By Sam Rosmarin*
This week, hundreds of Kenyans marched in downtown Nairobi chanting “My Dress, My Choice” in response to recent violent public attacks on women. On the surface, these attacks focused on the indecent attire of the victims, while the march focused on the freedom of women to dress how they please. While I laud the marchers for putting this issue into the public space, I can’t help but think their slogans are misguided. By centering their slogans on dress, the activists allowed Kenya to slip into the wrong conversation: a debate on morality and appropriate attire.
These conversations aren’t inherently bad, but I believe they are wasted opportunities to confront the real issues of power and violence.
When a mob of men strips a woman naked for being “indecent” in public, this is an act of power not morality. Let’s be honest: if it were truly about the moral horror of seeing too much skin, this mob of men would have thrown a blanket to cover the victim instead of exposing even more of her skin. If this were truly about morality, men wouldn’t be drawing parallels between a women in a mini-skirt and a bank asking to be robbed. Echoing many other voices, one man tweeted: “You intentionally seduce the male folk with your attire, deprive them of the treasure, yet cry foul when raped. #MyDressMyChoice is ridiculous!” Our first reaction to such a quote is probably to point out his objectification of women and his misplaced entitlement. “How dare men feel sexually entitled to women’s bodies,” we say. As activists and as citizens, we need to dig deeper and realize how powerless someone must feel to come to that conclusion. A viewpoint like that is forged in the societal fires of patriarchy – a forge that tells him what a real man is (powerful, dominant, virile) and warns him of what a real man is not (weak, compassionate, impotent).
Exerting power through violence is a surefire way to demonstrate your masculinity and, as one commentator rightly pointed out: “power-as-violence is the central organizing principle in the Kenyan public sphere.” Changing the status quo requires us to place these dynamics of power and violence at the center of our outrage and to form our solutions around dismantling this destructive nexus.
What does a focus on power and violence mean in practice? How can we adopt better advocacy practices?
In general, we should:
- Focus our slogans on the key issue: violence. “Freedom From Violence” is a more accurate slogan than “Our Dress, Our Choice” because the real transgression was the violent reaction, not the moral judgment.
- Focus on the roots of masculinity to encourage our societies to critically analyze the expectations we place on men. The dozens of men participating in these marches is a good sign, as well as an entry point to a broader conversation.
- Find non-traditional allies, particularly in religious institutions. Make it difficult for opponents to hide behind religious texts and other static documents that are open to broad interpretation, but claimed definitively by one side.
- Build from the bottom by supporting women’s expanded participation in traditionally male spaces such as politics and corporate businesses. This leverages power structures created by men.
- Finally, help your opponents visualize an infinite pie that expands with gender equality. Argue that everything from individual sex lives to national economic growth will improve with gender equality and freedom from violence.
*Sam Rosmarin is a strategy advisor based in Addis Ababa. Follow him on Twitter: @SamRosmarin