Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Gender based violence’

This way of being a woman is not working

how-to-be-a-woman1
Sometime back, I came across a post by a woman sharing about how hooked she was to social media, that on one occasion, her husband hit her because she got into bed with her phone, and she couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly, many women commenting on her post found it ok for her to be hit for not paying attention to her husband, particularly while in bed. There was very little alarm raised over the fact that she had been hit. She seemed more concerned about her addiction to social media, than the violence meted out on her.

Reading the post and the comments that followed, got me thinking about how society has created an image of “the good woman”, and the idea that a woman who fails to fit in that image, should be ready to face male-perpetrated violence.

We learn very early as girls that we need to behave, dress and look a certain way with all men, including our fathers, brothers, male neighbours, spouses and even male strangers, with the threat of male – perpetrated violence if we don’t.

I too, was taught from a very early age to expect physical, emotional or sexual violence from men, if I failed to conform to this idea of being female.

When I was a young girl, I was fond of taking meat from the pan as it was cooking. To discourage me from the habit, our house help often threatened that if I carried the habit into marriage, my husband would one day buy me an entire goat, and demand that I cook it all and eat it all at a go. That apparently would be his way of punishing me for this behaviour that was very unbecoming of a lady.

Our house help was not the only person who threatened me with crazy things that my husband would do to me, if I didn’t fit the “good woman” image. Many times when I overslept, my mother threatened me that no man would entertain such sleepiness. She often told me that one day my husband would return me back to her, because I had overslept, and the children were not bathed or fed, and the house stayed dirty.

In this case, my husband would be returning me to my mother for more training, because if I was not a “good woman”, my mother would be to blame, for not providing adequate training. Never mind that these would be my husband’s children, just as they were mine, or that I was the product of both my mother and father.

We learn to expect violence for not conforming to gendered ways of being female. A lot of people don’t even recognize how they teach girls and women to expect abuse in relationships. I’m sure that was not my mother’s or the house help’s intention. They just wanted me to be a “good woman” who fit in society.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taught to expect physical, sexual or emotional abuse for failing to conform to certain ways of being female.

Girls that talk too much or question a lot are told to control their mouths, otherwise they will get hit for answering back their husbands. Women are told to teach their daughters not to sit on their fathers’ laps, or to be affectionate towards their fathers, because “men have very little sexual control”, and even a father could rape his daughter. Girls are taught to sit “properly” with their legs closed even in the presence of brothers and uncles, because of this “sexual control issue” that men have.

In a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where to be at certain times, and who to be with at those times. Sadly, when women face violence, the first thing society checks is whether they conformed to the standards set for them by society.

The problem with this messaging is that it not only centres the lives of girls and women on fitting into the image of a woman that will find a man to marry her, but it also creates a situation where violence against women is normalized. It also creates a society where women are constantly facing blame or blaming themselves for the violence and the abuse that they face.

It’s high time we cultivated ways of being male or female, that do not create such imbalance between genders; where one gender learns to cater to the other, while the other learns that it is ok to be violent to the other.

It’s high time we abhorred all forms of violence, and discouraged both its perpetration and receipt regardless of gender. No ifs, no buts, because this way of being a woman is not working, and it cannot be sustained.

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What if Khadija was your neighbour?

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.

Good women stay in violent relationships

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?

Getting used to violence

I fear that you will not protect me

A woman was raped right outside my office in broad day light, as the public watched. A colleague of mine happened to overhear the street vendors discussing and joking about the incident. The woman, who is alleged to be a sex worker was laying unconscious by the road side, and a street boy/man decided to have his way with her. The street vendors watched and went about their business because she was a sex worker. My guess is that a sex worker, who had passed out, they imagined that there was nothing to rescue her from; after all she had been having sex and drinking all night.

I wish to believe that this story is not true, but if it is not true, it is also worrying that such a story would be peddled in any normal society. I am worried about this whole story, but before I go into why, let me give a brief recap of sexual violence against women in Nairobi.

In November last year, a woman was violently stripped by matatu conductors. She was not the only one though as several similar incidents happened in different parts of the country in the same month. As if violent and public undressing wasn’t enough, many men and women argued that women needed to learn a lesson, as they were increasingly dressing inappropriately. The message was, it is okay to be sexually violent towards a woman who is “inappropriately dressed”. In fact such a woman is to blame for any violence that is meted out against her.

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Shortly after, the president, probably outraged by the increase in insecurity, and the blame that was getting apportioned to the government, stated that security was not only the responsibility of the government, but also of the public. Arguing that Kenyans had failed to take responsibility in the fight against insecurity, he asked where the mother of a two year old girl was, when the child was raped by her uncle. He asked whether in such an incident, the government was really to blame, and clearly apportioned blame to the mother. The message was, when children are sexually abused, it is because their mothers failed to exercise enough caution.

In March this year, the not so honourable member of parliament for Imenti Central, Gideon Mwiti, was alleged to have raped a woman in his office after forcing her to take a HIV test. The response from the public has been “what was a married woman, doing at alone at night with a man in his office?”. Again the message from the public was that there is a place for a woman, after a certain hour, and if she is not in that place, then she is to blame is she experiences any form of sexual violence.

Just around the same time, Joyce Lay, women’s representative for Taita Taveta reported that her colleague, the not so honourable Busenei, had harrased her sexually, by blocking her from entering her room, while they were on duty in Japan. While Joyce Lay has not been explicitly blamed for the incident, the picture that the media chose to use while reporting sends a different messaged.

joyce lay and Busenei

The picture seems to send a message that Joyce Lay is the kind of woman who had that kind of treatment coming.  Looking at the picture, I can imagine the kind of reaction that it will get from a public that is used to blaming women for sexual violence. I can imagine comments suggesting that she was harassed because of her dressing and style. The message that the picture sends is very clear, that a woman who dresses in a certain way has no one to blame but herself, if she faces sexual violence.

Just when I was about to conclude that Joyce Lay was not explicitly blamed, Othaya member of parliament, the not so honourable, Mary Wambui, blamed female politicians for sexual harrasment, arguing that they were to partly to blame for drinking with their male colleagues until the late hours of the night.

The message that there is a certain place for a woman after a certain hour was once again reiterated. Should the woman not be where she is supposed to be, then she is to blame for any sexual violence that she faces.

Going back to the story of the woman that was raped right outside my office, I am worried for myself. I am worried because if a rape happened outside my office, I realise that I am not that safe. The realisation that I am not safe, in a context that is hell bent on ensuring that the victim and the perpetrator share blame generates a lot of fear in me.

I imagine that if a similar incident happened to me, people might not come to my rescue particularly if they deem me to be “inappropriately dressed”. I imagine that if I happen to be leaving the office at 10 pm, they will question the kind of work that I do with a lot of cynicism. If I happen to have been in the office with my male colleagues, they will ask why I was alone at night with men. If my husband reports that he got worried when I failed to come home, they will feel sorry for him having to endure the agony of a wife who is absent to perform her wifely duties.

I don’t feel safe, because I live in a society that is out to teach women to stay in the box that society has made for them; a society that justifies violence against women who do not fit into that box. As a woman who doesn’t fit that box, I fear for my safety. I realise that if such a thing happened to me, there might be no one to protect me, no one to speak for me and no one to empathize with my pain. Instead, I will be forced to carry the pain, trauma, shame and blame by myself.

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