Notes on Class and Gender Oppression
Watching the Wolf of Wall Street was a chilling experience; not so much for its raunchy quality (or lack thereof) but because of the exultation of greed as something to aspire for. Jordan Belfort is first portrayed as a young Wall Street stock broker, working at a prestigious stock broker firm (Rothschild) where greed and victimization of clients are the rules of thumb. The glazing of eyes, almost blurry with dollar signs, the promise that anything can be achieved if you are willing to do anything, it is almost a rule book on how to be ruthless and succeed at it. Yet as you watch it, you can’t help but feel buffered within Jordan’s “climb”, “successes” and ultimately, “downfall”. It is easy to cheer Jordan as he gets away with misdeed after misdeed even as he revels in a world rife with misogyny, greed and psychopathic behavior that is presented as the model of financial success, and then pity him as he loses his wealth and family to the consequences of his decisions.
It is no wonder that after the film came out, Christina McDowell, the daughter to the real-life Jordan Belfort, whose story and book the film is based on, wrote an open letter to the director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonard DiCaprio, protesting the cultural message that the film sends out to its viewers. While the methods of artistic critique are beyond the scope of this essay, it is true that the film pretends that Jordan’s victims do not exist, and portrays them as distant others who are necessary collateral in the struggle to make it from the bottom. The “bottom” is not a place that needs to be humanized, but a marsh that needs to be gotten out of so as to be able to stay afloat by stepping on the heads of others who remain in the marsh. In a particularly emotional scene where Jordan almost quits his firm to avoid criminal investigation, he describes how one of his employees could barely feed her family when she started working for him, and how she had risen to become a millionaire under his tutelage.
Implicitly, in Jordan’s world, we learn that it is okay to take from one hungry mouth to feed another; and that injustice is an acceptable means to bettering our circumstances in life.
Let’s draw parallels between Jordan’s world and the positivity mantra that the self-help legion in Kenya seeks to promote. The proliferation of the prosperity gospel in our churches has us believing that we need, not to help the poor, but to shame the poor into doing anything to stop being poor. It’s a classic carrot and stick situation – convince me it’s my fault that I am being plagued by hunger, disease, unemployment or famine – and if by some stroke of luck I manage to get out of that situation, I feel no guilt at breaking the backs of other people to maintain whatever class privilege I will have obtained.
In his book, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Paulo Freire outlines the interchange of power between the oppressed and the oppressor. His contention is that too often, the oppressed’s idea of liberation is assuming the position of the oppressor and reproducing the oppression that he or she has previously been subjected to.
There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that takes place among most people about the acceptability of the means justifying the ends, such that injustice is well and good as long as it leads to the perceived justice of gaining economic wealth. Capitalism is a system that acts like an aberration of aristocracy, in that being rich and powerful is a goal we should aspire to; and those who are so are untouchable. We reward bad behavior and call it badassery, being a ninja; taking the focus away from the victims to the villains in a sort of triumphant celebration over the yoke of victory. We live in a theatre of charades where poverty is something to be looked down upon.
A friend once asked: “If justice, freedom and democracy are obviously no-brainers and should be the default, why aren’t they as common?” Indeed, why do we preach concepts that we find hard to normalize in our systems? Why is it that we are always “accepting and moving on” as if our true lot in life is to be oppressed? The system has us passively endorsing bad behavior and injustice because there is the implied principle that one day, we will be the ones to get to the top of the food chain and it will be our turn to oppress others. This is the respective entrenchment of internal dominance and internal oppression within the capitalist system. And so we are willing accomplices to a system that impliedly promises to one day flip the tables and have us feeding from its bosom. Of course, this is a fallacy because the way in which capitalism and patriarchy are structured is such that there’s only room at the top for a 1% that feeds off the labour and productivity of the 99%.
In his essay, “Estranged Labour” Karl Marx speaks of the effect of capitalism over the working population. According to Marx, labourers within the capitalist mode of production are slowly alienated from their free and productive nature by being turned into machines for the system. For the most part, labourers have no control over their mode of work and are forced to do rhythmic tasks that require almost-total submission to authority and little exertion of their creative and analytical faculties. This lack of investment into the ultimate value of work leads to the labourer’s loss of control over his productivity, as well as over his/her relationships with other people. Labour, which is supposed to be the expression of a person’s life, becomes a drudgery within which one is imprisoned, and is to be escaped from at all costs. It is in this scramble to be be among the minority that controls production, that work loses its value as a life-activity. Life becomes a means to life.
This is how capitalism oppresses; by restricting our ability to be multifaceted human beings. It limits us to specific components of our labour and ensures that we never quite enjoy the value of our work, turning labour into a means to an end and happiness into a goal that few manage to reach. and capitalism are oppressive systems that are interlinked, both in the way they reproduce internal dominance within those they privilege, and internal oppression among those that the systems oppress.
Intersectionality is a concept in critical theory that describes the interplay between oppressive systems such as sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia, among others; and the fact that one oppressive system cannot be analyzed separately from the other. Intersectionality operates from the premise that humans are multifaceted individuals who may suffer varied forms of oppression to varying degrees, depending on our position in society.
“There’s no such thing as a single issue struggle”.
– Audre Lorde
Women in Kenya have suffered, and continue to suffer oppression at the hands of both (but not exclusively) classism and sexism. According to a survey carried out in 2013, Kenya ranks 130 out of 148 countries in the UN gender inequality index with unsettling statistics on the gender gap in the informal wage sector, high maternal mortality rates and low percentages of women property ownership. Politically, only 13% of women hold legislative seats.
A significant contributing factor (but, by no means the only factor) is the existence of a legal and institutional framework that affects women and their bodies but is severely lacking in terms of gender parity. We therefore find ourselves in a situation where laws on property, succession, health access, sexuality, leadership as well as affirmative action are legislated upon by the very beneficiaries of a patriarchal system of government. The disgraceful statements made by Members of Parliament as they debated the Marriage Bill are only symptomatic of the widespread sexism that permeates legal and social institutions in the country.
The 2010 Constitution, lauded in various quarters for being one of the most progressive in the world, does a good job in addressing gender imbalances and instituting affirmative action to correct existing gender inequalities in economic opportunities and leadership positions. However, the problem with laws on paper that are left to be implemented by people in positions of class and gender privilege is that inevitably, they will either be watered down or ignored .
An advisory opinion submitted to the Supreme Court, seeking guidance on the realization of the 1/3 representation, was the first strike against the constitution’s provisions with the judgment stating, among others, that there was no mandatory obligation resting upon the State to take particular measures, at a particular time, for the realization of the gender equity principle. This, in a country that prides itself on having a legal framework that actively promotes gender equality and participation. And so, while the principles governing these laws and institutions might be the picture of justice and equality, people who run these institutions will find ways of subverting these principles. Institutional memory, where people are unwilling to change the status quo on the basis that things have always worked in a certain way, is also another factor that heavily contributes to the stilted legal and social order that these laws aim to create.
However, the question also comes in: does mere increased representation of women in leadership translate to concrete benefits for women in general? Does it mean, for instance, that the lot of women in Kenya has improved since the creation of 47 new seats for women representatives after the 2013 election? The principle of internal dominance and oppression still holds when a small number of women are admitted into male-dominated decision making systems that are already patriarchal in nature. Almost inevitably, these systems demand that development and justice take a backseat to political gain and fiscal mismanagement; concepts which, again, adversely affect those who experience economic and gender oppression.
In addition, issues that affect women directly are considered in isolation from discussions on mainstream social and economic policies. An instance that demonstrates this is when the Nairobi County Governor slapped the Nairobi Women Representative in front of cameras, an act that played out gender-based violence on a larger, more powerful, and more threatening scale for the women of Kenya. Without a solid reflection on what this spectacle of people in positions of class and political power represented for numerous other women for whom this sort of violence is reproduced every day, the issue was treated dismissively, even within legislative and judicial circles, where power to order societal change resides. Amid the aggressive calls for justice by civil society groups, there was resounding silence from arms of government, with only half-hearted attempts to censure the governor. Instead, our leaders, whose attitudes, for better or worse, are reproduced in society, ridiculed the ordeal and the attendant effort to get justice for victims of violence against women.
This incident and its backlash (or lack thereof) demonstrated how important issues affecting society are consigned to the pigeonhole of “women’s issues” and accordingly ignored as the preserve of “those evil feminists”. It is not enough to increase women’s quota representation in leadership; we need to also carry out gender mainstreaming by effectively increasing how issues affecting women and other oppressed groups are represented in such fora.
The direction, in which we also need to move, is in supporting grassroots organizations, which work daily to realize gender and economic justice, with more concrete legislative and policy changes. It is a shame that county representatives and MPs can afford to fly themselves out of the country and spend billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money while an issue as basic as maternal health care is consigned to First-Lady do-gooder initiatives.
Aspiring to be rich in a country that is slosh full of economic inequality is not how you save yourself; neither is being a woman leader who uses her position in power to propagate the existing institutional greed in public office.
It is important that every person who believes in justice be part of a larger movement to change the system and not sit at the sidelines, laughing because a woman being slapped is just another “African” norm that needs to be preserved. All forms of oppression are connected; and the sooner we use our respective positions of class, gender or even heteronormative privilege to dismantle injustice, the sooner we can create a just world for ourselves. This is how we win.
Nkatha Obungu is a closet idealist who speaks legalese by day and masquerades as a writer by night. She is currently worshipping at the feet of Audre Lorde and Paul Verlaine