I didn’t watch Saturday night’s feature on KTN about Khadija, a 16 year old girl who was brutally burnt by her 60 year old husband in Mandera County. I followed the story on Twitter though, where horrific images of the young girl’s burnt body had been posted, along with comments on the issue. The comments demonstrated outrage; first over the man that had abused the girl, and second towards the community that had been silent about the issue. People were particularly angry because Khadija has been living with severe burns on most of her body for about four months, without receiving any medical treatment, yet the community around her was silent for the entire four months.
The reactions on Twitter led me to reflect on how we respond to violence in our neighbourhoods, and wondered if many or any of us would have responded differently had Khadija been our neighbour. I remembered how growing up, we had a neighbour who was regularly violent towards his wife. On the nights when he got violent, he would throw things and punch his wife as their young son wailed loudly. While the violence was obviously not discreet, there wasn’t a single day that any of the neighbours intervened. Never mind that this was a community with more than 20 households.
On one occasion, the commotion went on for longer than usual, and it sounded as if it was intensifying with every minute. I remember my parents getting very concerned and debating on whether they should intervene. After a lengthy discussion, they decided not to ‘interfere’, and chose to ‘respect the privacy’ that should be accorded to people’s homes. I guess many of our neighbours had that conversation, and resorted to keep quiet and ‘mind their own business’.
We do that all the time, keep quiet and mind our own business, respecting the privacy of what goes on behind closed doors, even in homes where violence is pervasive. Our lack of community, created by a culture where we are only bothered about ourselves, and the people we share a roof with, has resulted in concern being synonymous with intrusion. If Khadija had been our neighbour, how many of us, like my neighbourhood several years ago, would have decided against respecting this privacy to intervene?
The moment we choose to be silent about violence, we enter into another phase of normalising the violence. I cannot recall how many times I heard statements such as ‘the fighting has began’ or ‘he’s at it again’ or ‘tonight we will not sleep’, as domestic violence ensued next to our door.
Sometimes it goes to the extent of making jokes about it. We will joke about how the ‘bull’ or ‘Jogoo’ (bull) of house X gave us sleepless nights, or how the woman ‘alionwa manyundo usiku mzima’ (hammered all night). If Khadija was have been our neighbour, I bet you many of us would not only have normalised the violence, but also normalised the fact that she was a child married to an older man. Some of us would be disgusted, but do nothing about it. Some of us would speak of the hero that the man is, that even in his old age, he is able to get himself ‘a fresh or spring chicken’.
In the process of normalising violence, women are encouraged to withstand it ‘for the sake of the children’. Statements such as ‘if all women left because of one form of abuse or the other, no one would be married’ or ‘this is how it has always been’, or ‘we have also gone through the same’ is common advice among women, particularly older ones advising younger ones.
When the violence becomes an ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ event, we enter another phase where the situation is seen not only seen as normal, but we begin to look for what is ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ with the victim. In this phase, we blame the victim through stupid questions. We begin to ask ‘why is she there?’ ‘what is stopping her from leaving?’ ‘amefungiliwa? (‘is she been tied there?’). ‘How can someone be beaten daily?’ As I was following the conversation about Khadija on Twitter, somebody asked, ‘what was a 16 year old doing married?’ The situation becomes normal, and the victim abnormal.
These stupid questions are followed or accompanied with justification as to why a woman should face violence. We use all the tools available to us, including, and particularly the Bible and other religious texts to justify this kind of violence. We begin to say ‘there must be something she is not doing’, ‘she must have provoked him’, ‘no man just wakes up and starts beating a woman’. As I am writing this post, someone is engaging me on Twitter trying to justify Khadija’s violence. The conversation goes something like this:
@Kenyanfeminst (me): Can this violence towards women and girls end with this generation? #JusticeForKhadija
@SA (A follower on Twitter who chooses to respond): As soon as wives learn to submit to their husbands, it’s a Biblical command.
@ Kenyanfeminist: are you justifying violence towards women and girls?
@SA: I’m not justifying anything. I’m reminding [you] of the Biblical submission requirement, which should forestall many fights.
@SA: A man just doesn’t wake up one morning, just start battering his wife or daughter. It’s a build up and mostly women cause it.
@ Kenyanfeminist: So are you saying that the 16 year old who was brutally burnt by her husband deserved it?
@SA: Have you [found] out what led to the beating? It’s not out of the blue!
This conversation, which went on beyond this, proves that if Khadija had been our neighbour, many of us are likely to have justified the violence. I need to point out that SA is not your average Kenyan. His profile suggests that he is educated, socially and politically conscious and driven by Christian teachings. He even describes himself as a human rights activist. If someone proclaiming to be human rights activists can publicly justify the outright violation of the rights of another human being, I fear for the kind of society we live in.
Right now we are outraged on social media, but the truth is if Khadija was our neighbour, many of us would have responded the same we respond all the time. We would have kept quiet and minded our business, and our silence would have grown into normalising the violence. With time, many of us would have began blaming Khadija and asking stupid questions, as we find reasons to justify the kind of situation she is in.
What we have been doing and continue to do, is create a society that perpetuates violence towards women. A society where women are neither protected by society or by law. A society that fails to be cognisant of the nuances that surround gender based violence; often assuming that one-size-fits-all approach. We are also blind to the impact of our social and legal responses in addressing gender based violence. As women, we fear to report or speak out because chances are, neither society, nor the law will protect us.
I ask the question that I often ask? Can this end with me and my generation? Will we have another Khadija story 20 years from now. Yes we will, if we keep up with the silence, the culture of normalising violence, blaming the victim and justifying violence.
In the spirit of ending the culture of silence, last week someone named Ann read my blog post “Can it end with me?” and challenged me to name the website that ignored my complaint on sexual inappropriateness from a service that I had purchased through the website. Ann contends that I have no business writing about sexual harassment if I continue to protect companies and websites that abuse women, a sentiment that I completely agree with.
So, in the spirit of consuming what I preach, I will share my story in brief. I purchased a massage deal from Malaika Spa, through Rupu.co.ke. My masseur, Paul Jandi, turned out to be sexually inappropriate. When I reported to Rupu, my complaint was ignored. This was contrary to the kind of swiftness in responding that I had experienced from Rupu in the process of purchasing the deal.
It was not until 25 days later, when a 15 year old Norwegian girl was drugged and raped, and it was highlighted in the media, that Rupu called and wrote back to me apologising for what they termed as my ‘less than satisfactory experience’, offering to make things right. It is too late now. Rupu’s silence and love for profits has resulted in an extremely traumatic experience for a young girl. Rupu’s response is also reflective of our culture towards sexual violence.
We choose to be silent, to normalise, to justify and consequently, perpetuate violence against women.
The question is, can this end with me and my generation?