The chemise jaunes donned yellow T-shirts that Saturday morning, assembling outside a popular eatery in Ojuelegba. Activists had been enjoined to arrive early, preying being much easier to perpetrate on stragglers.
From Ojuelegba they moved as one body, marching on Yaba Market, adjudged by many to be the preeminent location of sexual and capitalistic harassment perpetrated by roving market boys.
At their best, these boys are the unofficial map of the markets in which they exist. They know what is where and will take you there, out of what you might consider an altruism they’ll be rewarded for by actual sellers. Once I realized that the sellers transferred the cost of this reward to me, I took extra care to ward off their attentions.
At their worst, these boys display a crass disregard of the personal dignity of women, and men, to a lesser degree. Uninvited, they attach themselves to you. You shoo them away but they’ve learnt to persist. If you are a woman, they grab your arms, grope you, hold your waist, tap your butt, grab your breasts—try their utmost to cop a feel. Going to the market, for many young women, becomes a mental ordeal, an exercise in sharpening the psychic and blunting the physical.
Resistance is futile because, are you gold? Are you not grateful you are considered worthy of their leprous attention? You worthless prostitute. Wear a frown and you’ve painted on your back a bulging red target. “Smart” women arm themselves with bonhomie, proactively indulging the boys’ sense of entitlement and superiority.
Girls too have joined their ranks, inflicting on men the attention they must imagine these men lack. They are surprised when you glare at them, these girls, your face like steel. What manner of man does not appreciate a woman’s tactile attentions? A paper horse?
Although some try to pass them off as uncultured, uneducated, ignorant swine, the antics of these boys are the public, brazen face of the indignities many women encounter in other more intimate spaces in society. Predominantly of South Eastern origin, these boys prosecute their dastardly activities in the full glare of the public, shirking any pretence to decency. They are Professor Richard Akindele in all his crude glory.
Though they lacked the dogged robustness of their yellow-vested friends in France, these were brave people too, confronting the cub in its lair. Here, finally, the grand, orchestral chorus. No longer were the protests atomized, a violin here, a clarinet there, impassioned, terrified, angry, blips lost in the hapless march of the market. Market March—the chemise jaunes—had collected women (and a few men) who had become fed up enough with the normalized culture of harassment in certain Lagos markets to do something about it. No longer could the market be hapless.
From reports, the backlash was immediate, concurrent even. To Market March’s determined objection to their unwelcome touchiness, the new victims responded with a strident, more vehement “we must touch.” Normally the culprits, the market boys had, with straight faces, assumed the toga of the victim, embarking spontaneously on a protest of their own, touching women, hurling stones, sachet water, abuse, asserting, in a macabre dance of entitlement, some assumed right to continue to harass women in the markets. I’ve spent the last year or two cataloguing counterintuitive reversals such as this for further study, which made this counter-protest at once nauseating and interesting for me.
Because I’ve mostly sworn off Twitter, I used the more intimate environment of my WhatsApp to respond to the events. I blatantly misread the significance of a placard that read “Not your size. Not your colour. Not your spec.” because I had no knowledge of its provenance yet.
Read out of context, it appeared to me like class warfare, where the boys were posited as some sort of underclass unworthy of female attention, and their activities a “violent” backlash of sorts, “pinching” a victory by any means necessary. I quickly realized my error when a close female friend supplied context: this was a direct response to the boys’ usual taunts.
In August 2017, Heather Heyer, a 32-year old legal assistant from Virginia, died after a man drove a car into a crowd of protesters. Heyer had been one of many anti-racist and civil rights activists who had converged on Charlottesville to protest a planned rally of neo-Nazi and right-wing extremists.
That counter-protest was quite clearly symbolic in its ambitions. Racists and anti-racists are two entrenched groups thoroughly convinced of the justness of their cause. My critique of the location of Market March Yaba rested on this authority of entrenchment: they’d always been protested against, these boys, and behaviour modification hadn’t yet crossed their minds. Reminding them of their bad behaviour, however vociferously, is well… reminding them. And look how well they assimilated that civics lesson. Market March Yaba was a symbolic protest and not much else.
Though symbolic protests have their uses (for example, conscripting public opinion, which isn’t bad), this anger, I thought, might be more productive if directed at an entity who had the instruments to compel change. As events in France prove, governments act when sufficiently confronted. Businesses too are notoriously nimble when their bottom line is threatened. I am not advocating upturning cars and burning them, but targeting government and livelihoods force the hand of state power.
The boys’ antics demonstrate how intimately bound patriarchy is with unbridled capitalism. What began as a desperate hunt for commissions has now assumed a more sinister dimension. In this modern dimension, a day’s profit is counted in commissions and violated bodies.
Government, naturally, is willfully oblivious so long as its appetite for tax revenue is sated. So long as business rolls in, businesses do not really care much what their unofficial canvassers get up to. The world, of course, is the market boy’s oyster, plundering what profit he deems fit however he sees fit.
No respite is to be found in the wider society too: in a cultural milieu where extreme lack has deified money, where “Able God”—with its criminal God—is so brazenly promoted, what’s a little harassment in the grand scheme of profit?