An essay, Silence is a Woman, by my friend Wambui Mwangi posted on “The New Inquiry” reports that, “On April 1, 2013, a woman passenger got off a matatu at the bus stop in Nyeri, a town in central Kenya, and was assaulted by men variously described as ‘a group,’ ‘a crowd,’ ‘a mob,’ or simply as ‘matatu touts.’ The media report was that the woman was attacked and raped because the men judged her “indecently dressed.” The ‘matatu touts’ tore off her outer clothes, ripped apart her underwear and forcefully inserted sticks, mud, dirt and their fingers into her genitals. They taunted her that they were helping her achieve her goal, as the way she was dressed showed that she had wanted to show off her body.”
Silence… Silence… Silence… Deep sigh!
Reading and digesting Silence is a Woman overwhelmed me with feelings and emotions that ranged from anger to despondency. This essay is potent with several important themes but for the purpose of this writing, I will focus on the theme of violence against women perhaps inspired by misogyny along with its rather prominent yet subtle screaming offshoot, silence. Mwangi’s essay faithfully delivers a poignant cry that serves as a timely awakening and incantation of the spirit of what I consider the emancipatory phenomenon, VOICE.
According to Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories (1st ed.) defines misogyny as “the hatred or dislike of women or girls” and asserts that “misogyny can be manifested in numerous ways, including sexual discrimination, denigration of women, violence against women, and sexual objectification of women.” Wikipedia also outlines that “the phrase ‘violence against women’ is a technical term used to collectively refer to violent acts that are primarily or exclusively committed against women. Similar to a hate crime, this type of violence targets a specific group with the victim’s gender as a primary motive. In her chapter “Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights” in the book Gender Violence and Women’s Human Rights in Africa, Nahid Toubia defines violence as “… an amorphous entity-not only as acts of aggression, but as a failure to recognize the existence of fundamental human rights-which can manifest itself in any number of ways; I am talking about the need to locate violent acts within the much larger context of rights violation. Defining violence in this way allows us to address the record of violence against women as one not composed of a series of instances of abuse, however various and related these maybe, but as one located in a broad social and political context in which not only men but women-and society as a whole-act to perpetuate systems which result in various forms of abuse”.
Mwangi’s essay feels extremely relevant in the wake of the horrors girls and women continue to experience as confirmed by reports in Kenyan mainstream and social media discussing a rise in violence against women in Kenya. The Kenya Forum on April 11th 2013 reported, “Gender violence, particular gender-based violence against women, is on the rise in Kenya, according to the annual report released by Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) last week… Sexual abuse the GVRC report says is the most commonly reported form of abuse suffered by victims. Between 2011 and 2012, of all the cases reported 2,532 were sexual and 422 physical violence, and of these 90 per cent of all reported cases of gender violence are reported by women and girls, 10 per cent by men or boys. “Women and girls bore the greatest burden of pain and suffering,” said Grace Wangechi, GVRC Executive Director, regarding the report’s findings.”
Mwangi concurs, “As Keguro Macharia observes, violence against women in Kenya is so entrenched as to be unsurprising, un-extraordinary, banal.” For instance, the escalating Dandora gang rapes have now been seemingly enculturated and fully endowed with the ever-important cultural symbol of language as reflected in the term they are known by: “kuchotwa.” “Kuchotwa” is a Swahili term derived from the verb “chota” meaning “fetch” (like fetching water). So “kuchotwa” is essentially in direct translation “to be fetched.” “Chota” or “fetch” is a verb that, I think, connotes acquiring something, perhaps inert or passive in nature that one (the fetcher) might be entitled to, unless of course, “fetched” by force and at one’s discretion and therefore, without the permission of the owner of the target being “fetched.”
While writing this article, I wasn’t sure whether there is such a term as “fetcher” but to my surprise urbandictionary.com defines “fetcher” as “a generally despicable person,” “a person who receives a lucky break/opportunity that you were hoping for” or “another word to use as an insult…” and “related words: Loser, Idiot, Poopface…” This interpretation of the term “fetcher” is not my intended use of the term. I struggled with making the decision whether to include this definition of the term “fetcher” in this article but eventually, I reconciled that it is important that I explicitly disclose my intended use of this term.
On the other hand, oxforddictionaries.com classifies “fetcher” as a “derivative” “noun” of the verb “fetch” which is defined (with object) as “go for and then bring back (someone or something) for someone.” It further defines “fetch” as “achieve (a particular price) when sold” and provides an example “the land could fetch over a million pounds.” The absurdity herein, if only going by the semantics of the lexicon is that this term “kuchotwa” is not being used to refer to a thing – an IT. It is being used to describe an action of unleashing violence upon persons, human beings – teenage girls in Dandora in the outskirts of Nairobi. A term that harbors the unbearable weight of an arbor that continues to indignantly, often silently belabor the hearts, minds and souls of many within the circles of the female half of humanity with limited but critical support from some of our counterparts within the male half of humanity.
While I am aware that using the term “kuchotwa” to mean “gang rape” in Dandora was perhaps coined outside the realm of consideration for its English translation and interpretation, I find the term rather interestingly situated in this discourse. Taking the term “fetch” or “kuchotwa” in its literal sense, I cannot escape the inclination to think and feel that whether stated in English or Swahili it infers that the target to be “fetched” is an object and therefore reveals an objectification of girls and women to paint a visible trait of a society that squarely rots in misogyny. The idea that one human being could find it appropriate to “fetch” another human being at his discretion and without regard for or permission of and from the “fetched” is in my mildest observation, abhorrent.
Now, to think that we are actually talking about human beings – a boy or man abducting, stripping and or raping a girl or woman, totally disregarding her choice, voice and consent is abominable but shockingly frequent in Kenya. Abducting, stripping and raping girls and women for one’s instant sexual consumption and gratification or to justify and satisfy some twisted and misguided self-righteous morality is not only abysmal but deeply violating to the victims by every measure of our humanity.
The Kenya Forum reports, “Culture has been cited as the leading cause of violence against women. Some men it seems still subscribe to outdated traditions e.g. that battering a woman is seen as a way of discipline and is acceptable. Financial insecurity has also been said to be a factor. The role of a man has been established as that of a leader and a provider and in some cases where a man fails to establish his authority in these areas, he ends up resorting to physical abuse. Alcohol and drugs have also led many men, unfortunately, into violence against women.”
To be continued in Part II of this article.