Sexy, decent, smart- When is it my choice?
Today I write about dresses, dressing. I cannot talk of dressing without remembering some of the great girls in my life that inspire me, my nieces. My nieces are an interesting lot and each of them has her own special way but for now let me focus on three. My niece Valerie has her own unique taste of clothes. I remember the day that with my younger sister we decided to have the ‘auntie of the year award’ by taking her shopping for clothes; not buy for her but take her to choose. She was very excited to be treated in such ‘adult way’ (she was about 5 yrs). We had in mind what we could have shopped for her, that Cinderella kind of dressing. Don’t girls look pretty in them, especially something red or pink? But no way, she wanted some jeans trouser! That was no easy task considering her tiny body. Eventually we got one that fitted her ‘hips’ and all and the girl was happy; her choice. She has made it clear she doesn’t like long dresses, be it uniform or Sunday best.
I recall an incidence where Bridget her younger sister, caused drama in a shop, she wanted open shoes! She was about 3 or 4 yrs and she was wondering why discrimination of her getting open shoes. We all know low heels closed shoes are more comfortable for young girls, right? But not her, she had had enough of that and now she had specific taste, open and with heels! After quite some bargaining the mother decided it was time, thinking she would soon get tired of the high heels and go back to closed shoes. (FYI she never got tired). Eventually the mother gave in and took the girl ‘shopping’ for her choice of shoes. She is not one to throw tantrums but that day she did! The shop attendants were trying to be helpful and brought some closed shoes, and the girl could have shot someone! Eventually with her tiny feet we got fitting shoes, and she was happy excited and ‘lived happily ever after’.
As for Bakhita, another of my many nieces, she has decided she want my red dress! There are times we imagine that children will get inspired by graduation gowns to think “I want to get a degree” but when we were celebrating my MA graduation we were surprised! She was not interested in black funny gown; she wanted and still wants my red dress. (It will possibly fit her in about 25 or so years). I could go on and on, but why do these girls at that age make those decisions? I don’t know, but it’s their choice!
Why am on and on about dresses and girls?
Two weeks ago somewhere in Nyeri, Central Kenya, some idle men decided that they did not appreciate the choice of dressing of some woman. The lady was apparently ‘indecent’ so in a strange way of probably making her more ‘decent’ undressed her in public! I do not know how this lady was dressed, because by the time the issue became news she was no longer dressed. The first time I saw some pictures online about that issue I quickly logged off and closed my ears. Later on I saw the same piece of news and realized this was for real. I felt some bile in my stomach as I tried to put myself in the shoes of that lady who was traumatized by such inhuman acts. I was chatting with a friend Nancy Muigei who had posted a news clip and I decided to watch it. Eventually as we chatted we came up with idea of making this issue more national concern in the only way we could at that time, online mobilizing. I spent the better part of the Easter weekend on this; it’s a gross violation on women which is rarely if ever addressed.
This is not the first time I have blogged about women and the patriarchal definition of dressing and dress code. I recall an experience I had one Sunday morning when I had gone for field work in Makueni. That was around 2005. That was one of the few times if not the only time that Sunday got me there and so I sought to find out where I could attend mass and found a Church that was nearby. I do not recall but I suspect that the mass must have been in Kiswahili since I vividly recall feeling it was one of the times that I was really present and enjoyed the mass. It came to a time that is very important for us Catholics, and so I joined other Christians in receiving the Holy Communion. A certain man crossed my path and started whispering to me but I could not understand the language neither did I know there was a ‘policeman’ for Holy Communion. Soon after a certain woman quickly came ‘to my rescue’ and that’s when I realized what it was all about! I did not have a head scarf, and the woman was offering me one. (Maybe I should also mention I was wearing trousers).
I looked at this woman who was trying to be helpful and this ‘policeman’ and at first I thought of going to the priest and see what he would do but quickly thought no worth my efforts and walked out. I have been a Catholic since I was born, participated in organizing many liturgical events, taken more readings in Church than I can remember but the last time I wore a head scarf –white - must be when I received Holy Communion at 8 or 9 years old. Even in social life head scarf has never been part of my attire even while wearing African dress it is on vary rare occasions (and mostly through someone else’s efforts) you can find a scarf on my head. I have no issues with head scarves, I find women wearing especially the designed West African scarves to look really hot! But it’s not part of me, not my choice. The reason I refused the head scarf was not much to do with activism (it’s a while back) but mostly to do with faith. My reasoning was that if I accepted that head scarf it meant that had been something wrong (read sinner) throughout mass so why ‘pretend’ at Holy Communion. Since this was the first and the last time that ever happened, and I have continued being a catholic, anyone dares to tell me that it was about religion/faith?
The girl in Nyeri was not as lucky and neither was she in Church but in a bus stop. The reason I so eagerly engaged and worked hard to coordinate and keep this campaign active is because of the action itself and also the underlying factors. Watching the clip that was aired by KTN left me quite surprised, annoyed and concerned. To start with, the media presenters aired the news item in a rather flippant manner making it a laughing matter. It was worse that one presented was female, did she not realize she can fall prey to the same? Some women who were there looked on as the message of “be advising your daughters how to dress” were promoted. One woman even said that it was a lesson for that lady and other women who should learn to wear trousers and “not tempt our husbands”. (I think here men should get annoyed on my behalf). I felt pity for this woman, did she actually believe that if women are tied in lessos trousers or bui buis than men will stop cheating! And does she believe men are such weak helpless creatures? Was her reason of wearing trousers motivated by whether she wanted to feel smart, sexy, relevant, decent or whatever motivated her, or was it so as not to ‘tempt men’? Do men who claimed she was indecent want us to believe they are helpless characters ‘tempted by the daughters of eve’ from the creation of the world? Did they make her ‘more decent’ by undressing her? Who appointed them the ‘dress police’?
This is not an isolated case as similar cases have been reported in the past. On February 17th a woman was undressed in Kitengela for being ‘dressed provocatively’. Earlier in the year a woman was undressed in Nakuru and many more cases some of which are not reported in the media. In 2008, women were violated and harassed by illegal groups for dressing in trousers or miniskirts during the post elections violence. I recall uncertain and anxious moments as we left office for home wondering if to look for lessons and carry yet wearing jeans was best choice in uncertain moments when there was violence in various parts; yet some illegal group was undressing women in trousers since it was apparently against their ‘culture’. The culture excuse has been used so often it is annoying. If we were to go back to culture, can those men tell us which African culture wore trousers among men? After the Nyeri incident another women in the same locality was threatened with undressing by her religious group because of dressing ‘indecently’ in trousers! So what is decent? And who defines it? And why does it only apply to women? And what is the law against ‘indecent’? More so how does undressing an ‘indecent’ lady make her more decent? These are some of the issues that were raised in the online campaign “Say No to Undressing and Violation of Women’ with very interesting views.
Women continuously face violation and perpetrators go scot-free. The constitution of Kenya 27(4) states that “The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth. (5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another person on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (4).
It is therefore perturbing such incidences continue to happen and go un-addressed. It is a form of violation that if not addressed will continue recurring and adds on to many other violations that women and girls have often gone through. Patriarchy has a way of dominating women even in the various ways and lack of strong voice condemning this makes the practice continue without being addressed. For the second time that I recall, some male politician is bringing a bill to the Uganda parliament to legislate against miniskirts! A few years back there had been a similar motion or comment in parliament where a minister claimed that women wearing miniskirts were the main cause of accidents in Uganda as men stared! God help this daughter of eve! During the ‘Say No to Undressing and Violation of Women’ campaign, the most disappointing part was realizing how some of the leaders including female leaders were unwilling to engage with the issue. Did they seem to think they are beyond this? Any woman regardless of social status can undergo this and other related violations. I recall an incident where a tout pinched the breasts of a police woman! Eventually we got commitment after a press conference to have the issue addressed by the governor of Nyeri, and we hope this happens. Dressing is often used to justify other Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV) like rape and defilement. It is not unusual to hear questions like “how was she dressed” being used. It is therefore imperative to nip such behaviors. The campaign is not a once off event, and I believe this is a movement that will last.
I will not wait for the day I face similar actions or my sister or my friend or my niece of whomever other women known or unknown to me. I will not want a day when my niece will report that a certain boy pinched her because she was dressed ‘indecently’; or my nephew pinches a girl and says she was not dressed properly.
A disclaimer is that I am not saying women should dress in one way or the other, I just know I do not dictate to them, unless they are less than 18yrs of age and under my wings; and even then, they still have preferences and choices and in the event their choices seem off, there is a respectful way of handling it. Undressing is just a pathetic excuse of some idle minds and perpetrators of violence against women.
It is a woman’s choice and right to dress how she feels or how she want to feel;
It is her choice, it is my choice