I bumped into a colleague the other day and a conversation that might have been a ‘hey-how’ve you been… great that you are writing a book’ turned into wine, gossip and, of course, a conversation about current affairs. We are both writers, so predictably the Shailja Patel versus Tony Mochama debate came up. We were in a word ‘polarised’.
He thinks that Tony is a well-known handsy drunk. When he drinks, his hands apparently wander and they occasionally find boobs. I think that handsy wandering hands and all, Tony is dealing with the consequences of his actions.
Like most Kenyans, Shailja Patel did not want to prosecute Tony. Rather, she was willing to seek a more conciliatory solution. Shailja was not enthusiastic about litigation. There is a hefty cost to pursuing litigation. Everything that you are, what you have done, your family, your achievements and failures – they all come under scrutiny.
Many women are understandably unwilling to have this level of criticism and scrutiny superimposed on the trauma of assault, be it sexual, physical or emotional. Prosecution and litigation ask that previously private spaces that have recently been violated be made even further available for probing, scrutiny, and potential judgement. There are women who cry rape and assault, and a big hoopla has been made of them. But the truth is that with our low prosecutorial rate for rape and other sexual offences, they are few and far between. The courageous, the bold and the empowered come forward and face a system that is reluctant to say the least, and flagrantly unwilling to say a little more.
When women are silent about abuse and especially sexual abuse, then our stories sit like anecdotes. They lack context and sound like outliers in a world of normal female lives where sexual offences are infrequent. Weird and bizarre happenings that we hear of… sometimes whispered, sometimes told outright but almost always behind someone’s back – mentioning them is bad manners.
It puts the victims on the defensive, brings up a time when the victim behaved badly and had the gall, the nerve and the cheek to accuse another of ‘a shameful crime’. The issue with ‘shameful crimes’ is that it is the victim who has to be proven innocent. The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stance in law shifts when it comes to sexual offence. The common perspective is that the victim or the accuser is guilty of ‘trying to ruin a life’ or ’bringing shame to another’ until proven innocent – also known as the accused is found guilty.
I applaud Shailja for her courage to stand up and out, and publicly declare that it is never okay to touch a woman without her permission. For all you ‘handsy drunks’ out there, perhaps you should make sure you remain sober around breasts if you have a propensity to break the law around them. After all, as an adult, it is your responsibility to remain law abiding. It is not the job of breast carriers to move them out of your way.