How terrorism stole the magic of a woman’s handbag


Quotation mark copyA woman’s handbag is a mysterious dungeon. It’s the key to her real self; the prosaic answer to many poetic conceptions. A magician does not want to explain his tricks. There is an aura of taboo about a closed handbag. Every woman has an uneasy look if somebody glances into its sacred privacy,” reads a passage in an article titled ‘The Inside Story of a Handbag’ by Anita Daniel in The New York Times of January 21, 1945.


There was once a time, even in this country, long before terrorists roamed the earth, when a woman’s handbag was cloaked in mystery. Those days are long gone, and baring all to strangers during security checks has become the norm.

The loss of the secrets of the mysterious dungeon has not come without resistance, including by female lawmakers. For example, on 20 March 2003, Mr. Raphael Wanjala asked of female Members of Parliament, “Is it in order for them to bring in their handbags despite the fact that we do not know what they are carrying in those handbags especially considering the fact that they might be carrying offensive weapons? Some of them are Ministers and they might be carrying pistols in those handbags!” In their defense, Beth Mugo, then Assistant Minister for Education, Science and Technology, stated that going into the Chamber without handbags was akin to walking half-dressed. The issue of handbags in the Chamber had come up repeatedly since the late nineties. They would not be allowed into the Chamber without security screening.

Vanity or the fight for a shrinking private space?

As 2011 drew to a close, the former deputy chief justice of Kenya, Ms. Nancy Baraza, found herself in hot water when she refused to submit to a security check by a security guard at the Village Market, a popular shopping mall in Nairobi. This altercation would result to her resignation. A tribunal, set up on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission, found that her conduct had not been befitting of her position in the Judiciary. Today, Ms. Baraza insists that what transpired was a case of miscommunication and misunderstanding. For many, it served as the confirmation that security screening was not no longer an option, regardless of status.

Mercy Kitavi and Tassy Kariuki are two working class Kenyan women. For them, handbags were never just been fashion accessories. They were toolkits that see them through their daily lives. That has since changed.

“I used to carry a small handbag with my personal effects. Once, a guard insisted that I open my little bag, even after I stated that it contained my intimate things. I slowly pulled out the contents, including my sanitary towels and tampons and arranged them on the table,” Kitavi recalls. She says that these days, she just carries a large backpack. Presumably, this allows the security guards to peruse the contents without exposing them to the strangers around her.

For Kariuki, what she perceives as the loss of her privacy is still uncomfortable. “Whenever I open up my bag, I know that the person behind me can see inside. Afterwards, depending on what these contents are, I’ll walk around feeling embarrassed, even though that person is a stranger to me. I’ll just feel like my space has been invaded,” laments Kariuki. “You want to carry the contents of your handbag around discreetly, and there is this person, a stranger at a door, checking you and judging you for what you’re carrying,” adds Kitavi.

This is not an article about handbags

John Njoka speaks to the author at a popular mall in Nairobi

John Njoka speaks to the author at a popular mall in Nairobi

John Njoka is a research fellow at the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Development Studies. According to him, the perception of privacy must change. “In a perfect politico-economic system, public interest overrides the private. Your privacy ends where it touches on the public good,” he says.

Since the incursion of its Defense Forces into Somalia, Kenya has suffered numerous attacks by the Al-Shabaab militia. In September 2013, 67 people were killed at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. In June 2014, almost 50 people died in attacks in Mpeketoni, near the tourist destination of Lamu. In November 2014, a bus full of teachers was attacked as they traveled home for the school holidays. 28 people were killed. In December of the same year, 36 quarry workers were killed in Mandera town, near the border with Somalia. In April 2015, the Garissa University College, in the north-eastern part of Kenya was attacked. 148 students lost their lives.

Njoka explains that the intention of terrorism acts by fundamentalists is to disrupt life and try to advance their cause by hitting targets that appear to sympathize with those they perceive as interfering with that cause. Attacks of this kind will typically target areas populated by foreigners or soft targets such as children and young people.

In order to counter such attacks, Njoka says that intelligence gathering must be strengthened, including the use of more sophisticated surveillance techniques. “No level of freedom can justify the deaths in Westgate and Garissa,” he states firmly.

Living in fear

Kitavi and Kariuki have been lucky not to be direct targets of a terror attack so far, yet they feel the insidious pressure of terrorism every day. Kariuki says that the Westgate attack marked the end of her love affair with shopping malls. Now, she seeks out places that are off the beaten track, which she perceives to be of low interest to terrorists. Some mornings, as she gets ready to start her day, she realizes that she’s mentally preparing herself for anything. “If someone enters the matatu with a big bag and puts it on the floor, I want it to be checked, and if it isn’t, I sit there fighting the urge to alight. Sometimes, I just get out at the next stage,’ she says.

Kitavi’s fear manifests itself whenever she’s at the mall with her children. She excuses herself to secretly scout for an alternative exit. She imagines that should an attack take place, their odds would be better if they separated from the masses. She doesn’t let her children go out alone, for fear that they might not make the right decisions in a crisis. But even when she’s with them, she’s uneasy until they’re back in their comfort zone, which has shrunk to their residence.

Njoka explains that with terrorism, a culture of fear inevitably emerges, in which people feel insecure and avoid specific areas such as crowded malls and areas frequented by foreigners. “People even feel insecure when they are sitting in traffic. This limits mobility and the ability of people to seek entertainment. It slows down life,” he says. He adds that such disruptions could have implications on the economy and socio-political processes. “There is a loss of creativity and human resource, which could result in a lack of diversity, as well as limitations of ideas and innovations. This could lead to a slower pace of change.”

Kenyans willing to give up their privacy for security

For Kitavi and Kariuki, the handbag has become a symbol of the rights to privacy that may have to be lost, for life itself. “I expect to find guards at the entrance of public buildings, and at the door of public service vehicles, waiting to check my bag. If I don’t, it raises doubts whether I should go in at all,” Kariuki says.

Perhaps because of the pressure exerted by terrorism, and the constant state of fear, national security seems to be taking precedence over the right to individual privacy, especially in the online domain. Recently, a study titled the 2016 CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust was released. It was commissioned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and conducted by global research company Ipsos. According to the study, 75% of respondents in Kenya agree that law enforcement agencies should have a right to access the content of their citizens’ online communications for valid national security reasons. Moreover, when someone is suspected of a crime, 91% of the respondents agree that governments should be able to find out who their suspects communicated with online. 66% of Kenyans agree that companies should be allowed to develop technologies that prevent law enforcement from accessing the content of an individual’s online conversations.


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