Since I heard about the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, India has been on my mind. The woman was on her way home from the cinema with a male friend when they were attacked in the bus they bordered. The injures from the attack were so severe the doctors had to remove parts of her intestine to stop the spread of infection and save her life. Though she battled to stay alive, she died on December 28, 2012. This incident has provoked a series of angry protests in Delhi and across India as men and women from various backgrounds, castes and religions hit the streets to demand safer living space for women. The fact that it is the first time in the history of India when people were out on the streets on the issue of gender signals an important paradigm shift on national discourse of sex, sexuality and rights of women.
The first time I read the story, I quickly shrugged it off not out of disinterest but mainly to shield my consciousness from imagining what the victim went through. Yet, the savagery of the act, the use of a rusty metal rod to brutalize her insides still haunts me. A lot has been written about this incident and anything worth saying has been said. However, I’m writing this in the Nigerian context and violation for the female body in mind. What would have happened if this incident happened in, say, Lagos or Abuja? Let me tell you what would happen. Nothing.
There are numerous cases of rape and gang rape in Nigeria (the infamous ABSU Gang rape being the most widely reported till date thanks to the proliferation of social media), yet many go unreported. The few that get reported to the authorities are either not pursued by the police or the victim is advised to keep silent lest she disgraces her family. Nigeria is still very much a patriarchal society; a society where rules and norms are dictated and governed by men. Women are assigned roles, spaces and our bodies determined by men: the father, the spouse, the male relatives. Any woman who wishes to go against the grain is punished severely. This punishment can take different forms but the most devastating, most intimate and most violent against the female person is rape.
Rape in its simplest form is not just an urgent, unexpected sexual desire that needs to be satisfied. Instead, it is the violent expression of power against another. Rape is primarily about power and its abuse. Within the Nigerian context, it is the punishment for wishing to be independent, for daring to threaten the status quo, the societal power dynamics. It is not about modesty neither is it about what the victim wore or her behavior because as we all know, modestly dressed women are raped all the time. How does one explain the rape of a minor? When a woman is raped, the perpetrator is simply saying the victim’s body is his to take with or without her consent and when a society as a whole fails to protect the victim and punish the perpetrator, that society is consenting that indeed the woman’s body is up for taking with or without her consent.
However, we (Nigerians) as a society do not need to wait for a woman to be violently assaulted sexually to be complicit in the act of rape. Everyday, we make decisions consciously or unconsciously that perpetrate the culture of rape, that is, a culture where rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, societal practices and even the media normalizes, excuses or tolerates rape. To take it further, I will include in my definition a society that blames the woman for her partner’s infidelity and deviance. With the above definition in mind, it is obvious that we do indeed have a rape culture in Nigeria. When we think it is okay for a husband to forcefully have sex with his wife, we are obliquely perpetrating a rape culture by telling the woman that she is nothing but a pleasure object for her husband. We are saying she has no right to consensual sex, her body is his to use when and how he pleases. Conversely, when he cheats and we blame the wife, we are inadvertently telling her she made her husband vulnerable by denying him sex, thus creating room for him to be tempted. By absolving the man from blame, we are telling the woman that not only must she be an object of pleasure for her husband at all time, she must also satisfy his needs.
When we look the other side when the “oga” sexually violates the maid/nanny/distant cousin from the village, we are an accomplice in the act of rape. When we blame the rape victims, we are complicit in an act of rape. When we refuse to punish the victims, blame the devil, watch Nollywood movies where a rape victim is killed/dishonored/disowned by her husband, family or society at large, we are permitting and encouraging a rape culture. Most importantly and less nuanced in our perpetration of rape culture due to the spread of fundamentalist religions in Nigeria is when we insist that women must remain virgins till marriage. This is because in this scenario of virgin-till-marriage, a woman is seen only through the lens of procreation and pleasure object for her husband. Value is placed on the purity of the woman instead of on the woman herself. The woman is seen as an object to be collected, desired by the menfolk and only through her virginal purity is her worth validated. It is this policing of a woman’s body and the hyper-vigilance of the female sexuality, which dictates and subordinates what the woman wants or does not want lies the problem. This policing and hyper-vigilance translates to the society telling the woman that there is something inherently wrong with her body. Thus she must be told what to wear (or not wear) to limit the exposure to the men and when she doesn’t conform, which she is well within her right to make such decision, and gets assaulted or arrested (as is the case in Abuja), then she is responsible for the assault/arrest. In other words, if a woman’s body is visible, it ought to be available for sex or punished for this visibility.
What am I saying after all? The modesty culture we preach is a rape culture because of our insistence on female purity and modesty. Why is it the sole responsibility of the female to remain chaste? Why isn’t the male tasked with chastity? By focusing on the female, we reduce the woman to mere flesh and places control over the female body and sexuality in male hands. When she is sexually violated who do we infer to as ‘dishonoured’? The victim? Or her family, which means her father or male relatives because as we know in Nigeria, it is the father/brother/other male relatives that are the symbol of a family? Therefor when a family is dishonoured, we basically saying, the father/brother/kins men are dishonoured.
We need to do away with this system that espouses the idea of woman as a possession and develop instead a society that sees the woman as human with rights, consent and abilities. A society where ethical sexuality is promoted and supported. Instead of telling the woman she is at fault for getting raped, we should teach our sons the importance of consent, that no means no and a woman can withdrew this consent at any time. Instead of telling the victim of sexual assault not to speak up so as not the shame her family, we should create a society were victims are helped to overcome the trauma of the assault. Instead of telling the young girl she ‘asked’ for it because of the way she dressed, we should punish severely and publicly shame rapists. We should consciously make the effort as consumers not tolerate music videos and home movies that objectify the female body form in the name of art.
I believe it is the right time for us as a nation to have this all important conversation on rape and sexual harassment endemic in our society. We don/t have to wait for Uju/Jumoke/Zainab to be sexually and fatally violated by the pastor/stepdad/boyfriend to realize that we have rape problem that needs addressing. Of course, rape culture in the Nigerian context goes way deeper than discussed here. However starting this discussion means slowly chipping away one splinter at a time the pillar of female oppression which our society is built upon.
Image from http://www.notorape.com