Thursday, November 27, 2014

How to treat a naked woman

Far from the tear-gassed herd of fence-scaling legislators, fumbling Super Eagles and, a disappointing judiciary, some women and men in faraway Kenya protested a culture that strips a woman naked – to enhance her dignity and protect the sanctity of their society.

With the hashtag, #MyDressMyChoice, these protesters say a woman’s sartorial choices should not be legislated by puritans who assume the right to determine the contents of everyone’s morality by insisting we have to live by certain undiluted African values.

It never fails to amuse how some folk paralyse themselves with nostalgia of an Africa that probably never existed. If a woman showed “skin” in her self-presentation, a rabble of pontificates scream it is unAfrican forgetting that once upon a time, their African ancestors lived in unashamed Garden of Eden nakedness. Our ancestors did not deem themselves “naked” because shame about nudity was social conditioning they had not yet learnt. Unlike their modern-day scions who fight to determine what the length of a woman’s skirt should be, they were focused on survival.

Today, a number of the values people attribute to traditional African values are Victorian ideals, prompted by colonial incursion into their societies. I was surprised to read an anthropological account by Alfred B. Ellis – first published in 1894- that claimed that virginity was not a universal requirement in Yoruba marriages – unless the woman was betrothed to a man early in life. Even the culture of betrothal was a class-based affair. Some other accounts debunk myths of sexual puritanism – where people have sex only for procreation.

Cultural romantics who long for a return to African society where everyone wore a chastity belt promote ideals over reality. At least, it helps them to self-righteously carp at “children of these days” who ruin the world with liberal values. These nativists, ironically, justify sexual assault by blaming a woman for the way she was dressed to warrant her own attack, forgetting that up till now some communities walk naked and they do not deal with assault like our so-called civilised societies.

If you live in a major Nigerian city, you would have happened on a scene like this: Someone is accused of stealing or something similar. Instantly, a mob of magistrates gathers and the first thing they do is to strip him/her naked. Does taking off the accused’s clothes advance the enforcement of justice? No. Their motive is not just punitive; it has latent sexual thrill.

Religion itself is a contributing factor to cultural sexual obsession. Some religions even forbid carving God’s sculpture (so we will not have to deal with having to give him genitals). Cultural iconography that gave the figure on the crucifix the iconic loincloth did so because it pre-empted our imagination.

A number of “Thou shall nots” in the Holy Books revolve around sexual congress. Men and women are not to sit in the same place or touch each other; women are to be covered; they are not to dance or show any agency that will heat men’s blood; women are not to sing or (to) raise their voices; women are not to stand or bow in front of a man; they are to protect themselves from men’s helpless libido by practically rendering themselves invisible.

Women are told they are so precious that the best chance at preservation is to hide behind a scarf but we know the moral economy in that injunction is more than that. It is about asymmetric gender relations. Cultures that give men a pass when it comes to sex tend to punish women heavily for the same sin. The story of the “adulterous” woman Jesus saved from stoning is one example. In such cultures, women’s social standing is abject and tied to the whims of the menfolk.

The “sins” that revolve around sex – abortion, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, pornography –titillate the society more than we care to admit. Celebrities know this and they trade in the collective hypocrisy. This, I suppose, is the irony of sex-based transgressions – we enhance the conditions that create the sin; then we congregate to punish it. That is why Kim Kardashian’s nude body could “break the Internet” and spew endless editorials. Amidst the condemnation and commendation (of her boldness) is the traffic in voyeurism. Those who would pronounce judgment had to first feast their eyes on her oily behind.

One of the myths that fascinate me is the drama of the Garden of Eden. God, we are informed, told Man to luxuriate in the abundance of the garden but warned him not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Sometimes, I wonder why God would be threatened by the potential of man’s acquisition of knowledge. But then, maybe the point of making up this tale was not creationism per se but a lesson in how totalitarianism, such as the one the Old Testament God exemplified, can be benevolent if guaranteed people’s wilful ignorance.

But I ponder the epiphanic moment when Adam and Eve discovered they were naked, became ashamed and fashioned fig leaves to cover themselves.

If it was true that when their eyes “opened” and they were ashamed, and the part of their body they covered was their genitals and not their faces, it means they became aware of themselves as sexual subjects. That knowledge, I reckon, has continued to torment mankind since then. There is something about realising that you can be imprisoned by the power of the passion between your own legs that could turn you into a bully. For, if someone’s sexual expression does not have power over you, you would not fight to repress it. Those Kenyan men who did not hesitate to strip a woman naked did so because her dress choices activated their loins; and took over their senses.

Unlike their ancestors who walked about naked, a woman’s body was not sexualised to the point that they would want to crush her to cover up their weakness. That is a lesson for cultural purists who insist we should regard the reality of contemporary existence and just be “African.” For them, I have a simple advice: When you come across a woman showing “skin”, endeavour to make your African ancestors proud by going your own jeje way. It is really that simple.

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