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Girls & Women

#MyDressMyChoice Protests After a Woman is Attacked in Kenya

The first time I took a bus in Kenya, I was shocked by the way men treated me.
It was total daylight, I was with several friends, and in mini-bus packed with Kenyans - both men and women. We bounced and rattled along the bumpy road, gospel music blaring out of the vehicle’s speakers, as three men drunkenly and unashamedly leered at my friends and I. They made crude jokes, using language I don’t want to repeat, and repeatedly leaned over to touch, stroke and grab any exposed skin they could see. I was 18-years-old, frightened, intimidated, and vowed never to take a public vehicle in Kenya again.
Six years later, I now call Kenya my second home. I quite quickly realised that most Kenyan men are not like those I encountered on that first journey. I do frequently take public vehicles, and realise that the attention I received on that first journey was partially due to me being a young, white, female volunteer - somewhat of an oddity in the area at the time. However, I wish I could say that this type of harassment was restricted to that occasion, and has abated since. Sadly, this is certainly not the case.
Last week, a video emerged online of a woman in Nairobi being stripped naked in a public bus station. Her crime? Daring to wear a short skirt.
Screenshots from the video, which contains nudity. I’m not sharing it here as I don’t believe it’s fair to spread images of the woman’s naked body any further. Video source: The Stream
The attack involved dozens of men who surrounded the woman, tore off her clothes and forced her to the ground. Local media reports that the men accused her of ‘tempting’ them through indecent dress.
The attack has sparked a national debate, with many women taking to Twitter to protest, using the hashtag #MyDressMyChoice.
However, many Kenyans feel that the blame should be placed on the woman for dressing indecently, and are debating whether wearing short skirts goes against the traditional and religious values of Kenyan culture.
The debate has been growing in ferocity, and on Monday hundreds of Kenyans - men and women - took to the streets of Nairobi for a ‘mini-skirt rally’ to defend women’s rights. The event organisers wrote ‘this is our chance to stand together as women and deliver a message to our country that sexual violence will not be tolerated’.
In 2010, a study showed that 32% of girls in Kenya experience sexual violence before becoming adults. That’s almost 1 in 3. We’re not talking women here - we’re talking young girls. Girls younger than I was when I was frightened and intimidated on a public bus. And Kenyan women have had enough.
Image credit: CNN
Image credit: CNN
Image credit: CNN
It is also extremely noteworthy that men were not invisible at this rally. Take a look at this powerful video of James Kamau, a Kenyan lawyer, making a speech. I got shivers at how incredible this is.
To wild applause, James proclaims “we may not allow a system, a population or a country that looks down on women”. Gender equality, and sexual violence, is a problem that affects both genders. Without involving men in the discussion, progress can never be made.
Not everybody felt the same way as James, however. Reports were made of rival protest groups accusing protesters of indecent dress, hurling verbal abuse.
So what does the average person on the street think about these issues? Local news station NTV interviewed both men and women in Nairobi...check out their responses.
“Women should be allowed to do whatever they want, you know? Because I think what you wear is an expression of your personality.”
“I think we need to respect women more. We need to show the women that they can actually express themselves the way they want to dress up”
“As a mama I think even our girls of today are losing some respect. They don’t dress decently. They should look decent’.
“We need to go back into our values. Our values and culture system...and find out what it means to express yourself.”
“The respect level has gone down, cos if you hear cases of a lady who is just minding her own business in town and start stripping her cos she’s not dressed according to what you think...I think that’s just a shame.”
At the end of the day, this is not a campaign about wearing short dresses. It is not about hemlines. It is a campaign highlighting that every person - whether woman, man or child - should be able to walk freely without threat of sexual violence or harassment.
Over the time I’ve spent in Kenya, I’ve learnt many things. As time has passed, I’ve worn longer skirts, shown less skin, and been careful not to visit certain areas at night. When walking around at dusk, I take a dog with me as a warning against any unwanted attention. I’ve spoken to my Kenyan friends about what is and isn’t okay to wear in Western culture, and seen them marvel at the length of skirt I would dare to put on on the streets of London. I’ve listened in horror and sadness as one of them told me ‘if you wore that here, as a Kenyan girl, you would be raped’.
However, one of the most powerful things that I have learnt is the sheer courage and determination of many Kenyan women. In my experience, when a Kenyan woman wants something, she is a force to be reckoned with. The #MyDressMyChoice campaign makes me hopeful that things are finally on the up.
Image credit: BBC
Image credit: CNN
Image credit: Noor Khamis/Reuters
Image credit: CNN
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Zoe Kelland