A few weeks ago, I shared an incident on Twitter that happened to me on my way from work.
It was a normal weekday evening and, having wrapped up at the office, I set out for home. I had hardly walked a few metres from the office when I saw three young men walking in my direction. They had a belligerent air about them. I would have been more frightened had it been late at night and I was walking alone on some deserted street. But it was still broad daylight and lots of people were making their way home.
As soon as the three men came within inches of me, one of them tried to grope my breast in the full glare of passers-by. I was quick to duck to his side before he had the chance. But what transpired after was much worse. The man and his two friends began to insult me. One said I had no reason to feel so proud with such big breasts; the other called me a slut while the attacker laughed loudly. Another group of about nine young men seated by the side of the road chimed in, not in my defence. They joined the three men in hurling expletives at me. One of them shouted that had I encountered them elsewhere (to mean in a less crowded place), I would have learned my lesson (implying physical and/or sexual assault).
Mortifying as it is, I wish this were an isolated incident – a one off occasion by some ill mannered and rogue young men. But it was not. This is the kind of street harassment women have to endure everyday as they traverse public spaces when making their way to their different occupations. I cannot keep count of the number of times in a week I undergo one form or another of street harassment. Many women can attest to this as well. Street harassment is so common, so normal that most women have come to accept it as a way of life, despite how offensive, infuriating, violating and demeaning it is for them.
Street harassment is not a preserve of a particular class or socio-economic stratum. Men in their different capacities, professions, age and ranks harass women on the streets. Only to them it is not viewed as harassment, but the manly right to offer unsolicited opinions and spew lewd comments at any woman they so desire.
Street harassment is that man on Tom Mboya Street who will make a sexual comment about your breasts or your butt. It is the men seated by the side of the road who will whistle at you or catcall you in the morning as you make your way to school or work. Sometimes, it will be the well dressed old man who rolls down the window of his Range Rover Sport and honks at you or asks you to get into the car with him. It is the makanga who winks at you or orders you to smile.
Another common manifestation is when a man(stranger) on the streets creepily thrusts his unwanted face in yours and tells you how beautiful you are then expects you to show gratitude for his compliment. If you’ve been near the Ngara Exhibition stalls, you have probably had your hand forcibly pulled by the young male vendors. When you tried to free yourself from one’s grip, three others blocked your way and had a merry time humiliating you. If you were unluckier, they squeezed your breasts or your butt. In extreme, but not rare cases, street harassment has ended up with a woman being physically assaulted or getting raped.
Street harassment is defined as form of sexual harassment that takes place in public spaces with the intention of intimidating the target and making the harasser feel powerful.
It is, very much, an element of patriarchy. Privilege gives men a sense of entitlement, allowing them to harass women in the streets without any feelings of wrongdoing. For instance, many men will argue that there is nothing wrong with stopping a woman in the streets to tell her she is beautiful or in forcing a woman to say hi to you. It is after all just a greeting, why refuse to acknowledge it? The truth however is that these attacks – and I intentionally refer to them as attacks because that is what they are – are never gestures of friendliness or a genuine desire to compliment.
In most cases, a man will want to ‘compliment’ you when in the company of other men. His intention is to show off to the others, to let them know that he is ‘man enough’. He is as macho as they come. By calling you a slut when you refuse to respond to his so called compliment, he not only affirms his masculinity, but asserts his gender superiority. The more he belittles you, the more his man card accrues points and the more manly he feels. Suppose you were to meet the same man outside the comfort of the company his fellow men, chances are that he would not display the same level of aggression.
But mob mentality is not always the case when it comes to street harassment. Some men will individually, by the powers granted to them by patriarchy, harass women on the street as a showmanship of their sexual/gender superiority as a single entity.
Women’s bodies are objectified and depicted as men’s playthings.
Men own us.
Patriarchy grants men the freedom to possess and control women’s bodies, so that a man finds it perfectly okay to comment (either positively or negatively) on a woman’s breasts in public. Her feelings on this matter are inconsequential. Such overt displays of privilege are channels of self-reassurance to men. It reminds them of their elevated position in the gender hierarchy.
The problem with this false perception of privilege is that, in most cases it starts to become a reality in the minds of many men. A man begins to feel entitled to a woman’s body whether he knows her or not, whether she is old enough to be his mother or is someone else’s wife. Society has already informed this man that any woman is his for the taking without him expecting much resistance.
Consequently, when this privileged man says hello to you and as a woman you refuse to respond, he feels wounded. His free pass to your body has been challenged. His privilege has been questioned. In the company of others, especially men, to let this slide without a word would be an insult to his masculinity and a cause for banishment from the masculine fraternity. And so he takes vengeance while reasserting his position by calling you a slut or a whore. This brutal act secures his membership among his peers.
In most cases, women are called too proud or their bodies negatively dissected when they refuse to respond to catcalls, whistles and car horns. This mirrors another aspect of our patriarchal society – that to put a woman down, you must attack her physical attributes or her sexual reputation, if not both. Destroy her image in a sexual context. If you can’t own her sexually, tarnish her name, her sexual behaviour and her reputation, so that no other man will desire her. Make her as undesirable as possible. In a nutshell, it reflects society’s attitudes about women, their bodies and who owns them.
Sexual harassment hurts women.
There is nothing appealing or flattering about having 10 strange men by the road scream how beautiful or ugly you look. It is utterly offensive when someone you don’t know grabs your butt in the club because you are in a short skirt and they assume this means you want them to. It’s completely depressing when you have to take three girlfriends along when shopping to create a safety net because you are afraid of the young men who will yank your hand and refuse to let go until your blood clots.
In some instances, women find themselves having to change their routes home, to work, to church and so forth because they are afraid of encountering some sort of harassment along their normal routes. It becomes an inconvenience when you have to use a longer route just to avoid men who will stop at nothing short of making you feel terrified. It is completely unfair that some streets automatically become no go zones for women because of possible attacks.
Most of us walk with fear at the back of our minds 24/7. We walk with our eyes fixed on ground or with loud music playing in our earphones to avoid any confrontation with street harassers. We are constantly thinking and planning on how we can minimize any unintended situations of unwanted attention. In a country where citizens are granted so many freedoms, women are forced to do with even less freedoms than their male counterparts when it comes to safety in accessing public spaces.
Another disturbing fact is that these attacks also happen to underage girls, both in primary school and in high school. I have seen grown men harass young schoolgirls in uniform. Some of these men are old enough to be their fathers. In some cases, these girls are even sexually assaulted and raped. Some get pregnant and have to deal with unplanned for babies or health risks that come with abortion. When it is not schoolgirls, it’s old women, some of whom are grandmothers.
And this is exactly what happens when that sense of entitlement thaws in some of these men’s heads. They start to think that any woman who turns down their advances deserves to be punished. When a woman ignores their greetings on the streets, they will sexually assault her or rape her so as to teach her a lesson in respecting men. We have all heard or read stories of women getting physically attacked because they would not cooperate with a man they did not know on the streets.
What men fail to understand is that, no woman owes a stranger anything. Be it accepting a compliment or responding to greetings. Greetings are voluntary. Men need to realize that a woman does not have to smile on the streets if she doesn’t want to. Stop asking her to smile. She owes you nothing and the best thing you can do is leave her alone.
It is a fact that not all men harass women. But most of the times, a man has friends who do. Yet most men won’t say anything when they see their friends, for instance, making an unwarranted sexual remark at a woman in the gym. They will occasionally feel embarrassed on their friend’s behalf but that’s as far as it goes. In some instances, you find fathers and sons; uncles and nephews seated somewhere together catcalling women as they pass by.
There is an urgent need for us to address the problem of street harassment. We need to stop treating our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends like inferior human beings. As a man, you never have to worry about going to a certain shop because the men who sit outside might make an unwelcome comment. You never have to worry about male colleagues at work- some as old as your father- making inappropriate sexual comments and jokes directed at you. As a man, you’re not constantly in fear of darkness falling while you are away from home because some man on the streets might attack and rape you. When you go to the club, you don’t have to worry about not wearing your favourite skirt because some pervert might slip his hand under it. When taking that taxi home, you never have to worry about the cab driver turning on you. Most women end up having one or two trustworthy cab drivers who they will await for as long as it takes because it is much safer than taking an unknown cab.
How then can we move away from this culture of intimidating women on the streets to respecting them instead? One, would be to have these conversations with our children, both boys and girls. It is important to let ours sons know that women are not sexual objects to be violated on the streets, or anywhere else for that matter. It is important to drill into our kids the fact that women need to be able to walk freely in the streets or any other public space without fear of being attacked regardless of their background or status and at all times. Men need to serve as role models to younger men, teenage boys and even little boys.
In the same breath, men should be in the frontline supporting women in the fight against street harassment. A man should be able to castigate his friend when he has crossed the line by violating a woman’s space. Men ought to have these conversations among themselves . The few men who are lucky enough to understand how street harassment is degrading to women need to share and try to convince their fellow men to see things in the same light.
The Kenyan law and the Sexual Offences Act do not address street harassment in detail. Understandably so, because it is difficult to have a stranger arraigned in court for calling you a whore or for grabbing your butt in public. The nature of these attacks is that they happen within minutes and are orchestrated by strangers who we cannot have arrested because they vanish in seconds. Evidence is hard to produce in such instances and there is only so much legal institutions can do. It is also impractical to have the police monitoring all streets for cases of harassment.
In developed nations, women’s groups and individuals have come up with websites where women can discuss and share their street harassment ordeals. Others have created apps like Hollaback which allow users to share their experiences in relation to street harassment. They also organize events and seminars where they discuss such issues and brainstorm on how best to approach this problem. It would be helpful if we too, tried to come up with such sit downs where we can share and formulate solutions.
The most important thing we can do in order to undo this age old practice, however, is to completely shift our attitudes and consequently our behaviour towards all the women we live with and interact with on the streets everyday.
Next time you want to make a sexual comment directed at a woman you see on the streets, think about whether your remark is welcome. Is it in the right context? Will she be offended or embarrassed by it? Would you be at ease if someone did the same thing to you? This is not to say that all compliments on the street are bad and unwelcome, but it is crucial that you re-examine your motive. Why am I doing it? Is it a genuine compliment or am I merely showing off my undeserved gift of patriarchal privilege?
Sheila ‘daidey’ Maingi is a full time ambivert who enjoys flipping through books in detail, staring at the ceiling for hours , playing old school hip hop, advocating for women’s rights and dreaming about a world that runs on equality for all. Follow her on Twitter @daidey
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s first e-book, #WhenWomenSpeak – (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.