Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for June, 2015

Are girls getting more empowered ?

As girls, one of our greatest aspirations in primary school was to be requested to make tea for teachers in the staff room during break time. This was a great honour, feted to the most hardworking, responsible and mature girls. While boys aspired to explore the outside world through play, we aspired to be honoured with the role of making tea, often envying the few that earned this role. At such an early age, we were already being taught and internalizing the need to aspire for the domestic domain.

Woman make me some tea

In Form 2, one day while eating as I walked along the school corridors, I came across one of my teachers, a furious looking Mr. Gitau, who for about ten minutes or so, gave me a lecture on how disgraceful it was for a woman to eat in public. I stopped eating in public, as I began to internalize the message that the public domain was not a space for me to demonstrate my lack of inhibition.

Still in Form 2, while giving us the results of our chemistry exam, the same Mr. Gitau called out Joyce, who had performed dismally, to pick her paper. With a look of disgust on his face, Mr. Gitau asked Joyce why she wanted to look like a man, if she couldn’t get the grades of a man. Joyce had cut her hair short and natural, a haircut that she didn’t deserve if she didn’t make “manly grades”. This was among the many messages that as girls, we would receive in life, telling us that society never expected us to lead. We began to internalize messages that told us that leadership was a male role, and following was a female role. A message that was hammered to us at home, at school, and in church.

In Form 3, during a Biology lesson on reproductive health, the teacher Mrs. Wambua, while describing the female genitalia, pointed out with disappointment that girls no longer had their clitoris removed through circumcision. She went on, talking about how girls had become so wild, “jumping on every man”, now that they were no longer in danger of having their clitoris removed. We began to exercise caution, not to be considered wild or aggressive, because we had began to internalize the message that women needed to be subdued, and women who did not exercise restraint needed to be tamed.

While media and policy makers tell us that it is time to be alarmed by the “over-empowerment” of the girl child, I argue that it is time to interrogate the hidden curriculum in our schools. As the examples that I have given from my schooling life demonstrate, a hidden curriculum exists in the education system. Through the hidden curriculum, girls learn to aspire for the domestic domain, to leave the public domain for boys, and to exercise restrain in the public domain if they get into it.

Consequently, despite the fact that girls are enrolling in school at equal, and in some cases higher rates than boys, dropping out less and performing better than boys, women’s participation in the public domain, and more so, in positions of leadership remains wanting. For instance, even though I attended a university with a higher number of female students compared to male students, in the four years that I was in university, we only had one female president of the student union. Close to 10 years down the line, I have not heard of another female president of the student union since then.

It is possible to dismiss my argument based on the fact that the examples I give took place more than 15 years ago. However, a conversation that I had recently with a friend of mine proves that it is not yet time to dismiss my argument. My friend was having a conversation with her six year old son, during which she stated something about her becoming president. Her son started to laugh, and when my friend asked why he was laughing, the son said “mum, you can’t be a president”. Upon asking why, the son said, “because you are a girl”. Her son has also been singing a rhyme that he learnt in school that goes something like “Big boys, lazy girls”, a rhyme that I learnt in my pre-school years, about a quarter of a century ago.

Are girls more empowered - 1

So yes, girls may be enrolling in school at the same rate or higher than boys, dropping out less, and even making better grades than boys, or advancing to higher levels of education than the boys. But does that mean that girls and women are now more empowered than boys, that we need to be alarmed?

If women have risen, as the media and policy makers want us to believe, then why is the public domain, and more so, political leadership still dominated by men? Why don’t we have a single elected female governor or senator? Why are only 5.5% of elected MPs female, and only 5.9% of elected MCAs female?

We need to interrogate messages by the media and policy makers telling us that girls are becoming more independent, while boys cling onto their parents for support even when they are grown adults with jobs. That women are taking over, while men losing out, that women are rising or have indeed risen. We need to ask “what are girls learning in school”?

The revolution will be intimate

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A few weeks ago, my Facebook friends were subjected to family drama on my page. A relative of mine, clearly unhappy with my gay rights activism, demonstrated his outrage by indicating that I had taken what he referred to as “ the gay and unnatural joke too far”, and to “unacceptable heights.” He reminded me of his relationship with me, one that would make him my father in cultural terms.

I hadn’t seen that coming to be honest, and so I didn’t have a response ready. My first instinct was to ignore, say or do nothing. This response was driven by ideas of the family as private, and exposing family affairs to my more than 700 Facebook friends, many of whom, I do not even know, was in my opinion, rather inappropriate. This response was also driven by the fact that in my culture it is taboo to confront someone accorded the status of a father, particularly on a topic as taboo as sexuality, and more so non-conforming sexual identities.

Although I decided to settle on the ignore option, my mind remained unsettled. Here I was, running a blog that aims to question gender and social norms that have for a long period silenced women, and disadvantaged them, yet social norms and cultural inhibitions were posing a barrier to me confronting the intimidation that I was facing and attempts to silence me, on an issue that I strongly believe in. If I wasn’t going to walk the talk, then it was pointless and hypocritical of me to continue challenging women to refuse getting confined to the boxes created by culture. It would be hypocritical of me to continue challenging women to speak out and break the silence of abuse, even in spaces as private as the home.

I thought about this in the context of a cultural environment that is hell bent on stifling women in the public domain. I remembered how the cultural position of women has disadvantaged them, rendering women voiceless and powerless, particularly in the political scene. The case of some county assemblies in Kenya came to mind, with some refusing nominated members of county assemblies (MCAs), many of whom are women, to be sworn in. In some counties,  such as NairobiKisii and Kiambu among others, nominated MCAs, who are mostly female, are not allowed to vote or sit in committees in the assemblies. In one county, the Gender Commission, had to intervene, as the county assembly would not hold any discussions in the presence of nominated MCAs, the majority of whom are female, and whenever they got in, the assembly would halt its discussions.

Nominated women in county assemblies were and are still being silenced, and reminded that they don’t have equal rights to the political space as their male counterparts. Derogatory terms such as “bonga points” have been used to not only describe them and their lack of value, but also to silence them in political matters.

Parliament is not any different. Women MPs in the National Assembly are currently under scrutiny by Kenyans, who claim that their impact is yet to be felt. This argument has created a situation where the constitutional provision of ensuring not more than two-thirds of any gender is represented in parliament, faces the possibility of being watered down. The position of women representatives has been considered irrelevant in several quarters, with derogatory terms such as “flower girls” being used to describe women representatives. Some women representatives say, they have been made to feel like students getting into high school through the “back door”, never mind that most of them campaigned at the county level, compared to their MP colleagues who campaigned at the constituency level.

It has been said that women are having a difficult time engaging in the Parliament, as they have been culturally taught that good women are humble, humility in this case meaning silent. They have been taught that good women respect men, and therefore give men the opportunity to talk and even represent them, as they sit, listen and perhaps ‘agree’ even when they do not agree with the positions presented by their male colleagues. They have been denied opportunities to sit in several committees, while their male counterparts sit in several committees. I imagine that in these committees they may be given the roles of opening and closing the meetings with prayers, because that is what good women do, they pray, while discussing serious issues is left to men. Some of these women, particularly younger ones, may be shy from participating in debates that would generate controversy, or debates that are not culturally acceptable, in the presence of men that would be accorded the status of their fathers. Yet when they play the culturally accepted good women role, they are faced with backlash from society.

As I thought of all these incidents and scenarios, and similar ones, I questioned my right to challenge these women to break through cultural barriers, if I could not break through my own cultural barriers, intimidating and silencing me from participating in a public domain as small as my Facebook page.

women know your limits 2

These thoughts propelled me to act. I decided to let go of notions of the family as private, notions of cultural inappropriateness, and confront attempts to intimidate and silence me head on. In my response, I reminded my relative that the word for woman in my community is ‘mutumia’, meaning the silenced one, and I stated that I was not going to be boxed in the ‘mutumia’ category.

After the episode, I had a discussion with Varyanne Sika, a brilliant feminist and editor of an upcoming feminist magazine, The Wide Margin. I explained to her the dilemma of challenging attempts to silence me from such an intimate position, the strong grip that culture holds on us, and the deliberate effort I had to make to break through. She responded with her characteristic brilliance, that just as the revolution would not be televised, the revolution would also be intimate.

I couldn’t agree with Varyanne more. The revolution must indeed be intimate. We must begin confronting gender inequality right from the home, the place where we first experience inequality, with the people closest to us; our fathers, boyfriends, mothers, husbands, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. The people that we do not confront because culture dictates that we respect them and not challenge their authority. The people that silence, intimidate and abuse us in private spaces, yet we choose to put on masks to the outside world, and pretend that things are fine. The people that we choose not to ruffle feathers because they are too close to us, and we choose to sacrifice equality for peace.

We can change things, we must change things, and we will change things. But the change must take place in our homes with our families, as it does in our neighbourhoods, streets, schools, work places, and the political arena with neighbours, strangers, colleagues and the political elite. Otherwise the same cultural barriers that prevent us from confronting gender inequality in the private space, will also prevent us from confronting it in the public space.

Why don’t you feel like a man?

A friend of mine had just broken up with his girlfriend, when they seemed to have been getting along quite fine. On asking him what caused the breakup, he said with ease that “she was not wife material”. I got even more curious because this phrase is often used to describe women that party too much or women who do not care at all or ‘enough’ about the domestic domain.

My friend clarified that she was not a party animal or lacking in domestic skills. She was however not wife material because she did not submit to him. At this point my feminist blood was boiling as I wondered how anyone would have the nerve to ask another human being to submit to them. I asked him what exactly this submission was all about, and what it entails. To which he responded that submission was about making him feel like a man.

‘Wow!’ I remarked, at the thought of how ambiguous that job description was. ‘How is she supposed to make you feel like a man?’ I asked. Before he could answer, I asked him, ‘and why don’t you feel like a man?’. I pointed out that it was rather obvious to me that he was a man, and I imagined it was that obvious to everyone else. If I had talked to him on the phone, without meeting him, I would be 99% sure (leaving room for any possibility) that he was a man. I continued to point out how his name, his dressing, and his demeanor all bore the cultural markings of being male. I didn’t need to undress him to confirm that his genitalia was indeed male. After pointing all that out, I asked him again why he didn’t feel like a man?’.

He rambled something about how I had misunderstood what he meant by ‘being made to feel like a man’. He said that it was not about being a man, biologically, but about having his ego soothed. That apparently, was what was required to make him feel like a man. The next question was how and why? How do you soothe the ego of a man, and why is it necessary for him to have his ego soothed for him to feel like a man? Why can’t he just feel like a man, based on his anatomy? And why is it the business of a woman to soothe his ego?

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At this point, he was also equally angry with my questions, and he said that I was exactly the kind of woman his ex was. A woman who doesn’t care to understand and meet the needs of her man. Women like me, he said, are a pain in the neck for any man to have, and that is why we are labeled ‘girlfriend but not wife material’. His suggestion to me was that I need to change, or be single all my life, or even if I’d get married, I’d be miserable, because my husband would cheat on me with a woman that would pamper his ego. I was made to understand that men are created with the need to have their egos pampered, which is why the Bible is clear that women should submit to their husbands. It is the way God created man, and a woman who doesn’t understand that, needs to contend with an unhappy life.

I questioned that clause in the Bible, to which he responded, the Bible was the word of God, and should never be questioned. We should just obey it wholly as it is. At this point, it was clear that we would not agree, so we left it at that. On the same day, a local daily published an article about pampering the ego of a man in order to keep him. A woman in her 40’s working as a manager, gave an example of how she would pretend not to understand what was happening in the news, and would ask for explanations from her husband to make him feel smart. I sent my friend the article, asking him if this is what he meant. He never responded, and we never spoke again. My questions remain unanswered, what exactly does the word submission mean? Why do (some) men need it? And if it’s about being made to feel like a man, why don’t you feel like a man?

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Why can’t I just say I’m on my period?

Recently, my period started while I was on an out of town work trip with a male colleague.  Because I hadn’t carried any pads with me, and I wasn’t familiar with the place, I asked my colleague, who was more familiar with the place to direct me to a supermarket.

He innocently asked me what I was going to buy, and rather than say that I was going to buy pads, I beat around the bush trying to look for a suitable response; one that would not make either one of us uncomfortable.

After the incident, I wondered why I couldn’t just say that I needed pads.  Had I been in need of lotion, a pair of sandals, painkillers or anything else that I might have forgotten to carry for the trip, I would have easily said it, but not pads.

The incident puzzled me quite a bit because I am generally quite open to talking about sex and sexuality issues without a sense of discomfort, yet it was difficult for me to tell a male colleague that I needed to find a shop to buy pads.

I couldn’t understand why I was so afraid of creating an uncomfortable situation, but upon deeper introspection, I realised that it wasn’t my discomfort that I was afraid of, but that of my colleague.  I wondered why I was so concerned about not making my colleague uncomfortable about something as natural as a period, and noticed that we have actually been socialised to avoid making the male folk uncomfortable with what oozes from inside the female body every month.

As girls, we were taught to avoid making boys uncomfortable about our periods.  We were required to hide pads from boys, not talk about periods around them and woe unto you  if you stained your dress and the boys noticed it. I remembered how we often stained our dresses, because we could not easily take out pads from our bags, and go for a change.  Instead of being met with empathy when we stained our dresses, we were made to feel dirty and careless for exposing the ‘filth’ that came from inside of us.

Periods _ what guys think it looks like

I realised the discretion around periods did not exist in the absence of boys, when I went to a girls only high school.  We talked about our periods, and the accompanying physical and emotional discomfort with ease.  We comfortably flushed pads out of our bags as we were going for a change, and openly asked our desk-mates if they had extras when we forgot to carry our own.  We rarely stained our dresses, because we had the freedom to just walk up and go for a change, but even when we did stain, there was never a fuss made about it.

I confirmed that indeed the discretion around periods only applied to male presence when I started working.  In work places we are required to be discreet about our periods because if you happen to be in a foul mood, or make mistakes as a female leader, that may be attributed to periods and hormones.   We learn to be discreet about our periods because we don’t want to be considered incompetent, irrational and ill-tempered co-workers or leaders.

As the world marked the International day of menstrual hygiene on 28th of May, I thought of the discretion around periods and what that means to girls and women.  While we have rightly focused on ensuring that girls do not miss school due to lack of sanitary towels, we need to question the discretion around menstruation, and the negative meanings given to a process that is only so natural. How did menstruation come to be attached to being dirty, incompetence, irrationality and poor leadership?  Why can’t we talk about pads the same way we talk about lotion, painkillers and sandals?

If men had periods

Image Credits: Image 2

When did we hit the sky and start climbing down?

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Like many women, I was given a set of rules and advice for just about everything as I was growing up. One of the most important ones was on education. I was encouraged to study and until there was nothing left to study. The phrase ‘the sky is the limit’ was one that I heard too often as I was encouraged in that direction. Later I was told ‘forget the sky, there is no limit’.

On relationships and love, I was advised to not even focus on that, until I was as highly educated as possible. Children on the other hand, were to come after I had everything in place; a good education, a promising career, and an equally if not more educated man, in a well-paying job.

On money, I was encouraged to study hard, to secure a job that would earn me lots of money. Money would buy me independence. Independence would buy me respect from my husband. The need for independence was exaggerated with the constant reminder that there was no dignity in begging a man for money to buy underwear.

Looking at my life, I think I made a perfect student. I followed this advice almost to the letter. I studied to almost no end, putting aside all barriers to my pursuit for education. There was no sky for me, no limit, and no stopping. My ambition was to soar to no end. Of course that meant that relationships and love often had to take a back seat.

In some cases, as I was soaring to the skies and beyond, I allowed a lovely gentleman to hop into my parachute, only to drop him when I realised that he could be weighing me down, and posing a hindrance to my possibility of reaching beyond the skies.

Still following the advice consistently, I made my own money; not much, but enough to make sure that I was never begging a man for money to buy underwear.

As I gained independence through education and a career, I was applauded at every step of the way, until I got to a point where I was now advised to stop. The language of too much creeped into everyone’s vocabulary. I was becoming too educated, advancing too much in my career, getting too independent, too vocal and too radical. This was confusing to me, and I wondered what happened to there being no limit to my success.

I was advised to stop because men would be intimidated by my education. They would be intimidated if I progressed too much in my career, if I became too political or too vocal. I learned that I would be way ahead of many men in my generation, and I would have an immensely difficult time finding a suitor. The language changed and I now needed to settle.

Ofcourse i am not worried

Women that had been used as role models to encourage me, were now used as examples to discourage me. These women I was told, focussed on their education and their careers, and ended up single or divorced.

From this point on, the advice went downhill. I wondered whether I had reached the sky and beyond. Was this what it looked like beyond the skies? Was it time for me to start coming down? How come no one told me that I would reach a point where I would be required to come down?

When I attend bridal and baby showers, it hits me that it is indeed time for women to come down. It hits me that society did not mean it when it told us to climb as high as we could. In bridal showers, I hear brides to be getting advice on how to play dumb, how to lower their ambitions so that they do not threaten their husbands, not to display too much independence and to be submissive, and to make it her mission in life to please the man.

You can have ambition but not too much

In the middle of all such advice, comes all the paraphernalia that is required to aid this process. From lingerie for every day of the month, to books with sex positions that even a snake would have a hard time contorting, to cook books with dishes from around the world, with ingredients that do not even exist in the dictionary. All these are meant to make a man happy, to keep him faithful and ward him from all distraction. We are told that if we do not do these things, there are many women out there ready to worship the very ground our men walk on.

In one bridal shower that I attended, the bride to be got a flask, and small white neatly folded towels. I thought that the flask was to welcome the man with tea when he got home, but I learnt that the flask was for bedroom use. She was advised to always keep it by her bed-side with water that was just the right temperature; not too hot, or too cold. After sex, she was to use the nice towels to clean him up. She was also advised to make sure that she hand-washes the towels herself, with a disclaimer that ‘these are not the kind of things you give a house-girl to wash’.

At that point, I couldn’t contain my discomfort. I asked who was going to clean her in return. I asked whether the groom to be was likely to be getting advice on how to worship his wife during his stag night. I argued that he was likely to be dancing with a stripper, with his friends urging him to do all kinds of things with her, to ‘enjoy his last days of freedom’. I complained about the imbalance in this equation, where the woman was expected to give and give to no end, and the man receiving to no end.

My short speech was followed by deafening silence, and looks that made me remember a phrase that I commonly used in my primary school compositions; ‘I wished the ground would open up and swallow me alive’. I was given looks that I interpreted to ask the question, ‘who is your mother?’

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I was admonished for being too educated, which apparently, as I was informed was the problem with today’s woman. Today’s woman, I was told, thinks that her education or money makes her equal to a man. This woman, I was informed, thinks that her education, career and money is grounds for her to go against nature.

At this point, I wanted to add that I grew up being advised to go against nature by soaring beyond the skies; to go against nature by flying, despite the fact that I had no wings. But I did not wish to embarrass the bride to be further, so I asked to be excused.

As I travelled home, I reflected on the whole episode and the shifting nature of advice given to girls and women, and how it is all centred on insecurity. As young girls, we are told to secure ourselves through education, careers and money, so as to earn the respect of men. Once we do that, we are told to stop and begin settling, so as to not make potential suitors insecure about our success. As we get into marriage we are advised to be constantly insecure, to be our guard 24/7, and to act on our insecurities by giving to no end and to center our lives on pleasing our men.

The question that ringed constantly on my mind was when did we hit the sky and start climbing down? I wondered for how long we would continue passing these messages to our daughters, nieces and younger girls. Can we teach them that life is not just about finding, keeping or gaining and maintaining the respect of a man?

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