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.
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.
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”?