It started like how every other movement of significance in these times does these days: an online petition. Someone started the conversation. Then a trickle of voices sharing similar experiences joined in. Soon enough it grew into a volcano of venting from all ends of social media. The avalanche of complaints could be summed as this: marketplace harassment is a serious issue; men at the market sexually harass women.
And it had to stop.
Precipitated by the strength of collective force, words were put into action. Ogbete Market March had to happen. Towards the end of last year, images from the audacious Yaba Market March littered the internet. Because it was a market march that sought to protect women, done in one of Lagos’ most notorious markets, by mostly women who defied all the risks involved in coming out to say “enough!”, the Yaba Market March was nothing short of inspiring.
Yaba Market March was considered a success, albeit the staunch antagonism from the market men who were shocked that women could have the guts to tell them not to touch their bodies without permission.
At about exactly the same time, I was spending my first weekend in Enugu. I went with a friend on that sweltering Saturday afternoon to the Ogbete Market to get some stuff. She was putting on shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Right from the entrance of the market, I saw boys tugging at the base of her shorts. Tugging at her arm, and the part of her thighs that was open. They didn’t just touch; they groped, with an effrontery, unashamedly armed with by this society so lacking of basic human respectability. It didn’t get any better as we went deeper into the market so we had to exit prematurely, me walking helplessly behind. Of course I wasn’t going to get myself, a stranger in the land, into any physical confrontation in a market I had never been before.
It was on that day I became a firsthand witness to what was, until a moment ago, a debacle I didn’t feel very connected to.
I posted about my experience at Ogbete Market on social media and realized from the responses I got that it wasn’t an isolated incident. Ogbete Market, like Yaba Market, has attained a level of notoriety on the subject of the sexual harassment targeted specifically at women. It was concluded that, like it happened in Yaba Market, a similar march needed to be organized. Plans started to that effect.
Planning for the march was spearheaded by Twitter platform @MarketMarch and Juliet Kego, who, via her twitter platform, headed its organization, motivated the convention of people who believed in the cause.
After temporary setbacks, especially with the scheduling (the postponement of the Presidential Elections coincided with the initial date set for the march), on the morning of Saturday 23rd March, we congregated at the parking lot of Palms Mall where we started the march from. Armed with nothing but placards and yellow tees, we marched from the mall through Subway Road, down to Ogbete Market, where the walk climaxed into dramatic events.
It had rained very early that morning so the weather was fair, giving us the stamina to go through with the walk from the Mall to the market with relative ease. We sang and chanted, “Ogbete Market! Say no to sexual harassment! Ogbete Market, No Touching! No groping! No harassing!”
Say No to Touching, Groping, Harassing, our placards chanted with us. Emetuna ya Aka, Omara ihe ochoro (don’t touch her, she knows what she wants), some others asserted.
We drew curious stares from pedestrians and motorists and every other passersby riding in all other forms of mobility. It wasn’t unexpected for one of us to be cornered by a curious bystander who asked what we were doing. Whenever I was taken aside and asked in Igbo, I would call my friend Chidera, who would help explain in Igbo. Most of the time, after the explanation was given, their faces would contort into what looked like fascinated astonishment, as if amazed in-part that something like that happened in Ogbete Market, and in-part shocked that anyone cared enough about such trivial things to protest about it.
As we approached the market, taking a cue from what happened at Yaba, we braced ourselves for the inevitable confrontation that we would be welcomed with. Sure enough, no sooner than we approached the entrance did we start getting jeered by the usual suspects, the market louts who are most culpable in the reason for our protest, who upon reading our placards and hearing the contents of our chants convicted themselves of being the targeted sect and became characteristically vociferous, some of them going ahead to reach out to touch some of the ladies with us as a defiant proof of their recalcitrance.
Yes, there was a confrontation, but the louder they jeered the louder we spoke, firm in resolve and strong in spirit, so that our voices soared above theirs and everyone was forced to pay attention to us. “No, you don’t have to drag anyone by their bodies for patronage,” we said.
Their defence? “Some of the girls dress indecently, exposing their bodies.” This—as expected in the society we find ourselves in—was the overwhelming justification throughout the market, by men, and sadly, women. While they said this, topless and loosely dressed men sauntered in and out of the market.
None of them were harassed.
We met with some of the leaders of the market, two bulky men, who we told about our angst and our mission. The men were surprisingly understanding, and not only did they join us, they led the march, donning our yellow shirts and taking over the public address system. We made the rest of the march with a more assured conviction, hoping that the more familiar voices of the market leaders would command more authority, more attention. It did.
Together, we went into the market, navigating all sections, penetrating the labyrinthal depths of the Ogbete Market that looks dceptively modest from the outside. Every lane we passed, we were confronted by quizzical faces wondering what the hell was going on; by men who were insisting that they were within their rights to grope women they deemed to be dressed indecently. Men who insisted that women who dressed sparsely tempted them to touch, as if that didn’t say more about their own self-control than it did about the choice of the woman’s dressing; by women, the enablers, who have internalized patriarchy so much that they now see themselves through the lenses of misogyny, who, instead of holding the randy men to their actions, also reiterated the justification that it is women who tempt men to grope them.
We went through the second-hand clothes compartment, rightly touted as one of the most notorious parts of the market, and true to their reputation, that was where we met the stiffest resistance to reason. It was there the ladies among us, who were protesting the degrading treatment meted out to them, were openly called lesbians. The irony of all was that it was this part of the market they sold the same clothes the ladies are groped for wearing.
It wasn’t all jeers and expletives, though. We got some encouragement from some market women who gave us thumbs-ups and agreed with us that it was about time that someone said something about all the things that happened in the market.
In all, we finished the march with more confidence than we started with, knowing that we had made a point. Had passed the message; that groping a woman, or anyone at all, for any reason whatsoever, is unacceptable. The confrontations were expected and well dealt with, while at the same time making sure to pass our message as clearly as we could.
I commend Juliet Kego from the depths of my heart, and every other member of the organizing team who took up the challenging task of convening the march, and also everyone who made it out of their places of comfort to walk the talk. Especially my colleagues at the Nigerian Law School, Agbani Campus—Phebean Adedamola, Ekeinemoh Ilamosi, Lawal Opeyemi—who were some of the most vocal and passionate members of the march.
From everything that has played out since the initial outcry on social media to my personal experience with market harassment and every other issue regarding consent in relation to women’s bodies, it is now obvious that this ill only festers because we are in a society that fails to dish out consequences to offenders, thereby enabling them. So that sexual harassment is the norm. It’s simple: if you’re certain to get away with certain behaviours, then why not? There’s practically no law that protects women from sexual harassment at work, at home or in the market. If there’s anyone written anywhere, it’s purely ceremonial. The fact that it was down to private individuals to protest the marketplace harassment shows our institutions could not be bothered about women in particular regard to their bothers.
The Nigerian man understands consent perfectly. Let a stranger suddenly grope a Nigerian man’s butt in a public (or private) place. Take a moment to think of how he would react. They know how repulsive it feels to be at the receiving end of it, and yet they mete it out to women because they can get away with it. Will get away with it.
Someone noted that the same men who were so quick to reach out and grab a woman’s body in the guise of being tempted by her “indecent dressing” wouldn’t dare such when he’s in another country, no matter how scantily a woman is dressed, because in such countries there are laws that protect women from these kinds of people. For any progress to be made on this issue, our legislation needs to protect women more, especially on the subject of sexual harassment.
Women need to stick together more in dealing with cases that directly affects the dignity of womenfolk. Imagine that women are treated this way in a place where they constitute the highest spending power. Unfortunately we are in a country where there are more women enablers of crimes against the women’s bodies than women who are actually consciously fighting against it. There are arguably more women selling in the market than men; more women buying from the market than men. How then is it that women are still being treated this way in a place where they have so much power in numbers? So many women have internalized abuse to their bodies so much that they either tacitly enable it by justifying it or, worse, simply deciding to endure it.
To end with, we need more of such movements, such market marches, hopefully with more support from the government. Imagine that the first lady of the state leads a market march, with the resources at her disposal. The security of the participants will not only be more assured, the turnout will exponentially increase and the resulting consequences to harassment offenders will be more telling.
About the writer
Victor Daniel is a Nigerian writer and student of Law. His short stories have been published in African literary journals such as The Kalahari Review, African Writer, Brittle Paper, The Naked Convos, and so on. His nonfiction piece “God’s Mailbox Is A Traffic Jam” has also been published in the print version of Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction.