Nairobi, Kenya – Flags and fists competed for air space in Nairobi as female and male Kenyans gathered to protest the stripping and assault of a woman for wearing a miniskirt in public.
Bob Marley’s voice blasted from loudspeakers urging the hundreds of women present to “stand up for their rights” at Monday’s protest. Many women wore miniskirts in solidarity, vowing to “root out the cancer” that is violence against women in Kenya.
Lining the circumference of the demonstration were men rooted staunchly behind Uhuru Park’s barbed wire perimetre. A woman passed out fliers that read: “Real men don‘t abuse women, they celebrate them. No matter the dress.” Fliers fluttered to the ground untouched.
A video of the assault surfaced on the internet last week and quickly caused a social media firestorm. An online campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #MyDressMyChoice elicited both condemnation of the woman‘s attackers, and vitriol supporting violence against women who dress “indecently“ in public.
While hundreds marched in support of the woman and their right to dress however they choose, others justified the assault.
“I strongly believe they did the right thing,” said Nairobi resident Benard Owuor of the woman’s attackers. “She is a clear indication that there is moral decay in our society and she learned a lesson: Women can wear whatever they want in the bedroom – but not in public.”
Vincent Odero said he showed up Monday because he disagreed with the protest. “Dressing like this will increase the number of rapists because they’re tempting men,” he told Al Jazeera.
A second video was released last week showing another woman stripped naked and sexually assaulted in Mombasa, a city on Kenya‘s coast. A jeering, whistling crowd surrounded the woman, throwing her to the ground. She screamed, clutching her exposed body, scraps of clothing dragging behind her as she tried to escape.
“I’ve noticed these sporadic attacks on women increasing over the past year,” said local politician Esther Passara.
“They strip a woman, they finger her, and sometimes they rape her. We need to do this march to show that as women we’ve had enough. They can’t ignore us anymore. If this was a child of a minister they would have acted quickly, but because she’s a nobody they haven’t done anything.”
Some political figures have condemned the stripping of women in public, but many still disagreed with Monday’s protest, illuminating larger tensions in rapidly globalising and urbanising Kenya.
“Women have been given first priority. The government has focused only on women and they’ve ignored men,” said Javin Ochieng, a community organiser in Kenya’s capital. “What about the boy child? Men are feeling like they’ve been sidelined in these issues. This is a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode.”
Many would describe Kenya as East Africa’s most liberal country, and Nairobi is no conservative backwater. It’s a sprawling metropolis where club-goers revel until dawn most nights a week, and hip-hop videos playing on public transportation would make even the most fervent miniskirt supporter blush.
Dozens of women’s rights groups in Kenya’s vibrant civil society have made broad legislative and social gains in recent years. But these have run alongside a jarring malice against women on Kenyan talk radio and social media. Some blame the perceived Western nature of women‘s rights groups, many of which receive foreign funding.
Whether it is a fear of losing culture or, more likely, a fear of losing power, the miniskirt protest has hit a nerve.
|Men opposing the protest shred a T-shirt [Emily H Johnson]
“I can see the anger that is coming out of this and also the accusations that we have supported women’s rights at the expense of men’s rights,” said Wangechi Moegi, executive director of the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, one of Kenya’s largest women’s rights organisations.
“But how can it be true when there are four-year-old girls being raped? When girls are being married at 14? When women undergo female genital mutilation? Women are still coming from so, so far.”
By Monday afternoon, the number of protesters had grown into the thousands. They marched to Embassava bus station where the assault took place, chanting, “My dress, my choice!” Many men marched in solidarity, some even donning mini-skirts of their own.
“We ask men to respect the rights of women,” said Frederick Odhiambo. “It is a woman’s choice to wear what she wants.”
Tensions came to a head when the crowd reached the Kenyan Inspector-General of Police’s office to present a petition demanding the prosecution of the attackers. Hundreds of angry men then surrounded the protesters, some waving Bibles and shouting obscenities. Some men held a T-shirt in the air and symbolically shredded it, waving the scraps of cloth above their heads.
The video was just so inhumane. I have daughters. If no one speaks for them now, who will speak for them later?
‘This could be her’
Kenya’s deputy president has ordered the woman’s attackers be arrested and an investigation launched. Police, however, said they cannot take the case further because the woman did not file a complaint.
“We demand respect, whatever a woman is wearing. We want these men rotting in jail,” one of the petitioners told William Thwere Okelo, chief of state of the Inspector-General‘s Office, who received the signatures. “You have a wife, you have a daughter, you have a sister, and one day this could be her.”
Okelo responded: “Surely we are a civilised society and in my view what they’ve done is unacceptable. Nobody should be so wayward as to do what they did. It is criminal and the police will take action,” he said of the attackers.
The protest was organised by a group of Kenyan mothers who met as part of a Facebook group called “Kilimani Mums”.
“I’m a mother of two girls and when I saw the video, I had tears in my eyes. I felt her pain as a fellow woman and couldn’t believe the humiliation and degradation that she went through,” said Ruth Knaust, a member of the Facebook group.
“The video was just so inhumane. I have daughters. If no one speaks for them now, who will speak for them later?”