Depending on the moment, standards of beauty can be shifty, almost unstable. In the flurry of conversations around desirability, no one stops to ask conventionally beautiful women what it feels like to wear this title. In Nigeria, for instance, insecurity consumes the beautiful, bale and bitter alike.
Here, beauty often comes with an added risk for single women. Usually, no one would place insecurity and beauty in the same sentence, but some women note feeling like easy targets because they are attractive and single. Since beauty is a subjective topic, it is difficult to measure how it exerts violence against women and girls, yet not a few women swear that it plays some part.
“I am always afraid of being hurt. Being beautiful can be harmful.” 26-year-old Antoinette Ibhade has always been what people term attractive. Ibhade was raped in 2017 by a former friend at a party.
Three of the women in the focus group, who are in their late 20s and live alone in the city of Abuja, take extra precautions to ensure their safety. In the age of cab-hailing apps, they do not let drivers drop them at their exact address.
They do so, according to them, because “it is for safety reasons.” Of all the participants who suffered varying levels of abuse, Ibhade appeared the most withdrawn. When probed, she said, “I feel safer now that I don’t go out as much anymore. At least the chances of being assaulted in my home are slim.”
Data backs up the fears of these women as Nigeria ranks 146 out of 167 countries in the National Geographic index of the ‘Worst Countries to be a Woman’. National Geographic teamed up with the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute in Oslo to illustrate their 2019-2020 Women, Peace, and Security Index.
The index serves as a kind of report card on women’s well-being, ranking 167 countries from best to worst in three key areas: 1). Women’s Inclusion in Society, 2). Sense of Security, and 3). Access to Justice.
The country scored averagely in intimate partner violence and had a poor rate of community safety. This index also measured how safe women felt walking alone at night. Nigeria also has a high rate of organised crime against women.
Ibhade reveals that she was the life of the party and loved to have fun. Working full time as a media relations officer, she references her carefree life before enforcing her new triangular routine (work, church, and home).
“I have witnessed some form of assault in bits and pieces, but none was big enough to scare me until the rape. I mean, women are seen as physically weaker so we are easy to beat, scare or even steal from. People will sympathise with you and tell you to be careful next time. With rape, it is different.
The hounds will come for you. It is like somehow, the world is aware that women are unsafe but the bulk of security efforts is placed on us and not much is done to predators.”
Before the focus group, Ibhade had never shared her story with anyone except a friend who told her to get over it.
As she finished her story, the other women became silent, reflecting on their experiences with assault. One of them commiserated with Ibhade and said, “My own [assaulter] did not get to that.” A woman’s insecurity has many levels. Death, which is the ultimate insecurity fear of all genders, draws the most public sympathy.
In sexual assault crimes, perpetrators are usually defended and justice for the survivor is rarely achieved. A woman is admonished that she is responsible for her security and is to blame when a crime occurs.
Chiamaka Uzondu, like most Nigerian women, was brought up on this principle. The 27-year-old doctor—also based in Abuja—asked the other women, “Why do you think our parents required us to be home earlier than our brothers?”
Everyone intuitively understands that women face more danger. Rather than fixing this disparity through policy, women are advised to dress well, come home early and move in groups.
Uzondu is a fitness enthusiast and loves to run. She noted that although she lives in the Central Area in an estate, she does not run too early in the day. “I have to wait till the sun has almost risen so at least there is a form of light. Also, running during the ‘day’ is a better defense when attacks happen than running at night. ‘Why did you not wait?’ or, ‘Can’t you stay at home?’ These are questions that no victim wants to be asked but you will be asked anyway, not out of concern but as a way of apportioning shared blame,” Uzondu said.
Featured image by Eben Odonkor from Pexels