Attacks on women over dress code nauseating

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ERIC NG’ENO

This has to have been one of our worst weeks as a society. It was reported that matatu conductors affiliated to a certain organisation or a city route decided that a certain female was dressed indecently, and proceeded, as a mob, to strip her of her attire. There you have it in technicolour: when these matatu crews are not trying to kill everyone aboard their vehicles, on and off the road, they convene as the arbiters of decency in our society. Isorait.

That was only the first sequence in Kenya’s cabaret of total infamy. All the while this was taking place, only one man stood up against the clamorous beasts, attempting to shield her against abuse. Needless to say, he did not prevail. In this beastly congregation was a character who possessed the presence of mind to record the entire tragedy on a smartphone, wasting no time to upload it on various digital platforms.

The video went viral, eliciting various reactions. What is quite telling is that the crowd which protested this humiliation was very thin, comprising both men and women. On the other hand, the moralistic mob which vociferously argued that the victim of the abuse deserved everything she got was not only populous, but also charged. Among its ranks were vehement women who used the moment to advocate conservative fashion, morality and not just restraint, but timorous conduct as standard female behaviour. One man stated categorically that if he found anyone dressed like the victim, he would personally strip her utterly of all attire, or sponsor the perpetration of such humiliation.

A few days later, a copy cat stripping happened at the Coast. Shortly afterwards, on Friday a woman was stripped in Ngumo in Nairobi. So we have a contagion of the most abhorrent proclivities any society can suffer. After decades spent on upholding the rights of the girl child, educating them and extending to them equal rights as males, we seem to be fatigued. After rescuing girls from forced child marriage and genital mutilation, enshrining gender equality and affirmative action in our fundamental legal and policy frameworks, the Kenyan version of Homo Sapiens, in 2014, right at the heart of our capital city, prowls the landscape, waging war on women. What’s eating us?

In conflicts as well as mundane criminal incidents, abuse of females is often a key feature of associated atrocities. I have had occasion to interview survivors of rape and sexual abuse. It is a most harrowing experience, not least because sympathising is difficult. As a male, I was often prepared to empathise with accounts of experiences of physical pain and trauma as well as feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.

But I have never encountered one instance in which these experiences were salient in the victim’s account. Pain and power are very masculine concerns. I do not know if it is the sight of blood, more the colour red which drives many male brains round the bend, but their association with trauma and pain must surely be a factor. Female survivors of rape talk about shame. They also refer to feeling dirty and worthless. Not mere loss of face or embarrassment but a comprehensive extinction of personhood. Violence and humiliation inflicted through sexual abuse negates the female’s autonomy and suggests, quite powerfully that her entire person is a function of externalities without reference to her essence.

It is a form of murder that leaves the victim breathing. When a woman is forcefully disrobed, the abuse is intensely vicious. Thereafter, every eye cast up on her body compounds her torment by an order of magnitude.

There is an immensely embarrassing contradiction about conservative moralism. It’s onerous edicts and rigid mores belie an obsession with its subject matter that goes beyond mere knowledge for legislative or regulatory convenience. The commandments and laws, as well as proceedings emanating from them entail enthusiastic excursion into the bowel of sin and exuberant elaboration of the salacious aspects of specific transgressions.

It is almost as if virulent moralism is a reaction to powerfully repressed obsession with whatever the moralist forbids. This makes hypocrites of all of us. As the video went viral, I wondered what those sharing it online thought they were doing. Highlighting a cautionary incident perhaps? Sharing their ‘outrage’? There were reactions indicating distress On the part of several members of the online community.

But share the video they did. Even after alarmed women cautioned that every ‘share’ essentially constitutes another act of stripping and humiliating the victim. As a matter of fact, these warnings were decidedly unheeded. In simple terms, the video went viral because it involved female nudity that we could enjoy without being labelled perverts. It was ‘public interest porn’. And it had components of misogyny and violence dressed up as moral outrage at the victim’s indecency. Pray, where is the logic in punishing a skimpily dressed person by stripping them naked? This is the moralistic voyeurism that causes incredible gridlock in town when folk learn about a couple “stuck” in the deed in some lodgings. Why do people abandon their business and keep fastidious vigil without a hope of glimpsing the distressed couple?

The girl at the stage was abused by a bunch of leering brutes. Perhaps two dozen or so of them. After they were done, we of higher education and pretences of better ethical standards took over, stripping her naked, over and over and over again and pretending to debate an issue unrelated to her rights and human dignity. We have been just like the touts. Worse in many ways, actually. We remain beasts in the age of justice and equality. We prowl and growl in the concrete jungle in the brave new world stalking our prey and viciously pouncing to state our most primal urges. The tragedy is that our prey is our dearest kind.

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