I recently turned 30, and as a person who attaches little meaning to days, I thought nothing of August 15. My baby sister Sandra took me out for drinks work, two glasses of wine which made me louder than I already am. Today, two months later, I am looking at my journal— yes I write my thoughts down every day since I was 14— and I realised my unconscious effort towards “adulting”, the name my friend Damaris Muga has for growing up. I guess it is a natural process and the only input is a person’s response to the shoulder tap of nature telling you ‘hey, you should let go of this now’ or ‘you are too old for these kinds of tantrums’.
For me, adulting was finally confronting what has tethered me to this one juvenile emotional point: sexual abuse. Iyanla Vanzant once said that the troubles in the psyche of every hurt woman are three Ms: Money, Motherhood and Men. This blog post will not go into my personal struggles with men, but more like talk about the thoughts that went through my head as I went through my own “adulting” in this area.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual proclivities, I was driven to tears when kind loving women who I have known told me #MeToo and described to the gory details what happened to them. But Verah, how can you write about men, and just limit it to sexual abuse? Is that what they are all about to you? No. Of course not, but the beauty or filth in a man-woman relationship is in how they overcome the power dynamics that have defined those kinds of relationships since time immemorial. There is nothing as soul-healing as having a man close to you who knows they could snap your neck by a mere slap, or take away your material needs, but then chooses to use that to protect you and allow you to be the authentic version of yourself around him.
I have had that, with my father. My mother (may her soul rest in peace) was …let me find the right word to describe her fiery personality….an opinionated woman with the temper of a sea shark. She was also a very generous woman. I chuckle at how my father made her laugh at her “explosions” and reassure her that he heard her, despite herself. The apple does not fall far from the tree because I am told I am not only a spit and image of my mother but also have a lot of her character. Yet I never felt the need to protect myself around my father’s “towering physique”. I am using those terms to mean how he looked, and what he had materially.
Now, picture my father’s relationship with me, or one that you have with a man in your life. Done that? Ok, now take that relationship and amplify the power therein, times 6,000,000,000. You have a product X after that multiplication. Now you and I are going to be “pathologists” and conduct a post-mortem of sexual abuse when it occurs to tiny you, in X.
First, let us define X. It is religion, and in my case, it is the Christian faith and its clergy. It is corporations with women-insensitive practices, and bosses that are Weinsteins of this world. It is the judicial and law enforcement systems that operate on laws that humiliate men and women when they seek justice from this violation. It’s the society whose first question to rape is ‘how did you place yourself in a wolf’s path?’
Let’s talk about sex
Sex. Let us think about that for a moment, through a hypothetical scene. He had a bad day at work, bothered by all the burden that a man has to bear like providing for unending needs, and the deadlines at work, and a thousand dependants that only call him for money. A colleague has stabbed me in the back, taken this project that I had frozen my butt for and raked my mind creating, and that heartless cruel boss of mine is still being his psychopathic self, never pass up an opportunity to humiliate me. These are usual pains that we normally rubbish and laugh at, but today they are weighing us down more…because a statement, a word, a look reminded each of us in our separate worlds of experience that scarred us so much. In the evening, I walk into the door of the house he and I share and he knows, he can feel I had a bad day even though I am here bragging about the deal I sealed. As I step on my toe to reach his lips, I can feel he is not okay too. I feel his anger, frustration and pain in his breath in that kiss, and the hug. We cannot talk about it because we have not socialised ourselves to show much emotion even though we feel things. He has mastered the art of convincing the world he’s Superman; I have mastered the art of convincing the world I am Wonderwoman.
So he says he is cooking, and I offer to help, and we laugh about silly things as we eat and watch that silly movie Snatched. Then in the middle of the night, when the rain pours, I lie there next to him. I feel his heartbeat, and I notice just how his thud comes when mine is silent. It is a rhythm, a music of some sort. Tonight, I don’t want to have fun recreational sex that I always have and he feels that. Tonight, we both need to reassure each other that we’re not just bill-paying machines as our families think, or the stony cold people the world has forced us to be, or self-sufficient human beings who will always show up for themselves even when they are incapacitated. At 3 am, we’ll hold each other, and we will cry while making love, each mourning and bandaging our scars, and we will look into each other’s eyes and tell each other in that intimate silence “you are doing okay, better than okay”. He is usually a strong man, but at this moment, he is a weak dependent little boy and that is okay because I can access him in this state. I can feel his fears and touch his insecurities. I am also a strong woman, but tonight I’ve given him power over me, just like he gave me power over him the power to know the other’s Achilles heels. Power.
Now imagine, someone skips all the processes I have described above, and touches you, or gets inside of you without your consent.
The rape you can (or cannot) forgive
We have already established that systems—societal, judicial and religious— has failed women in sexual abuse. A woman in Kenya can be less angry at the system for failing to prosecute a stranger who raped her when she is told ‘you showered before coming to report so we could not collect his seminal fluids’ or ‘we ran a test but we have not matched the DNA to any in the system because we have no DNA bank’. With counselling and time, a victim can heal from this kind of assault. Here, power was in the stranger that was physically stronger to subdue the woman, and then the power of police and the courts that are rendered useless in the face of technological challenges. A woman can forgive that and hope someday, there will be a DNA bank to arrest the criminals.
What you can never recover from is the kind of abuse that comes from the Weinsteins of this world—your father, guardian, lover, boyfriend, boss, mentor. These are men a woman trusted would never exploit her but they did because they were empowered and encouraged by a system she pays taxes to defend her when things go wrong. These systems are human resource departments, the police, courts, parents, clergy. This abuse hurts because the stream of power that allows this kind of violation to come to a woman starts with her. She trusts and lets him in her life. She curls her fangs and claws in because she is not sensing any danger. Why should she be afraid of her own father? She used to look into those eyes and see love, and after the rape or abuse, she’ll search those very eyes for an answer to where that love went. Then the woman starts to blame herself. Did I do something wrong? Was I too needy? Did I give too much of myself away?
Then she will try to report this. First to her mother, or someone she trusts. The quick piece of advice she will get is— wait for it— “don’t embarrass that family by speaking about this”. In some instances, she will be beaten and told not to make stories up. The victim will be forced to think about the aggressor’s wife, children, the image of the organisation he works…yes, she has to bear that burden on top of the atrocity that has been committed against her. In some cases, the wife will accuse her of seducing her husband. It is, the wife will claim, the abused woman’s fault that the man was willing to put the honour of his 20-year-old marriage as his direction was driven by his erection. Ain’t it good to be a man, especially in Africa? You do something so vile and then the cogs in the while will be oiled to protect you and beat your victim when her wounds are bleeding.
In the church
It’s worse when rape or any other sexual assault takes places in the context of a religion, a faith. The older women will “support” the assaulted woman by telling her how to dress appropriately, where not to meet men. She will be told, in words laced in bible verses, to work hard to forgive the aggressor, and no room will be allowed for her to curse or express the anger that she feels about what happened to her. She, who has been raped, will be told she has to go before God in prayer and fasting to find out where in her generation was the seed of assault planted and then she will then embark on a torturous journey to break that perceived curse.
Well, it is hard to blame the church for reasoning as such because of the ultimate father (God), whose power we believe in and His book (the bible) which is like a how-to-live manual for Christians, has perpetuated this kind of abuse to women. Genesis Chapter 19 verse 8 (Gen19:8) records of Lot who offered his daughter for a mob to rape to protect his male guests. The book of Esther, in the first chapter record of how Vashti (my namesake) was dethroned because she refused to strip for King Xerxes (or Ahasuerus, depending on the text you are reading) and his guests. What is more laughable is the reason for Vashti’s punishment. Memucan, an elder, says in verse 16: “Queen Vashti has not only wronged the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behaviour will become known to all women, so that they will despise their husbands in their eyes, when they report, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought in before him, but she did not come.’
The woman’s body, according to Memucan and to some member of the clergy, today is public property. She will be stripped in public and raped for dressing inappropriately. Which are the loudest voices in the anti-birth control debates in the Catholic church? Men, who have never been pregnant, or carried a baby to term. This is all power, of God and to the church.
In the office, the woman who’s been assaulted cannot file a suit against that man if he is a boss because she is young and at the onset of her career. She needs that job, and other companies will not hire a feminist diva who will be suing men and attracting negative publicity. Woe unto her if she’s orphaned or comes from a non-existent family and her father is not some diplomat or a man whose names means something in monetary circles. The boss knows he can prey on her and nobody will come to fight for her.
So what happens? The woman retreats to her cocoon, questioning her worth, angry at the world, and it’s going to come out viciously in her attitude, her clothes and her expressions. She will never let anyone near her emotionally. She will die inside. One day, she will meet a man who deserves to access her in her vulnerability because he is a good man, and she will try to love him that open and devotedly, and she will be unable to.