Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Culture’

The great discomfort

af607d9629a1ff60b4d970e275273bc7

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

Image Credits

Advertisements

This way of being a woman is not working

how-to-be-a-woman1
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.

The revolution will be intimate

womenartrevolution.photo05_feature

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.

When did we hit the sky and start climbing down?

Image converted using ifftoany

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?’

Look-atew-2

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?

What if Khadija was your neighbour?

I didn’t watch Saturday night’s feature on KTN about Khadija, a 16 year old girl who was brutally burnt by her 60 year old husband in Mandera County. I followed the story on Twitter though, where horrific images of the young girl’s burnt body had been posted, along with comments on the issue. The comments demonstrated outrage; first over the man that had abused the girl, and second towards the community that had been silent about the issue. People were particularly angry because Khadija has been living with severe burns on most of her body for about four months, without receiving any medical treatment, yet the community around her was silent for the entire four months.

The reactions on Twitter led me to reflect on how we respond to violence in our neighbourhoods, and wondered if many or any of us would have responded differently had Khadija been our neighbour. I remembered how growing up, we had a neighbour who was regularly violent towards his wife. On the nights when he got violent, he would throw things and punch his wife as their young son wailed loudly. While the violence was obviously not discreet, there wasn’t a single day that any of the neighbours intervened. Never mind that this was a community with more than 20 households.

On one occasion, the commotion went on for longer than usual, and it sounded as if it was intensifying with every minute. I remember my parents getting very concerned and debating on whether they should intervene. After a lengthy discussion, they decided not to ‘interfere’, and chose to ‘respect the privacy’ that should be accorded to people’s homes. I guess many of our neighbours had that conversation, and resorted to keep quiet and ‘mind their own business’.

We do that all the time, keep quiet and mind our own business, respecting the privacy of what goes on behind closed doors, even in homes where violence is pervasive. Our lack of community, created by a culture where we are only bothered about ourselves, and the people we share a roof with, has resulted in concern being synonymous with intrusion. If Khadija had been our neighbour, how many of us, like my neighbourhood several years ago, would have decided against respecting this privacy to intervene?

The moment we choose to be silent about violence, we enter into another phase of normalising the violence. I cannot recall how many times I heard statements such as ‘the fighting has began’ or ‘he’s at it again’ or ‘tonight we will not sleep’, as domestic violence ensued next to our door.

Sometimes it goes to the extent of making jokes about it. We will joke about how the ‘bull’ or ‘Jogoo’ (bull) of house X gave us sleepless nights, or how the woman ‘alionwa manyundo usiku mzima’ (hammered all night). If Khadija was have been our neighbour, I bet you many of us would not only have normalised the violence, but also normalised the fact that she was a child married to an older man. Some of us would be disgusted, but do nothing about it. Some of us would speak of the hero that the man is, that even in his old age, he is able to get himself ‘a fresh or spring chicken’.

In the process of normalising violence, women are encouraged to withstand it ‘for the sake of the children’. Statements such as ‘if all women left because of one form of abuse or the other, no one would be married’ or ‘this is how it has always been’, or ‘we have also gone through the same’ is common advice among women, particularly older ones advising younger ones.

When the violence becomes an ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ event, we enter another phase where the situation is seen not only seen as normal, but we begin to look for what is ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ with the victim. In this phase, we blame the victim through stupid questions. We begin to ask ‘why is she there?’ ‘what is stopping her from leaving?’ ‘amefungiliwa? (‘is she been tied there?’). ‘How can someone be beaten daily?’ As I was following the conversation about Khadija on Twitter, somebody asked, ‘what was a 16 year old doing married?’ The situation becomes normal, and the victim abnormal.

Good women stay in violent relationships

These stupid questions are followed or accompanied with justification as to why a woman should face violence. We use all the tools available to us, including, and particularly the Bible and other religious texts to justify this kind of violence. We begin to say ‘there must be something she is not doing’, ‘she must have provoked him’, ‘no man just wakes up and starts beating a woman’. As I am writing this post, someone is engaging me on Twitter trying to justify Khadija’s violence. The conversation goes something like this:

@Kenyanfeminst (me): Can this violence towards women and girls end with this generation? #JusticeForKhadija

@SA (A follower on Twitter who chooses to respond): As soon as wives learn to submit to their husbands, it’s a Biblical command.

@ Kenyanfeminist: are you justifying violence towards women and girls?

@SA: I’m not justifying anything. I’m reminding [you] of the Biblical submission requirement, which should forestall many fights.

@SA: A man just doesn’t wake up one morning, just start battering his wife or daughter. It’s a build up and mostly women cause it.

@ Kenyanfeminist: So are you saying that the 16 year old who was brutally burnt by her husband deserved it?

@SA: Have you [found] out what led to the beating? It’s not out of the blue!

This conversation, which went on beyond this, proves that if Khadija had been our neighbour, many of us are likely to have justified the violence. I need to point out that SA is not your average Kenyan. His profile suggests that he is educated, socially and politically conscious and driven by Christian teachings. He even describes himself as a human rights activist. If someone proclaiming to be human rights activists can publicly justify the outright violation of the rights of another human being, I fear for the kind of society we live in.

Right now we are outraged on social media, but the truth is if Khadija was our neighbour, many of us would have responded the same we respond all the time. We would have kept quiet and minded our business, and our silence would have grown into normalising the violence. With time, many of us would have began blaming Khadija and asking stupid questions, as we find reasons to justify the kind of situation she is in.

What we have been doing and continue to do, is create a society that perpetuates violence towards women. A society where women are neither protected by society or by law. A society that fails to be cognisant of the nuances that surround gender based violence; often assuming that one-size-fits-all approach. We are also blind to the impact of our social and legal responses in addressing gender based violence. As women, we fear to report or speak out because chances are, neither society, nor the law will protect us.

I ask the question that I often ask? Can this end with me and my generation? Will we have another Khadija story 20 years from now. Yes we will, if we keep up with the silence, the culture of normalising violence, blaming the victim and justifying violence.

In the spirit of ending the culture of silence, last week someone named Ann read my blog post “Can it end with me?” and challenged me to name the website that ignored my complaint on sexual inappropriateness from a service that I had purchased through the website. Ann contends that I have no business writing about sexual harassment if I continue to protect companies and websites that abuse women, a sentiment that I completely agree with.

So, in the spirit of consuming what I preach, I will share my story in brief. I purchased a massage deal from Malaika Spa, through Rupu.co.ke. My masseur, Paul Jandi, turned out to be sexually inappropriate. When I reported to Rupu, my complaint was ignored. This was contrary to the kind of swiftness in responding that I had experienced from Rupu in the process of purchasing the deal.

It was not until 25 days later, when a 15 year old Norwegian girl was drugged and raped, and it was highlighted in the media, that Rupu called and wrote back to me apologising for what they termed as my ‘less than satisfactory experience’, offering to make things right. It is too late now. Rupu’s silence and love for profits has resulted in an extremely traumatic experience for a young girl. Rupu’s response is also reflective of our culture towards sexual violence.

We choose to be silent, to normalise, to justify and consequently, perpetuate violence against women.

The question is, can this end with me and my generation?

Getting used to violence

Why was my womanhood not celebrated?

When I was 16, I began to write a novel about Wambui, a girl who was born with a rebellious spirit. In my story, I depicted Wambui as a girl who constantly questioned and defied gender norms. Her grandmother was constantly lamenting that Wambui had inherited the rebellious spirit of her grandfather, and often wished that her younger brother, Kiarie had inherited it instead. She worried that a girl with a rebellious spirit would never find a man to marry her.

One of the highlights of the novel, was when at the age of 15, Wambui was required to help prepare for Kiarie’s circumcision party. Consumed with anger, Wambui got into a heated argument with her grandmother after refusing to participate in preparing or even attend the celebration. She reasoned that it was not fair that Kiarie’s manhood got to be celebrated, yet her womanhood was not. While her grandmother tried to explain that it was only natural to hold a party when a boy grows into man, Wambui contended that she too had grown into a woman, and deserved a party. She asked her grandmother, why the growth of her breasts and hips, as markers of growing into a woman were not celebrated. “I too, want the beauty of my womanhood to be celebrated.” she demanded.

Celebrating women

The novel was my reflection then of how female sexuality was handled differently compared to male sexuality. I was expressing my dissatisfaction and outrage with these differences. I had attended a few of these ceremonies where a small, timid looking 13 year old boy who had just undergone circumcision would be ushered into manhood. The speeches given in such ceremonies aimed at empowering the boy to take on the challenges and responsibilities of being a man. Every sentence of the speeches began with the phrase “now that you are a man” and this was followed with words that instilled courage, pride and authority. I contrasted with with my “now that you are a woman” speech, with was followed with words that instilled fear, embarrassment and domesticity.

While these 13 year old men would be showered with gifts and words of wisdom, I had never seen a similar event to usher a girl into womanhood. The passage to womanhood was a private affair, addressed in hushed and not so pleasant conversation often between a girl and an older woman. The passage to manhood on the other hand was a public affair, with pomp, colour and ululation. I hated the invisibility of being a woman; unworthy of notice or acknowledgment.

I hated the fact that the transition to being a man came with freedom, liberation and with mandate to take authority, yet for girls, the transition was the exact opposite. Being a woman came with extra policing, caution and ignominy. The growing bodies of girls were deemed evil, with the ability to “tempt men”, who were “naturally weak”. It is no wonder, many girls walked with a stoop to hide their growing breasts, or tied sweaters around their hips to conceal their growing hips.

My novel was my 16 year old way of saying that there is something wrong with the cultural valuation of girls and boys. It was was my way of saying that something is amiss with the way society handles the sexuality of boys and that of girls, and the messages that come with each. It was my way of questioning the undue pressure that these gendered messaged place on women and men. The pressure on women to be “proper”, to be care givers and to shoulder the heavier portion of domestic responsibilities. The pressure on men to be “macho”, unfeeling and in many cases to shoulder the heavier portion of financial responsibilities.

Weighed down

My novel was and is still my way of saying that we need liberation from the shackles and burdens imposed by society; burdens and shackles that keep men and women chained and weighed down; chained and weighed down by the yoke and pressures of gender roles and expectations.

As Nancy Smith says in her poem:

For every woman who is tired of acting weak

When she knows that she is strong

There is a man who is tired of appearing strong When he feels vulnerable

For every woman who is tired of being called ‘an emotional female’

There is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle

For every woman who feels ‘tied down’ by her children

There is a man who is denied the full pleasure of parenthood

For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation

There is a man who finds that the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

%d bloggers like this: