by Aisha Ali
A man asks a woman out on a dinner date. She says yes. They meet up and have a pleasant enough evening. The man is a foreigner, in Nairobi for work and they meet at their office building. The evening ends, and the man asks to drop the girl, but she came in her own car. She walks with him to the parking lot and they say goodbye, reaching out to hug each other. She thanks him for a nice evening. As she’s moving away from the hug, he tightens his hold and starts kissing her, holding her face forcefully in place. His other hand gropes her body. She fights him off, stunned, and manages to get away. She asks him what he was doing and he starts apologizing. She doesn’t wait to listen, gets into her car and goes home. He later sends her several messages apologizing. She refuses to listen and stops talking to him. The next day he sees her and asks what her problem is. Hasn’t he apologized? Weeks later, this man is still sending messages and forcing interactions with the woman despite her repeatedly telling him to leave her alone. Since they work in the same building, she doesn’t know how to avoid him.
One evening after work, a woman met a friend for drinks. After a short while they decided to go to his house since he had a fully stocked bar. They hung out for a bit but she got tired and decided to take a nap before she went home. She woke up to find the man on top of her, opening the zipper of her jeans. She pushed him off and asked him what he was doing. He told her he thought she wanted it. When she asked how, during her state of sleep, and perhaps snoring he assumed she wanted it, he got angry and defensive. She left and later told another male friend what had happened. Her friend was angry, and asked her why she went to the man’s house. The girl asked him if she was not supposed to go to his house, a friend she has known for years, a friend they both knew. Should she expect to be raped every time she went to his house? He had no answer.
A couple of weeks ago, a recording of a man raping a woman made its way into the Kenyan internet space. In the recording, a man named Morris continued having sex with a woman despite her several appeals to him to stop, even using the term “I surrender”. The woman’s voice sounded broken. In the beginning of the recording, Morris told the woman that since she had wanted sex and called him over, she should now shut up and take it. Many people used this to argue that this was consensual sex. That the woman’s near-tears pleas didn’t matter. That consent once given cannot be withdrawn.
Around April, a woman accused an MP of raping her. They met for a business meeting in a restaurant on a Saturday evening and the MP later said they should go to his offices as he needed some documents from there. When they got to the office, he called a doctor to give her a HIV test, and when she refused and managed to hide in the bathroom, he broke down the door, beat her up, forced her to do it and then raped her. When this story broke, a local comedian posted this as his Facebook status update: “What was a married woman doing in someone’s office at that hour of the night?” This set the stage for an onslaught directed at her on social media where everything about her was questioned, from her morality to whether the rape actually happened to begin with. When the woman saw this she released a statement and said,
“The presence of a woman is not consent.”
Every day, there are new stories of women who have been sexually violated by a man in one way or another. From men who expose their private parts at bus stops, to groping in night clubs; from being stripped in the streets to colleagues brushing their hands on women in offices; a majority of women in Kenya continue to experience sexual violations. Women continue to live with the fear that their safety and comfort is as good as what the next man will allow. Our presence in public spaces is often interpreted to mean that we are available to provide whatever men feel they want from us. Whether it’s sexually inappropriate language or actual physical language, our permission or consent is not considered necessary.
I have been thinking about what the idea that presence alone dictates how women are treated means. Where women are considered public property. Women are often treated like objects, where things are done to them regardless of what they feel or say about it. Our existence is considered to be for the purpose of men to fulfill their sexual perversions on. Men are raised with the idea that all women should be available to them whenever they choose, it’s just up to them to decide which one they want. And too often, when women reject any of these infringements, the reaction is violence.
We need to analyze the way society views women, and how men are taught view women. The other day I saw video on Facebook where a little boy kept trying to kiss a little girl even though the girl kept pushing him away. The video was labeled as romantic. With this kind of socialization, boys are raised to become men who are incapable of accepting that women have a right and agency over their bodies, time and space at all times, and only they can choose whom/when they will allow someone in.
The issue of consent has been discussed all over the world, and in countries like the USA, legislation around it is being passed. It is also becoming mandatory to teach consent in schools and colleges where cases of sexual assault are at high numbers. We need the same kind of intense education in Kenya.
It should be understood by all that a woman’s consent is non-negotiable.
Aisha Ali is a writer and feminist activist. Follow her on Twitter @bintiM