Last night, I had dinner with two friends, one of whom is starting a business in Nakuru. We were talking about her commute back and forth when she mentioned that she does not ever make the trip by herself because she fears for her security. She said that she is concerned about other motorists noticing that she is a woman on her own, following her or even worse, that something might happen to her car and she might have to deal with roadside hooligans demanding cash to help her and even worse scenarios.
When she first said this, I looked at her askance. Nobody likes to think that their freedom of movement is restricted and especially not by something as immutable as gender. After a few seconds though, I recalled a situation in which my friend Barbara Minishi and I were shooting a documentary with Aljazeera in the Ngong’ Hills and how insecure we felt whenever any man we interacted with realized that the only man with us was our driver and therefore an employee.
We were told to leave public spaces, harassed and threated that our equipment would be destroyed and of course some very impolite demands were made for payment. What exactly we were to pay for was not clear. What was clear was that women travelling on their own were fair game.
What became clear to me that day and what made me agree with my friend at dinner last night is: African women do not belong to themselves. Ultimately within our culture, we do not speak for ourselves and we do not make decisions regarding our lives. The men do. There are fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers even who do that. Picture a scenario where someone comes to a homestead with the intent to have a serious conversation. Invariable, there are polite hellos with whomever the person finds but when the time comes to air what brought them there, they will ask for the man of the house.
This attitude seems harmless at a passing glance. Like we as women are to be cherished and kept away from taxing things/situations/decisions but the flipside of that coin is that we are not agents in our lives, we are objects to be moved and played with by others. Therefore when our woman is on her own or worse still unspoken for, she is fair game. It is like a prized procession left unattended, of course someone will grab it.
This might seem far-fetched in an urban setting but think about moving around this country as a woman alone and see what feelings it brings up in your gut. As a man, think about your significant other travelling alone on a highway for hours at a time and see how that makes you feel. When we speak of feminism and the women’s movement it is attitudes such as these, that women ‘belong’ to someone that need to be shed. Impacting our freedom of movement may not seem like such a huge deal but it is. It impacts our ability to make a living, the way employees and colleagues deal with feminine management and corporate leadership and many other aspects of our lives. It is more than just a solo roadtrip.