So there I was, standing at the stage, waiting for a mat and wondering why the sun had to be so unkind. There was nobody else there apart from a bodaboda guy whom I had already turned down because my issues with motorbikes run deep and I refuse to use them despite how convenient everybody else in Nairobi seems to find them. Story for another day. Then this random guy arrives and positions himself next to me. He has a struggling beard, an un-ironed shirt, and a nice pair of shoes. He looks like a regular, decent guy. I can already see what’s coming though, and I wince when he begins.
Him: Do you stay around here?
Him: My name is Alvin. (I cannot claim that this is true. I do not remember his name but he looked like an Alvin so let’s just go with that).
Him: Ati okay?
Me: *irritated by this point* Yes.
Him: What do you mean ‘okay’?
Me: I mean that I acknowledge that your name is Alvin. (Obviously I didn’t really.)
Him: I’ve just introduced myself. You’re supposed to now do the same.
Me: *gives my very best ‘you really need to leave me alone’ look* I’d rather not.
Him: Why not?
Me: I don’t want to.
Him: Don’t say that. It’s not bad to meet people and make new friends. If you don’t want to talk right now you can give me your number so that we can get to know each other later.
Me: True, it’s not bad to make friends. But I’m not interested.
Him: You shouldn’t be like that. Because you never know where we will meet in the future. In this world you cannot be proud and refuse to talk to somebody because you might need my help one day and I might also need yours.
Me: *remembering the countless times I’ve had this exact conversation with strange men who try to guilt-trip me into giving them my contacts; thinking how far back my eyes would roll if I were an eye-roller* It’s not pride. I just don’t want to give you my number. I am not interested.
Him: No. It is pride. The way I’m seeing it, you are boasting and pretending just because you think you are better than me.
Me: *turns to face him fully, feels self getting worked up* Do you frequently meet people on the street who try to force you to talk to them and give them your number? Don’t you have a right to refuse if that were to happen?
Him: No, you are being proud. I am only asking to get to know you na unanidharau. You are not supposed to treat people that way.
Me: I am treating you the way I would treat any stranger. You asking for my number was a request, not a command, meaning I can refuse to give it to you. I do not owe you my number. I don’t even know you. I haven’t insulted you, and I haven’t said that I am better than you. But I have a right to refuse to talk to you if I don’t want to. Are you going to force me to give you my number? I am just not interested.
At this point, as Alvin is fumbling for an answer to further justify his reasoning that I am ‘pretending’, a matatu shows up and I hurry in, praying that he isn’t also getting on. He isn’t. Which makes me wonder what he was doing at that stage because the matatus that stop there are all going to the same place, but we thank God for small mercies. I am annoyed. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have said much to nice Mr. Alvin. My (cowardly) strategy usually involves giving disinterested one-word answers to the strange men who think the appointed time and place to meet ‘willing’ girls is in a matatu at rush hour. I have seen some of the ways in which turned-down men react to girls who were just trying to get some peace in their lives. The insults especially. God. Usually, I am not willing to put myself in a situation where people are turning to look at me because a loud guy on the bus has just called into question the size of my vagina just because I refused to give him my number. My sensitivities cannot deal. As a rule, I prefer to draw as little attention to myself as possible. And if my one word answers don’t work, I just deal with the creepy guy all the way to town. In traffic. Sometimes, on days when I am low on energy, or when the guy has a smell stronger than I can take (you know there are those types also-the smell of alcohol combines really badly with the smell of unwashed bodies), I find myself alighting at the next convenient stage so I can take another bus. I’ve lost so much money in fare just because I couldn’t tell a random guy to leave me the hell alone. Because generally, girls are taught to be afraid of men; you don’t know what they might do to you, so try not to provoke them.
On that day though, with nice Mr. Alvin, I was unable to shut up and be meek. I had had a tough week. In my multicultural psychology class, we had been told about how women are raped and killed in India and the rape is defended on national television. I had been doing research on FGM and was still being tortured by images of scraped off female genitals. I had seen women on social media speaking against feminism, saying that feminists are sinners trying to distract saints from marching to Mt. Zion, as though they would have been able to vote or drive or even go to college without it. I had had arguments with people I respected about why consent matters. I was just not having it with Alvin and his misplaced entitlement.
This is what needs to be said: We are tired, guys. Collectively, as a group, as women, we are tired. We are tired of men who approach us thinking they have a right to our contacts, to our bodies, to our attention. Men who insult us and embarrass us because they picked up the message somewhere that a woman’s rejection is not to be tolerated because it nullifies everything that you are as a man. Men who think it is okay to touch us as they please, in the name of communication: Sir, I don’t care whether ‘it’s just my arm’ or ‘just my hair’, dammit, it is mine so keep your hands to yourself. I did not call you to come and talk to me. I have not done anything to encourage you in this your ‘mwanaume ni kujaribu’ campaign. I was just sitting here, minding my own business, and you chose to come into my space as though you belong here. No. You have no right. I do not know you. I owe you nothing. Management reserves right of admission, and you sir, have been denied access. Please. For the love of all things sacred, leave us alone.
The problem is not what women are wearing or how much we drink at parties. It is with boys who become men who think they are entitled to women’s time, attention, and bodies. We need to teach them that they are not. When they hear ‘no’, they should not feel like a yes is owed to them.
I mean, you try for other things in life, right? Trying is good. Everybody should try to get the things they want. And yes, somebody said that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I respect that. But surely, a man of your age must know that you don’t always get the things you want in this life. Why is it so difficult for guys to take a no from a girl and walk away in peace? My no does not say anything about you as a man; it says something about me. And that something is simply that I do not, for reasons I am not obligated to reveal to you, want to talk to you. That is all. Do I not have the right to determine who I want in my space? Did I instruct you to waste your time and energy by actively bothering me for a whole half an hour on public transportation? Does the phrase ‘I’m not interested’ only make sense when it’s coming from a girl ‘mwenye ako na maringo’? Because if letting you know that I have a right to choose whom to talk to means niko na maringo then yes, I choose to have it in abundance. And who is it that came up with that brilliant strategy that involves trying to guilt a girl into a conversation with you? Is that really how you want to ‘make friends’? Through emotional manipulation?
The first time I realized that I can actually speak up and tell a dude to leave me alone was when my friend Lucy did it. Straight up told the creepy guy, “Wacha kuniongelesha!” because she had had it with his nonsense. I was in awe, to be honest. You mean we can actually demand that men step away from our personal space? And that we don’t even have to be sweet and flowery about it? Incredible. Who would have thought, right? I couldn’t imagine myself being so bold. But why not? Why must I allow you to make me uncomfortable in my own space? Dude, I don’t even know you. And plus, the bus is a really terrible place to get a female interested in you. Really. Also, pro-tip: if she has her headphones in, she doesn’t want to be talked to. Even worse is when she is reading a book. Try elsewhere.
…the voices of women aren’t trusted unless men cosign…
You may bitch about feminism all you want. You may insult us and publicly shame us for not giving you what you want (as a side note, ever notice how almost every insult a man will throw at a woman is usually to sexualize her in some way?). You may refuse to acknowledge the terrible things that women suffer at the hands of men all over the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are here, and we are staying. And we will continue to demand that you give us the respect we deserve as fellow humans. Eventually, you will have to accept that you have no rights here, I owe you nothing, and I am not your property. Okay? Okay.
PS: This blog here: www.breakingthroughtheglass.com is a great place to start if you would like to read more about gender equality. It’s a conversation that EVERYBODY needs to be a part of. So go on, educate yourself.