“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.
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.
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.