[Trigger warning for domestic violence]
Guest Blogger Bio: I am an undergraduate student at the University of South Florida who currently lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I study Kiswahili and East African development.
It’s a Thursday night in Nairobi, Kenya. The air is cool, but the atmosphere is warm. The music vibrates the stairs, swells outward from the bar, and inflates the street with every downbeat. People from the world over gather at one of the city’s favorite watering holes to swap stories and pass business cards as they fill, empty, and revive their glasses with clinking ice cubes and catalytic spirits. They work hard and play hard, living a fast life from Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. Tonight they are well groomed and blue blazered. Dapper. Progressive. Smart. They laugh jovially and shake hands, meeting future bosses, fiancés, and best friends. They are entrepreneurs, academics, aid workers, artists, teachers, diplomats, doctors, bankers, lawyers, military officers, and journalists. Makers. Shakers. Collectively, in one form or another, they represent every major pillar of power and influence in the modern international system. I would guess that by most metrics, they are good people.
There is an SUV parked haphazardly on the fringe of these good people. Inside it, with the door ajar and the windows down for all to see, a Kenyan man beats a Kenyan woman. He wails on her, thump after relentless thump. Thwack! You can see her reach for the door only to have it slammed hard against her by the man who has decided that she deserves no say in her well being. Thwack! He puts his whiskey into the cup holder. He takes the time to crack his knuckles. He hits her harder and harder, until her protests are muffled into silent, private sobs. It is not the kind of crying that pleads “Save me,” but that of a solo fury that says “I will endure.” His fists rise and fall and from a distance it feels almost rhythmic, a harrowing compliment to the spinning of the DJ. Her head ricochets off the window and into her palms. He smiles and finds great pleasure in the show of power he has put on for his gathering, yet silent crowd.
These good people, these people whom, albeit in different industries and capacities, are each individually working to make the future a better place than the present, do nothing. They, of relative privilege, watch the aforementioned horror unfold. Some are stunned. Some don’t notice. Some shake their heads. It’s a shame, they think. It’s fucked up, they think. It makes my blood boil, they think. But they do nothing. They hold their girlfriends tighter. They back their friends away from the scene. They try to break their stares. They go get more drinks. These are good people. But they do nothing. They are silent.
A few try. Three university age young women try. They do as their friends tell them. Go get security, they say. But security does nothing. This is between a husband and a wife, they say. Please go back inside, they say. The young women beg their friends and the bar security to do something. They do nothing. Get away from the car, they say. There is nothing you can do, they say. You’re going to get hurt, they say. You’re being irrational, they say. It’s not our fight, they say. Meanwhile the woman in the SUV protects her head with her hands and feebly begs pardon for a crime she committed only by being born a different gender than her assailant.
The three young women outside of the car are angry, each seething in their own way. One attempts compromise with the guards, attempts to mediate, to decompress and diffuse. One tries to speak to the woman in the car but the circumstances swallow her individual effort at human kindness. One decides to act. Deliberately, she pepper sprays the wife beater in the face. Her action is calculated. She knows exactly what she is doing. You’re a crazy whore, they say. She’s out of control, they say. Security asks the three young women to leave. They do. The wife beater is not asked to leave. He is not deemed out of control by the powers that be. The on-lookers remain silent. The show continues. He beats his wife for a bar full of able-bodied individuals who have unwittingly become his loyal audience.
I do not know what happens next at the bar or between the couple in the SUV. I am among the three women who leave. A metallic, sinking feeling of helplessness engulfs our taxi, but I know it is nothing when compared to the powerlessness of the woman being beat to a pulp in the passenger seat of the SUV, surrounded by people who choose to do nothing. We are each still seething in our own ways. It’s not our fight. You’re being irrational. It’s not our fight. You’re being irrational. Again. And again. And again. It echoes through my head. It reverberates itself in my memory. It’s not our fight.
But if not our fight then whose? If not the bar full of capable, well minded internationalists, then whom? But the good people are atomized. They recognize the wrongdoing of the beating but not that of their unconscious choice to do nothing. Doing nothing does not mean that they exist in a vacuum. Inaction is just as much a choice as action, with just as heavy consequences. They are complicit. Many of them wanted to help. But they don’t. At home they might of. In their bars, in their restaurants, with their sisters, their children, and their friends, I doubt that many of them would tolerate such a brash display of blatant disregard for a woman’s right to safety and security. But this is Kenya, they say. They are visitors. This is not their home. It is not their culture. They decide they have no say. It is not their responsibility. There is nothing they can do. It is not their place to impose. This is not their fight. They find some kind of superficial solace in their detachment. They are students of supposedly enlightened multiculturalism, so they ignore real harm being done in favor of the relativism fostered by the anthropological divisions of human beings. They do so as not to offend, despite the egregious offense before them. This is escape culture. They continue drinking and smiling and dancing. It is not their fight. They remain mum.
Why is it irrational to act in the face of an undeniable abuse of human dignity? Why is it irrational to intervene, but rational to do nothing? In the minds of the bar full of good people, the process of reason eliminated emotion as a premise and so the syllogism is flawed from the start. The arithmetic is cold, parsimonious, and most importantly- wrong. If empathy for the suffering is removed from the equation, the conclusion to do nothing is far from ethically rational. Reason is impotent when we forget the humanity in others and our responsibilities to them. When we have the ability to intervene in the face of an unjust act, with no loss of the same moral equivalence accrued by our taking action, we ought to do it. When we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of the same significance, we are obliged to do so. If we agree cumulatively and absolutely that violence against women is wrong, and we witness an individual act of violence that we can prevent or at least mitigate, the ethical conclusion is to do something. If we can reduce the unjust act, even by a marginal amount, we should. To do nothing is not rational. It is cowardly. Ethical reasoning requires meticulous probity and care, not simple derivatives of selfish calculus. The power of individuals to create meaningful, marginal change is real. Lest we not forget, it took only three young men to sit down at a lunch counter in Alabama to ignite the immediate movement that demanded Civil Rights and equality in the United States. It took one man pushing a cart of fruit lighting himself on fire to spark a wave of popular movements in favor of democratic principles and open societies in North Africa and the Middle East. And it could have been that one bar full of good people demanded justice for a woman suffering under a mountain of disrespect, at the hands of a monstrous male partner.
The heroes of this story are not the three women that were asked to leave. The hero of this story is the woman in the SUV, who had the courage to put her hand on the door to leave, even when she knew her temerity would only be met with harsher reprise. She is the hero of this story because of the strength that she will find in herself to carry on, when a bar full of people could not find an ounce of strength within themselves to act on her behalf or to act against her vicious attacker. She alone is the heroin of this story because she fought to live in a world that was unwilling to fight for her. While the rest of us have bestowed on her the moniker of a “battered woman,” she has not succumbed to so passive of an existence. He beat her, but she has not been beaten. Her victory is small; it is silent, marred in defeat, and buried deep inside of her. But it is there. It is always her fight.
Violence, globally and locally, may be difficult to explain. But undeniably so, violence has a gender- male. Reducing gender based violence and championing the rights of women and children in recent media and international consensus has become a cause celebre from the United Nations to the New York Times to even the most remote of villages and towns in the developing world. But yet in Nairobi, a vibrant, kinetic, modernizing city, when the leaders of this glimmering, progressive, future Earth, were confronted with a concrete opportunity to do something, they did nothing. I am not naïve or reductionist enough to believe that the secret to removing violence against women and children from our societies is through isolated, individual ass-kickings of the perpetrators by Iron Man like bystanders. But along an expansive enough continuum, when the leaders of the world have an opportunity to speak up and act and they do so, change will come. Instead of merely violence against women, we should invert our focus to the active form; violence committed by men. No matter the victim, child, male, or female, we find that men author most violent acts. We have come to define the phenomenon of violence that we face not by the proponents but by the victims. Men, especially those in positions of influence and power, must hold other men accountable. They must find the moral integrity and the mental gumption to tell their peers that it is wrong. Most offenders lead more normal lives than we like to remember, and so it is changing the normalcy of violence that we should pursue. It is this spectrum of intervention that must begin on an individual basis in athletic locker rooms, business meetings, and favorite bars. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that what hurts the most “is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It is the acrimony of quietude that is most debilitating, most injurious to women, children, and even other men who suffer from what is largely, a leadership problem.
I have recounted this story of the Nairobi bar several times. One peer responded with sympathy and disgust, and concluded that; “The world is just not ready to give real equality to women.” Now is not the time. The world is not prepared. Well, to hell with that. If the north had not imposed upon the American south something that it was not ready for I very well might still be in fetters and shackles. I am quite certain that the women of the world, starting with the one whose face is covered in plum, bursting blue reminders from that Thursday night, and the countless others who suffer mutedly behind closed doors and in married chambers, are ready for it. I am quite certain that the children of the world, including our sons who did not ask to be born into a place that equates masculinity with brutality, are ready for it. I am quite certain that the brave, outspoken men of the world, who have decided that enough is enough, are ready for it. If the time to speak out against male violence is not now, when will that day come? The day for justice is always today.
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