Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

The great discomfort

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A Facebook friend of mine unfriended me. Before unfriending me, she mentioned that she had observed that I had started a blog on feminism, and made a point of being offensive about the fact that I was an active feminist.  She told me that she didn’t believe in feminism and that although she championed for the rights of women, she would not want to be associated with feminism, adding that she would be offended if she was ever referred to as a feminist.

I had just started writing my blog at that time, and I was getting a number of interesting, sometimes ignorant and other times damn right offensive responses.  I was getting tired of explaining myself, and she found me at the point where I had learnt to be less defensive about what I believed in, and sometimes even listened to responses that made no sense, or added no value, for the sheer fun of it, and maybe write about it someday.

I guess she mistook my silence for interest, and continued to tell me that told me that she thought feminism was demonic, and the devil’s agenda to destroy the family, and spread ungodly practices such as lesbianism and homosexuality.  The Sodom and Gomorrah case got mentioned somewhere in between the demons and the ungodly practices that feminism sought to spread in society.

Feminism, she said was teaching women to reject femininity as they desired to be more masculine.  She went on about how proud she was of her femininity, how she loved dressing up and looking beautiful, and feminism was denying women the opportunity to be feminine and beautiful.

From her unsolicited and rather ignorant opinion, it was clear that my blog and posts on feminism made her rather uncomfortable, and I was not surprised when she later unfriended me.  It’s been eight months now since I started running my blog, and every so often, I am amazed at how feminism generates discomfort in just about every quarter.

The discomfort is to a large extent driven by ignorance, fear of losing power by the privileged, and uncertainty over what a society where women are regarded as fully human, and not subordinate to men would look like. Society is yet to accept that African women are embracing an ideology that has often been described as unAfrican, because it seeks to liberate African women, who have for the longest time been considered sub-human and accorded secondary status in society.

Those that have long enjoyed the benefits of women’s subjugation are afraid that feminism will turn the tables, and human beings regardless of gender will now be equal.  They misconstrue feminism to be about women competing with men, and tell us that this is not the way African culture should be. They argue that there is a place for the African woman in society, which unlike everything else, does not evolve with time, and feminism is destroying that.

The number of times I see feminism appearing in sermons that seem to have an agenda to take women back to 1950 is surprising, disturbing and annoying.  I reckon there are people praying and fasting against the “spirit” of feminism.

The fact that feminism is questioning religious norms that teach that God created man to provide, rule and dominate, while the woman was created to obey, serve and submit is likely to destabilize status quo, and therefore not a surprise that it generates a lot of discomfort. We are told that feminism is destroying God’s intention for women to “care” and “nurture”.  God apparently created woman with “special” genes known as the nurturing, caring and domesticity genes, which are easily destroyed by feminism.  Geneticists need to help us with these twisted biology lessons.

I must say that I am not surprised at the discomfort.  When people question things that seem so fixed such as gender, and the position of women in society, it generates discomfort because then there is fear that people might begin to question other structures including religion, politics and education; tools used by a minority to gain and maintain power to oppress a majority.

Because the feminist movement threatens to destabilize status quo, question traditions that have long silenced, subjugated and oppressed women in the name of religion and culture, it is no wonder discussions left, right and center are exaggerating the empowerment of girls and women, and claiming that this is contributing to the disempowerment and subjugation of boys and men.

Feminists are being advised to urgently shift attention to the boy child who is seriously threatened by the emancipation of the girl child, otherwise, these girls will have no one to marry them. Never mind that violence at home, school, work, on the streets and even on social media is something that many girls and women confront on a daily basis.  And that women are still highly under-represented in business, politics, leadership and ownership of property.

Women, like the Facebook friend who unfriended me, have bought into this patriarchal thinking, perpetrated by culture and religion, and are up in arms, protecting “femininity” from feminist destruction.  Their ignorance on feminism doesn’t help either.

The discomfort created by feminism is not fun for a feminist, because this results in trolls, unsolicited advice, sermons that make me want to weep, and anti-feminist discussions that make me question the ability of human beings to reason.  But the discomfort also tells me that feminists are probably doing something right, and rather than be cowed by the discomfort, it is time for feminists to speak louder, more wisely, more intensely and more articulately than ever.*

The fact that the feminist movement is growing like wildfire, with many young, intelligent and outspoken women openly identifying as feminists is not a comfortable position for society.  Society is having a difficult time with women speaking their minds, and using their voices to challenge society as we know it. But society has to come to terms with the fact that women are leading this revolution, or otherwise bask in this discomfort, because there’s no stopping this revolution!**

* Adapted from a quote by Neil Gaiman

** Adapted from a quote by Alexis Templeton

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Every struggle needs feminism

I need feminsim because

“What is feminism?” is a question that I have been asked very many times.  Last week alone, I was asked the question three times.  As people ask this question, many do not hesitate to share their understanding of feminism with me.  The most common ones tend to be feminists as women who hate men, with intentions to be like men and go against nature by dominating over men.

After responding to this question during a radio show last week, I got into a discussion with a feminist friend who had listened to the programme, and we both agreed how difficult it can be even for a feminist to define feminism.

Like many feminists, I often focus on challenging inequalities experienced by women, because women are among the most oppressed groups, subjected to various forms of oppression in just about every space that they occupy, be it public or private.

However, this definition doesn’t wholly encompass what feminism is for me, as I find myself concerned about many other forms of oppression experienced by different groups of people.  I seem to be concerned just about every emerging issue that oppresses a particular group of people, while privileging others. From hawkers to farmers, health workers, domestic workers, guards and more recently, teachers.  I am also concerned about a variety of issues from LGBTI rights, to children’s sexuality in addition to society’s need to silence and shrink women.

There is no single issue struggle

My definition of feminism is therefore growing to recognize that gender is not the only factor that facilitates oppression, but class, race, age and ethnicity are also among factors that intersect to exclude and marginalize or privilege certain groups of people.   As such, gendered structures are not the only systems of oppression, but other systems such as colonial legacies, imperialism and capitalism, often interconnect and sustain each other to oppress a majority and privilege a few.

Although women tend to be most disadvantaged by these systems of oppression, they too can be privileged and oppressors of various disadvantaged groups. Feminism therefore needs to be intersectional by recognizing the ways in which different groups of people are disadvantaged as a result of the interconnection of various factors.

Intersectionality

At the moment, like many Kenyans, I am greatly concerned about the education crisis that the country is facing.  Beyond the issue of teachers’ wages, the crisis demonstrates how capitalism as a system of oppression operates, and why the education crisis is an anti-capitalist struggle and consequently a key concern for feminism.

Capitalist ideology has made the Kenyan government comfortable with neglecting its education sector, failing to pay teachers adequately and creating a sub-standard public education.  Citizens on the other hand have responded by resorting to private education when the public system fails.

These mind-sets by both government and citizens, have created opportunity for charities and entrepreneurs to produce brands of education, to fill the void created by government inadequacy. For the upper end of the market, the brands are presented in all manner of enticing packages, with a promise of producing successful, wealthy, confident and all rounded children. For those in the lower end of the market, the conditions are immaterial.

These responses by the government, private sector, civil society and citizens have bred values that normalize capitalism, and even laud it as choice and democracy.  As a result we have a public education system that has over time suffered neglect by the government and has slowly been going to the dogs, while the private education system, both profit and non-profit, high and poor quality continues to thrive and boom.

As the middle class and wealthy rush to take their children to top notch private schools, the poor, who are the majority, are left to go through poor quality education that does not equip them adequately with basic education skills such as numeracy and arithmetic, nor prepare them adequately with skills to be productive in the economy.

An Uwezo study on the quality of education in public schools in East Africa revealed that less than 30% of children in class 3 possess basic literacy and arithmetic skills.  The study also revealed that 20% of children in class 7 cannot competently undertake class 2 numeracy and literacy assignments.

The situation is worse for children in urban slums, up to 70% of whom are attending poor quality low cost private schools with untrained teachers and poorly equipped schools, in unsanitary environments and with minimal resources.  In other communities, children can neither access the poor quality public schools or even the poor quality private schools, and schooling for them remains a distant dream.

Lack of commitment by the government to provide decent education for all its citizens, coupled with privatization and charity as responses to government inadequacy has created high levels of inequality and stripped the poor off the right to education.  Decent education is not secured or available to all, but only to those who can afford it.  Education as a citizenship right thus remains a guarantee to only those with money and the wealthy.

Sadly, capitalism describes this as freedom of choice.  I fail to see the freedom in this.  I don’t see the freedom in a small portion of the population going through high quality of education, while a major section of the population goes through poor quality education. I don’t see the freedom in paying for expensive private education, and at the same time paying huge amounts of taxes to a government that fails to provide the fundamental right of decent education to its citizens.

Did we fight for independence and for a new Constitution to entrench the idea of a class society more deeply? To become a society where the fruits of independence and the gains of the new Constitution are enjoyed by a few?

As a person who went through high quality primary and secondary education in public schools, I believe change is possible. But change can only happen when people respond and resist after carefully and critically thinking about what is happening around them.

My understanding of feminism as a struggle that resists all oppressive systems, is therefore essential in providing me with the tools to be part of this change.

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.

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

African feminists found

Guest post by Varyanne Sika 

When I found Cera’s blog I was desperately searching for less known and less established feminist writers (at the time) who were writing about feminism in accessible ways in Kenya. I found Cera’s blog on twitter through a simple search using a combination of two key words Kenyan + feminist. It was a search for feminists who stood firm in their feminism and at the time, to me, nothing was more firm than a bio or name that did not hide behind the kind of meandering and clumsy definitions of feminism I had been finding. Upon finding the blog I quickly read her latest post, at the time it was “I Refuse to Shrink” which was a timely post published on International Women’s Day. In the post, Cera said “we need to raise daughters to refuse to shrink” and I thought, “we must also learn to un-shrink ourselves because shrunken women (who want children) cannot raise daughters to refuse to shrink”. After frantically commenting on the post and complaining about being unable to contact her, I proceeded to share the post with the facebook feminist friends I had at the time (I keep saying ‘at the time’ because things have changed rather drastically, and pleasantly in the past few months). I knew Cera and I were going to be talking to and with each other for a long time.

I was looking for more and other feminist content which was relevant to Kenya and to other countries on the continent because I grew weary of reading the usual dominant feminist platforms which were run outside Africa. Having Pambazuka and the African Gender Institute permanently open in one of my tabs and having downloaded all the Feminist Africa Journal issues (which are free for download), wasn’t enough. I was hungry for more feminist content from the continent because I needed to be able to name at least ten online feminist platforms without thinking too hard.

Four years ago I stumbled upon MsAfropolitan which is run by Minna Salami (who gave this TED Talk) and on her website I found a treasure! A list of African feminist blogs and African feminist resources! I went through the list, subscribed to the running blogs to which I could subscribe and shared the list with the feminists I knew. Two years after the treasure that was the list of resources, I wrote an essay ‘Fashion for Feminists’ on how dress and fashion shapes women’s identities for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa’s publication Buwa! which publishes thematic essays on varying issues on feminism in Africa. All of their publications are also free for download. Buwa! inspired in me a pressing need to contribute to and to increase feminist voices online.

Image from Open Society

Image from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

A year ago I asked Nyaboe who also runs a music blog called Songs we Like to join me in putting together an African feminist anthology. I asked her this because I had spotted Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ in her library and that was all I needed really. However, Nyaboe and I could not get the anthology started because of usual distractions and a crippling fear on my part, that we wouldn’t be able to string together coherent, let alone compelling paragraphs to add anything worth anyone’s time to the African feminist conversation. Towards the end of last year I read from ‘Voice, Power and Soul’ edited by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Jessica Horn, two paragraphs that reminded me of the critical need for feminist voices on the continent.

Our current struggles as African Feminists are inextricably linked to our past as a continent – diverse pre-colonial contexts, slavery, colonization, liberation struggles, neo-colonialism, globalization, etc. Modern African States were built off the backs of African Feminists who fought alongside men for the liberation of the continent. As we craft new African States in this new millennium, we also craft new identities for African women, identities as full citizens, free from patriarchal oppression, with rights of access, ownership and control over resources and our own bodies. We also recognize that our pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial histories require special measures to be taken in favour of particular African women in different contexts. We acknowledge the historical and significant gains that have been made by the African Women’s Movement over the past forty years, and we make bold to lay claim to these gains as African Feminists – they happened because African Feminists led the way, from the grassroots level and up; they strategised, organized, networked, went on strike and marched in protest, and did the research, analysis, lobbying, institution building and all that it took for States, employers and institutions to acknowledge women’s personhood.”

The Wide Margin was thus born, and Cera did not know it at the time but she was going to write about the [Feminist] Liberation not being Un-African.

Image from wide marging

Image from The Wide Margin website, illustration by Naddya Oluoch.

The Wide Margin was started because, “Feminism has often been distorted or co­opted by media, by religion, by capitalism, and by patriarchy. Many Africans avoid associating themselves with feminism. The claim that feminist ideals and projects “are not our culture” is often parroted as a stodgy excuse to disengage with feminism. But, as shown in Silence​ is a Woman by Wambui Mwangi, ‘Transversal​  Politics’ by Nira Yuval­ Davis, We​ Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others, the concept of “culture” is fraught, and, while often in an antagonistic patriarchal relationship with women’s lives, culture also provides an archive and site of articulation for women’s trans­generational quests for sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and pleasure…We are here to occupy space, to increase feminist voices from the continent and to tell young feminists in Africa, ‘you are not alone.’ ” – Editorial, Feminist While African, The Wide Margin.

After (and during the process of) publishing the inaugural issue of The Wide Margin, I discovered even more feminist content in Africa including Mon Pi Mon in Uganda, Third Culture Feminism in Zimbabwe and HOLA Africa, a Pan-Africanist queer womanist collective. Through deliberately occupying space online I learned that I did not in fact find already existing African feminists, we found each other.

The word for woman in my language is ‘mutumia’. Loosely translated this means the voiceless or the silent one…The fact that woman and silence are synonyms is reflective of the [imposed] voicelessness of women.” – Cera Njagi in ‘Mutumia

This is a reminder to those who already know about all the women speaking to share the words of other feminists as often as they can and as widely as possible. This is also an announcement to those who are not aware of feminist voices from Africa that African Feminists are being found with more regularity and consistency, tell a friend and tell them to tell other friends.

Bio:Varyanne is the editor in chief of The Wide Margin. She practices black feminist breathing while championing inclusive, intersectional, rigorous and unapologetic feminism. varyanne@thewidemargin.org

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”?

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