About Three weeks ago, I read Mona Elthahawy’s chilling book, — ‘Headscarves and Hymens’. It’s an expose of the status and realities of Arab women in their own homelands, chronicling how a mix of culture and religion has, for donkey years succeeded in firmly entrenching women as second class citizens.
I’d recommend the book to anyone who’d like to delve into and read Middle Eastern gender issues. It’s interesting, not only because the stories are downright bloodcurdling, but because if we look closely at the realities contained in the accounts, we’d see quite a bit of ourselves and recognize the similarity with our own cocktail of culture and religion with which we have used to largely mortgage our humanity.
A few pages into the book, she said this:
“Why do those men hate us? They hate us because they need us, they fear us, they understand how much control it takes to keep us in line, to keep us good girls with our hymens intact until it’s time to fuck us into mothers who raise future generations of misogynists to fuel their patriarchy. They hate us because we are at once their temptation and their salvation from that patriarchy, which they must sooner or later realize hurts them too. They hate us because they know that once we rid ourselves of the alliance of State and Street that works in tandem to control us, we will demand a reckoning.”
Initially, I scoffed, because, come on, hate? But of recent, I’ve come to realize that ‘hate’ might not be too harsh a word. Just as one initially scoffs at the word genocide when it is used to describe a war, your perception shifts when you are inundated with numerous heart wrenching tales of abuse and violations.
Yes. Killings. Murder.
About two weeks ago, we were all re-tweeting a plea for sightings of Karabo Mokoena, a South African native who was reported missing. Few days ago, news broke that she had been killed and burnt by her boyfriend. This sparked reactions ranging from somber mournfulness to red hot rage as more stories of similar occurrences started to filter in. Female members of Nigerian Twitter admirably took the baton from their South African counterparts and went to town with it, chronicling personal experiences of abuse ranging from spousal — parental, sibling, older relatives — to random strangers/neighbours. This invalidates the erroneous but widely held solution that to prevent physical or sexual violence against women, women need to be “vigilant” or be decently dressed, not visit strangers, and many other mundane excuses we put out to avoid confronting the sad reality that it’s us in general that they should fear. And that we’re the ones who, in truth, should do better.
As depressing as the entire issue was, even more disheartening were the responses by quite a large number of male folk. In some cases, there was commendable solidarity expressed, however in more depressing quarters, the reaction was one of belligerence, coupled with attempts to one-up the females with similar stories of domestic abuse, this time meted out to men. This I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with, mostly because I see it as an attempt to deflect the main issues being discussed, inevitably leading to gender wars to assert superiority, finally returning full circle to the root cause of violence against women in the first place — The widely held conviction by men that women are a step below them.
Are there valid, verifiable reasons for women being angry for believing there’s a well established culture of violence? Let’s go through some fun facts.
The CLEEN Foundation reports 1 in every 3 respondents admitting to being a victim of domestic violence. The survey also found a nationwide increase in domestic violence in 3 years from 21% in 2011 to 30% in 2013. A CLEEN Foundation’s 2012 National Crime and Safety Survey demonstrated that 31% of the national sample confessed to being victims of domestic violence
Is it enough of an indictment knowing that 33% of the females we’ve known, met or will meet in future, who are already adults now, have encountered or will encounter domestic violence of some kind?
Violence against women is a widespread problem in sub-Saharan Africa. Surveys conducted in sub-Saharan Africa reveal that 46 percent of Ugandan women, 60 percent of Tanzanian women, 42 percent of Kenyan women, and 40 percent of Zambian women report regular physical abuse. In a Nigerian survey, 81 percent of married women report being verbally or physically abused by their husbands.
Forty-six percent report being abused in the presence of their children.
The above are World Bank’s survey figures.
And lasting effects of this prevalence?
Violence has a significant impact on the health and life expectancy of women. The World Bank estimates that rape and domestic abuse account for 5 percent of healthy years of life lost to women of reproductive age in developing countries
Domestic violence can have long-term psychological effects. Studies have shown that one out of every four suicide attempts by women is preceded by abuse
Even worse, we have institutionalized it. A large percentage of African women have been taught to believe that violence is a correcting tool, conditioned to believe that as lesser beings, it’s okay for the superior gender (here, read men) to correct them for perceived ills, hence the annoying ‘What did you do to offend him?‘ question whenever there is a case of domestic violence being treated.
According to the latest statistics, 51% of African women report that being beaten by their husbands is justified if they either go out without permission, neglect the children, argue back, refuse to have sex, or burn the food. — from 2016 World Bank Report “Poverty in a Rising Africa.”
Obvious takeaway here is that we have raised women conditioned to believe that this is the norm and is even appreciable. Alarmingly, a lot of young men feel the same way, painting a depressing picture of an ill that won’t be corrected anytime soon.
Maddeningly, it affects our day-to-day lives, repercussions reaching even those who may not subscribe to the archaic belief, because it has all but eroded trust between genders, created divides where there shouldn’t be any, and left a trail of trauma that an already deficient support system will not be able to cater to.
Yesterday, while leaving work for home, a colleague who models part time asked to accompany me some of the way in order to meet up with a modeling appointment she had in town. I decided to take her all the way to the studio. She had not been to the studio before, and hadn’t met the photographer either. Long story short, upon driving to the address we had, we discovered it was a residential place. A gated estate. We both became uncomfortable together. Because I was pressed for time and couldn’t go in with her, we both agreed that she would not be going in. She ended up missing that opportunity, I’d like to believe the guy had no ulterior motives, but the fact that we have a rape culture (yep, I said it, ‘Rape Culture’) meant that he couldn’t execute his planned studio session. Both parties had ended up losing out.
I’m sure there are countless other examples of opportunities missed due to this biting issue that we have refused to acknowledge, and make urgent.
Elsewhere in the world, irrefutable proof has ensured that everyone accepts that there is a problem and enough male folks have owned up to this and steps are being taken to teach consent, reorient and pull down the pillars of patriarchy. Sadly, this isn’t the case in Arabia, parts of Asia and most parts of Africa.
We have steadfastly refused to admit to the existence of such a culture. First step in treating an anomaly is ACCEPTANCE. We have mortgaged our peace of mind and mutual trust for the bliss of oblivion as regards the cankerworm of gender-based violence.
Our refusal to even accept this makes one wonder though, Is Mona Elthahawy right?
Like the Arabs, do we, as Africans, hate our Women?