#MyDressMyChoice: The Ideology Behind Stripping Women

December 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

Perpetrators and proponents of stripping violence try to justify these hate crimes by blaming the victim for being “indecently dressed” in a miniskirt, contrary to African modesty. But the truth is, just as with rape and every other crime of sexual violence, strippings are about men who feel entitled to women’s bodies lashing out when their sexual advances are rejected. It’s about men seeking to assert power, control and dominance over women.

The recent cases of strippings including the lady whose stripping led to the #MyDressMyChoice protest march; “Wairimu” in Kayole; and the 16-year old school girl almost stripped by a policeman, all had the same facts:

a. A man tried to seduce a woman/ girl.
b. The woman/ girl rejected or ignored his advances.
c. The man, in the company of other men, stripped or attempted to strip the woman/ girl.

These facts are not coincidence, but evidence of a pattern that should tell us something about our culture. And what it tells us is not good.

Male Privilege, Entitlement & Violent Masculinity

We live in a society which places males in a social class that is dominant over women, thereby affording men many privileges. From this position of privilege, men are taught that women – as the dominated social class – owe them. Women owe men love, attention, respect, obedience and most importantly – sex.

This idea that women owe men subsequently breeds entitlement. As a result, men feel completely entitled to women’s bodies and to their time. When a man wants to have sex with a woman it’s simply because this is what they deserve just for being a man. And when a woman rejects their sexual advances, this makes the man angry for being denied what they deserve, what they are entitled to.

In their anger, the man blames the woman for denying them their birthright of easy power. They blame the woman for romantically rejecting him and withholding what is rightfully theirs.

Society further teaches men that because they belong to the dominant social class, they are entitled to power and control over women. Consequently, the rejection of his sexual advances is regarded as a loss of this power and control. This hurtful loss of power and control over women is taken as emasculation.

Moreover, this emasculation occurs in front of other men, making the man feel less than an alpha male in the eyes of his peers. And because society teaches men to never show weakness, he therefore feels the need to prove his manhood to his peers; to prove that he is still hard and tough. And it is in this attempt to prove that he is the true alpha male that he decides to strip the woman.

Rather than trying to figure out how to improve his approach towards women, he blames the women for their lack of interest in him and instead decides to retaliate. Why? Because masculinity teaches men that when they are aggrieved, they are entitled to retribution. Men are taught: don’t just get mad – get even. So stripping becomes a form of righteous retaliation.

Stripping is therefore a form of “deserved” punishment whose origins lie in society teaching men that they are entitled to punish women who take their power away. The man regards his inability to attract the woman as something he needs to “punish” them for. The woman’s refusal to give herself to him is to blame for his anger and violence, for which the woman deserves to be punished.

And because our society has taught men to solve their problems and earn respect through aggression and violence, what we end up with is men stripping women perceived to have denied them respect.

Misogyny

From a young age, society teaches men to hate women. This misogyny or woman-hatred is characterized by disdain, contempt and resentment of women. We raise boys and teach men to see women – not as full human beings – but as trophies to be won and hags to be used and harassed. We teach boys that women are objects to have sex with; to cook for them and do their laundry.

And in order to maintain this image of women as lesser humans, we use violent, degrading and dehumanizing language when discussing women, thereby guaranteeing their constant devaluation. We teach this woman-hatred to young boys and men and then we get surprised when they act on this hatred. And in our surprise we make pronouncements such as “real men don’t strip women.”

Stripping is but one of the extreme manifestations of woman-hatred in Africa. And proclaiming that “real men do not strip women” is to deny the existence of this pattern of woman-hatred. While those making this statement may not intend to, they are in fact excusing this brutal practice. The fact that all the perpetrators were men is not a coincidence but a pattern that should tell us something about our culture. Men have stripped women many times before. Men strip women because they have been taught to hate women.

The perpetrators were ALL men. Moreover, they all felt they had been denied something that they should have been given. This attitude did not just appear out of thin air. It was cultivated and nurtured by our culture, generation after generation, perpetuating negative ideas over the course of time. The perpetrators are just the latest manifestations of men who think women owe them something and retaliate for this denial. By stripping the women, they were simply participating in the age-old tradition of controlling women through violence and punishing them when they don’t behave as required – only that they did so publicly, in broad daylight.

Similarly, the argument that the victim is “somebody’s wife, daughter, sister or mother” also hurts more than it helps because it implies that women are only as important as the male relations they have. This only serves to reaffirm male dominance over women by suggesting that women are only important because of their relationships with men. Yet, women are full human beings who deserve respect just for being full humans. Rather than teaching our daughters how not to dress, it is our sons that we need to teach that women are full human beings with the right to wear whatever they want.

While being careful not to inadvertently excuse stripping violence, we must, at the same time actively condemn those who deliberately excuse these brutal crimes, as they have chosen to side with the worst of men. Because the motives of the perpetrators were rooted in hate, strippings should be considered hate crimes against women. Subsequently, all those supporting these crimes online should be prosecuted for hate speech.

“Undress the Government! Not Innocent Women!”

Strippings are perpetrated by men who are angry at the hand they’ve been dealt. These are men who long to lash out at a system they believe has cheated them, but lack the courage to think for themselves beyond the easier path of hating women. These are men hurt by the loss of power and control, by the fact that they are no longer as dominant as before, as women become more empowered. They are experiencing a humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to regain respect and sense of purpose.

And how does society deal with this growing anger in men? We teach the girl child to fear men. We tell girls not to wear miniskirts, not to walk down certain streets, not to upset men. Because doing so could get them hurt or even killed by the bad men out there.

But even the women and girls who internalize such fear and submit to these warnings – by dressing decently, avoiding dangerous streets and not angering men, still face street harassment from entitled men who actually believe that catcalls are a sign that they are putting women on a pedestal. And when the women ignore these advances, they are subjected to verbal abuse, stalking, threats, intimidation and assault. Society then tells women to deal with this by laughing it off and ignoring it as these misogynists do not pose any real threat… Until they decide to take their hatred of women a step further and strip a woman naked. Until they escalate even further in their hatred to rape and kill women.

Undoubtedly, the substantial anger of dispossessed men in Kenya during this age of inflation, low wages and unemployment is valid. However, this anger is wrongly directed towards women. It’s not women that are to blame – it’s the system of patriarchy.

#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.

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