Rafiki – A Kenyan Love Story

Guest Writer
2 October ,2018

by Sheena M

I arrived about 20 minutes early, and already there was a large gathering waiting to see Rafiki. The moment I walked into the waiting area at Prestige Plaza cinemas, I felt the stares. We were all sizing each other up. Who are you? Do I know you? Are you a threat? Do I have to be concerned about your presence?

It was all nerves, muscles tensed and ready to spring into action. It was like we were all doing something we knew our parents would not approve of. This feeling wasn’t unfounded. I mean, you only need to look at Ezekiel Mutua’s tweets about this movie to how bad it is. So being at the cinema waiting to watch a movie about two Kenyan girls falling in love felt like a risk in itself, whatever your sexual orientation.

The movie’s director Wanuri Kahiu has already given various statements in the media about why she chose to go ahead with Rafiki, despite it not being welcome in its own home. She insisted that she wanted to make a love story and “contribute to that language of softness.” I can confidently say that Wanuri accomplished that desire.

Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to be screened at a Cannes Film Festival –it was filmed earlier last year. To have a Kenyan film, about Kenyans, made by Kenyans, showcased at the largest international showcase of cinematic art is a feat to be celebrated. Wanuri is no stranger to the movie scene. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, won awards at the Pan African Film Festival and the African Movie Academy Awards. While that movie was based on the events of the 1998 bombings on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Rafiki’s inspiration was drawn from the 2007 Caine Prize Winning Short Story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.

Watching Rafiki was a reminder that we are really all the same. The 83-minute film was so captivating that I did not want it to end.

The Plot

Set in a fictional place called Slopes in Kenya, Rafiki tells the story of Kena (played by Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy living a regular Kenyan life. As we watch Kena skating along and meeting up with her male friends, it’s clear that she’s been accepted as ‘one of the guys’, even though one of the guys calls her ‘his number one girl’. When Kena’s not hanging out with Blacksta, she’s helping her dad run his shop or making sure her mom’s fed – a good Kenyan girl doing the good Kenyan girl thing.

Then one day, Kena notices a girl noticing her. This girl is obviously different – you can tell from her long, multi-coloured braids and the makeup. Even though this girl is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opponent, Kena can’t help but be drawn to her. A friendship quickly blossoms between Kena and Ziki (played by Sheila Munyiva) and just as quickly grows into something more.

“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates.”

~ Wanuri Kahiu

The opening scene of Rafiki is like an ode to all things Kenyan. Kiosks, campaign posters stuck on walls and the noa noa guy sharpening knives at the corner all blend together to paint the picture of a local Kenyan neighbourhood. As soon as the movie started, whatever tension we all had within us began to dissipate. Watching such familiar scenes drew us into a sense of comfort, a feeling of being home, even before we heard anyone speak onscreen.

As an audience, that bound us instantly. Kena may as well have been one of us – going to church with her mother every Sunday, hanging out with her boys at the local spot, eating chapo dondo. It only made the tender moments more tender and the harsh ones more painful, more alive, more real. We laughed as one at the funny parts, held our breaths when we didn’t know what was coming, gasped at the moments that shocked us and cried silently as we watched Kena and Ziki struggle to stay true to themselves.

The music was on point as well. From Kena skating along to the gentle moments between Kena and Ziki, the songs that played throughout the movie matched the mood perfectly.  It was no surprise that the artists featured include some of Kenya’s most dynamic musicians. Muthoni the Drummer Queen, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Chemutai Sage, Mumbi Kasumba, Njoki Karu, Trina Mungai and Jaaz Odongo all lent their musical prowess to the magic of Rafiki.

Wanuri’s directing shines brightest in the use of vivid close ups shots and nothing but facial expressions, showing us a lot of what is said through the unsaid, the sneer, the turn of the check, looking away and so forth. The first time Kena and Ziki share an intense staredown, it lasts long enough to undeniably feel the emotion behind it. It also lasts long enough to deliberately make us uncomfortable.

Not for any other reason other than the guilt of intruding on a moment of intimacy.

The movie tells the story of how Kena and Ziki find love and then face opposition from their family and friends because of it. Wanuri’s creative storytelling and the actors’ in-depth portrayal of their characters pull us in.  The mirror image given by Rafiki is such an accurate reflection of our society that it’s impossible not to be moved.

All things 254

The hairstyles, the clothes, the buildings, the boda boda guy with his pimped out ride and even the local neighbourhood gossip were all familiar to anyone who’s lived in Kenya. Seeing all of them in cinema in a high-quality movie was surreal. It made everything seem possible. And the dialogue was so typically Kenyan we couldn’t help but relate. If anything it’s the way we say things that made many of us laugh out loud. Like Ziki saying, “A nurse? You? Why?”

Wanuri was right.

We don’t get to see as many moments of tenderness in cinema as exist in real life. Rafiki removed the veil from things we normally distance from ourselves. It helped us see that we are just as capable of love as we are of everything that is not.

And that is what makes Rafiki a powerful movie.


Sheena M is in love with words and how they shape themselves. That’s why she keeps a blog that’s not as ‘organised’ as most. To see her musings, check out her blog What She Thinks

Why We Should #Repeal162

Guest Writer
20 March ,2018

by Elizabeth Kabari

You may have seen the hashtag #Repeal162 on your social media feeds recently. Some of you are sure that it concerns you; others are sure that it doesn’t. However, it should concern everyone because it is a human rights issue, and the denial of rights for one is a denial of rights for all.

The #Repeal162 movement is a part of the struggle for the recognition and protection of the rights of the LGBTQIAPK community in Kenya. It consists of 2 ongoing court cases: Eric Gitari v Attorney General & another (Petition no. 150 of 2016) and John Mathenge and 7 others v Attorney General (Petition no. 234 of 2016).

The main purpose of these petitions is to ask the court to declare Section 162 (a) and (c) and section 165 of the Penal Code (Cap 63) as unconstitutional and therefore inapplicable in Kenya.

Section 162 of the Penal Code makes it a felony, punishable by 14 years’ imprisonment, for any person to:

  1. have carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; or
  2. have carnal knowledge of an animal; or
  3. permit a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature.

Additionally, where the above acts are performed without the consent of the other person or where consent was obtained through force, coercion, lies etc, the prison sentence goes up to 21 years.

Section 165 is similar and states that:

Any male person who, whether in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person, or procures another male person to commit any act of gross indecency with him, or attempts to procure the commission of any such act by any male person with himself or with another male person, whether in public or private, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for five years.

Both sections fall under the chapter 15 of the Penal Code which provides for “offences against morality.” The Penal Code we have is basically copied and pasted from 19th Century Colonial English criminal law. This chapter in particular exists to ensure that Christian principles, which were very important in England at that time, could be more thoroughly enforced. This is illustrated by the language used in the chapter.

For example, Section 151 criminalises the “detention of females for immoral purposes” while Section 153 criminalises persistently soliciting or importuning for “immoral purposes”. The phrase “immoral purposes” as used in these sections means a sexual purpose. This conflation of morality and sex is a very Judeo- Christian idea. Furthermore, Section 165 criminalises “gross indecency” between men. The term “gross indecency” is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a term formerly used to denote certain criminal offences, in particular sexual activity between men (before this was decriminalized) and sexual offences against children”. The Judeo-Christian influence shines through here too.

The purpose of the law should not be to enforce morality, Christian or otherwise. Law should be a means by which people’s behaviour is regulated to ensure they do not harm each other and can co-exist peacefully.

What’s the difference? Morality is a fluid and subjective code. Every culture, religion, group has its own moral code, and this code is constantly changing and evolving to suit the needs and context of the people. Therefore, the law cannot be a tool for enforcing morality in non-homogenous societies such as Kenya which consists of at least 44 tribes, at least 6 religions (if you cluster all the various Christian denominations into one religion and traditional religions into another), 3 main economic classes…the list goes on.

With all this diversity, it is impossible that we will all subscribe to the same moral codes, and even more impossible that we will all agree on Christian morality as the way to go. Thus, the law should be neutral.

This concept is acknowledged in our Constitution. We note that one of the reasons we adopted our Constitution is because we are “…proud of our ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, and determined to live in peace and unity as one indivisible sovereign nation.” We recognize that to live in peace together, we need to come up with a common set of supreme rules which bind and protect everyone. We accept that we cannot depend on our individual moral codes if we are to co-exist because if we do so, we exclude Kenyans who do not subscribe to the same code from protection and recognition by the law.

In the case of Section 162 and Section 165, we have not only excluded the LGBTQI community from protection by the law, but also justified their persecution.

Furthermore, there is no definition in Cap 63 of the phrase “against the order of nature” which is used in Section 162(a) and (c). If we were to interpret is as lay people, there would also be no way to determine what the “order of nature” is. Nature is as nature does and thus varies from species to species and from time to time.

However, the Kenyan courts have accepted that whatever this phrase means, it includes sodomy, more specifically, anal penetration of one man by another. This interpretation is one that was inherited from England, just like our Penal Code. I used the phrase “includes sodomy” because, from my understanding of the Kambi case referenced above, sex that is “against the order of nature” does not seem to only be limited to sodomy. Hence, case law only gives us a partial definition.

If we are to assume based on this partial definition and our understanding of the origins of the Penal Code, and purpose of Chapter 15 in particular, that the natural order of sex is sex for procreation, then any sex that cannot result in reproduction is outlawed by Section 162(a) and (c). This includes: oral sex, hand-play, anal sex etc. It is irrelevant whether the sex is between heterosexual participants or homosexual participants.

Section 162(c) makes it clear that consent is not a defence as it expressly outlaws consensual sex merely on the grounds that it is “against the order of nature”, that is, against the Christian idea of what sex should look like. Meanwhile, Section 165 criminalises all sexual activities between men regardless of whether there is consent or not, because that is not how Christianity envisions sex. The criminal element in these sections is derived purely from the kind of sex being had, not because there is anything inherently wrong with said sex, but because the Bible decreed it to be wrong.

While there is nothing wrong with subscribing to Christian ideals when it comes to sex or anything else, this is a personal and private decision in which the state should not interfere. Similarly, where people choose not to subscribe to Christian ideals, the law should not interfere. The law only comes in when, in upholding their beliefs, a person goes against the supreme rules that we have all agreed on – the Constitution. For example, in the case of sexual relationships, the law should only come in where a constitutional right is violated, such as nonconsensual sex, which violates the right to human dignity (Article 28) and the right to freedom and security of the person (Article 29).

By forcing Christian ideals on all Kenyans, Section 162 (a) and (c) and Section 165 violate the right to freedom from discrimination (Article 27), the right to privacy (Article 31), and freedom of conscience and belief and opinion (Article 32).

Finally, there’s the issue of enforcing these sections. When addressed promptly and efficiently, it is easy to prove sodomy (in this instance, I use sodomy to mean the nonconsensual anal penetration of one male by another) and bestiality. However, in the case of the consensual sex criminalised by Section 162(a) and (c) and Section 165, how can you prove anything happened?

In the first place, you have no victim(s), thus no complaint to the police and no P3 form. This means no material evidence.  And, unless this sex was had in public, you have no witnesses and consequently, no oral evidence. How can you prosecute such a case? You can’t; at least not successfully.

Because of the difficulty in actually proving these cases, the police seldom bother to follow through with arrests made under Section 162 and 165, unless the offence complained of is sodomy or bestiality. However, this does not stop police from raiding gay bars and other gay-friendly spaces to harass patrons, threaten them with charges of prostitution and sodomy, and in some cases, arrest and extort them for money. This is a blatant violation of human rights.

Chapter 15 also leads government officials to believe they have the power to outlaw events that they think promote homosexuality. While such declarations have no standing in law because they are procedurally defective, they are still effective and interfere with the lives of Kenyans generally, be they part of the LGBTQI community or not.

Whichever way you look at it, be it from a validity standpoint or from an enforcement point of view, Section 162 (a) and (c) and Section 165 of the Penal Code have no place in Kenya. They call for the State to insert itself where it does not belong and interfere with Kenyans’ enjoyment of their rights. They also enable the harassment and extortion of Kenyans by police. 

Most importantly, they threaten the diversity we cite as a point of national pride in our Constitution. which is why we all need to support the #Repeal162 movement.

Elizabeth is an advocate with a passion for human rights and a love for research and reading.

Creating Others: A Two Story Dialogue

Michael Onsando
10 May ,2016

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Ed: Today we are running two essays. Both of these essays are from the same book and circle around insecurity. In reading these essays I’d like us too pay close attention to “othering” and how othering happens. In both these pieces, for different reasons, community fails as a security mechanism. When faced with our selves/ our privilege would we still hold ourselves to our principles? These are the questions demanded by intersectionality and, in many ways, these are the questions that these two short pieces ask.


by Nyambura Chege

My Uncle ‘Mucene’ (gossip) came to visit. He said he had news to tell us, so my father and I listened keenly while indulging in a cream tea. “I tell you, it’s been a long night for me and Mama watoto,” he started saying.

“Why, what happened?” my father, his brother-in-law, asked.

“Our neighbour’s house was burglarised, and I think some of them were beaten because all we could hear from our bedroom was Mama watoto screaming in pain.”

My father was astounded. “You did not go to help them?” “

Go where?! And expose ourselves voluntarily so that they can rob and beat us silly as well? Ah-no, be serious! No way. We waited quietly, and prayed for them…just hoping that the thugs would leave. It’s all we could do.”

“You think cowering away in your home while your neighbour was being terrorised is all-that-you-could-do for them, uncle Otieno?” I asked, incredulously.

Readjusting himself in his seat, he said, “You people just don’t want to understand what I’m saying, Nyambura.”

The matter was laid to rest.

Then two weeks later, my father got a call from Uncle Otieno in the middle of the night. He told me how their conversation went:

Uncle ‘Mucene’ was sobbing. “Peter! Please do something! They’re in the house asking us to come out!”

“What are you talking about? Who is in the house?”

“The thugs, they’re here! Please call for help. Please come and help us! We’re going to die!”

At this point, Uncle ‘Mucene’ was barely audible. “Otieno, call your neighbours! Meanwhile, I’ll be praying for you!” my father said, and terminated the call. It so happens that my Dad had relayed Uncle ‘Mucene’s’ philosophies to some of their shared friends, and they in turn had decided that he needed to be taught a lesson.

Security in our beloved Kenya has to begin from the grassroots. We have to change how we think and how we react to people being robbed, carjacked, kidnapped, raped, terrorised, and even murdered. Why don’t we start minding each other, it has to start somewhere, so why not there— mind each other. It is easier said than done, yes, but it is achievable.

Mind each other.

Still Unhuman

by Aisha Ali

The other day I was involved in a debate about street harassment when the man I was debating confidently proclaimed “Women get harassed on the streets because they allow it.”

This statement shut me up for a few seconds. As soon as I recovered, I inquired:

“What does this mean?”

“If women stood up against men who harass them, they wouldn’t harass them.”

“You do know that the average woman was no match to the average man, and standing up to men most of the time means physical violence. Women have even been killed.”

“If you believe in something, then you should be willing to face violence for it. Even if you have to die,” he said in a very matter-of-fact tone.

Since then, I have been thinking about the number of times I have been harassed by men simply for existing female. One day three men surrounded me in a bus at night, and harassed me to the point of tears in the presence of the bus conductor who didn’t do anything. Another, a man said hi to me and when I refused to respond, grabbed my arm and shook me, and followed this with insults.

It hit me that day that women are not human. When a person requires your death to believe that you are worthy of safety, you know that this person doesn’t consider you a human being who deserves to exist in a safe environment. Women are getting physically attacked by men who feel entitled to them. Women are being killed for not accommodating these men.

Yet this person could stand there and demand more harm towards women, more death of women, before he can admit that the problem is men. He would rather see women die, before he accepts that the fault of harassment of women lies firmly on men. Every time I leave the comfort of my home, I know that my body, my being female makes me a target. And that I am responsible for my own safety.

And I know that if anything were to happen to me, I’d be the one to blame. If I were to die, I’d be responsible for my own death.

The man I was talking to didn’t notice the shift in my body language. He didn’t notice me folding into myself a little, moving away from him. He didn’t notice me recognizing yet another man I can’t trust to keep me safe.

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

Of Men In Checked Shirts and Little Children

Guest Writer
19 April ,2016


This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Murugi Kagotho

I met him the other day, this man. He was dressed in his characteristic faded yellow checked shirt that now looked overly worn, brown khakis, and the hat I had grown so accustomed to seeing. I met him the other day, 13 years later, and this time round, I looked him in the face, with no fear. He seemed taken aback, intimidated in fact, and though for some reason my words failed me at the moment, I am sure that he knew he was no longer in control.I had regained my ground – and intended on keeping it.

I must have been around 11 when I saw him for the first time, this man. Walking home from school, I noticed him pass me by then suddenly stop. I could feel his eyes on me for a long time, but being young and naive, it never struck me as particularly strange. This was until I saw him the next day, standing obscurely hidden along the road as if waiting for something, and that something turned out to be me. He stared and stared at me this man, day after day, until he finally gathered the courage to start trailing me. He followed me home. Close, but not close enough to raise any suspicion from anyone. And that was when my instincts made me realize that this checked shirt may lead me to my grave. I remember running home and frantically telling my mum what was going on, and true to say, when we stepped out of the house, we could see him standing at the corner just peering in the direction I had just ran to. My mother never got a good look at his face.

Not to say that he never stopped following me, but after that, my mother talked to the shop owners, who were our friends, about it, and every time I thought this man was watching me, I would slip into a shop and stay there till the shop owner called my mum or had someone escort me home. Needless to say, this man was so obscure that my attempts to describe him to anyone always proved unproductive. It’s as if he did not exist except in my mind, and there, he existed for the sole purpose of filling me with fear. I was lucky that he did not take it any further.

And so I met him the other day, this man. 13 years later, still looking exactly as I remembered him, albeit run down by life. I bet he recognized me at once, recognized how much I had grown and how much of a woman I had become. I bet he recognized the fearlessness and the confidence I was now shoving into his face. I was now grown enough to confront him.

I stared him down, this man, on behalf of all the little boys and little girls that men like him find easy prey. I stared him down on behalf of every little boy and little girl whose innocence has been taken advantage of by a perverse stranger. For every little boy and little girl who is unaware of the men and women around them with intentions that are far from good. For every little boy and little girl who has to live in fear because their parents are not around enough to listen to what they have to say about the man that grabs their hand every day after school. I stared him down on behalf of our little boys and little girls whose childhood has been shortened by the need to be wary of the life around them; of the things they hear and the things they see. I stared him down so that he would know that he had lost the battle and the war, and that he could no longer use his power to intimidate and scare me as he once had.

I may not have spoken a single word to this man in the checked shirt, but he understood every single thing I had intended to say, and the next time I meet him, on behalf of every little child out there, be sure that my words will not fail me.

Murugi Kagotho is a multipotentialite, and an excessive capitalizer of letters and hyphenator of words. Follow her on Twitter.

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

What About The Girl Child?

Brenda Wambui
22 March ,2016

Two weeks ago in Bungoma County, twenty girls from Chelebei Secondary Schoolgirls in Mt Elgon were confirmed pregnant after a routine check by the school when they returned from the December holidays.

Their deputy principal, David Emachar, blamed the girls’ parents for not closely monitoring their children’s activities and whereabouts during the holidays, saying “we have tried our best through guidance and counselling sessions and it is unfortunate that such still occur. We ask the parents to come and support our efforts by monitoring the children’s movements.”

Parents, on the other hand, blamed the school for letting the girls down. They felt that since they were busy working hard so as to fend for their families, the school should have taken a more active role in preventing this occurrence. This shows how these poor girls’ lives are affected by the intersection of multiple problems, such as poverty (which leaves their parents unable to spend as much time as they would like monitoring their children), lack of reproductive health education (our legislators continue to hold back the Reproductive Health Bill from becoming law, yet it would ensure children such as these at least understand their bodies, that chances of them being taken advantage of by adults are reduced, and that when disasters such as this one occur, they can receive the best care), and perhaps worst of all, being a girl child in Kenya and having to face sexism from every possible source in their lives.

One of the residents interviewed said that these girls typically had to walk long distances to and from school, and they get waylaid by boys from neighbouring schools and areas. Many parties agreed that such cases would be fewer if the schools had dormitories. The deputy principal added “We are shocked by this incident, it has proved to be very much expensive to us because we are forced to offer guiding and counseling sessions and also inviting different speakers to talk to them so that they can accept their status and carry on with their education.” As if it is a burden to offer sex education and/or guidance and counselling to these girls. This feels like victim blaming at its worst.

What we have here is a failure to recognize this for what it is: sexual abuse of minors. The fact that the girls have to be kept at school to be safe from other (male) members of their societies is saddening. That the onus is on them, as children, to be “guided and counselled” out of having sex with boys/men from their societies, as opposed to strongly warning these boys/men against statutorily raping these girls (if they are minors, which they likely are, they cannot consent, and this automatically makes it statutory rape as opposed to sex), is even more so.

Just this week, it was reported that five school girls in Migori County had been impregnated by boda boda drivers. One of the pregnant girls, who is only 14 years old, said that since she was under the care of her relative (who is a boda boda driver), she had no choice but to follow him to the sugar plantation every afternoon. Many of the girls wanted to drop out due to being ridiculed by their fellow students, and other villagers. This shows the culture of victim blaming we have perfected in Kenya. It also shows that these people are desensitized, do not consider what happened as rape (most times, these girls have no power in these situations), and somehow think of these girls as adults as opposed to children who deserve to be taken care of by everyone in their community.

The 2015 National Adolescent and Youth preliminary report found that teachers and boda boda drivers were mostly to blame for early pregnancy cases, which then result in school drop-outs and early marriages. Other reasons include unsafe sexual behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and parental negligence.

The survey that informed the report found that teenage pregnancies are linked to level of education, with a majority (36%) of teenage mothers aged between 15 and 19 (either mothers or pregnant with their first child) having only completed primary school. 33% had no education at all, 19% had not even completed primary school, and only 12% had completed secondary school. This is a vicious cycle that ensures that this continues to happen, because these women are likely to raise these children in poverty, and girls coming from such homes will likely fall prey to the same kind of sexual abuse their mothers did.

Lack of reproductive health education was pointed out as a key reason for these pregnancies, alongside lack of community engagement. The report says that “Teenage mothers face a greater risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. The young mothers are prone to abort, which can also lead to death. They are also likely to suffer from poor mental and general health, considering the stress they undergo.”

It is time we stopped lying to ourselves using anecdotes that the girl child in Kenya is well off, or as some would say, “being prioritized in favour of the boy child,” who does not face challenges of the same magnitude. One key to ending the cycle of poverty in Kenya is putting an end to the perpetuation of sexual abuse against young girls, ensuring they receive a good education and have a shot at bettering their lives, and the lives of those around them.

As Barack Obama said, “They are issues of right or wrong in any culture. But they are also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports centre: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”

Loud Man With An Opinion

Guest Writer
8 December ,2015

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 Muthoni Maingi

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.

The Presence of a Woman is Not Consent

Guest Writer
3 November ,2015

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

Evidence of F*cking: A Case for Better Discourse Around Sex

Guest Writer
27 October ,2015

by Wanjeri Gakuru

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

Jail? That’s a Feminist Issue Too

Guest Writer
6 October ,2015

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[1]. 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[2]. 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”[3]—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[4], 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[5]. 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,”[6] 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.”[7] 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[8]. 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. [9]

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.[10]

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].[11]

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.[12] “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.”[13] Within a hetero-patriarchal regime, a penal justice system will always apportion its punishments unevenly, skewing its violence towards and against women[14].

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[15] 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.


[1]     Lisa Vetten, “The imprisonment of women in Africa” (2003), in Human Rights in African Prisons edited by Jeremy Sarkin, HSRC Press, 2008.

[2]     Kenya Bureau of Statistics, “Statistical Abstract 2012”

[3]     Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”, 1998.

[4]     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.

[5]     Keguro Macharia, “Beyond Peace”, 2013.

[6]     “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.

[7]     Mohammed Adow, Not Yet Kenyan, 2013.

[8]     “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.

[9]     Ruth Mumbi, “Kenya: Arrest of women human rights defenders in Huruma,” Pambazuka 521 (2011-03-17).

[10]   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.

[11]   Violence Against Women in Kenya: Report prepared for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), 2003.

[12]   The United Nations Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners: Short guide, Prison Reform International, 2013.

  • [12] A considerable proportion of women offenders are in prison as a direct or indirect result of multiple layers of discrimination and deprivation.
  • [12] Women mainly commit petty crimes closely linked to poverty, such as theft, fraud and minor drug related offences.
  • [12] Only a small minority of women are convicted of violent offences, and a large majority of them have been victims of violence themselves.

[13]   Mariame Kaba, “Cognitive Dissonance: Ending Rape Culture By Sentencing People to Judicial Rape”, US Prison Culture, 2013.

[14]   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.

[15]   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.

Not Your Meat

Guest Writer
15 September ,2015

by Marziya Mohammedali



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