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Nairobi’s “unacceptable” hemline division

The viral videos and recent #MyDressMyChoice protest highlighted the problem of men stripping women in public for dressing in ways they disapprove of. Njoki Wamai explains the invisible line that runs through Nairobi regarding “unacceptable” hemlines

On 17th November 2014, thousands of women and men marched in downtown Nairobi in a protest march against the stripping of a woman by men who frequently patronise matatu terminals on Tom Mboya street in Nairobi under the #MyDressMyChoice hashtag banner.

Yet, this case was not an isolated case as some of the headlines below from Kenyan newspapers indicate from the last couple of years. Public stripping of women has often been done by rowdy men, and some women who have been complicit in these acts of public humiliation, showing it is a deeply entrenched societal problem based on patriarchal values. Even pregnant women have not been spared. These are some of the few cases that have been reported in the media. Many more go unreported, and only recently after the protests have arrests been carried out. [See also here, a woman being sexually assaulted in a matatu here, and this incident in Mombasa.]

This practice of stripping women goes back a long way
This practice of stripping women goes back a long way

In her article, Silence is A Woman, Dr. Wambui Mwangi, untangles the silences Kenyan women have been forced to live with emanating from a conspiracy of a patriarchal cultures and successive regimes keen to keep women discriminated against and silent to these injustices at the national/political level and ultimately at a personal level. Women who have endured these traumatic experiences are often relegated to mere statistics and ‘interesting news’ as evidenced by the casual nature with which news anchors laughed about a previous incident in Nyeri town on live TV.

These violations clearly contravene the Kenyan constitution in addition to regional and international human rights conventions such as the African Union’s Maputo Protocol, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and the Convention of Elimination of All forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) which Kenya has ratified. The Kenyan constitution states in articles 27(3) states that women and men deserve equal treatment before the law and part (5) states that no one shall be discriminated against on any grounds, as well as article 28 which states that “Every person has inherent dignity and the right to have that dignity respected and protected.”

As Dr. Godfrey Chesang has observed on Nairobi’s geographical inequality, Nairobi’s downtown is divided in two at Tom Mboya Street. The ‘postcard’ side where the state is in charge and the messy chaotic side after Tom Mboya where an army of shoe shiners and sweepers ensure the ‘ordinary mwananchi’s’ shoes from the dusty and muddy side of Nairobi are sanitised in readiness for the clean, orderly, secure post card side, west of Moi Avenue. Stripping of women and mugging is less common on the postcard side of the city, unlike the less glamorous side, where the few police on patrol look on, when violations happen most times having been compromised through constant bribes for traffic offences, drugs and other illegalities. A recent article by Nation’s Mucemi Wachira on Nairobi’s Filthy Streets illustrates my point.

Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi
Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi

This invisible line can be trace back to the apartheid-like British colonial system in Kenya which demarcated one side of Nairobi for whites – ‘the postcard side’ – while the Africans and Indians patronised the other side of the city starting from Moi Avenue with little government infrastructure, planning and security personnel.

The post-colonial elites inherited this division and further perpetuated it by providing more security to themselves on the ‘postcard side’ and in their homes while less security was offered to those on the other side of Moi Avenue. As a result, insecurity became normalised for the Africans. This legacy remains with a costly impact on ‘less privileged men and more so women’, as security on their side of Nairobi is left to hooligans, muggers and strippers.

In a recent interview with a Guardian journalist after #Mydressmychoice protests, some touts at the Tom-Mboya, Accra Road junction reminded the journalist that an invisible line exists in Nairobi where certain hemlines are unacceptable.

Political will from the president isn’t enough, a reordering of the state to reorient itself from a state centric concept of security to a human security centred approach whose focus is the citizen is important. State centric security approach values sovereignty of the state and its elite while providing minimum security to the most vulnerable. So much needs to be done at a systemic level. The Kenyan government has recently established a police force to deal with ‘women strippers’ and a national gender policy at the launch of the 16 days of activism campaign by Kenya’s president. Kenyan women hope that resources will be invested to ensure that these policies are not mere tokens to appease women for the next election in 2017.

Other leaders such as county governors, county members of parliament and members of county assemblies need to lead their counties in similar campaigns as part of the 16 days of activism on violence against women by introducing gender policies that criminalise stripping, [and sanction] immediate arrests and stiffer penalties for violators till women’s choice of dress is respected, as they did before the infiltration of Christian-Victorian standards of dress with the colonial encounter. Additionally, innovative forums to unlearn flawed notions of masculinity among potential perpetrators, while learning positive and healthy models of what is to be a man in Kenya needs to be promoted while providing education and economic opportunities.

This article first appeared on AWDF and is republished here with the permission of the author.

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