Over the past few days social media has been ablaze with the hashtag #MyDressMyChoice. This was sparked up after a video of a woman being stripped naked by matatu touts went viral. The incident occurred in the middle of central Nairobi on Tuesday November 7th right behind the National Archives at the stop for the Embassava buses. The video has since been taken down but then another popped up on Vimeo of a woman in Mombasa being given the same vile treatment. There have been reports of the same happening on Thika Road and Ngumo, but these have been unconfirmed so far. The event has sparked outrage and a demand for justice from many citizens of Nairobi.
These incidents are not new nor are they isolated. For a while now, matatu touts and boda boda operators have been stripping women that they thought were “inappropriately dressed”. Earlier in the year on Valentines Day, a woman in her early 20’s dressed in a mini-skirt was stripped naked and paraded for over 30 minutes by boda boda operators in Kimilili Town, Bungoma County. In September of 2013, boda boda operators working at Kisiwa Estate in Thika sub county stripped a woman in the full view of primary school students for the same reason of being indecently dressed. These incidents reached such a critical tipping point that African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Femnet) ran a national campaign dubbed ‘STRIP ME NOT’ targeting boda boda operators, touts and drivers. The training session that was held in Nyeri was to promote inter-gender dialogue to help men and women openly discuss sexual and gender based violence with the aim of preventing and mobilising community action to stop the vice.
The hashtag #MyDressMyChoice is centered on women who are standing firm in their right to dress as they please without any fear of assault. There have been mixed reactions with some people totally condemning the act while others seek to justify the attack. Blogger Robert Alai posted a tweet where he vowed to personally undress or sponsor the undressing of what he called “scantily dressed women”. He has since deleted the tweet but you can see a screenshot below:
The nature of these attacks stems from the entitlement to women’s bodies. For so long women have been viewed as property, extensions of men and not their own independent entities. A woman’s body belongs to her and her alone. For men to strip a woman naked because they disagree on how she dresses is a direct violation of her rights. #MyDressMyChoice has been addressing demanding equal rights to privacy and public safety and debunking ridiculous notions are commonplace in society. However due to the brevity of Twitter posts it has been difficult for the supporters of the hashtag to properly articulate the issues with the opposer’s arguments. Here are some of the arguments that I have observed online and the reasons why they are inaccurate.
“If you dress provocatively and get stripped you deserve it.”
This is a victim blaming argument. You can’t blame someone who has been violated for what the people who violated them did. This argument empowers the abuser while humiliating the victim. The men justify that the woman was indecently dressed thus why they undressed her. What is their excuse for inserting dirty fingers into her womanhood? Isn’t this the same as raping her in public? Instead of focusing on what the victim should or shouldn’t have done, we need to focus on those who humiliated her in public. If you are a man who thinks that women should be stripped in public, or that women should be beaten, or that a woman’s life should be controlled by a fellow human being simply because he is male, you’re the same man who lets politicians strip you in public by lying to you, stealing from you and dictating whom you should vote for and whom you should love or hate.
“Dressing like that is not an African tradition.”
These vintage photos are indicative that Africans have been “scantily dressed” for ages. Hiding behind African culture is a lazy argument, especially when the African culture contradicts what you are arguing. Do not use our history as a pretext to justify criminal behaviour.
“Matatu touts/boda boda operators aren’t reading this so why should they care?”
This argument is steeped in classism. It is vapid to assume that a certain class of people are on social media and that it has absolutely no reach to the so called ‘lower classes.’ With internet accessible and smart phones being sold at throwaway prices and the cheap cost of bundles, almost anyone can gain access to the hashtag, which has been trending for the last two days. Al Jazeera even did a piece on the developing story, so its not only restricted to you and your ‘rich’ friends. This is an issue of national concern that needs to be addressed. These conversations NEED to be had. And lets assume for a second that the matatu touts and boda boda operators do not have access to the internet. Its not always about the people affected. If more people become aware of the situation then there can be more bystander intervention. In the first video a man tried to intervene and was pushed back several times. What if there was one more person? Or three? Or eight? Its also about spreading awareness and encouraging community efforts. Collective inertia does not solve anything, in fact it creates an environment in which such disgusting behaviour is allowed to thrive, unabashed. If you are saying this, YOU are just as bad as the people who stood by and did nothing as a woman was stripped.
“If you don’t want to be stripped in public transport, seek other means/buy a car/take a cab.”
Another classist argument, this reasoning assumes that everyone in the country has hundreds and thousands of shillings at their disposal, and that public transport is just a mild inconvenience. Not everyone has the means to afford the overpriced cabs. It also reinforces the belief that security is a privilege that is accorded to the rich. Why is it only those who use private means are protected? Why is it only those with large bank accounts are entitled to safety? Security is a basic human right that everyone, regardless of gender, religious affiliation, class or age group is entitled to. You need to check your class privilege before uttering such statements, and realise not everyone is as wealthy as you.
“Real men respect women.”
While this argument is in support of the tag, it is problematic. The reason being, these touts are not apparitions, they are not figments of our imagination, they are real men. They exist. It implies that men aren’t supposed to not abuse women because women have intrinsic rights of their own, but because that’s what a “real man” does. I understand the need to create a buzz around the movement and involve men who will add much needed voices against this topic. As a starting point, as a place from which men can turn to other men & say “don’t do this” – I respect the intent & see the point. However, its diminishes the actual events and sends the problem to an imaginary land where things like these don’t happen. Because any Tom, Dick and Harry can call themselves a ‘real man’ while still perpetuating these acts. The fact is men still disrespect women, they attack them in public, they harass them and so forth.
“It’s not about gender.”
It has EVERYTHING to do with gender. The reason is, it is gender based violence. Women are being stripped by men. This, and other forms of gender based violence, have their roots in gender inequality and in the different power relations between men and women. Statistically men are commonly the perpetrators and women the victims. So this argument is also reductive, as if it is imaginary creatures that do this. Its also a refusal to take responsibility for what your gender is doing to another.