Why are gangs of men allowed to roam our city streets, attacking women with impunity and stripping them of their clothes and dignity? Why is another gang of men roaming the internet and seeking to put women in their place? Why do any of them feel they can arrogate to themselves the authority to dictate to our women how they should dress?
I find it hard to believe that the #NudityIsNotMyChoice crowd are too dim to see the link between the idea that they should have a choice over what women wear and actually doing something to enforce that. They are thus being disingenuous when the claim that they are against the assaults on women. In fact, their leader and spokesman, Robert Alai, has flip-flopped on the issue, first advocating for the stripping of supposedly indecently dressed women and later suggesting that those who do so should be jailed.
His moral acrobatics are illustrative of the intellectual confusion of those who on the one hand protest their belief that women should not be subjected to such indignities while on the other hand insisting that women conform to their ideas of propriety. It is inconceivable that they do not realize that these are two sides of the same coin. That it is the threat of violence that is used to keep women in line, to control them and keep them subservient to the desires and wishes of men.
It is obvious that dress is only the tip of the iceberg. It is also not just about control of women’s sexuality (though that is, a big part of it - more on this below). In the end the furore over hemlines is really about the power of one group of Kenyans to exercise power over another. It is about the power of one group to impose its preferences on another, to value its comfort over the rights of the other.
Viewed in the context of other retrogressive measures introduced in the recent past, such as the attack on civil society and the collective punishment of communities, it is hard not to recognize a wider pattern of rolling back the rights and freedoms articulated in the constitution by groups that perceive themselves as having lost out: the men who feel that their position of power vis a vis women is threatened, the political elite who fear the emancipation of Kenyans will deprive them of opportunities for extracting rents. As I argue here, the violence we see is part of a backlash against the rights of individuals to determine for themselves how they should lead their lives.
Indeed, it is instructive that while those supporting women’s rights ground their arguments in the freedoms espoused in the constitution and on the laws we have in our books, their opponents are at pains to not just qualify these rights, but to demonize their exercise as a harbinger of chaos. One blogger suggests that the debate “is about everything we are willing to give latitude to as a society. The next thing we will be seeing are prostitutes asking for their trade to be legalized and with the latitude we are extending they will get that, then we will stop asking questions when we see underage girls in night clubs and before we know it corruption will so much be within our rights.”
Another appears to argue that even though assault is a crime, that the victims must somehow be responsible for provoking the attack. “Blaming the touts solely for their ‘misconduct’ is, not only subjective, but also outright biased. Before any reaction, then there must be an action. The Embassava touts did not just decide to strip the woman like mad dogs. The woman might have done something to trigger such a reaction,” he declares, suggesting that habitually exercising the right to dress as she wishes makes her blameworthy.
The fact is the online chauvinists share much the same worldview as the Embassava thugs. They see the attempt to hold the latter to account as a collective condemnation of, as one puts it, “(all) men as sexual perverts, sex pests, sexually starved, naughty minds, rapists, misogynists, etc.” They are unwilling to countenance any challenge to the system that privileges their “choice” over the rights of women.
So whether they realize it or not, those demanding a say in how women dress are the online enablers of offline violence against women. Their open contempt for women’s rights offers succor and dubious intellectual cover to those who go even further. So just as we insist that the perpetrators of violence against women are swiftly brought to book, we must not ignore the pernicious ideology of entitlement to women’s bodies that feeds it.
While respecting –and even defending- the right of people to express their views, as abhorrent and stupid as those views may be, we must not cede online spaces to the chauvinists. Those who truly believe that women are human beings, that they should be able to dress in any way they please and walk down our streets unmolested, that no Kenyan should have the right to tell another how they should live their lives, must speak up. We must not accept to be silenced by the demagogues.