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 Nairobi, Kisii 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.
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.