Story highlights

A demonstration in Nairobi protesting the public stripping and humiliation of supposedly under-dressed women has brought global attention to a controversy that has been raging in the Kenyan press and online community. Much of the brouhaha has, perhaps predictably, focused on the supposed tension between women’s rights and a societally-prescribed morality. Much less has been said of how it illustrates a residual fear among some Kenyans of the consequences of respecting individual liberties.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The shouting matches on Twitter and elsewhere about women’s dress choice are really about the rights of individuals, and especially women, to make their own choices and live by their own standards. They are about the power of any group within society to decide what

A demonstration in Nairobi protesting the public stripping and humiliation of a supposedly under-dressed woman has brought global attention to a controversy that has been raging in the Kenyan press and online community. Much of the brouhaha has, perhaps predictably, focused on the supposed tension between women's rights and a societally prescribed morality. Much less has been said of how it illustrates a residual fear among some Kenyans of the consequences of respecting individual liberties.

Let's get the obvious out of the way. The shouting matches on Twitter and elsewhere about women's dress choice are really about the rights of individuals, and especially women, to make their own choices and live by their own standards. They are also about the power of any group within a society to decide what is decent and thus what is allowable - to police not just dress, but choice and thought and speech.

They are part of a wider assault on rights and choices that is perhaps a backlash against the gains achieved in the last three decades. In 2010, the country enacted what was at the time hailed as a progressive constitution, one that codified many of the demands for political and individual freedoms into a bill of rights. However, implementation of the document has proven to be much harder than anticipated. Kenya's entrenched political elite has attempted to hollow out and subvert the reform agenda in a bid to retain many of the privileges that they formerly enjoyed.

Arbitrary and coercive powers

Instead of adopting and implementing new laws to bring the country in line with the constitution, the political elite are engaged in an effort to restore the arbitrary and coercive powers of the extractive state. In doing this, they have suckered many Kenyans into believing that it is civil and political liberties that are the problem, not the refusal to implement the law.

The very rights Kenyans spent decades fighting for are increasingly regarded as expendable and those fighting to preserve them branded as naive do-gooders or the puppets of foreign masters.

Thus many seem to see individual rights and choices as a harbinger of chaos or to equate order with a restriction of such. Over and over, we are told that "the constitutional reform process has left people with an exaggerated sense of rights", and that this is at the root of the inability of the authorities to tackle rising crime and insecurity, and the failure to enforce the rule of law. The right to bail, not the paucity of investigations and evidence, is assailed as a barrier to the state jailing suspected terrorists and poachers. Rights to privacy are held up as impediments in the war against terror just as rights to personal choices are held to be the causes of the supposed moral breakdown of society.

This is, of course, not very different from the excuses regularly offered up for the policing of women. According to Rachel Spronk, in her book Ambiguous Pleasures: Sexuality and Middle Class Self-perceptions in Nairobi, "sexuality is perceived in every society as essential to the social and moral order". Its control is thus considered crucial to social cohesion. This reasoning is not, as many seem to suggest, a preserve of the poor and uneducated. As Spronk continues to note, in Kenya, "different groups of men, such as religious leaders, opinion makers in the media and government authorities, have expressed concern about women who have become 'visible' through the transformations of the last decade".

This gives rise to the crude assertions that it is not the violence and humiliation visited upon women that is a threat to order, but rather it is the rights they have won in recent times, the ability to determine their own standards of sexuality, dress and propriety. In similar fashion, the very rights Kenyans spent decades fighting for are increasingly regarded as expendable and those fighting to preserve them branded as naive do-gooders or the puppets of foreign masters.

Barrier to efficient action

It is the rights to expression, assembly and privacy, not the failure to seriously address security issues, to reform security organs as required by law, to properly investigate crimes and to invest intelligence and community relations, that are blamed for rising insecurity. A free press and independent courts are targeted as a barrier to efficient action, facilitators of chaos and gridlock not defenders of justice and accountability.

There is little outrage when the government demonises and abuses the Somali community, or when the army commits abuses against the Pokot community under the guise of seeking to catch the killers of 22 policemen and recover the guns stolen from them. Little discomfort is expressed about the extra-judicial murders of clerics and mosque raids at the coast, or the government’s attempts to intimidate and even silence the country’s famously vibrant civil society.

Kenyans hold miniskirt rally after assault

The late US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said: "A necessary corollary of giving individuals freedom to choose how to conduct their lives is acceptance of the fact that different individuals will make different choices."

He added that "we should be especially sensitive to the rights of those whose choices upset the majority". The rabid reactions to women seeking protection of the right to make their own choices has demonstrated just how far Kenyan society has to go before it can truly describe itself as not just free, but also free of the fear of freedom.

It is critical that the slide back to the era of dictatorship and a constriction of individual rights is stemmed.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," declared US President Franklin D Roosevelt during his inaugural speech in 1933. Those words still ring true today, more than 80 years later. Kenyans have little to fear from affirming individual rights and choices. Indeed, it is the historic attempts to curtail such rights, first by the British and then by the post-independence regimes, that have been responsible for the endemic poverty, inequality, oppression and instability.

We must recognise that it is the "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" of individual liberty fostered by groups that fear losing their power over, and thus their ability to extract rents from, their fellow Kenyans is what is converting our constitutional advance into a retreat into oppression. And we must remember and rededicate ourselves to the original aims of the liberation movements of both the colonial and post-colonial periods: To secure freedom, dignity and opportunity for every Kenyan.

Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Source: Al Jazeera