We who are free, are we free?

SHARE   |   Tuesday, 30 May 2017   |   By Duma Boko
We who are free, are we free?

Duma Boko’s Facebook Post

I caught fleeting glimpses of the bus station video footage. I could not bring myself to watch the whole of it. It was disgusting. A mob descended on a young woman and stripped her nude. Ironically, her transgression was that she was scantily dressed. She took the full brunt of abuse from a blaming crowd that met her dress style with a sadistic, angry impulse. Men and women alike, formed part of the crowd that abused this young woman. The video was circulated widely on social media and it attracted a myriad reactions. Women and men, of various orientations and hues, reacted viscerally, in a language of horror. There was plenty of heat. In the soaring outrage I picked out a number of messages. I could hear opinions from lawyers cloaked, as they always are, in the seemingly detached language of justice. They were calling for the law to punish the abusers. They invoke the criminal code; appeal to a formulation that would characterize what happened as indecent assault and visit some admonishment on the perpetrators. Of course, this corpus of opinions did not engage the predatory lustfulness of the law itself; the normative challenges that face the high priests of justice, the lawyers and judges, themselves in the hallowed precincts of the courts, as they look away from the rape and abuse that occurs within the marital bed and board. These opinions did not acknowledge the law’s complicity in the defence and justification of a patriarchal code in which the victim is required to explain herself and her sense of fashion as she seeks to impugn the conduct of her abusers. She would have to do so before a justice system whose dress code is at variance with how she was clad at the time of her ordeal. She would need to convince a justice enterprise whose dignity and majesty find expression in an arcane dress code that is at odds with the latest trends of fashion. I contend that the issue of dress is both attitudinal and communicative. It is certain to bulk large in the courtroom discourse: around the attitude of the judicial officer to determine his or her angle of vision. It will define the normative contact-point between all involved. I could spend some time on this notion and, like Harvard Professor Duncan Kennedy, demonstrate that there is a tolerated residuum of abuse, which the law countenances.

I elect not to give any further treatment to the legal viewpoint. I choose rather, to deal in what can only be an abbreviated fashion, with another viewpoint. This one came out in what I felt was a suavely malicious manner. It posited that much as women should be free to dress as they please, they must confront, and submit to, the reality that doing so attracts unpleasant consequences for them and so they must not dress as they please. The proponents of this viewpoint suggested that girls and young women must be, and indeed are, inducted into a dress code that eschews male aggression. On this notion women need to anticipate, manage and avoid abuse. It is about female dress and male responses to it. It is the male responses and behaviors that must dictate women’s sense of dress and fashion. In a word, society has prescribed a certain dress code for the “decent” woman. Our Government has sanctioned this notion. It has announced and enforced a dress code, which prohibits the showing of cleavage, or flesh above the knee, or any other form of sexy dress. I speak here, as an enlightened heterosexual male, a part of whom is hostage to women. For this male, truth to tell, women must exist as women; as bearers of the possibility of male sexual excitement. Relative to the enlightened heterosexual male, women must be free not only to dress as they please but also to exploit the assets of their sexiness, real or perceived and situate themselves freely, in a spectrum of sexiness according to their own authorial impulses. This approach is a challenge and a rebellion against the de-eroticized modes of female self-presentation prescribed by our government. I acknowledge that sexy dress is a defiance of, and deviance against, society’s imposed norms of permissible female behavior. I encourage this rebellion. Rather than socialise women to behave in ways that assuage the prurient frailties of potential aggressors, society must train the potential aggressors to respect women’s rights. By dressing as they please women are not “asking for it”. But even if they were, it should be on terms determined by them or negotiated freely.

It should be pretty obvious that I have put aside the masks and garbs of office and of social station. I have taken the self-effacing route that avoids the vanilla quality of much of the discourse on sex. This route locates the inquirer within the controversy and provides some strategic positionality that is both honest and humbling. It says I may be whatever else, but I am, after all, a human being, subject to the torsion of the same passions and sensibilities as others and I must first come to terms with this basic reality. This approach impels me to not just condemn the bus station abusers in their vigilante enforcement of some male-sanctioned dress code, but also confront the power relations in society and dismantle the edifice of patriarchy. I thus ask myself the question I ask the rest of us: we who are free, are we free?