I was running late.
Brainstorm, a weekly online journal I co-founded had been nominated as Kenya’s best politics blog, and I was 15 minutes late for the award ceremony, which was at a hotel in the city centre. I had planned my walking route while I was in the matatu (minivan). I chose a route that was well lit, short, and had enough people to make it safe, but not enough to make it a crowd.
I was walking silently, intently — fast — when it happened. I encountered a group of about 20 construction workers on the street adjacent to the one where the hotel was, and the first thing I thought of was an essay we had published in our book on women and feminisms in Kenya, #WhenWomenSpeak.
The essay, titled Even The Streets Aren’t Safe, spoke of an ordeal a friend had on her way from work where she was harassed by men on the street and when she evaded them, they threatened assault. Remembering this, I crossed the road and kept walking, avoiding eye contact and maintaining my steady pace.
Then it happened. One of the guys crossed the road to follow me, and the rest followed him.
Sasa madam! Tusalimie! (Hello madam! Say hi to us!)
I kept walking, maintaining my pace, avoiding eye contact, and holding my tongue because I was very close to starting a verbal fight.
Madam, umekataa kutusalimia? (Madam, you have refused to say hi to us?)
I kept walking. Then it happened.
Kuma ya mamako! (Your mother’s cunt!) they all shouted in unison.
Malaya! Sanduku yako bado ni sanduku! Tutakutomba! Malaya wewe! (Slut! Your vagina is just like any other vagina! We will rape you! Slut!)
I was incredulous, but I kept walking. I wanted so badly to turn back and scream at them, assert myself, call them names as well. But I was alone — a 5' 3" girl relatively alone on the street, and they were over a dozen men, all taller and more muscular than I am. It was easy to imagine how it would all go down.
They would walk or run back towards me, and quite possibly catch up. Then, they would physically assault me. Teach me a lesson for daring to imagine that I can stand up to them. Men. Many men. They may even have made good on their promise to rape me. After that, there would be the questions.
What was I wearing? Did I provoke them? Why did I talk back? Why didn’t I just keep walking like other women do? Did I not realise it was 7.30 PM, not too late, but never too early for it to be unsafe for a woman? Why was I on that street? Why was I walking alone? Was I asking for it? The likely conclusion would be that I somehow asked for it.
So I walked on, and never before have I had such murderous rage within me. I wanted to tear the guts out of each of their stomachs with my bare hands. I was grateful I had no gun, because I would have shot at them, and I would not have felt sorry.
I encountered three ladies later on, who heard the encounter from afar. They were saddened on my behalf, and stopped to comfort me. I was grateful, but told them that it was better if we all kept walking in the directions to which we were headed, as it was safer that way. We wore brave faces, and parted ways.
I made it to my ceremony physically unharmed, for which I was grateful, but I was tormented. I could not help but savour the richness of the situation. There I was, champion for women’s rights, feminist, having published an essay about street harassment some weeks back — yet suffering the exact same thing on a night where my work was up for an award.
I wallowed for a moment, and wondered if I was even making an impact through my writing online. Then, we won the award. We were recognized as Kenya’s best political blog, and that made what would have been a terrible night much better. I could not help but think about the incident, though.
As Sheila Maingi so eloquently puts it in Even The Streets Aren’t Safe:
In most cases, women are called too proud or their bodies negatively dissected when they refuse to respond to catcalls, whistles and car horns. This mirrors another aspect of our patriarchal society — that to put a woman down, you must attack her physical attributes or her sexual reputation, if not both. Destroy her image in a sexual context. If you can’t own her sexually, tarnish her name, her sexual behaviour and her reputation, so that no other man will desire her. Make her as undesirable as possible. In a nutshell, it reflects society’s attitudes about women, their bodies and who owns them.
Sexual harassment hurts women.
I chose silence that night so as to preserve myself, to preserve my life, but I cannot be silent about this, because when we are silent, we give our harassers/attackers our power. As Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.” It is in speaking out that we take back our power from them, and change things for other women, and for generations to come. To quote Sheila once again:
The most important thing we can do in order to undo this age old practice, however, is to completely shift our attitudes and consequently our behaviour towards all the women we live with and interact with on the streets everyday.
Next time you want to make a sexual comment directed at a woman you see on the streets, think about whether your remark is welcome. Is it in the right context? Will she be offended or embarrassed by it? Would you be at ease if someone did the same thing to you? This is not to say that all compliments on the street are bad and unwelcome, but it is crucial that you re-examine your motive. Why am I doing it? Is it a genuine compliment or am I merely showing off my undeserved gift of patriarchal privilege?