By Esther Akello Ogola
The team behind a new event in Nairobi argues all-women’s dance parties can create safe nightlife spaces for women.
On a warm evening in a suburb of the Kenyan capital, a residential outdoor space has been hired out to be used as a dance floor.
Music is playing loudly and women are dancing.
“You have to be so strict in a place with men. You just want to go out with your friends and men interfere,” says Jane, 26, who’s come to the party with her best friend Shani.
“So having a space where it’s all women immediately feels safe and you feel you are with people who understand you.”
Security is tight and while a few men are let in, it is only to drop off the women they are accompanying.
After that, the men all have to leave immediately.
And it’s not just the partygoers who adhere to the single-sex policy: the bar tenders, security officers, DJs, sound mixers, MCs and ushers are also all women.
Unpleasant experiences when out with friends in mixed clubs is part of the reason the two welcomed the idea of an all-women’s rave.
‘A difficult year for Kenyan women’
“When I learnt that it is a safe space for women I immediately signed up,” says Shani.
Shani and Jane enjoy clubbing and heard about the all-women’s dance party on Twitter.
The night, called Strictly Silk, was conceived by Njoki Ngumi, Njeri Gitungo and Akati Khasiani, all members of The Nest Collective, a Kenyan multi-disciplinary arts collective that also works across film, music, fashion and other arts.
They started the all-women’s dance parties in 2018 but the inspiration behind it was more than simply a night of fun.
“2018 was a difficult year for a lot of Kenyan women. There were a lot of stories about violence and people were becoming bolder about misogyny online and offline,” says Ms Ngumi.
“There were a lot of stories around sexual harassment. We just wanted to curate this energy in celebration of women in spaces that are not usually welcome for women and especially things to do with nightlife,” she adds.
Kenya has been in the spotlight recently with some well publicised cases of rape and alarming cases femicide.
In 2018, international charity Plan International ranked Nairobi sixth among 22 global cities where women were most likely to be sexually harassed.
The interviewed experts said Kenyan women stood a 50% chance of being sexually harassed in public spaces.
And in May 2019 the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (Fida Kenya), raised the alarm, saying they had recorded over 50 femicide cases in the first five months of the year.
Not only for lesbians
Munira, 22 and Khadija, 25 are best friends. As practising Muslims, they often find themselves with minimal options when it comes to night life.
They say that, although women from all faiths attend the all-women parties, they particularly suit Muslims.
“Some of us have to remove our hijabs to blend in when we are out dancing. When they see you with a hijab, people are surprised and wonder what you are doing there.
“A space like this is also better because we are forbidden from freely mingling with men,” Khadija says.
“It’s difficult because there are simply no exclusive all-women clubs,” adds Munira.
Although all-women dance parties may seem like a novel concept, the idea of exclusive safe spaces for women is not new.
Ms Ngumi asserts that Indian, arab cultures and even some religions like Islam, have long had exclusive spaces for women, although these spaces were mediated by patriarchal or religious systems.
There is however a belief among some people that an all-women rave is simply code for a gay party, something Ms Ngumi dispels:
“We are deliberately queer-affirming and queer-celebrating but people would imagine that this is an exclusive queer event. There are events that are exclusively queer but this is not that kind of party. We welcome all people, including non-binary people.”
It’s an assurance that those in the LGBT community, who face intimidation and even violence in public in Kenya, have openly embraced.
Gay sex is illegal in Kenya and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
In May 2019, Kenya’s High Court upheld the law criminalising gay sex after campaigners had challenged it.
“Unbeknown to a lot of people, there is a large lesbian community in Nairobi and sometimes we want to be in a space with just women and being in a place where people are of like mind, is safer,” says 22-year-old Ann Marie, who is bisexual.
Binti, 23, who also identifies as queer, adds that having an all-women rave without judgment has been the highlight of her year so far.
Ms Ngumi hopes to make the all-women dance parties not only regular in Kenya but across Africa.
“This is a worldwide issue. There are conversations around the toxicity of club culture and nightlife particularly towards women, gender identity and orientation,” she says.
“As we shift towards mainstream club culture, we must have spaces that celebrate women both exclusively and in the mainstream.”