International Women's Day Reflection: Take Back Your Body ( And Mindset)

In the background is the Big Brother Nigeria show which is going on at the point of publishing this post. One of the male participants - referred to as housemates- ostensibly in an alcohol-induced moment of daring, looked around to ensure there were no cameras (or people) in sight, and groped a sleeping female housemate under the covers. Unfortunately for him, he overlooked two important issues; one, the live eviction show was the next day, and two, there are cameras everywhere. The cameras and Big Brother caught him; which was serendipitous for the female housemate- let's call her B- as she was totally unaware of what was going on. 
Long story short, Big Brother called both of them privately and informed them on what had been seen. Then in public, disqualified the male housemate and evicted him from the house. You can read more here.
However, what should have been a wise decision in the light of the unfortunate occurrence sparked off a vitriolic controversy, on and off line. Fundamentally, what came to fore was the notion held by a large number of people- men and women- that the verdict and punishment was unfair to the man. How were they to believe that the girl was unaware she was being touched? How could it be the man's fault when a few days ago the lady had exposed her breasts in front of everyone? Did they not see that the man had been drunk?etc.
Even fellow housemates- male and female- turned on the lady immediately the erring man was expelled. They felt she set the man up deliberately, that she had a history of causing every male participant who came near her to lose the game. They thought she should have come to them crying with the story if indeed she did not like, or initiate, or participate in what was going on. For more than 2 hours only one housemate bothered to find out the actual details of the incident before drawing conclusions that B was the seducer and had decided to ruin the other man's life; that the perpetrator was the victim. And, in doing this, the show inadvertently opened the lid of the Pandora's box of a culture of victim blaming and rape apologists that exists in the Nigerian society. A culture that has existed for as long as we care to remember. 
The first chapter of my book in progress opens with a similar incident that occurred 14 years ago
I do not remember how it began; how he managed to get me half naked and in the perfect position but the one thing I remember was this guy, this virtual stranger, assaulting my most private of senses, forcing his penis into me. I felt him everywhere I did not want to; his breath on my face, my neck, his lips on my breasts, his hands and legs on my limbs forcing me to be still. “Is this rape?” I remember thinking. Because it was not exactly how I had imagined it would be. It did not happen how I had heard it could happen. Because a few minutes ago, I was just showing my very humble home to a man I met at work a few times. And a few minutes before that I had run into a familiar face at the neighbourhood grocery store down the road and we both expressed our surprise that we actually lived near each other. Now he was all over me, grabbing at my breasts, pinning me down, ramming his entitlement into my stupidity.
In retrospect it was interesting that while he debased me he attempted to carry on a conversation. If I lifted my leg to fight him off he would say ‘oh, do you want to change position’ and promptly adjust me to suit his lust. If I moved my hand, it was a signal that he should grab my breasts harder or something. I think more than anything that hurt me the most, that he assumed that I actually was enjoying it, that it was such a casual interaction. He punctuated his thrusts with the word ‘sorry’. Repeatedly. Sorry when I cried, sorry when I struggled, sorry if I reminded him that I was human.
To be honest I did not put up a spirited fight either. What would be the point? If I shouted and my neighbours intervened they would ask me the usual questions. Why had I let a man into my house? Why was I alone with him?  Why were we sitting on my bed? Why did I even live alone? And why was I so standoffish and proud anyway?  It would not matter that I had no other furniture, or that I was just a young girl working hard to survive, or that I just liked to mind my business in the overpopulated compound where I lived. Even I was already self-flagellated by questioning whether I had a hand in bringing this upon myself. With every question from an outsider therefore, I would be violated again.
 I was proven right when I tried to speak with two elderly people at work. I had told them it was a story that a friend told me. The female of the two asked me how old this friend was and I told her she was 26. She responded then that you cannot speak of any act of sex as rape when the person is no longer a child. The other person said there is no rape in the absence of brutality and violence on the victim.  To say I was devastated would be an understatement. In the notebook that I kept as a diary then I wrote several times “God, you know I did not want it’’ over and over again. I needed someone to affirm that this time it was not my fault, because it had happened before. What I was unaware of was that it would happen again.
So this post is not really about Big Brother Nigeria. It is about a deeply entrenched system of patriarchy and discrimination against women that permeates even into sexual and reproductive rights. A system that sometimes disguises as culture and is sometimes even upheld by the very gender whom it places in subjugation.

While I was in training in Asia last year, I was particularly mortified by the unrestrained ( sexual) overtures of a couple of Nigerian participants. From unsolicited raunchy text messages to disrespect of personal space to ganging up and throwing insults at the object of their affection when the former tactics did not work, they went the whole hog. It was no surprise therefore, when a few months later, I happened upon the information that one of them had violently groped another colleague- a Zimbabwean- while they were on official assignment. What was a surprise however, was how the Zimbabwean lady handled it. Even though she was traumatised and hurt she pleaded with me not to report it, explained that she understood that he had pent-up sexual energy, she did not want to upset the organisation, it would embarrass him, blah, blah, blah. She was concerned about everything but her own well being. When I tried to press her to take the issue to the authorities both for closure and to prevent a reoccurrence I became an enemy in her eyes.  I was thoroughly disgusted; she had imbibed the conditioning that her feelings were less important than that of a man, that she had to cater to male feelings of entitlement even if that meant losing her sanity.

  It is the International Women's Day today, and, as much as it would be fantastic to have a party celebrating our strengths and triumphs, it is more important than ever -to me- that we to expend that energy creating the situations and attitudes that enable us thrive. (And conversely, destroying those that do the opposite.)
It is no longer enough to change ourselves to fit our future, we must retrace and dismember the paths that brought us to the place where we felt it was okay to make everyone but ourselves comfortable. From speaking up about an unwelcome gesture from a stranger, to demanding our rights in bed with our partner.
 Be Bold For Change


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