coming up with her palms on the insides of my legs. I literally jumped and moved back when she got to my inner thighs and ran her hands up, pressing her flat palm against my groin. She just laughed while saying something I could not understand in Amharic. I later raised the issue with my female companions who confirmed they had undergone the same thing. But I let it go as I seemed to be the only one bothered by the experience.
This post was inspired by a series of photos making rounds on social media showing screeners assaulting women at a stadium in Kampala, Uganda. The photos were taken on March 29, 2016 at the security checkpoint to enter the Nelson Mandela National Stadium on Namboole Hill. It was appalling to read so many comments in response to the photos which sought to “clarify” the fact that the screeners were “female.” For many of the commenters the gender of the molesters took the element of sexual assault out of it.
It is this sort of widespread ignorance and denial surrounding sexual assault of women by women that leaves the victim feeling as if no one will believe her if she reports what happened. While the majority of rapes committed on women are done by men, women are also sexually victimized by women. As with sexual assaults by men, the female perpetrator may be a partner, someone with authority over the victim, an acquaintance or a stranger. Acknowledging woman-to-woman sexual assault is important to ensure that all victims get the assistance and support they deserve and need.
In her classic treatise Women, Race & Class, black feminist and civil rights activist Angela Davis’ highlights the fact that rape was used as a weapon of domination both during slavery in the United States and the Vietnam War. According to Davis, “it would be a mistake to regard the institutionalized pattern of rape during slavery as an expression of white men’s sexual urges, otherwise stifled by the specter of white womanhood’s chastity. That would be far too simplistic an explanation…
In the same way that rape was an institutionalized ingredient of the aggression carried out against the Vietnamese people, designed to intimidate and terrorize the women, slave owners encouraged the terroristic use of rape in order to put Black women in their place. If Black women had achieved a sense of their own strength and a strong urge to resist, then violent sexual assaults—so the slaveholders might have reasoned—would remind the women of their essential and inalterable femaleness. In the male supremacist vision of the period, this meant passivity, acquiescence and weakness.”
In similar vein, I would argue that sexual assault is being deliberately used in today’s so-called “war on terror” to dominate and repress women, all the while demoralizing our men. Women are being assaulted as a way to extinguish our will to resist repressive governments that clampdown on our civil liberties under the guise of fighting the so-called “war on terror.”
The Westgate attack has become Kenya’s 9/11: an excuse for the government to clampdown on our civil rights and effect all sorts of privacy violations. During the attack on Westgate, Somali militants killed dozens claiming it was in retaliation for the Kenyan military’s occupation of Somalia. Ever since the attacks, the privacy of Kenyans has been violated in multiple ways with the excuse of ensuring public safety. We are constantly watched via CCTV cameras positioned all over Nairobi streets such as Tom Mboya. Commuters on Nairobi’s Lavington route are now subjected to searches with hand-held metal detectors before boarding their matatus. (Garrett Metal Detectors USA and their Kenyan distributor must be laughing all the way to the bank!)
And now buildings have become “no rights” zones at the entrances of which we are subjected to groping in the form of an enhanced, humiliating pat-down. The screeners who molest women in this way rely on the fact that we would be afraid to complain about such intrusive pat-downs for fear of being suspected to be “terrorists” or criminals. After all, only the guilty with something to hide would refuse to be searched, right? And if we do not consent to be patted down they have the power to deny us entry onto or even forcibly remove us from the premises.
We are experiencing an increased control of the public through “security” tactics that erode civil liberties. These tactics are not about security but about submission and obedience. They are about using sexual assault as a means of control. The assaults are designed to make the public afraid and willingly yield to authority without question or hesitation. It’s about making us, the people, afraid of our government – when it should be the other way around.
Thanks to the so-called “war on terror”, screeners are today vested with the power and responsibility to do acts which, if done outside of work hours, in a different setting and by anyone else, would be crimes of sexual assault. Without the uniform and the power of the state or capital behind it, such inappropriate touching would constitute molestation.
It’s up to us, the public, to take a stand and refuse to submit to sexual molestation in the name of “fighting terror.” The Constitution of Kenya protects Kenyans from unreasonable personal searches and therefore such security screenings are an illegal violation of our constitutional rights. Screeners who engage in lewd and lascivious behavior while conducting pat-downs should be reported, arrested and prosecuted, and the building’s management held criminally responsible.
Tagged: cctv cameras, metal detector, pat down, personal body search, privacy violations, private security company, security screenings, sexual assault, sexual molestation, war on terror, westgate attack