The news and social media has been awash with a campaign calling for an end to the forceful stripping of women by men in our society following an incident that took place on Tuesday, November 11 2014 at Pipeline, Embakasi. Touts from the Embassava Sacco forcefully stripped a woman after they deemed her dressing provocative and out of tune with societal norms. The intention was to embarrass, humiliate and shame this woman for her seemingly ‘irresponsible dressing.’ The resulting campaign by women and like-minded men after this act is noble but misguided especially when it comes to the demonstrations. The campaign is a knee jerk reaction to a problem that has existed for years. In other words, the forceful stripping of these women is just a surface projection of a greater problem that lies underneath the surface. I believe that the campaigners have failed to take into account the real trigger of the campaign, dressing as a part of culture and the underlying clash of social values.
The trigger of the campaign is the realization by urban women of an uncontrollable threat posed by a rogue male dominated society. The violation of the woman’s rights in Pipeline is just a revelation of this looming threat. Remember, the violation of women’s rights takes place every day in Kenyan society e.g. domestic violence, FGM, forced abortion, early marriages, rape etc. It is important to note that these other violations leave deep physical scars as well as emotional, psychological and mental scars. The incident in Pipeline left emotional, psychological and mental scars on the woman and even though this is no less traumatic, it is not as prevalent and as physically intrusive as the others are. The distinct nature of this incident is that it can happen to women anywhere and at any time. More specifically, it can happen to women of a certain social status i.e. women with an income above average, well-educated, independent and ambitious. In other words, urban women with social media accounts have come out strongly on this particular issue as opposed to the other issues because the violation of women’s rights has ceased to be an issue for rural women that they can just ignore and make donations.
The campaigners have also failed to recognize that dressing is part of culture, which is collective and not individualistic. The individual, under the framework of the family, is the most important element in any given society and all laws should protect the desires and wishes of this individual. However, this individual lives among other individuals and as such, laws and the enforcement of such laws should conform to the desires and wishes of other individuals within that society. To put it plainly, an individual should wear what he or she wants as long as it conforms to a given standard set by other individuals in consultation with the individual. This means that an individual’s clothing is a weighted decision that includes the input of other individuals in the society but with more weight assigned to the individual’s input. This weighted decision is necessary and self-existing in society. Formulating a campaign without recognizing the weights involved is pure folly because a weighted decision will come into being one way or another. The campaigners should analyze the assignment of weights in this decision and then inform it so that women in Kenya have a greater say in what they wear but like it or not, society (composed of other individuals including other women) will also have a say in it.
A titanic clash of values is also at play in Kenya today. Westernization creeps in continually but African culture is still a thorn in its side. The champion of westernization is the creative i.e. the person stirring the country and just as well, the person benefiting from its economy. The champion of traditional concepts and norms is the person raised in a rural setting and/or the person living in a rural setting. Normally, the creative considers himself or herself to be intellectually superior and more advanced than the traditionalist but this is rarely the case. Tradition and culture exist for a reason and trying to change it without exploring the rationale behind it leads to disaster. More importantly, trying to introduce new concepts that seemingly clash with deeply held beliefs and that favor a certain group will not end well. The only solution is to seek clarity on societal values based on changing socio-economic circumstances. For example, tradition keeps the institution of the family alive but changing dress codes seemingly disturb the balance by ‘causing men to stray and women to become loose.’ The creative has to assure the traditionalist that changing dress codes will not alter the balance. This assurance has to be practical not academic for it to have any impact on the traditionalist.
These are all aspects of the argument that the campaigners sacrificed in favor of slogans and hashtags. Hillary Clinton recently said, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” She was referring to Obama who coined the slogan, ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ as an expression of his foreign policy doctrine. These slogans, hashtags, demonstrations and online articles will die a slow death and so will the advocacy for women’s rights. Women groups will get a lot of money in the meantime to do nothing but shout and scream which is ironically a description of how women behave among traditionalist men. A long-term view of the issue at hand is necessary as opposed to knee jerk reactions. This campaign, though noble, lacks deep and solid philosophical ground for it to stand the test of time. Liberal especially feminist ideals will not do. Legal, educational and religious institutions have to prepare the groundwork for a solid philosophy right from childbirth. Remember, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass. A close inspection of the mindset behind the offenders and the ‘provocateur’ in the Pipeline incident would show that the touts are just as broken as the woman who suffered because of their actions was before the incident. They are just victims of clashing social ideals, misinformed media campaigns and a fractured society.
Please note that this is a long-term view. Shouting, screaming, name-calling etc. are shortsighted reactions to a very serious problem. Nufftali Musnyama wrote a response to this article titled ‘My Clothes; None of Your ‘Beeswax’.’ You can check it out by clicking on this link http://romysalis.blogspot.com/2014/11/my-clothes-my-choice.html