Can a woman dress provocatively in public?
This is not a trick question. There are diverse views on this among men and women. I can tell you straightforwardly that I think there is a proper way and there is an irresponsible way to dress.
But here is another question:
Can you harm a woman for not dressing how you think she should? What do you do when, like this guy says, women wear “what men should wear”?
On Saturday evening, Yaba market, precisely the space between the Tejuosho Mall and Murtala Muhammed Way, was the scene of what should have been a peaceful demonstration. Fed up by regular unsolicited touching bothering on sexual harassment, women marched around the market to draw attention to actions that, in some other environment, might land the perpetrator in prison.
Pictures from the march are not pleasant. See grown men gleefully chanting “we must touch!”. Witness how they hurl abuses at the protesters when told not to touch. Their laughter is coarse, hysterical and deviant. They mock the women with every dirty word in the book.
— Chi (@amaka_sandra1) December 15, 2018
It is scummy. It is shameful.
But the courage of women to undertake the march has opened up the conversation. We will now talk more about harassment at public places. The events at Yaba, recorded on camera, happen at other places where men and women interact. Maybe this is the foundation for Nigeria’s own #MeToo moment.
With the conversation now begun, a number of approaches are necessary to change this culture. The suggestions below are particular to addressing harassment at markets but there will may be parts of it applicable to workplaces too.
Calling out people who behave shamefully is not a bad thing. Women who experience harassment of the kind that occur in markets can and should speak out against the depraved individual. Saturday’s march was intended more to advocate against harassment than to shame the suspects.
But as the ugly behavior of some of those encountered by the marchers show, shaming can be a useful first line of defense, a vital sister to logic. If it wouldn’t run into legal challenges, buying an advertisement that samples pictures of the howling men in the video above will go far in deterring future harassers.
In any case, these men’s pictures being online is already a public warning.
Many men who sexually harass women know what they are doing. However, a good number of those pictured behaving abhorrently during the #MarketMarch on Saturday are probably uncultured and sparsely educated. It should come naturally to a rational, disciplined mind, but respecting a woman’s bodily autonomy is a pretty sophisticated idea for many.
For the man (and woman) used to a woman’s body being only for a man’s pleasure and procreation, there is some novelty in asking him to be respectful.
It is important to educate such men, awakening them to the primitiveness, indecency and possible criminality of their claims on a woman’s body. Will there be a shop-to-shop march by a group of men to Yaba market, taking responsibility for teaching their brothers?
This does not absolve the suspect men of agency; they are rational humans. But their current level of thought requires an intervention.
Legislation and Enforcement
It would be cool to be able to resolve these differences without government involvement. But humans, as domineering, brutish animals, need law and enforcement for order.
We cannot legislate attraction. Contrary to some opinions (like this guy’s), the women who marched at Yaba are not asking for men not to stare at their bodies. Some women dress how they do to invite the stranger’s glance, and some do not. It is stare but don’t touch.
One could expect Femi Gbajabiamila and Desmond Elliott, the two legislators representing that area of Yaba at federal and state levels, to take an active interest in this. As husbands and fathers of daughters, surely they must see the risk in the depravity of the occurrences at the market. Beyond their familial roles however, they have a duty as public officials and decision makers to ensure their constituents are not in harm’s way while lawfully going about their businesses.
At the moment, Gbajabiamila is campaigning with food stamps. Elliott has been offering free health screening. This is a unique opportunity to elevate their causes.
Markets exist when sellers meet buyers to exchange articles of value. Markets do not have to be a physical space. The internet is enabling a growing shift to online sales, with home delivery.
There is hardly anything sold at Yaba or any market that cannot be ordered online in 2018. Whether products – from groceries and cosmetics, to clothing and stationery – or services, there is almost always someone at your service on the internet.
This is not a vote to drive shop owners out of business but there is no better motivation for courtesy, order and respectful behaviour beside competent competition. Like taxi drivers and okada riders who are adjusting their treatment of customers thanks to ride hailing services, these traders will learn the hard way.
But what if they are driven out of business, can’t find alternative employment and turn to robbery and other crimes?
That will be most unfortunate. Yet, it won’t be the worst thing to happen. The state’s interest in law and order has to be manifest in dealing justice at all times. All criminals will have to be tried and sanctioned as appropriate, mindful that the aim of criminal justice is character reformation and rehabilitation. Where the intervention of education with freedom fails, instruction within confinement can always work.
“A woman’s body is a country” says the poet Dami Ajayi. Feel free to admire or reject its features and natural resources. But if you haven’t applied for and obtained a valid visa, keep off. If you don’t, there will be consequences.
Opinions: Part formed, Part undergoing reform