The first time a man shouted a sexual comment at my daughter, she was 22 months old. We were seeing my friend off, she and I swinging my toddler over muddy potholes, when —
“Na wa o! Fine girl, na only you get all this yansh?!”
I recognised the speaker, the joker among the group of laughing men, as the shop owner from whom I bought Ribena and plantain chips for my daughter. He often asked after her.
My friend’s hand drifted to my arm, the light pressure telling me, ‘leave it alone’. Leave it alone. I’ve known since I was in secondary school that often, all you can do is keep walking and hope they go away. I would walk past my house, or go into shops to buy things I didn’t need, or even give them my number just so they would stop bothering me. I’ve been knowing that I’m supposed to leave it alone. It was time to try another tack.
“Are you alright?! What did you just say?!”
The men looked at one another incredulously, their faces lined with irritation.
“Abeg o,” the speaker said. “I was only joking with your baby.”
I have known for a long time that mothers can’t protect their babies from everything; I was seven years old the first time A Bad Thing happened to me. Still, hearing a grown man refer to the child who he just heckled about her bum as a baby reified that knowledge like nothing else had. My daughter exists in the world in a female body, and so of course she will treated like public property — an object communally belonging to every man who should desire her in any way. The psychology of street harassment is the same as the psychology of rape and every other kind of gendered violence. We believe that the bodies women inhabit are to be colonised, consumed and conquered by men, and that women themselves are responsible for this violence. All female bodies are nothing but vehicles for the expression of men’s sexuality and power, and all gendered violence — the sexualisation of babies, the kidnap of young girls into sexual slavery, marital rape, the murder of transwomen — is a manifestation of that.
We have all been told that there are ways to be both female and safe in this world. The patriarchy teaches us that if a woman follows the rules — if she limits the scope of her life, divorces herself from her own desires, smiles on demand, goes to the bathroom in a group, stays indoors at night — she will be alright. Is there a greater lie than this?