"Your body does not belong to you; you only wish it did"
I wrote these words after a long time of deep introspection into my life as a woman and as a Nigerian. My femininity and the society in which I was raised have constantly been a source of distress to my existence as a fully formed individual.
Growing up, I never understood why people thought it was okay to simply reach out and touch my body.
As a teenager, aunties would come over and squeeze on my budding breasts and make jokes about my blossoming womanhood. Sharp pain coursing through me, I'd twist away from the teasing fingers, because I was still yet to understand what was happening to my body.
If I was given any chore which required me to walk the streets, my chest would constrict in fear: being outside meant running into men. Running into men meant someone was going to reach out to touch and press my body. Random men on the streets always believed it was okay to touch my hips or my ass.
I was a woman, I was simply existing, so men were simply entitled to my body.
"I bet you thought your body belonged to you"
Having been sexually assaulted on multiple occasions in Nigeria, I knew I had to leave at all costs. For my sanity, for my agency, for my existence, I left my home country, because as a woman, my story isn't one of strength or victory, it is one of fear and a constant quest for survival.
I wanted my body to belong to me.
On Wednesday, September 12, 2018, a Nigerian man, who I'd never met before, reminded me that my body did not belong to me...even if I was in Canada.
It was at the press and industry lounge at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival and I was going about my business. Someone called my name and I looked up to find a black woman smiling at me. She introduced herself as a Nigerian filmmaker who had emailed me in the past about wanting me to write a script for her. I had just smiled in recollection when her eyes moved to someone beyond my view. I turned around as she hailed the person. "Mr. Parish" she called out, "how are you?" Pausing to listen to his response on his welfare, she introduced me, "This is Atoke; she writes for BellaNaija."
My cheek muscles froze in a half formed smile as Mr. Parish's palm connected with my left cheek. He tapped softly, four times, looking lecherously as I stared in discomfort.
And while I stood in shock and silence, the lady voiced her distaste for his actions. "Why are you touching her?" She asked incredulously. "Do you know her?" He had a weird smile on his face, so she probably didn't want to assume that this man had just tapped a stranger's face as one would do their pet, friend or lover.
"No, I just like touching people". Mr. Parish's response took me back to a terrible and dark place -a place I believed I had left behind.
"I bet you thought your body belonged to you"
In the hours since this happened, I have mulled over the reason why this man felt my body was his to touch. If Mr. Parish indeed likes touching people, does he also go about touching men and children? How far does this affinity for touching go?
How safe are women in a world where men think it is okay to violate women? We are not safe. Stories abound of women being assaulted and victimized because there is the pre-supposition that a woman is simply a woman… to be taken.
Men believe it is okay to reach out to hold a woman's waist, her shoulder, her ass, her cheeks... Is a woman's body is such a glorious thing that must be grabbed without consent?
Upon recounting the experience, I have been asked by a number of people:
Did you do anything?
Did you say anything?
No, I did not.
I could not.
I was in shock; and looking back now I don't know I'd have been able to say anything. It was a very jarring experience. It took me back to when I was a child and my swimming instructor squeezed my breasts all the time under the auspices of teaching me to float. Shocked into silence because I didn't know if this was a thing that was supposed to be happening.
And just like back then, I was a child once again, being touched without my consent, in a very public place. Not sure of whether to lash out or to push back or to scream, I walked away, taking my body away from close proximity to Mr. Parish.
I bet you thought your body belonged to you; it should, because it does.
Please stop touching people without their consent, and if you do absolutely love to touch people, touch yourself.
Atoke is the author of +234 – An Awkward Guide to Being Nigerian. . She now lives in Toronto, Canada with her MacBook Pro & her New Balance running shoes. Of course she exists to watch TV but she doesn't think that's appropriate information for a professional bio.
For more information visit www.atoke.com