In the nineties, girls and women navigating through downtown Kampala would have been surprised to end the journey without being groped and stalked. By men. This was normal; men being men and women being, well, objects for men to grab, gawk and leer at. Negative reaction often resulted in a barrage of insults. It didn’t matter that they had just called you ‘sister’ or ‘mummy’ or ‘auntie’. You were buttocks, breasts, legs. Yours was to suffer it, preferably with a smile, and keep walking.
Years later, we hear stories of women who have retaliated against this harassment. Surprisingly, men are said to cheer them on, and playfully chide their colleague for the unthoughtful move. And so you would think that a lot had changed on these streets. However, last year when Ugandans were gifted with a Christmas of laws, including the notorious anti-miniskirt act, hardly had the thud of the honorable speaker’s gavel died out, than mobs were undressing women in the name of policing decency.
Such irony in a country still beset by the legacy of Sharia-champion Idi Amin who woke up one day in the ’70s to outlaw the predominant ‘mini’ fashion, and decreed that only ankle-length dresses/skirts (‘maxis’) were acceptable for Ugandan women.
Evidently the obsession with strong-arming women in the name of decency isn’t unique to Uganda. Just last week, the #MyDressMyChoice uproar was in full swing across our eastern border following the recent assault on women in Kenya for similar reasons.
The arrogance of men in their self-appointed role as gatekeepers of morality is but another vehicle for male violence against girls and women. Many glorify these criminal acts by claiming them using all manner of excuses for misogyny that have been recycled through the ages. Ultimately, such violence ensures that men retain domination and control over women by maintaining fear of and deference to them.
That some are quick to castigate the women who suffer this abuse, rather than the men who perpetrated it, is inevitable in a culture where boys and men are socialized to believe that female life solely exists to serve their interests. This has bred male sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, time, attention, and labour. Women too have been groomed to see such as their position in society, and our choices – however fragile the context – become a threat to male dominance if seen to be made without buckling to men’s dictates of a woman’s place.
This blatantly sexist conditioning of women and men is evident in the positioning of #NudityIsNotMyChoice as some enlightened rebuttal to #MyDressMyChoice. To see one as being in opposition to the other is typical male-centred thinking where women only exist along the angel/whore dichotomy as objects to be viewed by men; justifying men’s violence against women whose choices don’t fit into the ideas of what is and what isn’t approved – as decided by one man to the next, from one generation to another.
Whether groping, undressing women on the streets, or other forms of sexual assault, the message is the same: women must be kept in their inferior position, by use of violence if necessary. Thus, as we stood in solidarity with our sisters proclaiming #MyDressMyChoice, we were reminded that although separated by distance, the struggles of women around the world are, if not similar, rooted in shared oppression.
Every positive step forward in women’s emancipation is bound to come with tightening of this noose of oppression. Women’s liberation from sexism is under continuous backlash not just on the streets, but in our homes, and parliaments. As such, the pursuit of it must be relentless.