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A few days ago a video of a woman who wore shorts to the market went viral. In an ideal society, that would be a ridiculous opening line. In Nigeria and many other parts of the world, it is reality. This incident sparked a discussion on social media that provided an insight into how cultural a lot of body policing is in Nigeria. Unfortunately, many Nigerian women were forced to relive their own sordid harassment experiences online while reading tone-deaf opinions from – not just men, but women as well. How dare she decide what to put on her own body? Sacrilegious.
Today, there’s an uproar about Chloe Bailey’s videos, misogynistic impassioned rants about what she should and shouldn’t be doing with her body. The internet is in shambles because a woman chose to express herself as she saw fit.
The bodily autonomy of women is rarely ever respected. We are viewed as secondary human beings subject to the whims and directions of the patriarchal, authoritarian society we find ourselves in. From laws regulating what we can and can’t do with our bodies to individuals trying to impose their beliefs on women, we cannot seem to catch a break.
This disregard starts early. It starts with children being forced to do things they do not want to do. There is a common notion that children are owned by their parents and as such, must do their bidding sans question or complaint. Children are regarded as extensions of their parents and not as individuals themselves. In this part of the world especially, parents try to fashion their children in their image or to live vicariously through them. This desire to control and dominate manifests in several ways, for example, forcing children to “display” for friends and family members. I’m sure we all have at least one memory from when we were children where we were forced to do something we had no desire to do because our parents or even a random adult told us to.
The culture of mandated respect that rules us here means that we have to do what we’re told. As children, it’s things like being forced to hug or make polite conversation with adults that make us uncomfortable, girls being told to change what they are wearing to “accommodate” male guests in their home, and other such instances where the adults involved override the bodily autonomy of the said child.
By the time such a child reaches adulthood, this spirit of forced conformity is like second nature and so we tolerate everything, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. We go along with ridiculous work demands and are afraid to voice our dissatisfaction at oppression. Worse still are those who as a result of being denied bodily autonomy make it their duty to deny others.
The women who said “well she should not have worn shorts, we know how men are”, the women who slut-shamed Chloe Bailey, our people who have become so used to seeing the bodily autonomy of women being denied that they now regard it as the modus operandi.
The patriarchy makes it so that women, like children, are often seen as mere extensions of the men around them. There are entire laws in place to regulate the existence of women that were inspired by misogynistic premonitions and the desire to deny women the right to do whatever they want with their bodies.
There’s also the day to day hassle of encountering random men eager to further strip away our bodily autonomy. The men who catcall us on the street and then go on to slut-shame us, the men who harass us and grab us without consent, the internet trolls who have made a career out of rape jokes and everyone else who enables them.
Community is sacred and the fight to reclaim our bodily autonomy is every woman’s fight. From era to era, the policing of women’s bodies has taken many forms and until the systems that enable this are dismantled, we cannot truly be free.