Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Silence’

The revolution will be intimate

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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.

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

Mutumia

Giving birth to myself

A few days ago, I experienced this euphoric feeling that I get when I get intensely absorbed in writing. I do not know whether I can describe it, but I will try. I feel a warm grip around my stomach, as excitement builds up, my heart beats faster, my focus sharpens and my heart experiences this near-explosive sensation, and when I put a full stop to a sentence, I take a deep breath. The deep breath is followed by feeling of deep satisfaction, leaving me elated or in tears. Whichever emotion it evokes, I call it my writing high.

When I get my writing high, I lose sense of space or time, as I experience a spiritual interconnectedness with humanity and nature. I feel like taking a paint brush and splashing yellows, blues, oranges, reds, greens, whites, pinks, purples, blacks and all the colours imaginable on a canvas. My high makes me want to take an instrument and hit notes that are breathtaking. But I am not an artist or a painter, so during my highs my academic side takes over, and I get analytical, philosophical and theoretical, and I feel like I am communing with Karl Marx, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Leon Trotsky, Chinua Achebe, Bishop Spong, Bishop Tutu, Rev. Njoya and Chimamanda Adichie at the same table. It is a deeply intense feeling, and I don’t even think I have done justice in describing it.

The art of writing

When I experienced my most recent high, I was reflecting on the reason why I write. Like the highs, writing has periods of lows characterised by mental blocks, loss of creativity and even questioning whether writing is really my thing. When I got my high, after a low period, I remembered why I write. I realised that writing gives me untold pleasure; it is my world, and one of the things that I was born to do.

As a researcher, I write for a living, and as a blogger, I moonlight in writing. But beyond paying the bills and getting the occasional high, I write because I am a woman.

writing and discovering your beliefs

The word for woman in my language is ‘mutumia’. Loosely translated this means the voiceless or the silent one. Woman was named after silence, or silence was named after woman; I am yet to figure out which one is which. The fact that woman and silence are synonyms is reflective of the voicelessness of women. I live in a society whose intent to mould me into a ‘mutumia’ began from the moment it was declared, “it’s a girl”. This consciousness of society’s agenda has set me on a mission to re-create myself and my gender; to give birth to an empowered and vocal womanhood.

The journey to recreate myself and reclaim my voice has been and continues to be a long one, with many starts and halts. In a recent blog, I shared about a novel that I began writing in my teenage. The novel was my voice, my way of speaking out about the gender differences I noticed as I was growing up, and challenging status quo. I never finished writing my book because real life priorities set in and these silenced my voice. Like many women, the day to day demands and realities of life required that I ignore my voice and focus on things that would sustain my life. Between getting an education, succeeding in a career, creating happy families, making money and more often than not, juggling all these, many women lose their voice in the rut race.

There is no such thing as voiceless

I am fortunate that despite missing the missed opportunity to finish writing my novel, I have a few tools, thanks to technological advancements, that allow me to reclaim my voice. I cannot however give credit to my ‘privilege’ if any, in reclaiming my voice. Reclaiming my voice has been a process and a journey that has involved listening to the voices of other women that have refused to be boxed in the ‘mutumia’ category. Women that left a mark in society through their voices, and those in my generation that continue to follow in the footsteps of their great predecessors.

Many women are however not as fortunate as I am, and continue to face numerous barriers that limit their ability to defy the notion of woman as a silenced and voiceless being. I have met women in physically, emotionally and sexually abusive relationships, in their homes and places of work. However, social, economic and cultural limitations render them voiceless and powerless, putting them in the ‘mutumia’ box that society has created for them.

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As I reclaim my voice through writing, I hope that I can help other women reclaim theirs. I also hope that the women that I reclaim my voice together with, will continue to catalyse and help other women to reclaim their voices.

Because voice is power.

Voices are power

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