She must cover up?! : Reflections on the #MiniSkirtMarch

Activism, Gender, Human Rights, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe

On Saturday 4 October 2014, Zimbabwean women, led by Katswe Sistahood, launched the #MiniSkirtMarch- a protest against men who publicly harass women for their dressing, especially at commuter omnibus ranks. The messaging of the #MiniSkirtMarch was about women refusing to have the way they dress dictated to us or to be used as an excuse for abuse. It was about rights and choice and how these should be respected. The #MiniSkirtMarch was about confronting our society’s double standards about women’s bodily integrity and autonomy. It aimed to send a strong message that there are no tolerable excuses for perpetrating violence against women in any form. It was not about all Zimbabwean women wanting to wear miniskirts because some, like me, have different preferences.

It is not our culture?

The excuse often given to justify why women should not wear what they want is that certain dressing is not part of our culture. Which culture? As far back as history tells us through art, stone carvings and folktale; our cultural dress has never been about covering up. Mhapapa neshashiko (the skin hides covering women’s backs and fronts) were very short. They covered the ‘bare essentials.’ Women’s breasts were not sacred, they were left hanging open. Our society borrowed the concept of wearing clothes from the Victorian British culture through colonisation. Our crisis is that we borrowed a concept in development and so as British society has transformed its values including shaking off patriarchal notions that dictate women’s choices, we have remained stuck in the past holding on to a half-borrowed concept? We choose to dictate the length of a woman’s clothing. Until a few years ago, some men on our streets beat up women for wearing trousers. Some men in their homes today forbid their wives from wearing trousers or short clothes? Why do we find the exposure of a woman’s legs offensive today when our real true culture did not find the exposure of her legs, stomach and breasts so? Why do we find pride in the terrible Colonial Victorian teaching that says it is shameful for the beauty of a woman’s body to be exposed the way she feels comfortable? For a nation that preaches sovereignty, we do embrace our mental colonisation quite comfortably when it allows the oppression of women.

This cartoon, which is part of the Kenyan #MyDressMyChoice campaign, whose message resonates with our #MiniSkirtMarch captures this point.

 

Kenyan Cartoon part of the #MyDressMyChoice Campaign

Kenyan Cartoon part of the #MyDressMyChoice Campaign

It’s not about dressing…

Abuse is about power, access and control and not about dressing.

Covering the whole body except for the eyes will not protect women from abuse. I personally witnessed this on the streets of Sudan and Egypt where all women, Arab, Black and White were sexually harassed.  The men did it because they could, with no consequence. Society was permissive of their abuse and so they whispered lustful words to us and groped us on the subways; even those in Burqas, where the only body parts visible were the eyes. The abuse was so bad in Egypt, that the Egyptian government created “women only” sections on the subways. It is hence not only offensive, but downright ridiculous to suggest that wearing clothes that are “offensive” to some men’s senses justifies harassment. As a friend said to me; “Is it not ironic then that these men find wearing a mini-skirt more indecent than attacking the woman for wearing the skirt.” They will strip her, drag her across town, cheer and jeer in the name of morality; and then call themselves human? Does she look ‘more decent’ stripped naked?

Abuse of women knows no class. When men dictate what women wear, they are asserting their property rights over women. Men feel that it is their right to determine what women wear; I am sorry maybe that worked when our laws still treated us as perpetual minors but the times have changed. The Legal Age of Majority Act tells me I am an adult, with full rights as citizen to make choices about my life including how I choose to dress.

But back to the point on power, it must feel good doesn’t it; for a powerless man, without a dollar in his pocket to dress down a beautiful, intelligent and ambitious girl. In that fleeting moment when he strips her naked, he must feel that he has power. Humiliating her makes him feel good and invincible. He could have done it to the similarly dressed girl in her Mercedes Benz, but because he has no access to her she remains safe. Another man however, in that other girl’s circles, will, with access, do to her what the girl on the street is subjected to, if not worse. Society’s reaction in both instances is to question the girls’ dressing; they provoked the reactions, right?

No, wrong! A man will not suddenly attack a woman for wearing a miniskirt! That vile character is in him. Men who attack women for their dressing use dressing as an excuse for expressing their debauchery. As a society we are helping them to get away with murder when we promote the idea that women are prey and must hide themselves from would-be hunters. We make excuses for criminals and criminalise victims, fooling ourselves to think they invited their own abuse. We are wrong! If rape was a crime of lust, then only mature women would get raped. How come then children, who have not matured enough to be sexually attractive are raped by their own fathers!

Our society, men and women alike, thrives on excusing bad behaviour and using deeply hurtful words for individuals who do not fit into broad social categories. The same applies with women’s dressing. To be considered respectable, women must wear a certain type of clothing. Wearing clothes deemed too short, too revealing, or too tight and offensive to some members of society’s sensibilities is a reason for labelling. ‘Ipfambi-hure’-she is a prostitute they say. Haana hunhu-she is of loose morals. Idioms such as “Chigamhira mudenga bra rehure” are used to describe women who wear push-up bras to expose their cleavage. The paradox here is that cultural dynamism is promoted through language that disrespects women yet women’s dressing choices and preferences must not be part of societal transformation. The biggest irony is that the Generals of the Moral Police, who frown upon women, including ‘powerful women who wear miniskirts in the company of younger men’ may themselves wear ground sweeping skirts but lack that one element that makes us human-separate from others animals; the ability to think and reason, to realise that my choices are mine-you are free to make yours differently. And so we are sociliased into conformance, failing to say and do what we really think and want; what famous Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie calls “turning pretense into an art form.”

As Zimbabwe commemorates the 16 days of activism against gender based violence, the key message is “From Peace in the Home to Peace in our communities: ‘Promoting safe spaces for women and girls.’ Our current reality is that women are not safe, in their homes and on the streets. We must increase our efforts to create public spaces free of violence, including verbal violence, and sexual harassment. Creating those safe spaces is about addressing these stereotypes which marginalise women. Yes we are diverse in our beliefs and strong opinions and choices but we must express these opinions respectfully, with civility and courtesy and stripping women naked because we do not like their dress choices is disrespectful and uncivilised.

Sex is (not) easy in Africa

Gender, Human Rights, Sexual Violence, Uncategorized, Women

Shall we be silenced?

It had been a long journey and I was exhausted. I had left Zimbabwe some two days before and was now stuck at the Leopold Senghor Airport in Dakar, Senegal eager to embark on the last leg of my journey to Banjul, the Gambia to take part in the 50th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights. I was exhausted and in no mood for chit chat. May I join you? He asked. Sure, I responded. He asked all the niceties about where I was going, where I was coming from, why I was travelling. Then the conversation got more personal, do I have a boyfriend, is our relationship serious and all this time I wondered where the conversation was going. Then came the bombshell, was I a virgin. At this stage I was doing my level best to control my temper because clearly this Indian man was trying to pick me up. I asked why he was asking such personal questions and his response was blunt…Oh well you know, sex is easy in Africa.

On investigating further, I discovered that his conclusion emanated from his experiences in Guinea where allegedly he discovered a society where it is easy for a man to get sex from a woman he hardly knows. I doubted his assertions about Guinea and I objected to his generalisations about African women. It is such generalisations that breed prejudices and such prejudices lead to the abuse of women. It is from the presumption that all women love attention that most men think they can comment on a woman’s looks loudly and she will appreciate it yet some of us find that to be harassment. It is from the presumption that all women should not have an opinion that women’s voices are suppressed yet without my voice I am incomplete. It is also from the presumption that a woman’s place is in the kitchen that the girl child is not given an equal opportunity to an education as a boy and hence her chances of making it big in life are limited yet those of us who have been given the chance are proving to be equally capable to men …if not better.

Hence I made it clear to him that sex is not ‘easy’ in Africa. I made it clear that simply because women have a choice to determine their sexuality and sexual conduct does not make them prostitutes as he suggested. I made it clear I was not available for a pick up. I also made it clear I found his attempt to pick me up deplorable and that he owed me an apology.

In the end I spent the 12 hours of my transit comfortably ensconced in the VIP lounge, having warm tea and delicious cookies, all paid for by the Indian not-so-gentle-man as part of his ‘apology package’ and NO I did not have to sleep with him to get all that.

No-we stand firm-up in arms

Rationalising sexual harassment in Egypt

Africa, Gender, Human Rights, Violence Against Women, Women

Before I came to Egypt I was warned several times to be prepared to face sexual harassment. However the warnings had not prepared me for the reality that I have had to live with, in the past 6 months. Sexual harassment in Egypt is chronic and it has to stop. It does not matter whether you are black, white or everything else in between, just being a woman makes you a victim.

The first one slid his hands onto my lap, groping at my thighs and touching my breasts. Lesson Number one- never sit in the front seat of a taxi in Egypt unless you have other people you know with you in the same car. He was a taxi driver. I had not given him permission to touch me. I walked out of a moving taxi. My body is my sanctuary and if I cannot have total control over it then what am I-A tree that bears fruit but cannot eat of it?

The second one stalked me. I remember he was smartly dressed in khaki pants and a sky blue shirt, but beneath his neat exterior lay a rotten mind and rotten intentions- to harass me because I am a woman.

The third one grabbed my buttocks as I made my way into the subway station. I shouted at him and he ran away. Of course he had to, I was furious to say the least. I used to be feisty but Egypt has turned me into a fierce tigress. That is the only way to deal with a culture that is so pervasive it is almost normal.

The fourth, fifth and hundredth all whispered obscenities in my ears as they passed me by. They whistled and passsed snide remarks as I passed by. They ‘accidentally’ brushed their hands against my breast and my behind as they passed and when I turned my head to ask they raised their hands to say ‘I did not mean to.’ Of course what they all did not mean was to get caught and be embarrassed for it.

The one who drove me to write this story also grabbed my buttocks on the subway on the morning of Tuesday 4 October. A few hours earlier someone had stolen my purse and all the money, bank cards and identity documents in it were gone. I was already upset so I turned and shouted. He showed no remorse. In fact he had an evil sneer on his face, showing satisfaction for having accomplished what he wanted, he had made me upset and so derived power from knowing that he had made me upset. Passersby looked at me as if I was the crazy one. Coupled with the racism I face in this country I retreated from Cairo and took days to find myself again and rebuild my strength. I also took time to reflect on the levels of sexual harassment in Egypt and I tried to rationalise it. I reached one conclusion; there is no rationalising such a terrible culture.

Could it be religion? I ask myself. But what religion condones the degradation of women and their treatment as mere sexual objects? What Deity condones the mal-treatment of half of its creation? If it is about Islam and its demands on how women should dress then I do not understand the patterns of harassment because whether dressed in a Jalabiya (long robe) and Burka (head cover that leaves the eyes out only) or tight skinny jeans, the men still harass you. If it is about Christianity, then these people are reading the wrong Bible because the word of God in Deuteronomy says “Do what is right and good in the LORD’s sight, so that it may go well with you.” If they believe that harassing women is good and right in the sight of the Lord, then I cannot stretch my tolerance to accommodate such misogynistic tendencies.

Maybe it is a lack of education but even the educated ones do harass women. Besides one does not need to be educated to know what respect for another human being entails. It should be one of those innate values that transcend religion, culture, education and gender.

Maybe it is a way of redefining their masculinity. I know under the previous regime men were humiliated, suppressed, denied room for expression and personal growth and so they could not provide for their families, they could not voice their opinions out of fear of arrest and detention. So maybe the whole political, socio-economic context emasculated them and made them feel worthless but how does harassing women make you more of a man. Does it not actually make you less of a man and a coward if you spawn your anger and frustrations on a ‘weaker’ sex? As one of my friends Christele Diwouta pointed out when they pull women down because they think it makes them better than us that confirms that they are already beneath us. That makes them cowards. What man calls himself a man when he derives a sense of worth from belittling women. That is pathetic.

I have a right not to be subjected to unwanted sexual advances. I have a right not to be leered at and treated like a sexual object. I have a right not to cower and wonder what a man will say when he passes me by. Real men treat women with respect. Real men protect their womenfolk. Real men do not hiss like snakes to express their interest in women, they engage them in decent conversations. So I declare today to all the men who sexually harass women in Egypt and anywhere else in the world. You are not real men. You are unknown creatures. You are diseased and you need healing. You are cowards!