When I was 16, I began to write a novel about Wambui, a girl who was born with a rebellious spirit. In my story, I depicted Wambui as a girl who constantly questioned and defied gender norms. Her grandmother was constantly lamenting that Wambui had inherited the rebellious spirit of her grandfather, and often wished that her younger brother, Kiarie had inherited it instead. She worried that a girl with a rebellious spirit would never find a man to marry her.
One of the highlights of the novel, was when at the age of 15, Wambui was required to help prepare for Kiarie’s circumcision party. Consumed with anger, Wambui got into a heated argument with her grandmother after refusing to participate in preparing or even attend the celebration. She reasoned that it was not fair that Kiarie’s manhood got to be celebrated, yet her womanhood was not. While her grandmother tried to explain that it was only natural to hold a party when a boy grows into man, Wambui contended that she too had grown into a woman, and deserved a party. She asked her grandmother, why the growth of her breasts and hips, as markers of growing into a woman were not celebrated. “I too, want the beauty of my womanhood to be celebrated.” she demanded.
The novel was my reflection then of how female sexuality was handled differently compared to male sexuality. I was expressing my dissatisfaction and outrage with these differences. I had attended a few of these ceremonies where a small, timid looking 13 year old boy who had just undergone circumcision would be ushered into manhood. The speeches given in such ceremonies aimed at empowering the boy to take on the challenges and responsibilities of being a man. Every sentence of the speeches began with the phrase “now that you are a man” and this was followed with words that instilled courage, pride and authority. I contrasted with with my “now that you are a woman” speech, with was followed with words that instilled fear, embarrassment and domesticity.
While these 13 year old men would be showered with gifts and words of wisdom, I had never seen a similar event to usher a girl into womanhood. The passage to womanhood was a private affair, addressed in hushed and not so pleasant conversation often between a girl and an older woman. The passage to manhood on the other hand was a public affair, with pomp, colour and ululation. I hated the invisibility of being a woman; unworthy of notice or acknowledgment.
I hated the fact that the transition to being a man came with freedom, liberation and with mandate to take authority, yet for girls, the transition was the exact opposite. Being a woman came with extra policing, caution and ignominy. The growing bodies of girls were deemed evil, with the ability to “tempt men”, who were “naturally weak”. It is no wonder, many girls walked with a stoop to hide their growing breasts, or tied sweaters around their hips to conceal their growing hips.
My novel was my 16 year old way of saying that there is something wrong with the cultural valuation of girls and boys. It was was my way of saying that something is amiss with the way society handles the sexuality of boys and that of girls, and the messages that come with each. It was my way of questioning the undue pressure that these gendered messaged place on women and men. The pressure on women to be “proper”, to be care givers and to shoulder the heavier portion of domestic responsibilities. The pressure on men to be “macho”, unfeeling and in many cases to shoulder the heavier portion of financial responsibilities.
My novel was and is still my way of saying that we need liberation from the shackles and burdens imposed by society; burdens and shackles that keep men and women chained and weighed down; chained and weighed down by the yoke and pressures of gender roles and expectations.
As Nancy Smith says in her poem:
For every woman who is tired of acting weak
When she knows that she is strong
There is a man who is tired of appearing strong When he feels vulnerable
For every woman who is tired of being called ‘an emotional female’
There is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle
For every woman who feels ‘tied down’ by her children
There is a man who is denied the full pleasure of parenthood
For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation
There is a man who finds that the way to freedom has been made a little easier.