I was in a store recently, looking for clothes for one of my little God-daughters. I was appalled at what was on offer. Why does a clothing range for 10-12-year olds look like the same as the one for adults? I wondered. Is a ten-year-old supposed to display cleavage? In most cultures of the world, there is an unhealthy obsession with the bodies of women and girls. It is not just about what these bodies represent in terms of sexual appeal or attraction, it is much deeper than that. The female body has always been perceived and treated as a threat to patriarchal order. Wars have been fought over women’s bodies and women’s bodies have always been sites of war. Times do not seem to have changed. The female body has to be owned, controlled and manipulated, and it does not really matter whether we are talking about ancient times when young women were used to host guests in some communities or contemporary times when poor young girls are trafficked far away from home.
Many would argue that women’s bodies are revered because women produce life. Yes, women give life, but they and their bodies do not have the respect they deserve. A six-month old for example is supposed be just a baby, to be cuddled and cooed over. Yet, this baby girl somehow arouses the passion of a grown male, who manages to force himself into her. A baby. It should not even be possible to think of a baby girl as having ‘a body’. There are possibly three explanations for this inexplicable horror, pardon the oxymoron. The first explanation is insanity. The second is that the perpetrator was acting on the possible instructions of one of the many ‘native doctors’ who prescribe the bodies of babies as a cure for an incurable ailment, passport to riches or the attainment of high office. The third is an uncontrollable passion and sexual urge. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is, the end result is the same – the manifestation of a morbid obsession with women’s bodies. This is the reason why I will not be an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. I used to be coy about admitting this, not anymore.
In the name of religion, culture and tradition, depending on context, parts of women’s bodies are also chopped off and sewn up, thanks to a pernicious practice that affects millions of women around the world. When rights activists talk about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and people try to equate the practice with male circumcision, we point out that men only lose their foreskin during circumcision. Women lose their clitoris, labia minora and labia majora, depending on the type of FGM practiced in her community. The result of all this is the remodeling of women’s bodies to make them a site of reproduction only and not a place where normal, mutually satisfying sexual intercourse can take place. If men where to lose the same body parts as women through this grotesque practice, they would be undergoing Penectomy – the removal of parts or the whole of the penis. I would like to see men lining themselves or their sons up as volunteers. I can already hear the gasps of shock.
The war on women’s bodies continues through the lack of safety little girls experience as they grow up, and with every step they take, their innocence is at stake. Sitting on the lap of a favourite Uncle. Riding to school with Francis the driver who always has sweets to give. The Biology teacher who examines her breasts in his office and declares her ‘a woman’. Even daddy who always comes in to the bedroom late at night to tuck her in. As a girl grows into a young woman, she becomes aware of the power her body has and begins to develop strategies to either protect it or exploit it, unwittingly completing the cycle of socialization. We live in a world where personal accomplishments and goals are not enough unless they have been validated through the eyes of others. A young woman quickly learns that she is not pretty enough, tall enough, light skinned enough, skinny enough, demure enough or her hair is not long enough. And so, the quest continues for the perfect body to attract the perfect man and at the same time find and hold down the perfect job. This unhealthy obsession with the bodies of women continues to play itself out because there are so few sanctions for those who take it upon themselves to own women’s bodies by force. From sexual harassment to acquaintance rape to violent sexual assaults, the crimes go unpunished because the perpetrators are emboldened by a culture of impunity.
Recently, an alarming new trend has evolved. The same mad ‘native doctors’ who have been prescribing the rape of tiny girls from South Africa to Uganda to Nigeria, have come up with something else. Killing women for their private parts has been around for a while. However, there seems to be the discovery that the underwear and/or the menstrual pads of women are useful in making powerful charms. And so, the obsession with women’s bodies takes a new dimension as young men stalk women to figure out where they leave their underwear to dry or where they dispose of their sanitary protection. Several women have been found dead at the hands of these demons who planned to use their bodies for rituals. We used to think that older women are spared the horrors of rape and sexual violence because their bodies no longer hold any attraction for male predators. Wrong. Women as old as ninety are raped. What many people have been brought up to believe is that women seduce men with their bodies and wiles, and if a young woman for example wears ‘provocative clothing’, it is ‘reasonable’ to expect that men would be ‘tempted’. Now we are dealing with a new reality. It does not matter if we are dealing with a nine-day old baby or a ninety-year-old woman. What was the six-month old baby wearing? How alluring were the laps of the nonagenarian? Every woman has a body to obsess over, to be invaded, conquered, defiled, you name it. In many ways, we are all complicit. Let us teach respect for the bodies of women and girls. Let the practice of FGM stop. Let sexual crimes be punished according to the full extent of the law (where laws exist) and where they don’t exist, we need to create them. Let corporate bodies stop using women’s bodies to sell their merchandise. Let the promoters of endless beauty pageants find another means of livelihood. Let our musicians scale back on the quantum of breasts and bottoms on display in their videos and on their stages. Let us stop encouraging dubious role models who create the impression that there are shorts cuts to money and fame. Let us stop demonizing sex education and access to family planning. Let us stop making women feel they are never enough until they have lightened their skin, have hair like Khloe Kardashian or a backside like Jennifer Lopez. Let fathers teach their daughters self-esteem and self-worth and let mothers raise their sons to be real men who value women and their bodies. Perhaps one of the key reasons why many men (and the handful of women they coerce into this) obsess over women’s bodies is so that women and girls will not have time to use their brains. I for one will continue to make it my business to ensure that this agenda fails. Anyone care to join me? Have a great week.
• Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is currently the 1st Lady of Ekiti State. She can be reached at [email protected]