Policing Women’s Bodies and Safety in South Sudan

It’s really baffling when what should be a simple choice every morning takes one a lot of careful thinking on the impact of your day ahead. Deciding if you want to wear lipstick or not, believe you me, is a real safety decision as I have slowly experienced for myself as I navigate our capital Juba.

Some might minimize this experience and point to the fact that I already live in a country with high levels of violence and sexual violence both in and out of conflict hot spots. Just earlier this year, UN investigators found that “at least 175 women and girls were raped or suffered other sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018” in Unity state despite the current peace agreement. And we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This existence of extreme forms of gender based violence even outside the conflict means that there are milder forms, equally impacting women and girls, which often we are told to overlook.

Yes, I wake up worried about the rate at which women and girls are harassed everyday for what they look like, what they choose to wear, and for deciding to be themselves. I write this with pain after an awkward experience I had on the streets of Juba.

It is only 8 years into our independence and South Sudan commemorated just in July. We are still struggling to build a country, end wars, build institutions, bring a sense of rule of law but also we women are still struggling because patriarchy bestows such a burden on us. We have to be mindful of how we look or else we be blamed for what is done to us. Even when you try, this is never an assurance that you will be treated with dignity because morality police shifts goal posts depending on who wants to take advantage of you in a vacuum of accountability.  

The need to violently control women and girls, right from how they sit, what they look like, whether they date or whom they marry is all part of the societal ways of controlling a woman’s body and it is not in less measures in our country. 

Because of general insecurity in South Sudan, the government has put measures where everyone can be checked at any time.  And when you are in a car, you will have to go through many checks and road blocks. These security checks normally take place at night, from about 7:00 PM onwards. However, recently, the checks re-started also during the day. 

Recently I woke up on one chilly morning to go to work. And when a day like this greets you, unlike hot Juba days, you think it is a good idea to wear your makeup. So I wore my beautiful outfit and my flawless makeup and hit the road shortly after. Along the way I picked up some colleagues and we were on our way to the office when we were stopped by the security for a check.

We humbly pulled over and obliged. We were asked vehicle documents and we availed them and there was generally no fault we expected as all requirements were in check. It wasn’t long when the security officer then veered off into personal territory, started harassing us because of the red lipstick I wore.

He went one on a commentary about my body. ”Look at your mouth all painted, do not speak to me with those red lips. Let us go to the police station,” he said. I was dumbfounded and at a loss of words because how on earth was wearing lipstick a criminal offence?

It took me a few seconds to snap out of this shock, in time to push back and forth and ask to see his supervisor instead. Unbeknownst, I was being seen as threatening for asserting my right to find out about the crime I had committed. This man started to pulling the vehicle door to forcefully enter as we resisted.  He threatened us saying that he could pull us out and beat us. We insisted on speaking to his supervisor until his colleague asked him to stop harassing us. We left shaken and in disbelief of what could have happened to us.

Harassment and policing of women’s bodies is a global ill, it doesn’t only happen in South Sudan but when this harassment is happening in a country where there’s an active conflict and little accountability, safety remains a mirage.  

The trap that is harassment is that people use the power they have over you to either silence you or determine the narrow perimeters in which you can resist. Even a simple request to inquire about your crime can end disastrously. When a man with a gun stops you and instead of speaking about your car’s condition he wants you explain your dressing, you know very well you are no longer safe.

Yes, a question on a woman’s dress or lipstick might seem trivial in a country where violence is wide spread but when you understand the systemic nature of violence against women and girls, you know this is not just a personal issue. This is the same control exerted on girls everyday, forced into marriage, forced to live at the mercy of men. When these questions are allowed to exist, then male entitlement to women’s bodies cannot be broken. I know we have a huge task but we have to continue fighting for women to be left the freedom to control their bodies and their ways of live!

Riya Williams Yudaya

Riya Williams Yuyada is a South Sudanese feminist with a passion for women’s human rights and peace. She is vocal on the experiences of South Sudan women and girls and other African women in conflict affected contexts. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Crown The Woman South Sudan

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