There is a terrible practice that I witnessed as a child in the 1970s and had hoped that it would have stopped by now. But it has not. It is the harassment some male traders mete out to some young women who visit the market to make purchases.
There are three categories of people who engage in this harassment: people without shops who hawk goods, especially female wear; young boys who serve as apprentices to those who own shops; and touts who have no shops but merely seek patrons to sell to and get a cut. These three sets are usually very desperate.
When young ladies go to the market to buy items like shoes, shirts, skirts, trousers, bras and pants, these men encircle them, desperately wanting to make a sale.
“African queen, this one is your confirmed size.”
“My princess, I have your original size and colour. Come to the shop and see for yourself.”
Sometimes it just ends there, but sometimes it goes beyond that. When a lady whose dressing showcases her features enters the market, she is usually besieged with catcalls. Most times these men who are eager to get a customer would grab the hand of a male or female visitor to draw the person’s attention. But not every person likes to be touched. If such a person is a woman and she pulls her hand away and warns the person not to do that again, she is attacked with words.
“What is special about your hand that is dry as stockfish?”
“Shouldn’t a monkey like you be happy that someone touched you?”
“See her nyash like satan’s slippers!”
If she responds, more verbal attacks are heaped on her from all angles. In the process someone may grope her on the backside. When she turns, those behind would keep a straight face, while those in front would laugh. If she reacts angrily, she receives more verbal attacks. Unprintable things are said to her in the Nigerian spirit of yabis. If she is busty, she is called “milk industry” and told to run off with her burden. If she is fair-complexioned, she is called “burnt groundnut oil.” If she is dark, she is told that she is as dark as the devil. If she is not curvy, she is told that she is as straight as figure 1.
Someone may grab her pair of sunglasses. If she confronts the person, the item is thrown to another person. As she runs to that person, it is thrown to another person. All this while, the gang will be laughing at her plight. The lady could either be close to tears or actually shedding tears. Then one of them would pretend to be the Good Samaritan. He would warn others to stop all that. He would then retrieve her sunglasses and hand that over to her, comforting her, while secretly making faces at her to the delight of the gang around.
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The intention is never to steal the lady’s possession but to humiliate her for daring them. To them, it is fun. There is no malice meant. Really? But she who feels it knows it. To them, when they verbally assail a lady or even grope her, she is meant to keep calm and move on. It is their way of catching fun. But what type of fun is this?
It is an ugly trend that has been on for long. Some markets have curbed it but many have not. Sometimes victims even report to their military friends who swoop on the market and exhibit some barbarity and lawlessness. Interestingly, there have been instances when victims reported to the market unions and the officers have fished out the culprits and disciplined them. But the problem is that most victims are usually not aware of the existence of such market leadership, neither are they in the frame of mind to remain in the vicinity of the market after such an experience. They simply want to disappear from the market and never return there. Many have accepted that it is part of what obtains in the market and usually brush such harassment off. Some women have become used to the men and just ignore them or respond to them good-naturedly. When the bullies see that their victim is smiling and responding in good measure, they find it funny and let the person be. To them, such a lady is “a member.”
One cannot discountenance the effect of the sun on the psyche and temperament of these young men. Standing and walking around in the sun and the rain all day can have some negative impact on someone. The desperation to make a sale is also a huge factor. And the fact that most of them do not have a permanent shop in the market makes them feel that nothing can be pinned on them. To them, all the verbal attacks and catcalls are meant to break the monotony of the day and add some excitement to their “hustle.”
Nonetheless, there is no justification for the behaviour of these men. Harassing prospective customers is reprehensible. Nobody wants to be harassed or assaulted in public. None of those men would want their daughter, wife or sister to be their victim. Therefore, what you can’t take, why dish it out to another?
While growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s in the Southeast, it was like an abomination for a woman to visit a market in the Southeast in trousers or miniskirt. The woman would be so harassed that she would regret ever setting foot on the market. Most of such women would have to flee into someone’s shop for refuge and then covered with a wrapper or a new dress before escaping from the market.
The markets turned themselves into the moral police implementing the biblical injunction that women should not wear men’s clothing while men should not wear women’s clothing. That injunction is still upheld in most Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches in many parts of Nigeria today, especially those outside the big cities. In the Southeast, for example, no man is allowed to step into the church wearing a hat today. Even traditional rulers remove their crowns before stepping into a church. Similarly, no woman is allowed to step into the church with her head uncovered or wearing a pair of trousers or miniskirt.
A female Catholic relative told me that the first time she attended a church service in Abuja some years ago, she was surprised to see her aunty dressed up in a trouser suit for service, something she never did at home all through her visits. When they got to church, she saw many other women in trousers and with no scarf or hat. All through the service, she kept wondering if indeed she was in a Catholic church or another place.
Because most Igbo are Catholics and Anglicans, while I was growing up, this practice was taken as the norm in Igbo villages. Until the late 1990s, women who moved about in trousers in most Igbo communities were seen as “spoilt.” Those who walked into markets got booed and heckled by young men or even fellow women.
Even though women no longer get booed for wearing trousers or miniskirts in most markets, many women still get harassed in many markets simply because some uncouth young men don’t like the way they are dressed or because they simply see them as vulnerable. Those young men may besiege men to sell one thing or the other to such men, but they don’t treat the men the same way they treat some young women. Secondly, this attitude to women is motivated by unrealisable sexual desire. Those young men desire the young women but cannot have them. Consequently, they resort to group intimidation. They do not target elderly women because elderly women do not appeal to them sexually. They would call such elderly women “mama” or “madam” and accord them respect.
All leaders of associations in the markets across the country should intervene to stop this ugly trend. The government officials which control markets should also meet with the market associations to find ways of stopping this. A campaign of reorientation is important. This is a social menace that needs to be uprooted.
–Twitter: @BrandAzuka ,
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