This article is sadly inspired by the recent incident in Nairobi, Kenya where, in full view of everyone in the proximity of that cowardly and shameful act of physical and indeed sexual violence, a woman was stripped and assaulted. Her crime?,How dare she expose her body in public. Absurd!!
My mind often gets numb at this so-called African commitment to keep women sanitized and decent as if the female body was inherently in its very make-up uncivilized, wild, rampantly sexual and savage. And yet, this female body to which we offload so much violence has been with human kind since we first emerged. It is therefore truly baffling how it is that after three to four million years of existence (a few hundred thousand of various forms of social organization), we still look at the woman’s body as if it only emerged yesterday, as if it were peculiar and strange – and needed to be contained and quarantined.
But let me move on from this line of thought before the usual “bashing bandits” that characterize our beloved online news Nyasa Times readers pounce on my otherwise well-intentioned article. The idea that women need to be somehow made decent speaks of a much more important matter. In fact, before the Christianization and Islamification of our constructed contemporary national societies, the place of the woman’s body even though it was not at par with men (because gender power differentials do precede external influence) was radically the opposite of what it is today. In fact, to put it mildly, it was openly exposed as was the male body.
But modernization (or what some call civilization) bestowed into the African cultural framework the idea to hold the female body bare was to be indecent. This was the onset of a new kind of sexualisation of the female body which not only entailed keeping the body hidden through grapping clothing, but also total exclusion of that body and its natural processes, such as child-bearing, from public politics. This is also how today there is a certain distance robbed in narratives of masculinity that exists between men and their children – as if women have the ability to asexually produce offspring.
The exclusion is important because politics is about the legitimation of social procedures through the actions of legitimate bodies. Invisible bodies thus have limited impact on public politics.
The dilemma at least from the woman’s point of view is that an illegitimate body – that is, a body that contravenes the prescriptions of decent female presentation – becomes one that automatically attracts to itself society’s mechanism of sanitization which, in the Kenyan case and indeed in our cases seen in Blantyre and Lilongwe, are violent in nature. These manifest in at least two ways (and there are more).
The first is the unwarranted believe that a woman who reveals herself is inviting access to her body that is defined by the one seeking that access. It is from this root that we hear the often stupid excuse amongst numerous our moments of stupidity that “indecent dressing makes men rape women.”
The second is perhaps the more troubling because it entails the power of society to imprint onto the woman’s psyche this same idea, and it is for this reason that women are often the first to chastise other women for freedom of dress.
Another stupid excuse that often flows from this second type is the saying “ukaonela nkazi m’modzi, waonela akazi onse (if you see one women naked, then you have seen all women naked)”. This is a false sense of community that instils unjust control through a violent generalization of female bodies.
In fact, it is so violent that it indiscriminately universalizes the entirety of the unique female experiences, abilities and all other categories that could be mobilized to broaden their narrative.What ensures is that banner that “all women are the same, and thus they can be treated and accessed in the same way”.
Again – and I will close as follows. There was a process of sexualisation drawn from the new currents that constructed the contemporary African disposition involving external and internal actors. Secondly, the female body has not emerged in the last decade – it has been with us for as long as the male one. Both these scenarios should inform us that the so-called moral idea of keepingwomen decent is neither justified within the authentic African experience, nor the general experience of humanity.
A note to the more attuned: this article is a polemic that has confined this argument to within the gender-binary which itself is problematic and needs to be challenged. No doubt a broader and more balanced discussion can be held on this important matter.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :