Friday, July 15, 2022

The indignity of extremist social control

Some of us have extremely thick skin which we cover in resplendent glamour. Many of us, though, are extremely sensitive, particularly about being called out in public for the apparent violation of a norm. Many of us have seen that TikTok video of a fashion maven narrating her treatment at the hands of watchmen at Strathmore University's Madaraka Estate Campus. There are those of us who have shown solidarity with her, and demanded that Strathmore abandon its demeaning dress code. Some others, however, have blamed the victim, saying that she should have known better.

We have faced these kinds of issues in the past, usually when something tragic has happened and the victim of the tragedy has been a woman. Almost a decade ago, a woman was assaulted, stripped to her underwear and paraded in public because the men who assaulted her thought that her dress was "inappropriate" and "against African culture". It led to My Dress, My Choice, a public protest, that attempted to advocate for the treatment of women in public on the basis of their character and actions, rather than the length of their skirts or the tightness of their shirts. The protect did not receive the full-throated support of the State (though a few women parliamentarians joined in), the ministries of faith in Kenya and, certainly, none of the institutions of higher learning such as Strathmore. For sure, influential opinion-shapers and social influencers were determinedly quiet and the protest, and issue, fizzled out from public notice.

Now comes the ill-advised shenanigans of Strathmore's lecherous watchmen, their lechery receiving the endorsement, encouragement and imprimatur, of a respected university. What has emerged over the few days since the TikTok video was shared on social media is that, and this is not surprising, the Strathmore policy is more strictly enforced when the target of the policy is a Black person, particularly a Black woman. If the offender is of apparent Caucasian descent, they will be given greater leeway, something that many thought would be anathema at a university campus in the twenty-first century.

We have been witness to the lengths the mostly-male victim-blaming will go and how far some are prepared to bend backwards to justify the way that woman was treated. It comes as no surprise even as it stings that Black women are, by and large, still second-class Kenyans. In my opinion, there was no reason for the woman to attempt to justify her choice of dress for the presentation she was to make at Strathmore; as a maker of fashion videos, renown in her field, her choices were not subject to reproach. Given the audience she was going to speak to - young people, mostly - and the subject she was going to speak on - modern fashion - I thought she had presented herself beautifully and, though it need not be said, decently. In fact, attempting to say that she should have been allowed to proceed with her presentation because non-Black women are given freer license by that university misses the point. All women deserve to be treated as equals and with dignity.

There seems to be a mean-spirited determination to exert ever-tighter control over us, whether that control comes in the shape of the ham-fisted Huduma Bill (which has very little huduma in it) to the crass, Victorian-England demands for modesty (and purity) from mostly-Black women by institutions such as Strathmore. We all deserve lives of dignity and that includes lives where we are not judged on the basis of our outer accoutrements. We deserve to be treated with decency and respect. We should loosen the tight bonds of control, if not cast them aside entirely, that police how we walk, talk, dress, think, or present ourselves. A society that celebrates and protects the freedom of expression is, in my estimation, happier and more just. But so long as institutions built by and for male-dominated control continue to make the rules, especially undignified and bad rules, we are the poorer for it as a people.

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