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Kenya: My dress my choice

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Kenya: My dress my choice

The stripping attacks on women in Kenya over claims of “indecency” are not religious or moral at heart, but political. And while Kenyan feminists are bravely speaking out, they have a lot of catching up to do, argues Nanjala Nyabola.

On 17 November 2014, Wairimu (name changed to protect identity), a female trader in Nairobi sold a customer three boiled eggs and some kachumbari salad at a busy bus stop. Given the man was a regular customer, Wairimu agreed to allow him to pay for the snack later on, although she was determined to recover the money by the end of the day.

Yet, when she went to collect what she was owed, the customer called her a “whore” and threatened to sexually assault her in the night. Undeterred, Wairimu pressed her claim.

What happened next is the cause of a wave of fear that has seized Kenya’s public spaces, with the spectre of unchecked violence poisoning normal social interactions and undermining even the legitimate exercise of social or commercial rights.

The customer violently attacked Wairimu and began to strip off her clothes. Rather than helping Wairimu, several men in the area joined in the act and assaulted her so brutally that she blacked out and only came to at the hospital several hours later. The women present did not intervene either. Only Wairimu’s sister, who is also a trader at the market, tried to protect her. And she was brutally attacked as a result too.

In November, at least four stripping attacks were recorded across the country – three in Nairobi and one in Mombasa. In one case, a schoolgirl was attacked on board a matatu (minibus taxi)by a number of men, one of whom was a police officer.

The attack was filmed on a phone and went viral on social media. Eventually, the officer and the matatu were both identified, though not through formal channels but persistent action from online activists.

Since these and other stripping incidents, Kenya has been engaged in a heated debate about the reasons behind the violence and their justifiability.

For many who defend the attacks, it is a question of “decency” – women provoke men by their mode of dress. One prominent socio-political Kenyan blogger  for instance, tweeted that if he saw a “scantily dressed” woman, he would not only support someone who stripped her but lead such an attack.

According to these lines of thinking, the objective of violence is to bring individual behaviour in line with radical interpretations of public morality. But where do these interpretations come from?

The origins of “decency”
Some people have suggested that the source of these views is religion. After all, Kenya today has a plethora of American-style evangelical churches preaching strict biblical interpretation and rigid social codes, while the Muslim community hasn’t escaped similar originalist movements. However, weakening this theory is the fact there don’t seem to be similarly violent responses to other acts that might be deemed religiously indecent. The country’s HIV levels and high divorce rate, for example, suggest that religious moralities don’t necessarily respond to private choices.

Recent exposés on profiteering within religious groups meanwhile, and the political adventures of religious figures  reveal that “religion” in Kenya is a highly malleable construct. Rather, its ideas are adapted and deployed to achieve specific social or political goals, undermining the idea that it is a broad social consensus and commitment to specific conservative interpretations of social positions that underlies this preoccupation with “decency”.

So, what is the reason? Well, like most things, it is political.

In Kenya, the political economy of the female form reveals plenty about national change and indeterminacy, and appeals to “return to traditional values” can generally be traced to resistance to increased rights for minority groups.

Under colonialism, for example, Kenyans were forced to conform to puritanical modes of dress and gender interaction in order to gain access to education and, therefore, a monetary income. However, following uhuru (freedom) in the 1960s, miniskirts became all the rage, perhaps as symbols of newly independent Kenyans’ desire to assert their modernity and self-determination.

With the economic collapse of the Structural Adjustment era during the 80s and 90s came a renewed conservativism. Led by missionary-school-educated big men and perhaps in a bid to counteract the sense of powerlessness in the face of devastating externally enforced economic policies, the behemoth that was the ruling KANU party subsumed many social institutions and made them organs for the perpetuation of rigid ideas of “traditional African societies”. The more these organisations became embedded into the KANU agenda of mass social control and the repression of dissent, the more they fixated on politically neutral issues such as the preservation of social mores. For instance, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, hitherto a rural development organisation for women, became closely affiliated with the women’s wing of KANU in 1987 and became a staunch advocate for traditional roles for women.

Another consequence of the political repression of the 1980s was the stifling of individual expression. Years of government-controlled cultural production created a generation that shunned overt sexuality and dressed in formless charcoal polyester suits, even on the hottest days of the year. The feminine form was particularly couched in a discourse of shame.

This environment provided a highly resonant target for activists to attack, and rights pioneers such as Wangari Maathai deliberately broke taboos as a form of symbolic protest.

For example, one tactic of Maathai and her allies was to strip when police came to arrest them, call the police their sons and point out that in Kikuyu tradition it is a curse for sons to see their mothers naked.

These actions had a great impact, but for many, feminism became a dirty word in Kenya, associated with acts of public indignity.

In the 1990s, in sync with Kenya’s slow adjustment to multipartyism, the landscape shifted again as urbanites embraced more expressive modes of dress and culture, despite resistance. Political protest became more common, and minority groups became more visible and vocal. It was in this climate that the first wave of stripping attacks in Nairobi occurred. The police responded with inaction and apathy, the much-maligned feminist movement didn’t speak up effectively, and women of the uhuru generation, now adults with their own children, still saw feminism as a foreign institution that upended “traditional” values.  

Back to never
At the heart of the climate of fear that Kenyan women face today is thus the inaction of institutions and movements that should be protecting women as much as the actions of those directly attacking them. In fact, there is perhaps no movement in Kenya that has failed to live up to the promise of multipartyism as much as feminism. Although there are visible and vocal feminists, resistance to the cause in the public sphere remains high. And after the peak of the Beijing Women’s Conference and Charity Ngilu’s run for president in 1997, the women’s movement in Kenya has regressed, championing seemingly neutral social causes instead of advocating for the socio-political rights of women. This recent wave of stripping has reanimated more radical elements in the feminist movements, culminating in the #MyDressMyChoice campaign, but there is still plenty of resistance from ordinary women.

More broadly, Kenyans live amidst increased social and political indeterminacy. On the one hand, recent economic prosperity has created a robust middle class and engendered a cultural revolution, a local renaissance where people aspire to a contemporary Kenyan identity. Female-led enterprises have become primary sources of income for many families and through chamas – round-robin investment clubs – several people have profited from local innovations in organisation, banking and finance.

Added to this, substantial infrastructural investments are taking place, and Kenya looks and feels different. In the cities, although ill-fitting polyester suits still outnumber brightly coloured African prints, the popularity of the arts amongst young Kenyans suggests a cultural shift is occurring. Individual cultural expression, pushing boundaries of fashion and taste, is on the rise.

However, on the other hand, this visible prosperity isn’t available to everyone, and inequality in the country is extreme. Traders and consumers assault each other over three boiled eggs because they may represent a day’s worth of food. And although education has expanded dramatically, unemployment remains high.

The sum total of these factors is a value clash between an increasingly wealthy and rapidly industrialising class and an exploited class unwilling to embrace values from which they do not profit. The appeal of faux “traditional values” in this context is that they hark back to an era of perceived egalitarianism and opportunity, whilst promising a measure of stability that is lacking in the present environment.

Ongoing debates about the rightness of stripping women in public and a return to “decency” – and the fact that so many women could come out in favour of these measures – highlight a misplaced nostalgia for a time that never was.

In Kenya, this “return to purity” discourse and resulting value clashes inevitably leads to unpredictable violence like this current wave of terror.

For Wairimu and other victims of stripping, the metaphysical struggle likely matters less than the scars of physical violence and public humiliation.

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Written by Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based in Antananarivo, Madagascar. She writes regularly for Al Jazeera, The Guardian and other publications, and provides analysis on political issues in Africa for various radio and television outlets in Kenya, the US and the UK. She holds a BA in African Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham, an MSc in Forced Migration and an MSc in African Studies, both from the University of Oxford, and a JD from Harvard Law School. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.

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