I suspect that there’s was some self-righteousness on my part, because the first news I heard of the incident was in a report that there would be a demonstration hashtagged #Mydressmychoice on Monday. Since I don’t wear short skirts, I felt alienated by that banner.
But on Thursday as I was walking to work, I found myself looking around and wondering if I was decently dressed. And yet I was in a skirt that reached my ankles.
I would have pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind, as I had been doing for the past two weeks, until I read this facebook post by Mueni Wambua:
It has been a long week with the #mydressmychoice conversations trending since last Friday and my heart has been heavy.
And then on Wednesday afternoon I had an incident that confirms my position... that how women dress and what is happening are 2 different conversations and by thinking that the situation is as simple as women changing how we dress and these acts will stop ... you cannot see the forest for the trees.
I was at around Kenyatta Market area heading to the atm at the ground floor of the building that faces Mbagathi hospital. I passed by a group of men seated in a group just chatting away. I guessed they were watching their wares from afar as they waited for customers and hence the getting together to chat.
When I passed 1 or 2 said "habari" and as is usual with me, I answered "mzuri" and continued walking. It has never been a big deal for me to respond to them in the past.
As I left the atm and was heading to the nearby Fairlane Supermarket, I had to pass by infront of them again and something very interesting happened. There was a cab turning and because it was muddy, I just had to stop next to these group for a while. Loudly and in Kiswahili, they started discussing me. I did not take time to look at their faces but conversation went something like this:
Man 1: Haka kamevaa vizuri, mwanamke akivaa hivyo hatuna shida na yeye.
Man 2: Shida yao inakuanga mdomo, akikujibu lazima umuonyeshe wewe ni mwanaume.
Man 3: Sasa kama huyu akituletea mdomo, tutamtoa nguo.
Man 4: Lakini hiyo ni vizuri?
Man 3: Sio maneno na uzuri, hawa wamama lazima watujue.
*** The group was about 7 or so men and while I have said man 1 - 4 it is more like voices but this is to give you an idea on the conversation that was going on.
Short story long, I felt threatened and an urgency to leave that area and so I did not even go the supermarket as I had planned ... I went straight home.
Then it hit me, it has nothing to do with clothes, it is about intimidating women and "teaching us lessons" and so dressing decently is just an excuse. While we may have seen some dressing that may be overboard, my experience is that most women dress decently and this is especially given how conscious women are about their bodies. There may be a faux pas here or there but on the whole, most are acceptable.
Having listened to the woman from Kayole about they guy who was refused to pay for his boiled eggs, then more and more we need to realise that clothes are just er, a cover up.
It is sad that now as a woman in Nairobi I am actually wondering when, where or how I will offend a man and be taught a lesson.
Do we still think this is about dressing? — feeling angry.
And these men asserting some twisted form of male supremacy might as well start wearing hoods and burning crosses, because their lynch mobs are employing similar tactics to those of the Ku Klux Klan who were supposedly protecting the decency of white women.
You see, after the emancipation of slaves and the changes in the American economy, more Black people visibly prospered. Tulsa, Oklahoma even got dubbed the “Black Wall Street,” because of the thriving businesses owned by blacks. That success was unpalatable for some middle to low-income whites, who decided to assert white supremacy by terrorizing blacks. Lynch mobs would appear like flash floods, violently carrying away with them blacks whom they tortured, hung on trees and burnt.
The reality of that terror in the black community is depicted in Maya Angelou’s novel I know why the caged bird sings, where rumors of a lynch mob in town make Maya’s grandmother hide her uncle Willie in case the mob comes looking for a sacrifice. At those times, if your son – or any other member of the community for that matter – was outside the home, you prayed to God fervently for their safety.
And that’s the same thing happening here. African male supremacy, which is built on a lie about what African culture is, is under threat. And many low-income men who don’t know how to deal with it are meting out violence on women, in the name of moral decency, to solve their own contractions. Their violence has sufficiently terrorized many of us women, to the extent that short skirt or not, we now wonder whether we’re safe walking in broad daylight.
And just like the Jim Crow days, women are put at the center of the contradictions of identity, consumption and class. In our context as an African country undergoing economic upheaval and that is yet to sort out its identity issues, the meaning of short skirts is fluid, and is ultimately decided by money and power.
For instance, when an alcoholic drink or another new product is being launched in this Nairobi, companies hire a bevy of girls in minimal clothing to stand near or literally caress the product. The message is that the women are part of the consumption package, or as Pastor Reed would put it, that consumption and sex are one and the same thing. I am particularly offended when those sales girls reach out to me, because while the company is communicating that it does not consider women as potential customers, they still want me to buy their product. The message is that ultimately, even if we women earn an income, financial decisions are ultimately made by men. So buying that product makes one a man. Even us women who buy the product are stepping outside our womanhood and becoming men.
Women who wear short skirts in those circles are not stripped. Neither are they stripped when they are in the upscale malls of Westlands and Ngong road.
In other words, respect for women in revealing clothing is tied to class. And I would add race, since white women wearing short skirts are literally safe in this Africa. It would appear, then, that the ultimate reason why the men who respect individual women’s dressing choices do so, is because they can afford to.
Yet the men in those upscale circles are the same ones who have made political decisions that have had horrific consequences for mostly poor women. Our country is led by two suspects for crimes that include systematic rape. Our justice system was unable to prosecute the perpetrators of the violence, which essentially means that the rich are exempt from accountability.
So what is happening in the CBD, in Kayole and other lower-income areas? Men are asserting the manhood that they see displayed on the political podiums, in the military displays, in our impotent justice system, and in the upscale areas where they cannot afford to frequent. They don’t have access to the commercialized Kenyan manhood, but worse – in their view – women do. In their twisted minds, the handful of women in places of responsibility and power are signs that ALL women taking over from men.
This is a time of reckoning for Kenyan women. We must, we must, we must engage in political discussions. Too many of us avoid politics in the name of not wanting to get our hands dirty. In the academy, which is my professional home, few women are studying political science or commenting on political issues. We’re safely doing social sciences for therapy, but our work is rarely about political action at a wider scale or about revolution.
But just as Jim Crow suffered a blow with the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Kenya cannot be safe for women until we put class struggles on the political agenda. A country governed by old money cannot be safe for women. We women are going to keep being victims of the ethno-patriarchal struggles for and expressions of power until we fight for fundamental change where any Kenyan, from any corner of this country, has the equal opportunity to lead this country, to be the best that they can be. Until that day, Kenya women will remain victims of the male lynch mobs expressing their confusion at the changing times through reducing complex problems to the hem of a woman’s skirt.