By Gabrielle Lynch
This post draws from Gabrielle Lynch, ‘Protest against stripping is push for equal rights, respect for women’, 22 November 2014, Saturday Nation (Nairobi, Kenya) http://www.nation.co.ke/oped/Opinion/-Protest-against-stripping/-/440808/2531160/-/yl2tiiz/-/index.html
On Monday 17 November 2014, over a thousand people convened at a park in downtown Nairobi and then marched through the capital’s Central Business District. The protest brought together men and women, Christians and Muslims, young and old. Many of the women donned mini skirts, and protesters called for an end to gender-based violence and impunity for its perpetrators, and respect for women and their bodies.
The trigger for the march was a violent assault on 7 November where a young Kenyan woman was stripped by members of the public at a bus park in Nairobi city centre for the alleged crime of being ‘indecently dressed’. She was wearing a miniskirt. Unfortunately such attacks are nothing new, and at least two similar incidents have occurred in the past two weeks: one in Mombasa and the other in one of Nairobi’s low-income estates.
Yet, on 7 November, the assault was videotaped and posted on YouTube sparking a fierce debate on social media between those who condemned the attack (#MyDressMyChoice) and those who supported it (#ScantilyDressed). The violent footage – together with police inaction and divided public opinion – prompted one Facebook group, Kilimani Mums (named after an upmarket Nairobi suburb), to organise a ‘miniskirt protest’ with the help of activist friends.
The fact that much of the debate and mobilisation took place online highlights the importance and power of social media. This is particularly striking given that the initial organisers, Kilimani Mums, had hitherto focused on issues such as childcare, female pampering, and relationship problems raising interesting questions about social media’s protest potential.
However, the protest and associated debate is also interesting for what it says about impunity and misogyny.
First, stripping someone in public clearly constitutes violent assault, which is illegal in Kenya as elsewhere in the world. In turn, the fact that groups of men periodically carry out such acts in broad daylight, and that they nearly always get away with it unpunished, points to a troubling level (and assumption) of impunity.
Second, such acts – together with some of the online commentary and sexist remarks made by male bystanders during the protest march – point to high levels of misogyny and a reality where some men seek to violently assert their assumed power over women. And it is about power and control, rather than culture and morality, as Kenya’s feminists and human rights activists have rightly pointed out.
But not everyone agrees. In contrast, some have asserted that miniskirts, tight trousers and other ‘revealing’ outfits are un-African. Yet, this is clearly nonsense, as any glance at photographs of ethnic dress will attest.
For others, such clothing is a sign of loose morals. However, these attacks have been taking place in largely Christian or Muslim urban areas (namely Nairobi and Mombasa) where moral codes are ostensibly about individual and collective interactions – such as a love of one’s neighbour – and not about skirt lengths.
A different take on the moral argument is that such clothing constitutes purposeful temptation and an unfair test on men’s sexual urges: the sight of a woman’s legs apparently being too much for some men to bear. Yet, proponents of #MyDressMyChoice reject this argument and emphasize that if there is a moral problem, it is one that clearly lies with the immorality of those men who suggest that they cannot control their violent sexual urges towards members of the opposite sex.
In a similar vein, it is sometimes suggested that women should be careful about what they wear lest they become the victim of sexual violence. However, it is generally accepted that sexual violence is not about admiration for a woman’s appearance, but about power, control, and domination. Unfortunately, this means that women currently get raped in Kenya and across the world whatever they are wearing. In turn, the way to tackle sexual and gender-based violence is to cultivate a culture of respect and to bring perpetrators of such crimes to justice; it is not to blame the victim, which just further perpetuates the underlying problems.
So why, shouldn’t a woman wear a short skirt? Ultimately, it seems to be an effort on the part of some men to assert the power that they believe they should wield over women’s lives: from what women wear, to how they behave, where they go, what work they can do, and so on ad nauseum.
In turn, the organisation of a march in defence of a woman’s right to wear a short skirt without fear of assault is about much more than wardrobe preferences. Instead, it is about a demand for equal rights and respect for the female body. And, in an ideal world, for a situation where gender becomes irrelevant such that all people are judged on the basis of the kind of person that they are – their values, ideals, behaviour and actions – rather than their sex and least of all on their clothing.
Gabrielle Lynch is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick. She is the author of I say to you: Ethnic politics and the Kalenjin of Kenya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) and is currently writing a book about transitional justice in Kenya as part of an ESRC funded project entitled “Truth and Justice: The search for peace and stability in modern Kenya”. Follow her on Twitter @GabrielleLynch6. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org