Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for August, 2015

This way of being a woman is not working

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Sometime back, I came across a post by a woman sharing about how hooked she was to social media, that on one occasion, her husband hit her because she got into bed with her phone, and she couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly, many women commenting on her post found it ok for her to be hit for not paying attention to her husband, particularly while in bed. There was very little alarm raised over the fact that she had been hit. She seemed more concerned about her addiction to social media, than the violence meted out on her.

Reading the post and the comments that followed, got me thinking about how society has created an image of “the good woman”, and the idea that a woman who fails to fit in that image, should be ready to face male-perpetrated violence.

We learn very early as girls that we need to behave, dress and look a certain way with all men, including our fathers, brothers, male neighbours, spouses and even male strangers, with the threat of male – perpetrated violence if we don’t.

I too, was taught from a very early age to expect physical, emotional or sexual violence from men, if I failed to conform to this idea of being female.

When I was a young girl, I was fond of taking meat from the pan as it was cooking. To discourage me from the habit, our house help often threatened that if I carried the habit into marriage, my husband would one day buy me an entire goat, and demand that I cook it all and eat it all at a go. That apparently would be his way of punishing me for this behaviour that was very unbecoming of a lady.

Our house help was not the only person who threatened me with crazy things that my husband would do to me, if I didn’t fit the “good woman” image. Many times when I overslept, my mother threatened me that no man would entertain such sleepiness. She often told me that one day my husband would return me back to her, because I had overslept, and the children were not bathed or fed, and the house stayed dirty.

In this case, my husband would be returning me to my mother for more training, because if I was not a “good woman”, my mother would be to blame, for not providing adequate training. Never mind that these would be my husband’s children, just as they were mine, or that I was the product of both my mother and father.

We learn to expect violence for not conforming to gendered ways of being female. A lot of people don’t even recognize how they teach girls and women to expect abuse in relationships. I’m sure that was not my mother’s or the house help’s intention. They just wanted me to be a “good woman” who fit in society.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taught to expect physical, sexual or emotional abuse for failing to conform to certain ways of being female.

Girls that talk too much or question a lot are told to control their mouths, otherwise they will get hit for answering back their husbands. Women are told to teach their daughters not to sit on their fathers’ laps, or to be affectionate towards their fathers, because “men have very little sexual control”, and even a father could rape his daughter. Girls are taught to sit “properly” with their legs closed even in the presence of brothers and uncles, because of this “sexual control issue” that men have.

In a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where to be at certain times, and who to be with at those times. Sadly, when women face violence, the first thing society checks is whether they conformed to the standards set for them by society.

The problem with this messaging is that it not only centres the lives of girls and women on fitting into the image of a woman that will find a man to marry her, but it also creates a situation where violence against women is normalized. It also creates a society where women are constantly facing blame or blaming themselves for the violence and the abuse that they face.

It’s high time we cultivated ways of being male or female, that do not create such imbalance between genders; where one gender learns to cater to the other, while the other learns that it is ok to be violent to the other.

It’s high time we abhorred all forms of violence, and discouraged both its perpetration and receipt regardless of gender. No ifs, no buts, because this way of being a woman is not working, and it cannot be sustained.

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I packed my bags and left

I packed my bags and left
“I packed my bags and left.” That is the opening line of Dambudzo Marechera’s book, House of Hunger, a statement that I find symbolic, and perhaps indicative that this is Dambudzo’s way of preparing to share with his readers about his journey in life.

Journeys are interesting because no matter how much you have, quite often you leave all that behind and take just what you need for a particular journey. I’ve gone on journeys with just a pair of pants, two blouses, a few sets of underwear, a tooth brush and toothpaste, because that is all that I needed for the journey, even though I possess a lot more than that.

As a sojourner of life, I find a lot of symbolism in the statement, “I packed my bags and left”; a statement that makes me reflect on the many things that I’ve had to leave behind or unpack from my bag, as a feminist.

As a feminist, on several occasions I’ve been forced to leave behind a number of things that I held as true and dear in my life, because they were either unnecessary baggage, or they were too painful to carry on the journey. I’ve had to leave behind what hurt and wounded me, more than bring joy, pleasure or healing.

First among the things that I had to leave behind were books and magazines that defined femininity for me, often telling me how to be a woman worthy of love and success. These pieces of literature often told me that my main goal in life was to secure the love of a man, and they promised to give me the tools to secure this man. They taught me how to tighten my vagina, how to be a goddess in bed, and how to use my feminine charms to secure the love of a man, and even get ahead in my career.

I left these behind, as feminism taught me to depend on my brains and personality, rather than my face,smile or body, in both my personal and professional life.

The depiction of beauty in these books and magazines, was often of women who looked less like me; they were often white or fair skinned if they were black, skinny, tall and flawless. They taught me that to look like these women, I had to learn how to put on makeup perfectly, put on 6 inch heels that made me contemplate having my feet amputated at the end of the day, and make my hair as straight as possible.

Through feminism, I was unlearning dominant ideas of beauty, shaped by western ideals and embracing a more robust notion of beauty.

The next thing I had to leave behind were the rules that came with being a woman. Some of them had been instilled through these books and magazines, and others though talking to my peers and older women. The rules often applied to dating, and these included a host of mind games. No matter how much I liked a man, I couldn’t ask him out. If he asked me out, I had to pretend that I wasn’t interested, until he became so desperate, almost getting on his knees.

Whereas I was to expected to play these mind games as a teenager, as a woman in her 20’s and even beyond the 20’s, feminism taught me that I needed to put aside immature behaviour, if I expected to get into a relationship with a mature partner.

Once he ‘got’ me (the prized possession that I was), I had to keep him on his toes, so as to remain valuable to him. This meant that I had to be available and unavailable at the same time. To achieve this, sometimes I had to pretend to have other plans when he asked me out, and suggest that we meet on another day. This was my way of keeping the relationship on my terms, and not his. It was my way of having power, but in a subtle way.

The rules also included how long to wait before having sex, because if I gave in to sex, I would be losing power. I had to maintain power, by taking his power by making him almost, if not get down on his knees for ‘my prized goodies’.

Through feminism, I was unlearning the power play that had been a key feature of my relationships, and learning to not only seek honesty, but to be equally honest in my relationships. I learned to ask for what I wanted, and to stop demanding for the moon and stars as a proof of love. I learned to seek relationships where my true self was loved and respected, and I learned to do the same.

Some of the relationships that I had also had to be left behind, as I carried the things that I needed for the journey. It became painful talking to many of my male friends and some of my privileged female friends. It no longer made sense to champion for equality, and maintain friendships that saw nothing wrong, or even justified inequality.

My most painful relational loss, was losing the relationship I had with God and the Church. I had grown up knowing that God was my friend and my father, and Church as the place where I found God. I had learned to run to God whenever I was happy, angry, sad, or going through any experience or emotion.

But it continued to become more and more difficult to reconcile this image of God, with the fact that he had created me inferior to a man. It became difficult to reconcile this image of a loving God, who would tear down a city because he hated gay people so much.

Being cognisant of how religious notions of gender, race and class have contributed to the subjugation of women, homophobia, racism and slavery, I had to go through the painful process of losing this being that I had known as my friend, father and source of refuge.

As a feminist, I was becoming less accommodating of any form of bigotry, and I lost the capacity to be part of a religion that saw me as a lesser being, or thought of others as lesser beings.

Packing and unpacking is a continuous process in the feminist journey, and one that never seems to end. At the moment, I am thinking of leaving behind WhatsApp groups that drain my feminist energy with sexist jokes and discussions.

I don’t know what else I will be leaving behind, but I now know that loss for a feminist is inevitable. Some loss is joyful while some is painful, and that I must be ready to embrace.

Some tea without sugar for the cyber-feminists

Smashing patriachy is my cup of tea

When I finally embraced feminism, I was one happy woman. I’d had ups and downs with feminism for about 10 years of my life, dropping it and picking it again every so often in my 20’s. I was conflicted between fully embracing women’s liberation, while battling with the need to conform to what was required of me as woman, based on social and religious teachings.

After a four year feminism-drop, I decided to explore and open my mind up to feminism once again. This time I wanted to understand feminism, and at the same time be as critical of feminism as much as possible. After immersing myself in feminism for a while, I emerged as a true believer in the power of feminism to change the world, and make it better for women.

I found feminism to be personally liberating, taking off so many of requirements that society had placed on me, by virtue of being a woman. As I began to drop the gender related societal pressures, I wanted to share this new-found liberation with the world, and with the women around me.

So I started, with some of the people closest to me; enthusiastically sharing my new-found philosophy; sharing articles, videos and initiating conversations on feminism.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that my new ideas were not as welcome as I expected, in a world that has for a long time embraced patriarchy and sexist ideas of the position of women and men in society.

Contrary to the enthusiastic reception I expected, I was disparaged, and dismissed with Biblical quotations and remarks on feminism being an un-African concept. On one occasion, I was informed that I was the only one that needed feminism, and many African women were happy to be dominated, particularly in marriage, as long as their husbands met their obligations as providers and leaders.

I was accused of demanding women to compete with men, whereas God wanted women and men to complement each other. As a result, I was promised a position in hell, if I continued to question and mislead other women to disobey the word of God, which required them to submit.

Completely frustrated at the turn of events, I decided to start blogging. My blog was my way of talking to myself and imagining that the world was listening. I had no real expectations; but to get an outlet for all the conversations and questions I was having in my head, but lacking people to discuss with. My blog was the outlet of a feminist, outraged by injustice against women, and consumed with fantasies of a new world for women.

A few months since I started blogging, I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised. I have developed friendships with feminists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, Canada and Nigeria, some of whom I have met physically, others online. I have met some of these wonderful women over mojitos, over tea, and the occasional dinner, and we have had some of the most stimulating conversations imaginable.

I have also discovered other smart, funny, and bold feminist writers from across Africa, writing all sorts of interesting stuff on being women, on feminism, sex and sexuality, patriarchy and sexism, and politics among other topics.

When we found each other online with some of the feminists, we formed the Facebook group, Feminists in Africa; a platform that has allowed us to have deep, intellectual and mind blowing conversations. The platform has allowed us to find solace and support in each other, providing cyber-encouragement and creating a community of feminists in Africa. I have learned so much from this forum, it feels like I just went through a course on feminism.

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When I think about this short and exciting journey as a feminist blogger, I am completely awed at the power of social media. I get overwhelmed and excited when I think of what and how much could be done through social media. At the same time, I realise the limitations of social media in achieving social change.

While social media is key to organizing, it also has potential to exclude the same people we intend to include, particularly in contexts where access to internet is limited, and many women do not even have the skills to have discussions on Facebook, Twitter or discover some great feminist blogs.

Conscious of both the successes and challenges of social media in creating social change, techo-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci in her Ted Talk argues that although digital technologies have made it easier for modern day social movements to organize, they are not registering highly successful results, in terms of overall social change. She opines that some of the benefits of doing things the hard way are being overlooked.

Zeynep tells the story of how the ruling Turkish political party, has succeeded in combining both online and offline organizing. Curious to find out what the key to their success was, she interviewed and official of the party who told her that “the key is he never took sugar with his tea.” He explains that, in addition to organizing online, his party met people in their homes, in meetings and other offline forums on a daily basis.

While meeting people in their physical spaces, he was often offered tea, and realised that if he was going to take sugar with all the tea that came with visits, it would pose a risk to his health and weight. He therefore had to stop taking sugar, as turning down the offers for tea would be perceived as rude. Zeynep concludes by saying, “to succeed in the long term, sometimes you need your tea without sugar, along with your Twitter [social media].”

The same applies to cyber-feminists. We are part of a radical movement, with power to transform the lives of women in this continent, but to succeed in that, we must move beyond the cyber space, and gradually get into the more lengthy, hard and demanding work.

It is great, but not enough that we write all these wonderful blogs, and create all these online spaces for us to discuss feminism and support each other. To succeed in the long term, we need to meet women in their physical spaces, and sometimes take tea without sugar, along with our cyber-feminism.

We can all do it

Where do we belong?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks of how she became aware of her blackness, when she left Nigeria to live in the US. It had never occurred to her that her skin colour had any significance, other than being one of the skin colours that exist.

After living in two countries that are not my country of birth, like Chimamanda, I realise that living abroad can make one conscious of things that one would ordinarily be oblivious of. Many times I don’t realize some of the things that I am now conscious of, until something happens.

My most recent is the consciousness that language is not just about words and speech, but also about belonging, inclusion and exclusion; a realisation that was prompted by a call that I made to KPLC to report power outage in my area.

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Late last week, I got home from work, and there was no power. After being notified that there had been a power outage all day, I called KPLC…

The call goes directly to an automated voice machine, which asks me to press a certain number to speak to an attendant. The lines are obviously busy, so I am put on hold, and every 60 seconds or so the automated voice message notifies me that all the lines are busy, and thanks me for my patience.

I then realise that the automated recording speaks in a British accent. It also occurs to me that there isn’t a Swahili recording, and therefore someone who doesn’t speak English, would have a difficult time understanding, and consequently getting assistance.

I wonder aloud why a Kenyan public company is addressing me in a foreign accent, and more concerned that a recording is not done in the national language.

I realise that I am conscious of this, because while living in the Netherlands, I often had the challenge of understanding automated voice messages recorded in Dutch. I remember how often I had to call all the numbers provided on a website, trying to get to a number that would be picked by a person, and not a machine, since I could explain that I didn’t speak Dutch.

After several such frustrating incidents, I realise that the Dutch expect me to live by their rules while I am in their country, and they will not adjust their systems to suit those who decide not to learn the language. It reminds me, in no subtle ways, that I don’t belong.

I then remember an incident in the UK, when I called a British Company and my call was answered by a call attendant with an Indian accent struggling to speak in a British accent. After he had finished assisting me, I asked what his name was, and while I was expecting a Sumra, Vijay, Shah or Sumit, he gives me a typical English name, something like John Smith.

This call reminds me of the movie, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Evelyn, a retired British woman moves to India and takes up a job in a British outsourcing call center. In her job, she teaches Indian call center workers to speak in British accents, and even how to make small talk, the British way.

I think to myself, I guess if you are going to work for a British Company, you have to speak like the British, understand what makes them tick, even if you are in a call center located in Mumbai, Abuja, or Nairobi, receiving calls from London and other English cities. I realise that to belong in this place, I may be forced to begin killing hints of my roots, and adopt the British way of life. I begin to understand why I meet so many Africans in the UK, with weird sounding accents. I become more conscious of their struggle to belong.

Going back to my KPLC call, as I am put on hold, all these incidents play in my head, and I ask myself why KPLC has opted for an automated message speaking in a British accent. I get irritated, because it not only reminds me of my experience of not belonging in foreign lands, but it also gives me a sense of not belonging in my own country.

I get even more annoyed, because I realise how language can be used to exclude people in the very place where they should belong. It reminds me of a few video and audio recordings I made immediately after finishing university, trying to get into the Kenyan media, as a newscaster.

I remember the disappointment I felt, when it dawned on me that I would never get into any of the stations that I was applying to, because my accent did not sound like I had attended an upmarket British or American school. Neither did it indicate that I may have lived in the UK or the US for some time in my life. I realise that while I have been awarded a degree, and conferred with power to do all that appertains to it, that I sound too Kenyan in my speech to be accepted in certain careers. In this case, I can only belong if I have a tinge of the foreign.

Once KPLC sorts out the power issue, and I now have access to the internet, I get on social media to see what has been happening while I was in darkness. The hashtag #Mollis is trending on Twitter, and I wonder, what is this Mollis? Maybe a new discovery? A new type of car? A new restaurant or club?

I realise that Mollis is the name that has been given to a rapist, and it is actually a mockery of the fact that the woman being raped cannot pronounce the name Morris correctly, because her English is influenced by her mother tongue. Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) also create memes and jokes using the word Sallenda, which I realise, is how she pronounces surrender. This is also her way of pleading with Morris, and indicating that that she cannot endure the violent sex anymore, as Morris insults and continues to forcefully thrust himself on her.

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As I read tweet after tweet, I realise that the fact that she sounds too Kenyan, and more rural than urban, has contributed significantly to people’s inability to empathise with her pain. I find myself thinking about Ngugi wa Thiong’o and wonder if this is what he means when he encourages Africans to write in their languages, arguing that the language of the colonizer is a tool for oppression.

I wonder what the hashtag would have been, if the woman being raped spoke in an American or British accent. Perhaps the hashtag that would be trending would be #FindMorris. Perhaps our colonised minds would believe that this woman is indeed being raped, and we would be looking for her, to help her report the incident, so that Morris can be arrested. Morris would be a beast, a wanted criminal, and the object of our venom, as opposed to the hero he has become, and the accolades he has received.

I find myself thinking of how language has been used to remind me that I don’t belong, while in foreign land, and how it continues to determine who belongs and who doesn’t belong, who gets heard and who is ignored, who is respected, and who is not, even in my home country.

Where do I belong? I wonder. Not abroad, not home. Where do I belong? Where does the woman being raped by Morris belong? Where do we belong?

belonging

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