In Tanzania there is a prevailing assumption that if a single woman or a couple of women enter a hotel alone without being accompanied by a man, they are 'prostitutes.' The profiling of 'prostitutes' is deep-seated in many African societies and needs to be challenged head on.
As we walked out of Beachcomba Hotel the other day, reception warned us, 'be careful of muggers as you walk toward White Sands Hotel at this hour.' We looked at our clocks. It was only 8pm and the distance between the two hotels was hardly a five-minute walk. One must wonder what is happening with Peninsula - the safe side of Dar es Salaam?
We started talking to the night guards as we walked outside the gate, partly because we took the receptionist's warning seriously and, second, there were no lights on the road we intended to walk on. In a jokingly manner, we told the guards: 'Jamani kaeni mkao wa hatari, mkisikia kereuwi mtufuate', (Swahili for: 'Please be on the lookout. If you hear a cry of help, run after us.') This statement broke laughter between the guards and protection was established.
As soon as got to the middle of the street, Dr. Nandera lamented: 'Why can't these big hotels along these streets invest in security lights on the roadside?' 'That will be an extra investment, as the hotels have enough security in their hotels and haves their own light', I responded sarcastically. Suddenly, a bright light beamed from our back and made us turn around to observe for a while a VX parking close to us. 'Do you want a ride?' the driver asked. I was quick to say: 'No thank you. We are almost there.' He insisted, 'it's safe in the car at this hour more than walking outside.' At that point I recognized the man's face and Dr. Nandera said to me, 'it is the man from the conference.' So we popped into the car, and he dropped us within a one-minute walk to White Sands Hotel.
DECODING COVERT LANGUAGE AND PERCEPTIONS
When we arrived at the gate the security guards received us with a deafening silence. This made us wonder why as the restaurant staff at Beachcomba had informed us that the music we were hearing before our departure was at White Sands. So, we said, instead of drinking wine and coffee in a quiet place we should compliment it with music. We then approached them, asking about the music. One of the guards standing close to the entrance explained to us, 'yes there is music playing but it is not an open band, rather there is a special party.' Partly disappointed we told the guard, 'We can still drink wine and coffee.' As we tried to make our way in, the guard inside the security checkpoint room said, 'the hotel is full for tonight, we are no longer accepting guests.' I quickly asked, 'who has managed to make an exclusive booking at this big hotel?' Rudely, the guard said, 'all that you need to know now is that the hotel is full.' At this point, I was confused and had no capacity to decode what he was trying to communicate.
DO PROSTITUTES HAVE A PROFILE?
Sensing my confusion, Dr. Nandera, who was now standing five feet away from me said, 'Jackie, let's go home - can't you read their language, they think we are 'prostitutes'!" Still confused, I responded, 'You must be joking!' The guard, now responding to Dr. Nandera, said, 'why can't you understand that the hotel is full? So, be civilized, go away.' As I tried to make sense of his sentence, Dr. Nandera argued, 'Jackie, I am too tired to fight this kind of nonsense at this hour, let's go back to our hotel and have drinks there.' I really wanted my coffee, and I was starting to get irritated by the guard's responses, with Dr. Nandera's pinching analysis hanging at the back of my mind. I was really hoping her analysis was misplaced.
To find that out, I turned to the guard and asked him what procedures I had to follow to get in. He was silent. To make things easier for him I said, 'you give cards to those coming with cars, what about those on foot like us, do we need to sign somewhere?'
At this point Dr. Nandera insisted that she was not ready for this fight, a fight that was so clear for her, yet so unclear to me. I look at the guard, who was charging and ready to defend his territory. I couldn't care less so I walked through the gate and he watched me as I made my way into the hotel. As I approached the front door, the usher standing in at that hour, a young man, humbly said, 'You are welcome Madam! Can I help you?' I asked about the opening hours of the restaurant and if the hotel was receiving guests at that hour. He said the kitchen was open until 10 pm and rooms were available at the hotel, and started walking me to reception. However, I informed him, I wished to go to the restaurant. Realizing it is a bit far away from his standing post, he gave me directions that would help me find it.
The restaurant hardly had 15 customers. Some were having meals while others were hanging at the bar. I asked for the menu and looked through it while standing. At that point, Dr. Nandera's narration made sense and made me too angry to order food. So, I decided to return to the front desk and ask for an explanation. As I turned around, I met Dr. Nandera who asked if the bar had the coffee and cake that I was craving for. I said, yes, but I have no appetite. She tried to calm me down as she had already talked to the front desk personnel who explained to her that there was an order of blocking 'prostitutes' to enter the hotel and if guards failed to do so the hotel manager cuts their salaries or bonuses. I argued that was not a good enough explanation. Dr. Nandera who seemed calm at this point said, 'Jackie, just let it go, the young man has apologized enough' and pointed to the apprehension at the front desk concerning the possibility of us informing the manager about the incidents. One employee even remarked to a fellow employee: 'I have been telling you to tell the manager this act of stopping some women not to enter the hotel is not good!'
WHAT IS THE PROSTITUTE PROFILE?
I could partly understand the institution's directives and its attempt of making White Sands a free zone from 'prostitution'. However, I become curious about the profiling of women 'prostitutes' and the identification process. I wished to know if the hotel provides a written document and statement of who is a 'prostitute'. From my personal experiences, I know any woman who wears tight and revealing clothes can easily be identified as a 'prostitute', but luckily none of us was in that dress code that night. Some colleagues recently argued that high-class 'prostitutes' dress in expensive formal codes, fortunately we were not wearing such clothes; we were in causal dresses, covering our knees. To me there should have been other explanations more than our dresses and looks, as we had no extensive makeups or jewels. I wanted to know if there was an additional variable to the 'prostitute profile' - so we went back to the gate to find out.
WHO ARE 'THOSE KINDS OF WOMEN'?
As we arrived at the gate we found a new guard and asked him about the other guards we met when we entered the gate. His response carried a voice of curiosity, 'they have just finished their shift, is there any problem?' My response was, 'there is a confusion and I am carrying a special message for him.' He insisted to know what was the problem, so we narrated the story to him and he quickly responded: 'Madam that is not his problem, it is the administration that has a problem with that, they don't want those kinds of women here'. So, I asked him, are we those kinds of women? He responded with a subtle metaphor: 'When someone give you a house and tell you only chicken goes in, who am I to say ducks will also go in?' Then he added an emphasis with a soft tone: 'hivi ni vibarua tu dada angu' (Swahili for: 'This is only casual work, my sister'). I was almost convinced but suddenly I asked, 'how do you identify who is a "prostitute and who is not? Does your employer provide you with a screening tool'? His response was simple and clear; 'any woman who come in alone at this hour can't get in.' I asked why, his response was; 'why will she be here, in this hotel if it is not for 'prostitution'?'
WHO MAKES THE RULES AND STEREOTYPES?
This afternoon, I found it difficult to let it go, so I made a phone call to White Sands, seeking an explanation from the hotel administration. The receptionists informed me that the managers were in an executive meeting, I should try to call later. I decided to leave a message for the manager to call me back after the meeting. Within an hour the assistant manager, who seemed disappointed to hear what transpired, promised to act on it accordingly. That was a good step, but I needed more than an apology. My need was to understand the executive order of blocking 'prostitutes' to enter the hotel. Concluding my comment over the phone, I said, 'I have been to White Sand more than 20 times, but I always enter with a car. This time I was on foot, and I was exposed to a different experience of women suppression - simply because I did not drive.' She promised the manager would be calling me back in a few hours!
As I wait for the manager's call; I could not help asking myself: Does this mean only those with cars have the right to drink coffee or wine in a 4 or 5 star hotel? Of course by the virtue of its high cost, such hotels are exclusive to the middle/upper classes. But what about a working class woman who wants to enjoy, even if it is for a little moment, her hard-earned money? And even if she is indeed a 'prostitute' does the profession preclude her from the right to decide to take a break one day and just go for a drink at White Sands and reflect on the plights of patriarchy that pushed her into that profession in the first place?*
CLASS, POVERTY AND GENDER
As I sit here and write, I wonder about the different forms of gender oppression that most of the privileged among us may never come across because of our class positions. My question, then, is: How do we go beyond our class position to fight the unknown and inexperienced oppression of others? Such expression was well put by Dr. Nandera, when I asked her why she did not want to fight that battle the other day. She said: 'First in this battle you need to claim, 'I am not them'. Second, this is not about them, it's about women!'" With sadness, she said: 'Look at us, lecturers from the University of Dar es Salaam, are simply named 'prostitutes' because we are women who came here by foot. What chances do poor women and sex workers have in fighting this?'
My other friend simply exclaimed: 'The story has to go public to empower others not to just let it go when and if it happens!'
* I subscribe to the use of the terms 'sex worker' and 'sex work' rather than 'prostitute' and 'prostitution', respectively, acknowledging that many see it as job that provides them with income.