In a sadly typical display of sexism, a recently proposed law in western Kenya may prohibit women from straddling a motorbike or bicycle. Women in Kisumu County may soon be forced to sit sideways behind the driver, because apparently straddling a bike or motorcycle is “demeaning” to traditional Kenyan culture. The county assembly discussed the issue and eventually deemed sitting with legs apart “uncultural.” Kisumu North county assembly member Caroline Owen argues that “Piki piki [bicycles] and boda boda [motorbikes] have now brought a culture that is really demeaning to our women.” She believes that women who sit with their legs apart are exposing their bodies, while sitting to the side means a women is “concealing herself well.” Others who support the law argue that straddling a bike or motorbike is distracting to men. One male driver said he was so distracted by women sitting in this position that it was difficult for him to drive. If he is truly distracted by these women, then clearly he is not a competent driver and should get another job that he is capable of performing.
Perhaps side straddling does undermine traditional Kenyan culture, but individuals supporting this bill fail to recognize the sexist nature of many traditions and the significant need to challenge these traditions. This is only one of many bills being proposed throughout the continent that discriminate against women. In April, the Ugandan government proposed a bill that would prohibit women from wearing a miniskirt and other “provocative” clothing in public.
These types of bills further reinforce and perpetuate a culture that blames women for sexual violence, which is why now more than ever this legislation should be challenged. Why are a woman's integrity and ethics questioned due to her her riding/dressing preferences, while the same level of scrutiny is not applied to men? We don't need laws forcing women to dress and behave conservatively± instead we need laws that hold individuals accountable for sexual violence.
If a women decides for herself to sit sideways and/or dress conservatively, there should be no objection to it. However, this should be her decision, not one forced upon her by sexist and discriminatory laws.
The list of bizarrely sexist laws isn't short, even in the United States. One law in Florida prohibits unmarried women from parachuting on Sundays, and another law in Montana makes it illegal for married women to fish alone on Sundays and for unmarried women to fish alone at all. There's even a law in Charlotte, North Carolina that requires women to cover their bodies with at least 16 yards of cloth at all times. While the enforcement of these laws may be questioned, their very existence is a major problem.
While many established traditions are engraved in cultural fabrics and enforced by sexist laws, we need to recognize that old, customary, and ancestral practices sometimes require transformation and in some cases complete elimination. We must create new laws that are neither sexist nor discriminatory — laws that help support a woman's freedom of choice and expression.
I support a woman's decision to straddle a bike, rock a miniskirt, jump from a plane, go fishing alone, and use fewer than 16 yards to cover her body — and you should too.