When a group of men descended on a woman at a Nairobi bus stop and ripped off her clothes, they probably did not anticipate that they themselves would be ripped apart on social media.
Since the incident a week ago, many women (and some men) have publicly condemned the act, describing it as sexual harassment and a violation of human rights.
The Twitter hashtag #MyDressMyChoice has been used by scores of people, mostly in support of, but also against the stripping of the woman, whose attackers say was ‘indecently’ dressed. She is Jezebel, the men reportedly said, and was leading them, probably into temptation that they could not resist.
Similar events occurred in Uganda on 6 February 2014 when President Yoweri Museveni assented to and signed the Anti-Pornography Act. In a few towns around the country gangs of men turned themselves into the morality police by measuring women’s hemlines and stripping naked those they deemed indecent.
In response, web activists took on both the government and the gangs of marauders. A social media war, mainly waged on Twitter, was driven by the hashtag #SaveTheMiniskirt to combat suggestions of the criminalization of women wearing short clothes.
In due course, the police intervened, threatening to arrest the dress code cops. The media, who fueled the fire by wrongly claiming that mini-skirts were outlawed by the Anti-Pornography Act, also corrected their misreporting. Unfortunately, the damage had been done.
It is likely that without the #SaveTheMiniskirt campaign on social media, and a subsequent demonstration in Kampala, more women would have been unlawfully detained, humiliated and undressed.
For many women concerned about the growing disregard of casual sexism and harassment, social media provided them a loud and effective voice to express their frustrations. While the traditional media was busy defending itself against erroneous reporting, playing to the tune of the conservative majority and, at times, downplaying the assault of women, social media offered a space where women could freely hold elected leaders and law enforcement officials to account. It was through social media that they gained allies among the men and demanded for immediate action against further abuse by the State or individuals purported acting on behalf of the State and God.
In Kenya, a country with more than 22 million internet users, the #DressMyChoice campaign has been deeper and more extensive than that in Uganda. But the same lessons learned about women’s access to platforms should be explored for sustained debate of the issues.
For instance, should the online discussion be expanded to include misogyny, patriarchy and a violation of personal space? Can the platform be used to discuss everyday ugly realities, follow women’s expression of their individuality, sexuality and honor?
As debate rages, the #MyDressMyChoice and #SaveTheMiniSkirt campaigns show that today’s women can address and challenge societal unfairness through retweets, likes and shares that are possible almost only through social media.
Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ahpetite