Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Gender’

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.

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What if my child was gay, lesbian, intersex or transgender?

Following the US Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriages, coupled by the fact that Obama will soon visit Kenya, there are fears and concerns among Kenyans that the US may want the rest of the world to follow its example. The Kenyan deputy president, William Ruto has therefore issued a stern warning to President Obama not to talk about gay rights during his trip to Kenya. He has further declared that there is no place for gay people in Kenya. This homophobic sentiments have been lauded by many Kenyans, who have taken upon themselves to spew homophobic messages largely through social media, and in many social conversations.

These events have seen me engage in conversations about gay rights over the last few weeks, mostly with people that are completely opposed to the idea of people with non-conforming sexualities having the same rights as any human being. On several occasions, I have found myself being asked what I would do, or how I would respond if my child turned out to be gay.

I don’t know what people expect as the answer to that question, or even the purpose of asking the question. I suppose those who ask the question imagine that the thought of my own flesh and blood turning out gay, will hit me back to my senses, because to them, this would be a parent’s worst nightmare.

My first question to the people that ask this question is whether the parents of children known to be heterosexual (straight) go about life thinking about their children’s sexuality. If that is not the case, then why would any parent go about life thinking about their child’s non-conforming sexuality? I don’t understand why people imagine that the sexual identity or gender of a child with a non-conforming sexuality or gender identity should be the primary focus of their being.

No one is any one single thing, and to imagine that I would reduce my child to a sexual or gender identity is strange thinking. Human beings are often many things in one, and sexual identity is one thing, but not everything about a person.

If my child was gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, queer, it wouldn’t matter. They would be my child, biologically. I would give them the best life I could. Bring them up to be the best human beings they could be. I would want them to dream and realize their dreams. I would want them to live their lives true to themselves, and without fear that their sexuality would pose a hindrance to them realizing their dreams. I would raise them to know that they are more than their sexuality; that they are humans with lives to live.

I am human

As a person who is socially and politically active, I would want my children to see life beyond themselves. I would want them to speak out and act against corruption, rigged elections, restriction of civic and media freedoms, police brutality and extra-judicial killings, the inadequacy and neglect of public services, among other human rights violations, or whatever other social vices will exist in their society during their time. I would not want my children to be apathetic, only gaining voice on matters concerning morality and sexuality.

My greatest fear would be to raise children that consume and spew hatred towards people that do not look, think or behave like them. I would be greatly concerned if my children would rather hate tax-paying, law-abiding citizens, whose sexualities they may not understand, while there are so many injustices to confront and challenge in society.

I would be concerned if my children would choose to make an issue of people with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, rather than demand better from politicians living lavishly off their taxes, yet continue to steal from them in the broad day light, abusing, raping and kill them. I would be disturbed if my children got distracted from the real issues.

Why every woman and black person should support gay rights

Same sex Image 1

Recently, I had the pleasure to talk to my grandmother. Though 84 years old, and displaying the frailty we commonly associate with old age, she spoke eloquently about her experiences living under the colonial regime. She recalled the memory of how Kenyans were driven off their lands, tortured, killed and raped, in such detail, depth and clarity.

At the same time, I realise that her story is of a life that did not happen: due to being born a black girl, in colonial era Kenya. From talking with her, I get the sense that she possibly would have made a great academic, who could have lectured and inspired the next generation. Those opportunities never materialized, for she was a black girl, in colonial era Kenya.

In that time it was the norm that girls would not get much of an education, if any at all. She did not choose to be denied, what we now think of as obvious rights. Her path in life was clearly set out for her, and her choices in life limited too. Being born a black girl meant that she would attend school for a few years, and drop out as soon as she was able to provide labour in her father’s farm. She would then get married as soon as she showed signs of being a woman, give birth to as many children as her body could bear, raise them and provide labour in her husband’s farm for as long as her body allowed. Sad as it is, that was the path set out for just about every girl born at her time.

Gender, race and disability are some of the grounds that have been used historically, and even presently to discriminate in just about every part of the world. These kinds of discrimination have seen minorities suffer tremendous injustices, ranging from gender inequalities, slavery, apartheid and colonialism.

The idea of reversing these injustices, and seeing groups that had been historically disadvantaged as human beings with rights was repulsive to the powerful. At that point, the idea of sending girls to school, or allowing women to vote, or to engage in any other public setting was unfathomable. The idea of black people mixing with white people was even more repulsive. People with disabilities were for a long time considered social misfits in Africa and Europe, often not worth living.

While a lot of advancements have been made to end the discrimination of women, black people and people with disabilities, bigotry is still existent in many forms. The most obvious form is expressed towards people with non-conforming sexualities. Be they lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender or inter-sex (LGBTI). The same Bible and other religious texts that were used to justify bigotry towards women, black people and people with disabilities, are now used to create homophobic sentiments. Consequently, LGBTI people have suffered rejection, torture, excommunication and even death, across the world. Many gay people cannot live ordinary lives of achieve their full potential because society has no space for them.

I am a person

Sometimes I get angry when I hear my grandmother speak, because I realise the impact of discrimination in depriving people of choice, and deterring people from achieving their full potential. Having faced double disadvantage, first as woman, and secondly as a black person, I imagine if I had been born at the same time as my grandmother, I would not have made the academic and professional achievements that I have made so far. These achievement do not only give me immense pleasure, but they also make significant contribution to society. I hate to imagine of the wasted potential that would have become my story.

At the same time I am glad because some people fought to make sure that would not be my story. Many women and black people were injured, excommunicated, and some even died for me to enjoy the freedom that I enjoyed today.

Had women or black people stopped fighting for their rights to avoid repulsing the powerful, most of us would not be enjoying the freedoms that we do today. People with disabilities would not have the right to live let alone enjoy any other rights. Yet women all over the world, black people, and those with disabilities are still so far, from being considered equal to men, white people or those more able-bodied. Our battles are far from over, and those of the gay community seem to have an even longer way to go.

A Kenyan High Court ruling that declared it unconstitutional to deny registration to a gay rights organisation, has been met with a lot of resistance by ordinary Kenyans, the Church and even our Deputy President, William Ruto. Many have questioned the need to have organisations that support such a ‘repulsive’ group of people. Others are now in panic, fearing that once gay people win this battle, they will move on to demand marriage rights. It is no wonder, the argument that gay people should keep their affairs private has gained so much traction.

Just like any other group has a right to form a group to advocate for its rights, so do gay people. Registration is essential for many organisations to operate. You can imagine the difficulties that any organisation, be it a company, a church, a school, would have if it was denied registration. Just as women, black people and other minority groups decided to move their support groups from private to public spaces, to advance their agenda to be recognised as people, gay people too should do the same. Because no battles are ever won in private spaces.

The journey for the rights of people with non-conforming sexualities has come a long way, and it still has a long way to go. I am hopeful though, and very hopeful for that matter, because if you told my grandmother that she would live to see her granddaughter travel abroad to get an education, she would probably have laughed at the ridiculousness of such an idea. If you told her that her granddaughter would be so political, declaring herself a feminist, sitting at the same table with men the age of her father to discuss issues of national importance, she would have taken you to the nearest mental institution. But she has lived to see it, and I pray that she lives even longer, to see her granddaughters do even more wonderful and amazing things in the public arena.

I say this, not to blow my own trumpet, but to cast hope to the gay community. I am hopeful that our gay sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters will write blogs to celebrate the battles that we fought for them. We therefore must keep hope alive.

We must refuse to be discouraged or to feel powerless. We cannot afford to become complacent, or allow lack of support to overcome us. We must shed off all fear, and refuse to worry about what other people think about us stepping into a role that might make us unpopular. We must silence the voices that urge us to shut up or quit, the voices that call us defeated. We must reject any idea to cave in to the discouragement that surrounds us. We must continue to work, fight, and challenge, awaken, and campaign for equality and social justice. (Quote adapted from the Pillion Trust Charity).

Wangari Maathai - We must not give up

I Refuse to Shrink

If I fail to be a “good woman” it is not for lack of training or aspiration. I grew up surrounded by messages of the “submissive” and “virtuous” woman. I wanted to be a “good” woman, because like many girls, I aspired to be happily married, and I had been taught, that successful marriages were made up of “submissive” and “virtuous” femininity. I knew the hourly time schedule of the Proverbs 31 woman, because I aspired to one day, “bring honour to my husband in the towns”.

Proverbs 31 woman 3

That was not my only dream though; I also aspired to travel the world, be highly educated, have my own money, and significantly influence society. These two dreams were a source of great conflict for most of my adult life. I struggled with what society expected of me as a woman, who I was, and who I wanted to be. Although it was clear in my head that I wanted to be treated as an equal, I also understood that “men could not handle a strong woman” and I therefore had to compromise, and shrink myself. I didn’t want to shrink myself though, and every time I did, I sensed that I had lost something, that I could never recover.

It was frustrating to hear men who were my equals in many respects, imagine that their gender was an automatic ticket to domination in a relationship. I shared my dilemmas with people that were close to me, and I got all sorts of advice; all given with my best interests at heart.

An older woman, whom I confided in, was surprised at the content of my conversations with “potentials”. She advised me to be less intense, and to be “smart”, which I interpreted as manipulative. The strategy was, to make myself sound “normal”, which I interpreted as less smart, with the ability to “submit” and be a “good wife”. Once I was married, I would “slowly unleash my true colours”. I can only imagine the warfare that would ensue, if he also had true colours to unleash.

warfare

When I confided in a male friend of mine that it felt like I had to choose between a successful life in the public domain and a happy marital life, he encouraged me that I could pursue both to the fullest. He gave me the example of a woman who was a highly accomplished professor, married to a man who was less accomplished academically, and financially. Although she owned most of the property in their marriage, her secret to a happy marriage though, was to claim ownership of her property by her husband. My friend hailed her for remaining a “good woman” even when her success had potential to “corrupt” her.

I shared with a close friend of mine, about the frustration of finding men who believed in gender equality. I argued that perhaps the best thing would be to find someone that had potential to be nurtured into believing in gender equality. My friend rubbished my thinking and argued that if I strongly believed in equality, I should find someone who believed in equality as well. She warned me against the idea of thinking that I could change a person’s view of life. I must say, that was the most profound and empowering piece of advice I ever got on dating: find someone who believes in the same things that you do, and with the same intensity.

My newly empowered self, got back into the dating game, this time, unapologetic about what I believed in. I met fun, intelligent, widely travelled, and well-read, men. Their messages remained clear and consistent: “I will love you, I will do my best to ensure that we have a good life together, I will provide, but you have to be smaller than me; I have to be the man, the leader; your role is to support and help me”. Some got biblical, “God created woman from man’s rib, and not the other way round”. In some cases I went through short courses on human anatomy, “there is no body with two heads; any functional body has one head, and a neck to support it”. In other cases I learned a thing or two about leadership and how to run organisations; “any successful organisation has one leader and followers”. Dating was turning out to be school in itself.

I didn't come from your rib

My newly – empowered response, also got consistent. Determined to stand for what I believed in, I got a new mantra, “My dreams are too big, my view of life too broad, my passions too many, my interests too varied, my imagination too wild. I refuse to shrink”. I determined not to entertain any demands to shrink myself to fit the size of any man’s ego.

I noticed something peculiar with my male friends. Their language shifted significantly when they become fathers to daughters. I now realise how having a daughter can transform a man into a feminist, when I see my young father friends, make posts about their daughters on social media.

Daddys girl 1

These young fathers speak with such pride and sometimes exaggeration about their daughters’ achievements and ambitions. They have such big dreams and wild imaginations of what their daughters can become. They see their daughters as CEOs, great artists and musicians, and even presidents. I haven’t come across any one describing their daughter as submissive, future helper, or future neck to a great man. It is clear that the daughters of these young fathers are their own products, and not the products of the rib of another man. I imagine that they would be outraged at the thought of their daughters’ potential being shrunk to fit the size of the ego of the man they love. The irony of needing a smaller spouse to raise a great daughter, remains baffling.

Today is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Make it Happen. We need to raise sons whose masculinities are not threatened by strong women. We need to raise our daughters to refuse to shrink. We can make it happen.

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