The F-word: The Place of Feminism In Contemporary Kenya

Brenda Wambui
19 September ,2017

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) on the topic “The F-Word”: What is the Place of Feminism in Contemporary Kenya?

“Patriarchy, in many ways, is the primary form of oppression. Its victims comprise half of the world (there are 102 men for every 100 women on the planet) and it transcends all other forms of discrimination – be it on race, religion, education, social class or sexuality. It is pervasive – transcending time, all social strata and affecting all societies. It is the most universal form of oppression.”

All Animals Are Equal

Feminism is a movement whose goal is to end patriarchy and achieve the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. This means that before society, and before our institutions, we should all be seen as deserving of the same rights, freedoms and opportunities. Feminism as a movement has had multiple waves, and many believe that we are living in its fourth wave, which is introspective and focused on the personal being political. The fourth wave is focused on intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw.

Intersectionality recognizes that we have intersecting social identities that then dictate how we are treated in society. These identities determine our oppression and discrimination, or lack thereof. Your sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental/physical (dis)ability and illness, religion and so on all intersect and overlap, contributing to your social position, thus dictating the level of oppression/discrimination you experience. As StaceyAnnChin said, all oppression is connected.

The fourth wave, however, has also seen the rise of “choice feminism.” Many times, people will state that “feminism is about choice” but I find this assertion dangerous. First, choice feminism assumes that women have unequivocal rights/freedoms, which we all know to be untrue. The choices women are able to make in our society are limited by our oppressive attitudes, cultures and institutions. It is like being in a prison with the option of staying in your cell or going outside for some sunshine. You may have a choice on what to do, but you are still in prison.

Second, by centering feminism on choice, we forget all the structural oppression women face. Choice feminism acts as a distraction, by focusing on the oppressed as having the key to ending their oppression – if only they make the right choice(s). Which is dangerous, because yet again, it assumes that they have unequivocal rights/freedoms. Which then enables victim blaming – you are earning less because of your choices, not because of the pay gap. You are being abused by your partner because you picked the wrong partner, not because of a culture of violence against women. It dovetails nicely with this tired statement: “women are their own worst enemies.” This focus on individual “choice” also conveniently prevents movement building and collective organizing, which are necessary for us to end patriarchy.

Third, it creates the assumption that the more choices one makes, the more freedoms one has. Again, this is a falsehood, but it is one that is easy to miss because of how well it dovetails with neo-liberalism. This assumption is what enables beauty brands to use feminism to sell cosmetics and apparel brands to sell T-shirts that read “This is what a feminist looks like” or “We should all be feminists.” Yes, you look good in these products, but this does not get us any closer to dismantling the patriarchy. It only makes us feel good and puts money in the pockets of neoliberal capitalists.

The most distracting thing about choice feminism is the slippery slope arguments it enables. Suddenly, we are caught up in arguments about whether taking/sharing nude photos is a feminist choice. Whether marriage is a feminist choice. Whether starring in pornography is a feminist choice. What makes a good feminist. What makes a bad one, and so on. Meanwhile, the patriarchy remains untouched – unbothered. The status quo is upheld – power remains largely with men, and women remain objects as opposed to becoming subjects.

Yes, feminism is a choice. But not all choices are feminist. Nor do they have to be. [I asked the audience: if I, a feminist, decide not to shower, is that a feminist choice?] The oppression of women is a collaborative effort between the society and its institutions. This is why the 11th Kenyan Parliament, in which President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Coalition had both a senate and national assembly majority, was unable and unwilling to pass the two-thirds gender bill [which is a constitutional requirement.] The 11th Parliament was unconstitutional. So is the 12th, but the country doesn’t care, because it reflects the attitudes we hold towards women in Kenya.

Which is why the feminist movement is necessary in this country where women are considered secondary citizens, undeserving of public and political space. Where rape culture (in which rape and sexual violence, typically against women, is considered the norm/tolerated/excused) is rampant. How does rape culture manifest itself in Kenya? Through genital mutilation, through sexual harassment at work and on the streets, through violence against queer and trans people, through domestic and intimate partner violence, through dating violence (that women experience from men interested in them), through emotional abuse, through sex trafficking, through femicide, through child marriage, through sexual violence (such as rape, stripping and assault), and through technology assisted violence (such as online bullying and threats).

Our feminism, first and foremost, must target the end of rape culture and violence against women. Why? Because it is intended to limit the extent to which women can participate in society. It is intended to keep women small, and in their place. They can only go as far as men will let them. Venture any further and what happens? Violence. Which is why women politicians are permanently being threatened with rape, stripping and other forms of violence. Why they have to have more security. Why their entourages are heckled and even stoned. It is also why men harass women on the streets, and why the go-to threat for many men towards women is “we will rape you.”

Our society, and most around the world, privilege men and masculinity while penalizing women and femininity [which is why the LGBTQI community experiences similar violence]. Privilege is a special right/advantage/immunity granted to a person or group of people simply by virtue of belonging to said group, not because they have done anything to earn it. How do we deal with male privilege in the Kenyan society?

For women and femmes, I believe the answer is intersectional feminism. Flavia Dzodan aptly said “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” If we let intersectionality guide us, wonderful things happen. We expand our scope and make our movement inclusive. People live more fully due to this inclusion/recognition, and more voices join the fray. We realize that there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, as such feminism would erase and exclude (given the ways in which we are different/hold multiple identities, focusing only on common ground would be harmful.) When we include race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and other identity markers in our feminism and feminist analysis, we strengthen the movement. It is no longer about those who already occupy a disproportionate amount of space posturing as if they are being inclusive while ceding nothing.

For men, I believe the answer is the destruction of toxic masculinity. Patriarchy places a premium on the masculine while penalizing the feminine. Which is why the institution of “real men” exists – real men don’t cry/show emotion, they don’t raise their children (they babysit), they don’t cook or clean, they make more money than their female partners, they are uncontrollable beasts in the presence of women, and so on. This institution is toxic, and it exercises its power through the patriarchy. It restricts the amount of space available to women and femmes as well as the men themselves, and it is up to them to destroy it as allies, and increase this space.

Right now in Kenya, the most pertinent feminist issue is representation, because women make up more than half of Kenya’s population yet we are barely represented in our institutions, especially public ones. The feminist movement and its allies here need to educate, agitate and organize (credit to Dr. Ambedkar) to ensure that the gender two-thirds bill is passed, and that our public institutions are constitutionally constituted. Even when we achieve this goal, we need to continue to fight for equal representation, because (#WeAre52pc).

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