Feminist discussions with many friends often lead to “so why do you think you’re better than me?” And, no matter how many times I’m asked this I’m always surprised. There’s this idea that, because I’m speaking and thinking around patriarchy and about ways to dismantle a damaging societal structure, I consider myself better. As if by talking about doing the work, I must have already completed it and hence am speaking from a higher authority/moral ground.
This could not be more wrong.
But things like this have me thinking about the nature of “the work.” This ominous sounding phrase that has been used to describe the labour of taking your actions (past, present and future) and holding them up to the feminist frames that exist/are still being created. On Tumblr, a user called thai monk writes:
A small part of your heart breaks every time you catch yourself saying something misogynistic. Yet another bit crumbles when you are around your predominantly misogynistic friends and you sadly realise that you are part of them. By association, a misogynist. My refusal to speak up in rather uncomfortable situations. Yet at the end of this madness I still want to identify as someone who is trying hard as fuck to unlearn all this shit.
Unlearning is not easy.
And it is not something that takes five minutes. It’s not like picking up The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance and glancing at it once a week will mean that you have fully understood everything and are now ready to destroy the patriarchy. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read it. In fact, it means you should, and then something else as well. Ideas of perfect understanding are like the carrot we tie to our own forehead. They will always lie in the future, and we must always work towards them.
Therefore, from a perspective of happiness/purpose, we should not seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather seek to chip away at the ways which we’re wrong today so that we’re a little less wrong tomorrow.
Mark Mason, Why I’m wrong about everything (and so are you)
This is why phrases like check your privilege are so important to me. What does it mean to begin to see the ways in which you are wrong? And how else can we know that we are wrong if we don’t identify our blindspots?
“An SEP [Somebody Else’s Problem field] is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye… it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”
Douglas Adams (from Emotional Labour, the Metafilter condensed thread)
And that’s the tricky thing about blindspots, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to decide/not decide what your blindspots are. The only way they are seen is by other people, through interactions and observations and, often, through holding yourself up to the very light that falls squarely on your flaws.
I write this because one thing feminism has really managed to do for me is shake at the foundations of how many forms of masculinity exist. It gives a chance to try to redefine how we live and see the impact of many of the things we now choose to do. I can go “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t say this thing that I wanted to say, perhaps the repercussions of this are larger than I think.”
And, on that level, no one has it all fully figured out.
Again, it’s not called the work because it’s easy.
But it is necessary. Especially now, when the critique leaves us in a space of complete remodeling. It necessary to begin to imagine what a masculinity can look like outside these frames. And, in having these frames we also allow ourselves to put a lot of things into context. It’s not really about being told what to do and what not to do. Rather, it more about thinking about the consequences of the things that you do and don’t do in many ways. And, in thinking about these things we realise that no one can really be perfect.
Instead it begins to reveal itself as a journey that some people have been on for longer than others. When we read into the history and put those stories into context we see what was being done and how that fits with what is happening now. Just like holding #KasaraniConcentrationCamp to the complicated history that creates a space that allows for such injustice to happen, holding our socialisation and ideas to the context of history allows us to really see ourselves/what we are allowed to be. At the end of the day, there are only questions of how we got here and trying to figure out how we can get out.
And because it is a journey that we are stuck on together, then it is us who must figure out the answers to these questions. Having these discussions is how we keep each other going and help each other make sense of what the next steps could possibly be. We’re just trying to make each other better, and pretending there’s no problem doesn’t help. We’re on a roadtrip. We have four flats. I’m not saying I’m better than you. I’m saying maybe we should try and figure out how we’re going to get new tires.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s first e-book, #WhenWomenSpeak – (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Sometimes we can speak, and when and where we can we must.
I went on a rant sometime back, and you can check out my words and other women’s on it here. I did not expect that it would turn into anything interesting. It was simply something that I needed to do. I needed to be able to write my anger and put to words my irritation with a normalized phenomenon that masquerades as well meaning or ‘honest’ advice and opinion that affects women’s lives. I believe that language is a powerful tool of violence, we accept that it is as far as racism, ableism and classicism/elitism is concerned, but in many ways we have refused to accept that many women are frustrated, discouraged, and broken by conversations at a cocktail from the pulpits of a church sermon or by words spoken and written by mainstream Kenyan press.
When we speak we must recognize that the discomfort/anger felt is usually felt by those that wish we were silent. Those that wish to kill us and say that we enjoyed it. And that they may project this anger in silencing tactics, labeling you as the problem.
So I went on a rant, on a free platform that allows me to vent and control my narrative. Were some displeased? Yes. As always, whenever women speak their truth, there will always be a loud man with an opinion on ‘how better’ it could have been presented for him and those that do not share the ‘misfortune’ of living in a woman’s skin on a daily basis.
The beauty of the internet and the tools it currently avails is that I do not have to seek anyone’s permission before I speak, and I do not have to acquiesce to traditional media gatekeepers who operate in a partriachal state. I can simply type and let it be, publish and be damned. Many often repeated and plain boring silencing techniques were employed to silence mine and other women’s voice on this. I rarely engage with self-identifying mediocirty and lack of thinking, but this once I will provide a list and a response to these concerns:
What about the men?
Well, considering that my conversations were about women’s lived experiences, I did not see the point of tackling a ‘what about the men’ segment on my free Twitter platform that you also have and that you can also use to address your ‘what about the men’ challenges.
Move on, women have better jobs, cars, more degrees and the boy child is in fact the one being neglected.
The boy child is being neglected. Yes! He is, if anything he is being neglected by the same thing I keep complaining about, partriachal structures. Structures that frustrate single mothers, structures that state and encourage that being a man involves damaging elements of hypermasculinity, sexism and misogyny.
A culture that teaches him that to be a man, he should be able to get away with rape because she must have done something. A culture that instills in him that he is less than a woman who earns more; who is educated. A culture that makes jokes about men being raped; about their being assaulted by women. Of course I think the boy child is neglected. I’m glad we’re on the same page. I look forward to seeing more of your work and online monologues on how this can be addressed. If you wish, I can send you several feminists’ work on this topic. If feminism makes you uncomfortable (because you can’t stand women who never get laid, are ugly and that are aggressive and no one wants or because feminism is just irrelevant/not well defined), and you’re a humanist or gender equalist or a ‘meninist’ or something, I have stuff for you too that you can read/watch.
Women have it better.
Which women? If we’re to dissect this economically and look at peri-urban and rural realities, who are the majority of people having it rough? If we’re to look at urban realities, how many women sit on boards of major Kenyan companies? How many women are frustrated by the challenges of dealing with men who feel entitled to their bodies while at work and keep making their lives difficult with unnecessary comments, non-consensual contact and gaslighting? How many women do you think give up on certain jobs because they are simply tired of having to deal with sexist men at work?
You are blaming men/I am tired of men being blamed.
You are tired of men being blamed for what exactly? Where do we see men being blamed? Last I checked it was her fault for being drunk, for smiling at him/them, for wearing xyz and for walking alone, or walking at night, or working in the office late and many other reasons that do not hold the perpetrator to account. It was her fault, she must have done something to make him mad, most men are usually easygoing, if she hadn’t done xyz he would not have hit her. Oh, and my personal favourite: men are visual creatures, women need to think about how affected they are by the wardrobe decisions we make. It was done to defend our people; all those rapes and assaults on women and children were necessary to preserve us. She was a whore. She was a dicktease. She was always going on and on about how no one could have her. She had so much maringo. Whatever a man does, his actions are always justified in this society. Who is blaming men?
Last but not least, loud man with an opinion, let’s get one thing clear:
Women do not exist for you.
What she wears is her choice for her pleasure. Even if her pleasure includes having you as her societal audience ooh and aah over her; even if her pleasure includes having her partner ooh and aah over her. At the end of the day, what she wears, head to toe, is hers to enjoy in whatever way she deems necessary. She does not have to give a damn about your ‘being a visual creature’ or your desires on what is aesthetically pleasing, and she still deserves every ounce of your respect for being human.
Women do not exist for you. Your analysis about her body, her vagina, her breasts, don’t mean shit. And you are indeed a horrible human being for talking about someone by saying they have a basin pussy. What the hell is wrong with you?
Women do not exist for you. No, feminism has not ruined chivalry or any other tired benevolent sexist meme. Who told you that you deserve a cookie for being nice? Be nice because you want to be nice, not because you expect women to constantly acknowledge that one time you were a nice person. If you want to open doors for women, have a blast. Open some for men too while you’re at it, since you are all nice and gender equalist and humanist. If a woman doesn’t want you to open doors for her, don’t. Go open the door for the other one that likes it and move on.
When you see a woman video gaming, loving sports and basically being human and enjoying human things, resist the idiotic urge to automatically start quizzing her on the 101s of said thing just so that she can prove to you why she is a worthy fan or enthusiast. Seriously, what is wrong with you? I haven’t seen women quizzing you on the Darling weave range and colours just because you aired your opinion on weaves (something you probably know little of). Do you know why? It’s called respect for other people’s space and value. You could really use some.
Resist the urge to harrass someone for their choices and deal with your own life, I mean if you’re Kenyan, it’s a tough life why go adding on to someone elses plate when you can expend your energy on trying to survive this rough Kenyan environment? And you may get better skin for this, who knows? The possibilities might be endless.
Muthoni Maingi is a Nairobi-based brand management and strategy expert. Follow her on Twitter @NonieMG
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s first e-book, #WhenWomenSpeak – (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Aisha Ali
A man asks a woman out on a dinner date. She says yes. They meet up and have a pleasant enough evening. The man is a foreigner, in Nairobi for work and they meet at their office building. The evening ends, and the man asks to drop the girl, but she came in her own car. She walks with him to the parking lot and they say goodbye, reaching out to hug each other. She thanks him for a nice evening. As she’s moving away from the hug, he tightens his hold and starts kissing her, holding her face forcefully in place. His other hand gropes her body. She fights him off, stunned, and manages to get away. She asks him what he was doing and he starts apologizing. She doesn’t wait to listen, gets into her car and goes home. He later sends her several messages apologizing. She refuses to listen and stops talking to him. The next day he sees her and asks what her problem is. Hasn’t he apologized? Weeks later, this man is still sending messages and forcing interactions with the woman despite her repeatedly telling him to leave her alone. Since they work in the same building, she doesn’t know how to avoid him.
One evening after work, a woman met a friend for drinks. After a short while they decided to go to his house since he had a fully stocked bar. They hung out for a bit but she got tired and decided to take a nap before she went home. She woke up to find the man on top of her, opening the zipper of her jeans. She pushed him off and asked him what he was doing. He told her he thought she wanted it. When she asked how, during her state of sleep, and perhaps snoring he assumed she wanted it, he got angry and defensive. She left and later told another male friend what had happened. Her friend was angry, and asked her why she went to the man’s house. The girl asked him if she was not supposed to go to his house, a friend she has known for years, a friend they both knew. Should she expect to be raped every time she went to his house? He had no answer.
A couple of weeks ago, a recording of a man raping a woman made its way into the Kenyan internet space. In the recording, a man named Morris continued having sex with a woman despite her several appeals to him to stop, even using the term “I surrender”. The woman’s voice sounded broken. In the beginning of the recording, Morris told the woman that since she had wanted sex and called him over, she should now shut up and take it. Many people used this to argue that this was consensual sex. That the woman’s near-tears pleas didn’t matter. That consent once given cannot be withdrawn.
Around April, a woman accused an MP of raping her. They met for a business meeting in a restaurant on a Saturday evening and the MP later said they should go to his offices as he needed some documents from there. When they got to the office, he called a doctor to give her a HIV test, and when she refused and managed to hide in the bathroom, he broke down the door, beat her up, forced her to do it and then raped her. When this story broke, a local comedian posted this as his Facebook status update: “What was a married woman doing in someone’s office at that hour of the night?” This set the stage for an onslaught directed at her on social media where everything about her was questioned, from her morality to whether the rape actually happened to begin with. When the woman saw this she released a statement and said,
“The presence of a woman is not consent.”
Every day, there are new stories of women who have been sexually violated by a man in one way or another. From men who expose their private parts at bus stops, to groping in night clubs; from being stripped in the streets to colleagues brushing their hands on women in offices; a majority of women in Kenya continue to experience sexual violations. Women continue to live with the fear that their safety and comfort is as good as what the next man will allow. Our presence in public spaces is often interpreted to mean that we are available to provide whatever men feel they want from us. Whether it’s sexually inappropriate language or actual physical language, our permission or consent is not considered necessary.
I have been thinking about what the idea that presence alone dictates how women are treated means. Where women are considered public property. Women are often treated like objects, where things are done to them regardless of what they feel or say about it. Our existence is considered to be for the purpose of men to fulfill their sexual perversions on. Men are raised with the idea that all women should be available to them whenever they choose, it’s just up to them to decide which one they want. And too often, when women reject any of these infringements, the reaction is violence.
We need to analyze the way society views women, and how men are taught view women. The other day I saw video on Facebook where a little boy kept trying to kiss a little girl even though the girl kept pushing him away. The video was labeled as romantic. With this kind of socialization, boys are raised to become men who are incapable of accepting that women have a right and agency over their bodies, time and space at all times, and only they can choose whom/when they will allow someone in.
The issue of consent has been discussed all over the world, and in countries like the USA, legislation around it is being passed. It is also becoming mandatory to teach consent in schools and colleges where cases of sexual assault are at high numbers. We need the same kind of intense education in Kenya.
It should be understood by all that a woman’s consent is non-negotiable.
Aisha Ali is a writer and feminist activist. Follow her on Twitter @bintiM
I must have been seven when I first handled a condom. I’d found the packet in a drawer at home. I didn’t know what it was, but it felt dangerous and important and likely to impress my friends. Instead, it inspired a wild chorus of laughter and scurrying away when I held it out in the palm of my hand.
Group discussions about sex on Twitter feel the same. The localized #VerbalIntercourse and the universally decadent #TwitterAfterDark conversations are populated with responses by GIFs, LQTMs, and cryptic statements with trails of ellipses. Conversations about, say, body count or eating groceries start off well (read: naughty) or with good intentions, before spiraling into saucy punchlines, with the launching of both targeted and obfuscated salvos. Where one can easily be told that their “sexual experience couldn’t fit into a perfume tester bottle.”
We’re back in primary school giggling at the girl with the silver square in her hand.
One could reasonably argue that perhaps I’m not on Twitter often enough or I don’t follow the right people to see nuanced and deeply enriching collective conversations about this topic. Perhaps. I will say, though, that I repeatedly find gems in soliloquies on timelines by friends and strangers alike that speak truths in ten or less tweets. Yet what tends to happen is that they’re soon massively retweeted and their meaning then challenged and/or distorted. Many times, it is also often too late or too awkward to start a conversation with the author.
Let’s not forget that I’m writing about the heterosexual experience and even though that’s the “accepted” narrative in Kenya, conversations still tend to be railroaded or not fully teased out.
Maybe the issue, then, is the medium (and before that, the lack of intellectual development in my peers and me). It is quite difficult to have these necessary reflections within the confines of a 140-character belt and the greater frenzied Twittersphere. Where does that leave us then? Blogs? Those are largely one-sided. Ditto for books. Back-and-forths are restricted to a blog’s comment section where the possibility of having a conversation depends on either party having time to respond. One could write response pieces, but who has that kind of time? The other party also has to care enough to want to respond to your response.
The solution then becomes a curated live or recorded interaction.
Thankfully, those have occurred. The Atieno Project held an unconference that focused on Film, Sexuality and Gender in Kenya. Among the speakers were Miss Mandii and Queen Gathoni, torch bearers of #VerbalIntercourse and Dr. Wambui Waithaka who advocates for #CondomFriday. It was a physical gathering of Internet personalities and thinkers in general who were interested in sharing their viewpoints on all matters gender.
But podcasts can serve the same purpose. They put knowledgeable or sometimes just really brave people in the same room to candidly speak on these varied topics without restrictions. I’ve been greatly pleased to find long-running sex positive podcasts, especially the cheekily-titled Guys We Fucked.
Despite these readily available avenues, why don’t Kenyans properly speak about sex and reproductive health more?
It would be remiss of me to not mention sex therapist Getrude Mungai who set tongues wagging with her interactive late night TV show, Connect that was dedicated to discussing the finer points of Mombasa raha. Nor Classic FM whose breakfast show presenters continue to find new angles to discuss sex and relationships each morning.
However, unlike Getrude who seemed to value married couples above all others, Maina and King’ang’i have attracted a huge listenership over the years by making themselves both a conduit for salacious nonsense and purveyors of the same. This is made worse by King’ang’i, who regularly plays the devil’s advocate even on difficult matters such as rape and domestic violence. That he normalizes misogynic beliefs through comedy is deeply disturbing. Maina makes it worse by countering with nothing more than a wheezy laugh and call for disagreeing listeners to phone in.
Why are we so ill at ease about clinically discussing sex in public?
We have the triple misfortune of being a nation that clings to outmoded traditional values, straight-jacketed religious beliefs and a government prone to selective prudishness. Former President Moi famously banned the Kenyan TV show Tushauriane for showing a kiss on the national broadcasting station KBC. And, in 1995, we also suffered a two-year ban on condom communication.
When we did in fact discuss sex, it was largely through the terrifying lenses of a 17-minute clip on the ravages of HIV/AIDS and STDs on the body. The Kenya National AIDS/STD Control Board approved stomach-churning documentary was narrated by a jolly Raphael Tuju — a man who, years later, made an unsuccessful Presidential bid. Kenyans of a certain age can recall afternoon classes (hopefully double Maths lessons) cancelled so that a TV could be wheeled into a schoolroom, or a VHS tape spilled into a dining hall VCR for a nauseating lesson on the dangers of doing bad mananasi (bad manners) in Silent Epidemic.
They’d sooner shock us into total abstinence, called “chilling”, as opposed to soberly teaching us about reproductive health. I don’t remember their being a follow-up video about family planning methods or one teaching boys to respect women or unlearn rape culture. God forbid if girls learnt that they had agency at a young age or boys were taught that they don’t have a divine right to the female body.
It was better to have us continue to think of sex as a feverish overlapping of bodies with the repeated motion of sliding doors that ultimately resulted in pus-filled skin lesions, no?
A recent move to introduce sex education in schools was christened the tire-flattening, “Condoms for Kids” Bill and at first thrown out. It found an unlikely champion in Kenya’s Deputy President who announced a move to reconsider the divisive Bill. Stating that they government will find a way “[that] respects and which is in context to our culture and religion because that is the way it should be.”
The first time I’d seen Kenyan women outside of my group of friends openly talking about their sexual health, preferences, and habits in a way that moved me was on the YouTube series Y Do We Do It? It was a special ladies edition recorded on of the presenters’ birthday. The first question she directed at the group of twenty-somethings was: “Who here walks around with a condom in their bag?” To my astonishment, they each answered; and to my reading, in a truthful fashion. They weren’t single-worded responses either. They went on to explore rape culture and consent, contraception and sexual health plus mediocrity in a quarter-life crisis(!)
Now that was fun.
I’m at an age where I swap gynecologists’ numbers with my friends and debate the safety of IUDs over the ring or over pills. It is with these very same people that I can share the embarrassing tale of a Whatsapped picture of an unfurled, unused condom (I swear, D!) found on a window ledge that I laughingly referred to as evidence of fucking.
These are the types of conversations I want to see had in the public sphere. I want us to own what they say about us; to ourselves and the society at large. That’s why I’m extremely excited by an ongoing South African YouTube series called Women on Sex that features mental and reproductive health professionals, celebrities, and ordinary womenfolk candidly discussing sex. The episodes unpack female desire, while airing and challenging myths. The interviews are interspersed with dramatizations of statements shared through interpretive dance, animated drawn fingers and placards. It is glorious and necessary and more educational than a film reel of diseased body parts.
And it is exactly the kind of thing this silver packet-carrying girl needs. It’s what we all need as a nation.
Wanjeri Gakuru is a creative writer and freelance magazine journalist living and working in Nairobi. Wanjeri is also a member of pan-African writers’ collective, Jalada. Follow her on Twitter @mawazo_mengi
by Orem Ochiel
In the fifty years following Kenya’s independence, successive governments have managed to entrench what is both a continuation and a perfection of the colonial penal system: The varieties of colonial incarceration – labour camps, torture camps, detention centres, prisons – seem to have been maintained, essentially, as they were. We might also imagine contemporary slums as the urban manifestation of colonial-era Reserves. The overwhelming majority of prisoners have little education, are unemployed (or irregularly employed), and live in poverty. Slums and prisons—the former feeding the latter, the latter feeding the former—become the places and spaces in which the nation-state houses its poor.
In Kenya, as of 2005, female prisoners comprised 3.6% of the national prison population. In 2006 and 2007 female prisoners comprised 12% and from 2008-2011 female prisoners comprised between 10% and 9% of the Kenyan prison population. The average number of women prisoners from 2006 to 2011 was 10,578 while the average number of imprisoned men during the same period was 85,947. That, consistently, the largest numbers of women are imprisoned under the “Liquor Act”, and the “Employment Act” points to the fact that criminalisation in Kenya is almost entirely a war against the poor (the second largest category of “Various Cases” seems to be a catch-all and is difficult to analyse without additional data).
A confluence of factors makes the incarceration of women in Kenya an urgent feminist issue: the oppression of women within a patriarchal regime, the marginalisation of prisoners—”prisons disappear human beings”—within a carceral regime, the marginal number of women in prisons (which further diminishes their already much-diminished visibility), the historically brutal disposal of women in colonial detention facilities, and the recent and continuing usage of detention as a means of political repression and ethno-national oppression.
Furthermore, the mass incarceration of men (the obverse of the Kenyan pandemic of extrajudicial killing) places additional social and economic pressure on women, who have been systemically alienated from resources that might enable self-reliance, and who already live day-to-day with very little security. Women, who are often primary caregivers in a family, are left without means by which to support their households further entrenching the generalised impoverishment of the women left behind. This makes prison reform, prisoner release, and prison abolition important feminist issues in Kenya.
I had to bring up our family single-handedly and had to support my parents: In fact in our life together, I have supported him [my husband] with all his needs because most of the time Kathangu has been unemployed. Since he started his battles with the state, potential employers have blacklisted him. (Mrs. Rosana Kathangu in The Other Side of Prison)
It is from the point of view of the women left behind that “The Other Side of Prison: The Role of the Women Left Behind” (ABANTU for Development, 2004) documents the experiences of women who lived through the two and half decades (the 1980s and 1990s) of dictatorial rule under Daniel arap Moi. This period was characterised by the rigorous policing and total militarisation of public life. It also normalised political detention and extrajudicial killing in Kenya. The extent to which this normalisation occurred can be discerned from the name and location of two crucial sites of state violence and civilian resistance: “Nyayo House”, the Moi regime’s torture headquarters was located underground, in the heart of the central business district (and minutes away from the State House) of Nairobi, the national capital, while the multi-year protests to free political detainees was centred at what was baptised “Freedom Corner” in Uhuru Park (and later at the All Saints Cathedral), on the edge of the central business district of Nairobi. Thus, power relations in Kenya were describable within the realities and metaphors of the towering prison-house of the state and the marginal corner of burgeoning freedom.
The Other Side of Prison is a crucial historical document detailing the lived experiences of women under some of the darkest oppression Kenya has faced since independence. Each of the women in the book is a mother, grandmother, daughter, or sister of a man who was a political detainee of the Moi regime. Each of these women participated—even if at a remove—in some way, for some duration, in solidarity with the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) pressure group and the mothers who protested for “the unconditional release of our sons” at Freedom Corner. It is these women who endured years of activism and labour that was aimed at, and effective in, the recovery a generation of men that would otherwise have been lost.
“The Freedom Corner” by all accounts was a huge success. Mothers who participated were extremely proud of what they achieved. It led to their sons’ freedom. […] This demonstration by women aged between 50 and 80 years was a landmark in the struggle against injustice in Kenya. (13)
The eagerness with which these women spoke out is illustrative of the extent to which a political detention regime, one in which bodies are disappeared, is also a regime of silence. The end of that regime in 2002 created a gap through which long-silent voices were impelled to flow and be heard. The story of these women is nothing less than the story of survivors and of veterans of concerted national struggle.
In the book, it is noted that there is little to no documentation of that period (the 1980s and 1990s) in Kenya’s herstory and that there is a lack of systematic analysis of women’s coping strategies under repressive conditions. Crucially, of that long period in which democracy was tightly constrained and suffocated, there is a “need to document women’s participation in the democratic process in post-independent Kenya and to highlight and document women’s leadership roles in defending their rights and those of their children and spouses.” (10) Women’s participation is an aspect of Kenya’s democratic life which continuously goes through un-writing and erasure. Documenting women’s lives in this manner is thus not only a necessary means of securing the afterlife and re-circulating the energy of activism but is also an important act of resistance in a post-colonial, post-independence, post-dictatorial regime that is nonetheless built on the reproduction of disposable women and men.
During the Mau Mau war women played an important and crucial role yet their role was not recognised and has not been recorded in history. Sadly, during the 80s and 90s a large number of the women whose spouses, brothers and sons were arrested had no clue of why they were arrested so they were taken by surprise. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
Each of the stories in The Other Side Of Prison is a brief but incisive recounting of what each woman remembers to have happened, what she saw, what she did, and what she endured. Threads run through all the stories: suddenly finding out that one’s spouse or son has been taken, not knowing “whether he was dead or alive”, a lack of information as to where they were taken or precisely by whom, the need to collect funds in order to travel and locate the taken men, the terror of not knowing, the endless red-tape, stonewalling, and lack of official cooperation, the continuous police searches and harassment, fearfulness within one’s community, straitened economic circumstances as detention dramatically reduces the household income, worry about children’s mental health, schooling, and care, a determination to find and support the taken men.
When I heard that Paddy was arrested, I was stunned and very confused. I wanted to know where they had taken him. […] It was not easy […] I did not give up. (The late Marcella Ojuka)
Some of the beloved men have well-known family names, names that are inscribed into national lore. Others are less known while a few are anonymous. What this highlights is that women of all walks of life acted in solidarity against the government and the blanket of repression that treated the farmer, the fisherman, the community organiser, the student leader, and the lecturer, all alike, as “not a human being.” In a regime whereby political assassination was frighteningly common, the act of speaking against the government carried with it the possibility of fatality. That these women engaged with the government in peaceful protest must thus be seen as more than a re-investment in the nation-state or as an earnest, determinedly vociferous, appeal to power. The women at Freedom Corner were actively subverting the dominant order and re-imagining new expressions of direct democracy.
We showed how under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, the constitution had been changed frequently, leading to serious violations of human rights and strengthening of dictatorship in Kenya. (Wanjiru Kihoro)
In the Foreword to The Other Side of Prison, Prof. Wangari Maathai’s observes that, “[i]nterestingly no woman was detained or imprisoned although many were beaten up and locked in custody. Some went into exile.” In saying so, she is perhaps making the distinction between long term detention without trial or imprisonment (detention with trial) in one of the 99 prison institutions in Kenya, and detention in police cells as well as house arrests. Indeed, Rael Kitur and Veronicah Wambui Nduthu were held in police cells in 1982 for over a week until after their sons were arrested. Florence Nyaguthie Murage was arrested on August 7, 1990 (on suspicion of possession of seditious materials), interrogated, and tortured while pregnant at Nyayo House then held at the Langata Women’s prison for two weeks. While it is not clear exactly how many women were similarly maltreated, it is suggested that they were numerous.
This mode of political repression continues in Kenya, and was most recently exemplified by the killings at Mombasa’s Masjid Musa Mosque and the subsequent detention of seventy men and at least one child on suspicion of being linked to Al-Shabaab. In the coastal regions of Kenya, political detentions (under the rubric of the war against terror) have effects, described by a woman witness, that echo the lamentations of an embittered Elizabeth Orchadson Mazrui about the carceral Moi regime:
[T]he political detentions of the 80s destroyed whole families. They destroyed lives; a lot of families were destroyed and the wounds these detentions caused cannot be healed. In almost all the families that had somebody detained, there are broken marriages or traumatised children. […] This is particularly painful for the women who fought so hard for these people, fighting for themselves and their children. […] We felt that this government has destroyed many lives. What I know for sure is that this government has destroyed a lot of families.
The destruction of Muslim families and communities in Kenya finds a seemingly infinite source of renewal in the bodies of ethnic Somali and Ethiopian asylum seekers. While the Refugees Act assures us that “[i]f police stop a Somali national entering Kenya without a permit, they may only arrest and detain that person if he or she does not wish to claim asylum,” Kenyan police routinely ignore such requests for asylum and detain refugees for “illegal presence”. This presumption of illegality is extended to Kenyan Somalis and Ethiopians:
Throughout the ten weeks of abuses in Eastleigh, police arbitrarily detained at least one thousand people in homes, streets, vehicles, and police stations, including in inhuman and degrading conditions. Police also falsely charged well over one hundred people—and possibly many more—with public order offenses, with no evidence of any kind to substantiate the charges. […] Arbitrary detention was not limited to specific sweeps following the bomb or grenade attacks in Eastleigh. (HRW 2013)
Kenyan Somali and Ethiopian women have also been subject to mass imprisonment under false charges, with no consideration given to whether they are pregnant, have children, or are the sole caregivers in the household. The de facto encampment of refugees within the Daadab refugee camp places women without male relatives and minority women at particular risk of sexual violence (HRW 2010). The mass detention of Kenyan Somali men then clears the space for the mass abuse, rape, and extortion of ethnic Somali women by Kenyan Regular Police, Administration Police, and the General Service Unit. These situations are becoming re-enactments of the abuses that occurred during the Wagalla Massacre in 1984 where 3000 ethnic Somali men were detained and subsequently slaughtered at an airstrip in Wajir District. Describing that day, one survivor recounted that having stripped and detained all the men and keeping them under armed guard, the Kenya military proceeded to ensure that “every single woman was raped that day.” The Wagalla Massacre might thus be differently thought of as The Rape of Wagalla.
Having detained Kenyan Somalis in their homes between November 2012 and January 2013, “a day after the November 18 bus attack [Kenya] police entered apartment blocks throughout Eastleigh, particularly in Section 1 of the district near where the attack took place, and raped and beat women and girls in their apartments.”
Other GSU officers brought the other three women to the truck. Their dresses were ripped and they were totally silent. We didn’t have to say anything to each other because we all knew what had happened to all of us. […] Similarly, a 50-year-old Somali woman told Human Rights Watch that in December 2012, two AP and two GSU officers seriously assaulted her with batons—including after she had collapsed onto the ground—when she tried to prevent them from taking her 17-year-old daughter away on 4th Street. More than two months later she said she was still in significant pain and was unable to sleep properly, while her daughter had fled to the Dadaab refugee camps out of fear of further police violence. (HRW 2013)
We need more research into the use of police custody (short term detention) in relation to the corruption which allows the police to operate a system of rent-seeking incarceration: In the case of the Somali and Ethiopian refugees, putative cash “bail” averaging KES 5,280, was demanded of all detainees. Human rights defenders often report bail amounts of KES 30,000. All these amounts are criminally extortionate, are effectively bribes, and serve only to exacerbate imprisonment (when bribes cannot be paid) and more deeply entrench poverty (as the practice is widespread and targets the poorest citizens). This system of corruption is only possible because the overwhelming and devastating threat of incarceration exists and is made visible in the physical presence of the police force and of prison buildings.
Kenya retains the spirit and much of the letter of the English colonial penal system, a system that was designed to sustain and secure the imperial project through violent and sophisticated modes and architectures of punishment. As such, Kenya operates a system of criminalisation, incarceration, abuse, and extortion that is an immediate feature of a broader system of state violence against the marginalised. For Kenyan women imprisoned for three years or longer, it is the case that because women’s prisons are less overcrowded than men’s prisons, the condition of incarcerated women is considered to be (but is not) better and therefore not worthy of as much attention as that of the men (Vetten 2003). The lack of comprehensive research into the condition of incarcerated women in Kenya defines these women as precisely those who are truly left behind.
The colonial system which we retain, and which purported to reform and rehabilitate inmates, in reality makes impossible any kind of widespread or meaningful restorative and transformative justice. This is especially true when the most wealthy and powerful perpetrators of widespread violence are able to occupy the presidency of Kenya with absolute impunity. That incarceration has always been an undeclared war on the poor, as well as a tool of political repression, means that prison reform is unlikely to yield meaningful results in guaranteeing prisoner rights and dignity.
The main documents guiding prison reform in Africa—the 1996 Kampala Declaration, the 2002 Ouagadougou Declaration and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners—all “overlook the distinctive aspects of women’s incarceration, which include the marginal number of women in prison, women’s gender roles [and the reproduction of these oppressive roles through gendered prison training programmes] and their reproductive functions.” (ibid.) As such, it is likely that even if some meaningful prison reforms were to occur in Kenya, incarcerated women would still be subject to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Such treatment has been continuously repeated in the unjust arrest and imprisonment of women human rights defenders in Huruma and youth in the slums of Nairobi, Mombasa, and certainly throughout Kenya. In 2011, Ruth Mumbi reported,
The term dignity does not exist in prison. We were ordered to remove all of our clothes for body search and they don’t even care whether you are on your periods or not. It’s such an awful experience, as soon as you remove your clothes you are supposed to put your legs apart for the body search. I was humiliated but could not help it when I saw a woman old enough to be my grandmother removing clothes together with us. From that moment I would not be referred as Mumbi anymore I had a new identity my prison number was 306/11 and Vicky’s 306/12. […] I was taken to Langata not because I was a criminal but because I had stood my grounds for peoples and women’s right to health care. 
Again, in February 17, 2014:
Around 11 am today, members of the Highway Self Help group were having a meeting in Kiamaiko, in Mathare constituency. For reasons which are unclear, the police stormed the peaceful meeting, disrupting and dispersing the surprised members, arresting Sarah Ashina, George Luvala, Susan Mutindi, Alex Kamande, Francis Gachui and Steven Muturi.
The treasurer of Highway Self Help group, Ms. Sarah Ashina, a 34 year old mother of two who is eight months pregnant was, “senselessly assaulted” by the cops, an incident which left Ms. Ashina bleeding profusely. The police still insist on incarcerating her and have denied her access to urgent medical attention.
Sarah Ashina has been at the forefront of condemning arbitrary arrest of youths by the police in Kiamaiko.
Prison reifies and concentrates the powers of the state in creating and maintaining a legally justified injustice. What Ruth Mumbi describes is the enforced “ritual practice of mortification” which is the “legal fiction of civil death” that is always constitutive of the penitentiary system. (Smith 2008)
[S]he loses all signs of her identity. Her nourishment is minimal and coarse. She performs the possessed labour of the slave. In her costume, scene, and gestures, she enacts her living death. […] In order to understand the prison, we will have to see how living death was neither an accident nor an excess, but part of its design.
We remember Sophia Dolar, Pauline Wanjiru, and Ester Wairimu, women human rights activists:
They were reportedly arrested in March 2000 with eight other human rights activists, held for five days in Nakuru Prison, Rift Valley Province. Upon arrival the women were reportedly forced to strip naked in full view of other prisoners and jeering prison guards, and beaten with sticks during interrogation. They were allegedly held in a large overcrowded cell holding 39 women, many of whom were ill. When they refused to eat uncooked food, they were reportedly beaten with canes and forced to eat the food. No official investigation is said to have been carried out. The Kenyan Government failed to respond to the letter of the two [UN] Special Rapporteurs [on Violence Against Women].
We remember Eunice Wanjira Njira, 44-years-old, who in October 2013 was “convicted to a 15-month jail term” after being charged for “sending offensive text messages […] and claiming to have had an intimate extramarital affair with a former Member of Parliament.” We remember also, the numerous women who have been and continue to be imprisoned in the Langata, Kodiaga (Kisumu), Nyeri, Meru, Shimo la Tewa, Kakamega, Nakuru, Eldoret women’s prisons, and other prisons and police cells countrywide. We remember the large numbers of mothers and their children held in our prisons.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Female Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the ‘Bangkok Rules’) which recognised that the unique conditions that surround crime by women, their conviction for crimes, and their imprisonment. “The Bangkok Rules are also the first international instrument to address the needs of children in prison with their parent.” (PRI 2013) These rules also recognised that prison is often ineffective in its stated goals of rehabilitating women offenders and protecting society from such offenders. It made specific provisions for women’s hygiene, menstruation, reproductive health and history, and childbirth. It emphasised and detailed the preservation of women offenders’ dignity and their protection from violence. These rules also documented all the levels of state, government, and civil society that are impacted by and required to act in order to successfully implement them. “The Bangkok Rules supplement the existing UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the Tokyo Rules on alternatives to imprisonment.” (ibid.) It remains to be seen to what extent the Bangkok Rules will be implemented in Kenya.
In 2011, the Kenya government began talks with G4S with a view to privatising prison services and building new prison infrastructure. The handing over of prisoners to private enterprise is always a recipe for the intensified enslavement of human beings in the name of profit. The movement towards privatised correctional services portends a proliferation of new and concealed modes of dehumanisation.
Kenyan feminism, in order to retain its impetus to end the oppression of all Kenyan women thus has to concern itself with the abolition of prisons which perpetuate a regime of deepening precarity and human disposability that is “punitive, criminal and legal focused.” Within a hetero-patriarchal regime, a penal justice system will always apportion its punishments unevenly, skewing its violence towards and against women.
Alternative interventions are necessary to ensure the safety and health of our communities not only because there is no clear evidence that prisons improve community safety, or because prisons are a recent import into Africa but because, importantly, “prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools.” (Kaba 2013) These interventions must in turn lead to a dismantling of the police-state which is coextensive with the prison-state.
Because the core of the problem, poverty, is unlikely to be solved within a capitalist neoliberal context that requires and produces the militarisation and marketisation of all life and a maintenance (and expansion) of the wealth gap, it is urgently necessary that we turn towards systems of reparative and transformative justice, and of community accountability. These might draw from African pre-colonial systems of justice which were not built around detention or focused on punishment. In such systems, “perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. [A] context [outside of the courts, jails, and prisons] within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm [and] provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it.” (ibid.)
Perhaps then, we can ensure that women, who are already the victims of the most egregious violence a patriarchal society has invented—and many of whom resort to violence as a result of themselves being exposed to sustained domestic violence (Mc Evoy 2012)—are not forced to face compounded violence and disappearance through incarceration. Perhaps then, “we are able to be compassionate to both survivors and perpetrators of harm,” and in doing so, create a Kenya in which violence and criminalisation of the most marginalised among us is a distant memory.
Orem is a lapsed mathematician and perspiring writer from Kenya.
 Lisa Vetten, “The imprisonment of women in Africa” (2003), in Human Rights in African Prisons edited by Jeremy Sarkin, HSRC Press, 2008.
 Kenya Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Abstract 2012”
 Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, 1998.
 Caroline Elkins, “Chapter 7: The Hard core,” in Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, 2005.
Without fail Fridays at Athi River meant screening, and the women hardly escaped the usual tactics of the government’s interrogators. They were beaten, whipped, and sexually violated with bottles, hot eggs, and other foreign objects, all in an effort to force them to talk. Alsatian shepherd dogs were also brought into the screening huts, where they would growl at and eventually maul those women who refused to cooperate. Compound 1 sent numerous letters to the governor, who, on occasion, responded personally by inspecting the camp. According to Shifra, Baring would “sometimes come and see us being screened. Other times we would be ordered to squat, and he would come around looking at us. He never asked us anything; he would just walk around glancing at us like we were animals.” […] For most of the Emergency, women were detained primarily at Kamiti Camp. Kamiti had previously been a maximum security prison for criminals, but the circumstances of the war forced its transformation into a multipurpose facility. It was an overflow site for Embakasi prison and held several thousand men convicted of Mau Mau–related crimes. Behind its walls and barbed wire was also one of the largest known burial sites for Mau Mau adherents killed in the forests, on the reserves, and in detention camps, as well as those executed under Emergency Regulations. In the spring of 1954 the colonial government decided to open the gates of Kamiti to accommodate a surge of female Mau Mau convicts and detainees. Once fully operational, Kamiti would be unique in that it functioned as a self-contained Pipeline. In it women of all classifications—from the blackest of “black” to “white,” and various shades of “grey” in between—were detained and moved to different compounds based on their level of cooperation. Female Mau Mau convicts were fully integrated with the detainees, living in the same compounds and laboring together. At the end of their sentences they too became detainees, little altering their lives.
 “Unlawful Arrest and Detention of Asylum Seekers and Abusive and Inhumane Conditions of Detention”, in “Welcome to Kenya”: Police Abuse of Somali Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 2010.
 “Torture, Rape, Beatings, and Extortion by the Kenyan Police,” in “You Are All Terrorists”: Kenyan Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi/, Human Rights Watch, 2013.
Interviewees described 48 incidents involving GSU officers who extorted a total of Ksh 335,000 ($4,036), or an average of just over Ksh 6,979 ($84) per incident. Twenty-five incidents described involved RP officers who extorted a total of Ksh 286,900, or an average of Ksh 11,476. In seven incidents AP officers extorted a total of Ksh 38,500, an average of Ksh 5,500.
 Ruth Mumbi, “Kenya: Arrest of women human rights defenders in Huruma,” Pambazuka 521 (2011-03-17).
 Caleb Smith, “Detention without subjects: Prisons and the poetics of living death”, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 50, No. 3, Fall 2008.
The prisoner becomes a divided figure: a redeemable soul, but also an offending body; a citizen-in-training, but also an exile from civil society; a resurrected life, but also an animate corpse.
 Violence Against Women in Kenya: Report prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), 2003.
 The United Nations Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners: Short guide, Prison Reform International, 2013.
-  A considerable proportion of women offenders are in prison as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation.
-  Women mainly commit petty crimes closely linked to poverty, such as theft, fraud and minor drug related offences.
-  Only a small minority of women are convicted of violent offences, and a large majority of them have been victims of violence themselves.
 Mariame Kaba, “Cognitive Dissonance: Ending Rape Culture By Sentencing People to Judicial Rape”, US Prison Culture, 2013.
 Claire Mc Evoy, “No Justice”, in Battering, Rape, and Lethal Violence: A Baseline of Information on Physical Threats against Women in Nairobi, Small Arms Survey, 2012.
Data from the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (Nairobi Women’s Hospital) shows that very few of its clients obtain formal justice [for Gender Based Violence]. In 2010–11 medical hospital staff acted as witnesses in 178 separate cases, or six per cent of the cases reported during that period (GVRC, 2012, p. 31). That figure was just 75 in 2009–10 and 153 in 2008–09, or 3.0 and 5.4 per cent of the total number of cases, respectively (GVRC, 2010a, p. 20; 2011a, p. 19). There is no available data on the number of convictions in these cases.
 Jeremy Sarkin, “Prisons in Africa: An evaluation from a human rights perspective”.
Incarceration as punishment was unknown to Africa when the first Europeans arrived. While pretrial detention was common, wrongdoing was rectified by restitution rather than punishment. Local justice systems were victim- rather than perpetrator-centered with the end goal being compensation instead of incarceration. Even in centralized states that did establish prisons, the goal of incarceration remained to secure compensation for victims rather than to punish offenders. 3 Imprisonment and capital punishment were viewed as last resorts within African justice systems, to be used only when perpetrators such as repeat offenders and witches posed discreet risks to local communities. […] As the history of the African prison makes clear, incarceration was brought to the continent from Europe as a means by which to subjugate and punish those who resisted colonial authority. The employment of corporal and capital punishment to stifle political oppression was the central aim of Africa’s first prisons. In light of this genesis then, it is hardly a surprise that present-day African prisons fail to meet their stated goals of rehabilitation and indeed persist in fulfilling the aims and committing the abuses set in motion centuries ago.
In October 2006, Taj El-Din Hilaly, the Imam (spiritual leader) of the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, made the following statement in his Ramadan sermon:
“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
At the time, the statement – and sentiment behind it – was widely criticised by the larger Australian community. Many, including Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, called for Hilaly to not just apologise, but to leave his post as a leader within the Australian-Lebanese community.
The uproar was not limited to the non-Muslim community – Muslims also responded to the comments, with many agreeing that Hilaly had been out of line in his sermon. The then New South Wales Young Australian of the Year nominee, Iktimal Hage-Ali, declared ‘I am no one’s meat’ and proceeded to make her point by appearing as she would normally appear in public – with her hair uncovered, sipping a celebratory glass of champagne in recognition of winning her award.
As a young Muslim woman, I felt sick. Confused. Betrayed. Strong emotions and reactions to a bunch of silly words from people I didn’t know, but these were the people who were supposed to be representative of me, and I did not identify with any of them.
Hilaly’s misogynistic statements were an echo of the conservative clerics I could never accept. The victim-shaming stance, coming from anyone, was deplorable. Coming from a so-called spiritual leader, however, made it even worse. Even though he was not a leader of my community, he stood for the faith I was a part of, and he made me uncomfortable to be a part of that faith. I was conscious of every movement I made, every rustle of cloth as I moved, every strand of hair as it escaped from under my headscarf in case it might become a cause for objection or objectification.
Hage-Ali’s reaction was also difficult to identify with, as much as I agreed with her statements. I agreed with her right to choose what to wear, how to present herself, her strong stance to not let herself be labelled as meat. But she was not representative of me either. I wasn’t quite convinced that the way to be a strong Muslim feminist was to abandon religion altogether, even if I would be the first one to admit that the deeply religious societies I had been exposed to had left many things to be desired in their treatment of women. It wasn’t just that Hage-Ali didn’t wear a headscarf, or that she drank, or that she was later arrested, but not charged, on suspicions of possessing drugs.
It was that she posed the idea that faith and feminism were incompatible: something I struggled with, and sometimes, still do.
This stance of victim-shaming is something that is deeply ingrained in society, in many different cultures. It is not peculiar to Muslim communities, but exists almost everywhere. It is in the snide comments I hear at university when a student comes in with a short skirt; it is in the self-deprecating way a friend refers to herself as a slut; it is in the tone of disapproval I get when I complain about being hassled by the boys who smoke outside the prayer room on campus.
It is of particular interest to me, however, because an aspect of victim-shaming that I am deeply familiar with is the idea that the way a woman dresses affects how people will interact with her. As a woman who wears a headscarf and relatively modest clothing, I keep being told that there is a certain level of respect accorded to me due to the way I dress. It makes me uncomfortable because what is not being said seems ominously loud: that if I were to change just what I wear, I would not be granted the same respect, therefore I would be the only one to blame if something untoward was to happen.
This is not the reason I wear the headscarf, though. I make a conscious decision to cover myself when I am out in public, and I feel that in doing so, I am asserting my identity as a woman. I am making a choice to cover, just as I made a choice years ago not to. In doing so, I am asserting my right to wear what I wish, a notion that is not unlike that of western feminists who repeatedly point out that a woman who is topless is still not ‘asking for it.’
However, I find myself in an uncomfortable position, precisely because of this intersection of faith and feminism – there seem to be more elements that conflict with each other, jarring in their incompatibility, than those that could weave together. I heard of clerics talking of feminism distastefully, arguing that the values espoused by the movement are incompatible with Islam. I have watched as FEMEN takes an almost militant anti-religion response, with women stripping themselves bare in a way that makes many uncomfortable no matter what their religious background (or lack thereof).
So, is there a middle ground?
I argue that it is possible, that there are many places where faith and feminism might intersect, but that it would be strongly linked to the individual.
There are different interpretations of faith. Hilaly’s view isn’t mine.
There are different kinds of feminism. FEMEN’s kind isn’t my kind.
If I were to break down the individual parts of me, it would seem impossible to find a range of experiences within established notions of feminist discourse that would be perfectly matched with my own. How does one navigate the maze of labels and experiences: the woman of colour, ascribing to a minority interpretation of a monotheistic faith system, cis-gendered, middle-class, university-educated, continent-hopping migrant? Those are just a few of the points that come up. In acknowledging these points, and the barriers and privileges that come with them, I also acknowledge how they affect my identity formation. Of course there are areas that address one or more of these points, but I find the personal discourse to be more frayed, patchworked together and often difficult to connect with.
Are there multiple feminisms, then? Are they mutually exclusive, like certain faiths? I would argue that there are different factors that shape a feminist identity, and it is important to acknowledge that race, gender and yes, even faith, would contribute to a more definitive type of feminism.
The general argument that I speak about is that Islam is inherently feminist, however, the general consensus is that Islamic countries are where some of the worst oppressions of women occur. This is not something that I can, or will argue against. It is true that some of the worst human rights abuses in general happen in countries that declare they are following rulings of Islam.
However, a deeper examination reveals that the religion arose in a time when women were undoubtedly suffering, in an extremely patriarchal society. Female infanticide was common, there was little to no participation of women in the social, economic and political spheres. There was marginalisation of several populations, Arab women being one of the key groups who were oppressed.
This scenario may have contributed to the popularity of Islam amongst the marginalised groups, including women. Away from the religious doctrine, the appeal of Islam to women may be explained in that they found it guaranteed them the rights they so desperately lacked, including the very basic right to live, as Islam explicitly forbade the practice of burying infant daughters. Other rights that were afforded to them included the right to pursue education, inherit, own property, and be active in the public sphere. It also acknowledged that women were sexual beings and although cultural interpretations would have us believe otherwise, there exist rules about the sexual rights a woman has over her husband.
On the other hand, there were – and still are, in Islam today – areas that are of concern, particularly rulings on polygyny, custody of children, and domestic violence against women. It is not possible to discuss the faith’s contributions to women’s rights without at least a basic acknowledgement of these factors. It is precisely these elements that are seen as indicators of how Islam is incompatible with empowering women and are a favourite of detractors.
However, there are often arguments on interpretation, for example, the infamous ‘wife-beating verse’ in the Qur’an which states: “… As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, then refuse to share their beds, then beat them lightly…” (Qur’an, 4:34). Prominent scholars have either focused on the word ‘lightly’ to mean ‘as if with a feather’, or have pointed out the word ‘beat’ may have been mistranslated from the classical Arabic as the word used may also translate to ‘leave’. In either case, the discussion is an indication that people are aware of, and are working to address, areas where there are perceived to be difficulties in reconciling faith and women’s rights.
In this context, then, it becomes possible to see another kind of feminism emerging, one that draws from a very different background to the existing ‘white’ feminism today. It is a feminism that takes root in religious values, but is amplified by the existence of those values in large patriarchal spheres of influence, hence it is shaped by cultural struggles as well. Women turn to religion for support of their arguments against cultural traditions, particularly where there is explicit evidence given of what a woman is entitled to that contrasts with the socio-cultural situation she might exist in. This is the philosophy behind movements to empower women, such as the steps being taken in the Kyber-Pakthunkwa region of Pakistan where Malala Yousoufzai was attacked by a Taliban gunman for her outspoken criticism of the extreme religious group’s ban on girls in schools. Where the Taliban seeks to control female education, their views are contrasted with the very explicit indication from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that ‘Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim.’ Not Muslim man – on every Muslim, male or female.
What then, of the notion of covering? Where does that sit in the arguments between faith and feminist discourses?
The argument over mandatory veiling stems from the following verse: “… and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their head coverings over their bosoms…” (Qur’an, 24:31). This part of the verse is preceded by commandments for both Muslim men and women to lower their gaze, which is in itself an interesting thing to note – the acknowledgment of the gaze as a source of power, and the onus being placed on the person who is looking, not just the person who is being looked at, is often ignored or considered as secondary to the commandment to veil.
Veiling itself is subject to debate. The confusion stems from the question of whether the khimar (head covering) stated in the verse is itself mandatory, or if it is a reflection of what the women were expected to be wearing at the time. The fact that the head covering is explicitly mentioned is often the basis for the common interpretation that the covering of one’s head, as well as the neck, ears and bosom, is compulsory. However, if the idea of relative modesty is followed, then the part of the verse stating that women should ‘not display their beauty except what is apparent’ may indicate that it is fine for a woman to dress in what is common for the time and place she is in, but that she does not need to cover her hair as the khimar is no longer a common item of clothing in many cultures and societies.
The veil itself does not seem to be as problematic as the myriad of systems that seem to exist to enforce it. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two theocracies that mandate veiling as a compulsory act for women living in those countries and are frequently criticised for these, and other laws, pertaining to women. On a more local level, veiling is pushed by religious scholars and leaders in communities, such as Hilaly, with the same verse being cited as inconvertible proof that it is required. What is common with most of these approaches is that they approach the veil from a male perspective, where the argument is focused on a woman being protected, cloaked in anonymity – someone who is not seen or heard. Add in the usual fire and brimstone rhetoric, and you have many who immediately disassociate themselves from the veil and from the faith because it is incomprehensible that a faith that did award many rights to women who did not have them, would also focus on completely denying the identities of those same women.
Being able to identify everything that was wrong, however, was also what brought me to accepting the idea of covering. A chance talk with a female scholar meant that I was finally able to view the veil through a very basic notion of it actually being a mark of Muslim, female identity. Having the veil interpreted from a woman’s standpoint, and presented as a way to emphasise my womanhood and individuality, was what finally made it attractive. Being presented with the veil as a way to mark who I am, and as a symbol of empowerment, not oppression – all ideas that are embodied in traditional feminist discourse – and not incompatible at all with faith.
While I argue that my decision to cover is truly my decision, I am also cognisant that what constitutes covering is dictated by patriarchal systems. My ability to conform to those systems will influence the perception people have of me, particularly if I happen to be the recipient of unwanted (sexual) attention. At this point, though, I have settled on a way that is representative of both discourses that I identify with.
So where does this leave me?
As a practicing Muslim, I cannot divorce myself from my faith. I believe, sometimes strongly, sometimes with doubt, but I still believe. As a woman, I cannot remove from myself the elements that define my womanhood and how they are influenced by, and interact with, the range of experiences I have.
Fast forward to December 2013. In a mosque in Nairobi, a woman from India sits, imparting spiritual lessons to the gathering. At one point, she starts to define what constitutes the hijab, the term relating to modesty that is mandated for both Muslim men and women. As with any spiritual leader, she wants to encourage those who are sitting with her, particularly the young women in her audience. To appeal to them, she brings up the example of Hilaly, detailing the incident.
I sit, waiting to hear what she thinks of his words. So far, I have been quite impressed with her points – she seems to be more in touch with the reality of life beyond the mosque’s walls, fusing religious instruction with philosophy, acknowledging the truths of being a woman. It was in this same mosque that I was convinced to adopt the sartorial headscarf, and I am hoping for a revelation.
I am crushed when she proudly says that she supports his viewpoint, trying to impress on the women present the importance of covering up. I clench my fists, so tight that the nails dig into my palms. My mother, having already heard this story from me several times over, glances over. She knows what I am thinking. She gives me a not-so-subtle look of warning, but I can see the frown lines on her face going deeper, her head moving slightly as she shakes it sceptically.
After the lecture, I engage with the woman, trying to converse with her in an attempt to bring attention to the fact that no, a woman’s dressing is not, and should not ever be used as a reason when it comes to sexual violence. She is patient, hears me out, tells me that she is proud to know that I still practice in a society that she perceives as hostile to any outward expression of faith.
But I know that my arguments are not being heard. I talk about the sexual politics of Egypt, where women are covering in an attempt to ward off attacks but find it difficult to do so, no matter what they might be wearing. I talk about the impossibly high rate of prostitution in a country like Iran where covering is mandated by law. I talk about how many victims of sexual violence know their attacker, sometimes intimately so.
In everything, she listens, nods, but then rebuffs my argument with the one that if a woman is appropriately covered, she has nothing to fear.
I am left feeling confused, worried, and out-of-sorts. It is something I have come to know intimately, this state of anxiety as I try to weave something stable from the complicated, tangled threads of my beliefs and my convictions about women and their roles, statuses, and rights.
However, I am still afloat, still convinced that despite the confusion, there is space for the conversation between faith and feminist ideals, that I can be both Muslim and feminist.
Marziya Mohammedali is a writer, photographer and designer. She has a particular interest in creative narratives of dissent, identity, migration and transition. She lives in Perth, Western Australia. Follow her on Twitter @kikei
Two weeks ago, an audio surfaced on WhatsApp, and later on Soundcloud/Twitter/Facebook of a man named Morris (pronounced Mollis by the woman in the clip due to the influence of mother tongue) having sex with a woman despite her repeated pleas for him to stop in two languages, and her saying she was tired and had surrendered. This is repeated severally throughout the recording, and the woman sounds genuinely pained.
Imagine my surprise when I came online to find Mollis being touted as a don for what was most definitely rape. Men were all over claiming that Mollis was their hero, and a man to be emulated, while some women were saying that she was having too much fun, or just couldn’t handle “some good dick.” Some people came out and said that she sounded like she was in pain, and that she had withdrawn her consent severally, hence it was rape, and Mollis was a rapist.
The backlash was unbelievable. We had people, mostly men, saying that it couldn’t be rape, because earlier on he’d told her that she had a good vagina and she said “thanks”; because what was she doing in bed with him if she didn’t want it; because, apparently, consent cannot be withdrawn mid-sex. Once you say yes, in their misguided opinion, you can’t change your mind. They forget that a woman has the right to withdraw consent midway into sex, the same way any human being has the right to change their mind and this has to be respected. To fail to recognize this is to dehumanize women. I was astonished at the number of men who may have done these things and not recognized that they were rapists, and the number of women who may have had this happen to them and failed to recognize that they had been raped.
Rape is sex without consent, plain and simple. When one of the parties involved in sex is unwilling or unable to consent, then no matter the circumstances, that is rape. We imagine rape to be something that happens along a dark path when a woman (or man) is waylaid by a group of strange men, or a single one, and amidst tears and fighting, is pinned down and violently penetrated. What about the woman who is taken out for drinks by a man, and then after she has one too many and is unable to exercise her right to consent, he forces himself on her? What about that married couple, when the woman is not in the mood but her husband makes her have sex anyway, and she is too afraid to voice her unwillingness/anger because of fear of physical abuse, or “sabotaging” the marriage? What about that ten-year old boy whose first sexual encounter is with the house help? To limit our definition of rape to the stereotypical image earlier mentioned does a great disservice to many, and causes them great pain.
To avoid the perpetuation of this cycle of pain, we should not just seek consent (that is, an affirmation that the person you want to have sexual relations with also wants to have sexual relations with you). We should take it a step further and seek enthusiastic consent – don’t just seek passive agreement to sexual relations, seek enthusiastic agreement – make sure the person is as psyched about the sexual activity as you are. They should not be impaired or unconscious. We have been told severally that “no means no” but this is no longer enough. It’s not just about being told no/to stop, it’s about getting a definitive, enthusiastic yes. The problem with the “no means no” school of thought is that it leads people to say that the concept of consent is confusing. It leads to people seeking to avoid a “no” as opposed to getting a “yes”. What if someone does not give a definitive no?
Here’s my school of thought: “No” means no. “I have a boyfriend” means no. “Maybe some other time” means no. Sometimes, even “Yes” means no, when the person being asked doesn’t have a real choice in the matter. Anything other than an enthusiastic yes is NOT consent. Why is this so important? Because women have been taught by society not to be direct for fear of being offensive or being attacked, so several times, a woman may not directly say no when she does not want to have sex. There is a fear of saying “I do not want this. Stop. No.” And even when they do this, as the woman Mollis raped did, they are not taken seriously. It is assumed she just can’t handle the dick. She’s secretly enjoying it. She’s moaning and crying because of pleasure, not pain. On the other hand, men have been taught that they have to work hard for sex – pursue, coax, plead – until they get it.
I want to believe that most people do not want to be rapists, but we must remember that we are surrounded by a culture that supports, and sometimes even encourages rape. Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence, including rape, is trivialized and normalized. It shows itself through blaming the victims of sexual assault/rape; Emily Buchwald in Transforming a Rape Culture adds:
“…a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself…In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable…However…much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
This culture is so persistent, that people think of it as “the way things have always been/will continue to be”. Thus, we can make jokes about sexual violence, create memes, support celebrities like Bill Cosby and others who have been implicated in multiple rapes, and blame the victims of rape/sexual assault because surely they must have somehow brought this inevitability upon themselves. We forget that most rapes are committed by ordinary men who look just like our friends/brothers/fathers/cousins, because they are surrounded by a culture that okays rape and sexual violence. Perhaps accepting this is too painful for most of us, because it would mean that we are somehow complicit. But we are.
Rape culture is what allowed a police officer to strip search a high school girl two weeks ago, and when she found her with contraband in her underwear, allow pictures of her breasts and private parts to be photographed. These photographs then spread on WhatsApp yet again before going viral on social media. It leads us to believe that she was a “bad girl” and somehow deserves to be shamed for her behaviour. It is what leads people to share nude images of a minor, with such glee, without her consent (please remember that minors according to the law cannot consent.) It is what leads an officer of the law, alongside a photographer who should know better, to think it is okay to use a girl/woman’s sexuality to shame her for bad behaviour. These incidents show how Kenyan women, regardless of age, continue to be abused sexually and denigrated in the public eye with no reprieve.
Our troubling attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society is further seen in this story, published in the entertainment section of one of Kenya’s largest newspapers, in which a taxi driver had sex with his wife against her doctor’s warning, and woke up to find her dead after they stopped because she was in pain. Several jokes and puns are utilized in the story, such as “Act of rod” and “gland to gland combat”, trivializing the fact that a woman died from having sex with her husband after his insistence, ignoring the doctor’s warning. After she started gasping and becoming weak, begging him to stop, he just rolled over and slept. He did not rush her to hospital. When he reported the matter to the police, they dismissed him, telling him they were in no mood for his jokes, and that he should solve his bedroom problems without involving them. This is all after a woman died due to sex.
Something has got to give. We can, and must, change our attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society, or else more people will continue to be victims of sexual violence. We must begin to educate ourselves on how to have safe, pleasurable sex that does not create any victims. We must stop looking at sex as something a woman owes a man, and that he must take at all costs, such as rape or death. Instead, sex should be viewed as something two consenting adults agree to participate in for their mutual pleasure. We must stop shaming women for enjoying sex, and stop teaching them to be coy, because this enforces what men are misguidedly taught – that no means maybe, and that maybe can be turned into a yes if you persist long/hard enough. This way, sex is not something men take from women, but something they share. How hot would that be?
We should create and encourage a sex positive culture, where sex is not a dirty thing. One in which people are not ashamed of their sexuality, and instead embrace it and encourage others to embrace their own; where people are able to communicate their sexual needs to their partners in a safe/open environment. One in which both having sex and not having sex are considered okay. One in which we teach members of the society about their reproductive health and encourage them to take it just as seriously as the health of the rest of their bodies. We should focus on ensuring that all sexual activities are consensual; enthusiastically so.
“Yes!” means yes.
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
I wonder if before the phrase “You’re pretty for a dark girl”, the words, “You’re pretty for a light girl” existed.
There are so many “isms”. Racism, sexism, extremism, tribalism, nationalism vs activism, womanism, feminism, patriotism. A thousand different solutions to a hundred different problems. And so it would seem that we’re over sensitizing this life we live. It would seem that we’re problematizing social norms – looking for the nuance in “boys will be boys”, “you kick like a girl”, “he was so dark he was navy blue.”
Except we’re not.
We’re looking to the girl who sits in front of a mirror seeing unsophistication in her dark skin; the mother who prays that God will color her child light. It’s never that simple. And so when I think of colourism, also known as shadeism – “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group” – I think of a social condition that exists because of the standards of beauty; an affliction that exists because black women ascribe to a culture that glorifies white skin and white features. And I talk about it as a girl who is relatively light-skinned and has received certain privileges because of the lightness of my skin.
Like many other forms of prejudice that thrive within Kenya and the larger African community, the genesis of colourism is found within the constructs of the colonial era. In watching documentaries such as “Dark Girls” by Bill Duke, even in relation to colourism within the African-American community, the origins of colourism are tied to the idea that colonialism abruptly changed black perceptions of beauty and identity.
The white man or woman was presented as a superior being and as someone to aspire to, not only in terms of mannerisms and thought, but also in terms of physical beauty. In white people we see an honesty, reliability, an air of sophistication, that we don’t see in ourselves as Kenyans, be it in regards to education, business or even the social scene.
This is a perception that is evident in the distinction of service that we extend to white individuals in hotels, restaurants and offices and even in the twangs that we add to our r’s and o’s when dealing with white people. Further we have extended this subconscious prejudice, this subliminal misallocation of supremacy, to our understanding of beauty and sophistication within our own community. As such, we associate light women, the women who most embody white women in skin tone, with beauty, whilst suppressing darker women with “You’re pretty for a dark girl.” Suddenly black becomes different shades of grey, dark and light, black and white.
Suddenly she’s no longer just black.
The most evident manifestation of colourism in Kenya is bleaching. Often, these regular visits to the alley ways of River Road, for shots of mkorogo or Whitenicious treatments, are justified as a response to the idea that many Kenyan men prefer women with fairer complexions, as opposed to darker women. As a child, I would watch as the house-helps who watched over me gradually changed from chocolate-brown to pale yellow all in a matter of weeks. Often they would rationalize the change as an effort to find a husband.
Then there’s the story of Vera Sidika. She claims, that along with an increase in interested suitors, she has witnessed a surge in business opportunities and payouts since bleaching her skin. A trip to banking halls in Nairobi tells a similar story.
So it’s not just about in an internalized adulation for the blue-eyed, blond-haired, pale beauty or even in self-hate for darker skin. Our tendency to aspire to white aesthetic ideals is also more economically lucrative. Many may say there are exceptions to the rule (like Lupita Nyong’o). But was she was a dark beauty before she won an Academy Award?
This leads to one question; what now?
Like charity, this begins at home, because sometimes the worst type of prejudice that many darker people experience is that which they are exposed to in the comfort of their homes. From Facebook memes poking fun at Southern Sudanese women and women who live in Kisumu, to status updates comparing dark women to makaa (charcoal), to #teamlightskin, to the snarky comments that relatives make such as “you’re getting really dark these days”, it becomes clear that our society does not encourage dark women to embrace the color of their skin. It even blatantly expresses its disdain for any tans that arise as a result of long hours of walking under the hot December sun.
We need to stop with the hypocrisy, demanding lightness from our women and then proceeding to shame them for bleaching themselves. We need to appreciate women light and dark. We need to be better than the sixty year old sins of our oppressors. A trend shouldn’t be determining our perceptions of something that is so intimate and profound to ones self-esteem. We cannot afford to have yet another generation of girls going to dangerous, expensive lengths, looking for a beauty that they’ve had all along – inside and out.
Mumbi Kanyogo is an upcoming freshman at Duke University. She considers herself a lover of words and culture, and is passionate about feminism, African development & politics and storytelling. Follow her on Twitter @mumbi_kanyogo
by Kennedy Kanyali
When I spoke to a friend of mine about Brainstorm’s decision to do an issue on “(Re)defining Kenyan Feminisms”, she raised the question (or I raised it, I don’t remember) of what exactly about Kenyan feminism needed to be redefined.
Certainly, there is a lot about Kenya’s history of women’s activism – against colonialism and white supremacist domination, against state repression, against neo-colonialism, against environmental degradation, against harmful cultural practices – that needs to be asserted, restated, yelled from the rooftops. When the Alliance Française recently showcased protest music from Kenya’s past and present, all the composers and performers were male. Yet we know, at least from what’s available, that performance in women-led protest had the key component of the indignant chant, the mournful dirge, the “in-your-face” excitement of getting one’s voice out there. So, women haven’t been quiet all this time and their work and world-making has been essential to what we call “good” in Kenyan society today.
And yet, there is a need to redefine Kenyan feminism or at least make it known that what feminists say and do today has been made possible by what other women and feminists who came before us have said and done. I am a feminist who also happens to be a queer cisgender male. Surely we must account for how this has come to pass in a society that demands that only two “sexes” exist and in which the roles, aspirations and worldviews of males and females differ markedly (though not naturally).
When I made peace with the inevitability of my queerness, way back when I was eighteen and fresh out of high school, I also made the decision that feminism and solidarity with women and feminists was how I was going to live out my politics. And when the chance presented itself in 2011 to meet and commune with fellow feminists (who are also based online), I enthusiastically took this as an opportunity to finally “come out” – to myself and to others – as a proud feminist. Till then, I had never thought that I’d be able to sit in a room full of feminists and just talk. We ended up working through a lot of issues, some of them arising out of our “personal” experiences in our day to day lives while others meeting us on account of activities that we had been conditioned to recognising as only “political”. It was in these meetings that I saw the feminist mantra “the personal is political” being rigorously applied in a way that was meant to change how we carried ourselves and our work, not necessarily making feminist work easier, but more wholesome and rewarding.
Since this transformation and sense of “becoming”, I have applied feminist ideals in my day to day life and in the way I interact with my surroundings. It has also made me aware of how my being a man in society means that I have access to a whole set of privileges kept away from women.
When I walk on the street, I don’t have to face harassment and catcalls from men who firstly view me as an object of their whim, nor am I afraid of walking at night or constantly keeping an eye for a potential rapist. I am listened to when I speak and declared “assertive” when I speak out. I say these things not as a confessional, way after which I have no responsibility for my complicity in the patriarchal system that privileges me at the expense of others.
I’ve spoken to male friends of mine who know patriarchal oppression and their complicity in it when they see it but nonetheless choose not to speak out. Why? Some don’t want the inconvenience of confrontation (as opposed to the high potential for violence or intimidation when women call men out on their sexism and misogyny). Others simply decide that they wouldn’t want someone to call them out when (not “if”) they act in the same way. People (or at least the younger people I hang out with) will rarely assert on the violence of patriarchal ideology to justify some sexist shit they’ve engaged in, but will definitely behave as if gender inequality and oppression is a given.
Patriarchy is bad for all of us, especially when primarily used as a means to justify violence, the present state of our political organisations, inequality, culture and even our relationship as humans with other species.
It is most effective when it accords certain privileges to certain members of society, while withholding the rest to a group of men. In Kenya and elsewhere, this is especially true about how the state is fundamentally a patriarchal organisation which discretionarily decides to what extent it will recognise the rights of women, or how adaptable it will be to the needs, goals, demands and existence of women who challenge its most fundamental premise.
Patriarchy is not a “ghost in the machine” in which its effects are free of human interventions. We have all been raised to recognise men as “leaders” and women as “followers”. We have been inculcated to believe that a man has pre-eminent control of a woman; he controls her labour and movement and “owns” all her productive and reproductive achievements. The family is the institution from which the state models itself, empowering it in such a way that it remains the first line of defence in social control. Think about how governments threaten individuals – not through them personally but their families – or how some people fear quitting an oppressive and humiliating job because they can’t afford to put their families in economic risk. Patriarchy works because some people are willing to defend it and benefit from it.
Many Kenyans realise how messed up our system is but fail to link our unique set of problems to a common denominator. When we talk about aggrandizement by political elites, massive socioeconomic inequality (8,300 Kenyans own three times as much as what the whole country spends on its budget), extrajudicial killing, militarism, high rates of crime, lack of amenities, a precariat class of urban slum dwellers living one day to the next, the killing of our environment, a new wave of state authoritarianism and so on, many of us refuse to choke it down to a political system that is modelled to precisely lead to these kinds of problems.
A kernel of truth exists in all these issues – wherever violence, inequality and heightened vulnerability is to be found, a patriarchal capitalist elite has caused it. When feminists seek to expand the scope of Kenya’s problems to include the longstanding economic, social and cultural oppression of women, we are branded as angry and bitter, and everything we say is ignored on account of its perceived irrationality. If “shrieking feminists” have ever existed, it is on account of screaming the truth that refuses to be acknowledged so many times.
When I think about what feminism means to me, I go back to that boy just fresh out of high school, coming into contact with the hatred and dissonance of this world – the homophobia, the violence, the exposure to a world which you’d always suspected existed but which you hoped never to see. The book reading queer kid, who searched everywhere for something that would smile back at him and found a home in the life-world of feminists who spoke out against the patriarchal roots of homophobia and who strived to create a space as safe as feminism for me.
In a world where political elites are making the decision that queer life should be snuffed out of Africa, I return to that place where I have been welcome so many times, where my contributions have been encouraged and accepted, and have affected me in much the same way as I intended them to affect others. Here I talk, I learn, I debate, I discuss, I create in ways that I have been told were inconceivable. That is what feminism means to me.
This essay was first Published in When Women Speak (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms. Download the full ebook here.