Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘women’

I am because we are

Ubuntu 1

November 2015 marks exactly one year since I started blogging. My blog was largely inspired by the spirit of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that states, “I am because we are” and in some cases expressed as, “I am because you are”.  The Ubuntu philosophy that appreciates the interconnectedness of humanity; that our humanity is inextricably linked.

Writing was therefore my platform to use my voice to add onto the efforts to challenge exclusion that deprives some groups of people from experiencing their full humanity, with the understanding that I cannot be free when others, particularly women continue to be bound.

Ubuntu 2

My first blog post was inspired by the injustice faced by female hawkers on the streets in the hands of City County Officers, otherwise known as kanjo. My second post  was on “My Dress My Choice”, an initiative that was started by women in Nairobi at a time when violent undressing of women in public spaces was becoming rather common.

I wrote the blog post on “My Dress My Choice” because the incidents of women being stripped reminded me of my own experience when I was 15 years old, after a man threatened to strip me at Commercial Bus Station.

I was wearing a long wrap around skirt, and as the wind blew, it blew away the top flap. As I was holding onto my skirt to avoid it being blown off more violently, a man approached me and told me that if I continued to hold my skirt, he would undress me. He said that if I chose to wear revealing clothes, I should not show any signs of discomfort.

At the age of 15 I was beginning to understand that the world I live in is not designed for girls and women to just live, without being controlled by everyone including strangers.

I wrote the article and supported “My Dress My Choice” because it was unbelievable that close to 15 years later after my experience, and at a time when girls and women are said to have advanced tremendously, women were being violently stripped in public for wearing what was deemed inappropriate.

“My Dress My Choice” protest took place on November 17th 2014, and it was a huge success. Women came out in their numbers, supported by some male allies to protest against violent undressing of women. Some of the perpetrators were sentenced to 20 year jail terms and as a result, women to some extent feel safer knowing that action can be taken against such forms of violence.

A while back, I had an experience that made me realize that “My Dress My Choice”, did make gains for women. As I was walking to meet a friend one Saturday afternoon, I faced the all too common problem of society, and particularly men deciding to control what women wear. I was catcalled on several occasions because I was wearing a short dress.

Shake that ass

After ignoring a few catcalls, I got tired and decided that I wasn’t going to be made uncomfortable anymore. So, when another man walking with two other men catcalled me, I stopped him and asked him if he had something to tell me. To my surprise, he got tongue tied and started sweating and breathing heavily; signs that he was having a panic attack. He stammered that he had not said anything to me. I left him at that and moved on.

When I got to my meeting point, I narrated my experience to my friend, perplexed as to why someone would have the nerve to catcall me and then get a panic attack upon being confronted. My friend told me that things were changing and men were begin to get more cautious after men that had stripped women were sentenced to 20 year jail terms.

She shared with me of an incident that she witnessed when a conductor slapped his colleague who was making derogatory remarks at a woman who was wearing what he considered inappropriate. After slapping him, he told him to stop being stupid, asking whether he wanted their matatus to be grounded from operating. My friend said, the driver commented that the days of “playing” with women were over, as Uhuru had decided that abuse and violence against women on the streets would not be tolerated by his regime.

When I think of these two incidents, I want to shout “WE DID IT! We did it as women! We used our outrage to stand with the women that had been stripped, and made significant changes for women in this country. Many of us did not know the women that we were standing up for and wouldn’t even recognize them if we meet them. But that didn’t stop us from being sisters to one another.

mydressmychoice 1

But even as we celebrate this victory, girls and women are still not safe. All forms of abuse and violence against women continue in every imaginable space, be it private or public. The system is also painfully slow and unfriendly to women who seek justice.

An example is one of the women that faced violent undressing in public, who at some point opted to drop her case because of the challenges in the system. She said that as the sole breadwinner of her family and in casual employment, the legal process was taking too much of her time and prohibited her from fending for her family. The process of recounting her story at every stage of the lengthy legal process was also very traumatic and she wished not to live a life of constantly reliving this experience.

The experience of this woman with the legal process tells us that we have more a lot more to fighting to do to ensure that women are safe from violence and abuse, and guaranteed of expeditious legal processes as well as social, economic and psychological support to accompany the legal process.

As we begin the 16 days of Activism against Gender Based Violence from November 25th to December 10th, 2015, we must bear in mind that the journey ahead of us is long. To succeed in this journey, the spirit of sisterhood must prevail as it did during “My Dress My Choice Campaign”.

To win this battle, we cannot afford to be distracted by hostility towards each other or competing to be recognized.

We must constantly remind ourselves that this is about ALL girls and women and not about any individual. It is about our daughters, sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers and each one of us to be safe in our homes, on the streets and every other space that we occupy.

Lastly, as I begin my second year of writing, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for reading, commenting, critiquing, and most importantly for giving space to my voice on your screens. I thank you for the wonderful friendships we have established on cyber-space and in the physical world. Thank you for meeting me and warming up to me like old friends or family because of the connection you developed with me from my writing. I have experienced the true spirit of Ubuntu this last year. I truly am because you are! Let us continue to be, for each other.

Ubuntu 3

I also wish to announce that my blog will be moving from ceranjagi.wordpress.com to http://www.kenyanfeminist.org.

I look forward to interacting with you all at http://www.kenyanfeminist.org.

Image credits: All the beautiful Ubuntu images are from AJ’s Art Journaling blog post on Ubuntu http://wp.me/p1D6U9-qM, Picture of My Dress My Choice demostopstreetharassment.org.

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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.

Between Rhetoric and Reality: Recognising the Struggles of Poor Women

Picture - women hawking Photo credits:nairobinews.nation.co.ke

The streets of Nairobi paint a clear picture population struggling to survive in a harsh economic environment.  Hawkers throng the streets at night, with resilience and determination to work beyond what is considered normal in a bid to make ends meet.

In recognition and support of these hardworking Kenyans, particularly the women, I hardly ever miss an opportunity to buy groceries on the streets.  This also tends to be a convenient way to stock up at fair prices.  Recently, as I was walking on the streets I decided to buy some groceries.  After my shopping was packed, I reached out to my purse and as soon as I was about to hand money, there was commotion and the woman selling disappeared. City Council officers were on the streets harassing hawkers as usual. The hawkers ran with their wares to escape arrest.  A few were unlucky and did not manage to escape.

I stopped to watch this particular woman who clung onto her sack which she had improvised into a mat, to sell her stock.  The city council officer attempted to confiscate her stock, but she wouldn’t let go.  As the struggle ensued, I wondered what would happen to her.  Would she eventually let go, and lose her stock? Would she be arrested for the night, or would she bribe her way out?  As I wondered what would be her fate, I thought about the woman who had lost an opportunity to sell to me, and the money that she would not make from other buyers that night.  I thought of the women that would spend the night in cold cells, those that would lose the goods they had planned to sell.  I thought about the children that would be sleeping in the cells with their mothers, as well as children that would be sleeping alone and terrified as their mothers spent the night locked up.

The struggles of the women on the streets is one that never ends.  Life for these women is challenging enough without the harassment they face on a daily basis.  They work in the cold night, when most people are making their way or already in the comfort of their homes.  Some have children on their backs, or sometimes seated, walking or playing next to their mothers.  Yet the government has decided to ignore the hardships that these women face and focus on the ‘menace’ that they are, just because by these women being on the streets ‘illegally’, the government does not make money from them.

The hypocrisy and irony of the whole situation is when government sets up a fund for women ‘in recognition of their marginalisation’, but at the same time mistreats a group of women that faces immense difficulties.  It is ironical that the government encourages youth to be creative and entrepreneurial, yet when hawkers identify opportunity to sell to people going home from work on the streets that they pass, they are labelled illegal and a nuisance.

Which women and youth then does the government purport to support, if not those who sacrifice their comfort and those of their children to survive?

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