In every nation, archived away are unaired episodes on subjects which are either conveniently ignored or so internalised by society that they cease to be seen as injustices and thus retain a sense of banality. One such issue is that of misogyny, the negative attitude we hold towards females which men, women, society, government and institutions are complicit in and how the silence around this both in Kenya and globally leaves a deafening echo.
We could discuss the important and largely erased role of women in the creation of this nation, we could dissect Dr. Wambui Mwangi’s ‘Silence is a Woman’ and we could refer to the array of feminist literature (including Brainstorm’s free ebook) to illustrate the fact that the experience of misogyny is not just a theory or imagined concept, it is an everyday reality. However, perhaps the best way this phenomenon is understood is through the voices of those that experience it daily.
A 44 year old woman talks about how her daughters, aged 14 and 16, have had a group of men at the roadside wolf whistle and shout obscenities at them while they return home from school every day for the last year. When she confronted these thugs they threatened her, and the police told her there was nothing they could do. She sees her older daughter struggle with this to the point that the child no longer wants to leave the house. She is ashamed of her body, of her place in the world, feeling responsible for the actions of these men who feel it is their right to objectify and verbally abuse a female child, undermining the complaints of her mother as she too is a woman.
Serena, a sex worker based in Nairobi, tells me about the times she has gone to the police to report a crime only to be threatened with arrest unless she has sex with them. She says she has lost count of the number of her colleagues who have gone missing or been found dead, but as women and that too sex workers, they are quickly forgotten, “their case files left rotting just like their bodies.”
She has had the crème de la crème of Kenyan men buy her services; “The more respectable their public persona, the more disgraceful their behaviour behind closed doors. Many of these men are married and seem to hate women. They think they are not just paying for sex but also an opportunity to get violent with us, and there is no point reporting it for we are women and sex workers at that, policemen will never listen.”
At the end of the interview she adds “Everyone says ‘why do you sell sex?’ Do they ask the men ‘why do you buy it?’ No, because in this country it is one standard for men and another for women.”
Misogyny and patriarchy are not just a societal issue. They seem entrenched in our political systems and reproduced through the silence and words of those in power. One just has to look at the case of Evans Kidero slapping Rachel Shebesh. Where were the clergy, the President and the First Lady to condemn this? When such scenes play out in public with very little consequence, why would people be shocked when they hear about a woman who found messages from her husband’s mistress on his phone, and when she confronted him he found it justifiable to attack her violently for looking through his phone? It shows what we as a society accept and so quickly forget.
Most recently, both the silence and the unfortunate opinions of Members of Parliament regarding the yet to be passed Protection against Domestic Violence Bill have been telling. The allegation is not that these MPs are misogynists, it is that their attitudes (particularly in terms of their dismissal of the Bill, their questioning the existence of sexual harassment, marital rape and comments such as Benson Makali’s saying that wife beating can be a sign of ‘love’ in some cultures) are denying women the rights which will protect them. This inadvertently reinforces misogyny.
A Nairobi based counsellor tells me of the number of women both in rural and urban areas that have been raped, beaten or sexually assaulted by husbands, partners or strangers but chosen not to report the crime because of the culture of victim blaming and impunity for men. It reminds me of my interview with two rape survivors in Uganda who heard the phrases “What was she wearing?” and “She must have done something to attract it” numerous times when their cases were discussed; this rhetoric is reinforced despite the fact that studies have shown rape is about power, control and violence.
A report released by the US State Department in 2013 said “(In Kenya) the rate of reporting and prosecution of rape remained low because of cultural inhibitions against publicly discussing sex, particularly sexual violence; the stigma attached to rape victims; survivors’ fear of retribution and police reluctance to intervene.” At this juncture 16 year old gang rape survivor Liz comes to mind. The sentence given to her rapists was to mow the lawn at a police station; where that day local policemen failed her, today the Kenyan legal system is continuing to deny her justice as we wait for the trial to resume.
Perhaps the most common experience of misogyny is when women face men who possess double privilege obtained through patriarchy and wealth. Have we all not heard whispered the names of men who hold prestigious positions, and are well respected, yet are also known to be womanisers that routinely not only indulge in extra-marital affairs, but also in subtle ways make it their aim to ensure that the female figures they encounter both for personal and professional reasons are continuously silenced?
These men will offer women jobs in return for sex, chase employees they find attractive and fire them when refused, alternatively if a woman gives in to their advances, once the sex is over their work contract will be too. Taking these stories to the media or the courts is seen as pointless, the fear is the man will with the shield of patriarchy and wealth weather the storm while the woman will be viewed with suspicion, her word against his.
I interviewed 26 year old Sarah, a public relations executive who worked for a well known public figure. This gentleman was married with 3 children. Initially he would tell her he liked the way she dressed and praise her performance at work, but this soon turned into flirting and suggestive remarks. He then began asking her for dates, and upon refusal he would accept her no then days later, humiliate her in staff meetings. She had gone from ‘golden girl’ to ‘incompetent.’ His proposals involved this urge to ‘own her’ and when she would refuse, he would send her emails with the aim of knocking her confidence, such as “You dress like a cheap hooker. This is not the way to come to the office” and “I saw you talking to Andrew. This is an office not a dating agency” and “Your standard of work is so poor, I do not know how or why we recruited you.”
Sarah was soon forced out of the company by him and did not have enough faith in the legal system, media or society to take up a case against this man. This is an example of everyday misogyny, and the way we as women are already defeated before we begin the fight in the face of some men feeling that a woman’s worth is based upon how obedient she is. What astonished Sarah most was the number of women who told her to give in to his advances as it would make her life easier. They too, like many other women, were unknowingly internalising the system as it internalised them.
From being paid less than men (Study titled ‘Gender Disparities in Africa’s Labor market’ indicates that Kenyan women earn 11% less than men), to being objectified and thus unheard, to having to consider dressing in a way so as not to arouse their male counterparts, misogyny in the workplace is rife. It is a barrier to empowerment and is often accepted because employment for many means survival.
How many women do you know who have found men to be that glass ceiling in the workplace that they cannot reach above? How many women that are part of the Kenyan media sit on TV looking beautiful and asking those gentle questions which keep them in jobs, for if they stepped out of line they would just be replaced by another pretty face?
On the other end of this spectrum are the women who air their brutally honest views on social media only to have groups of men and even women tweet them abuse because they are women. When witnessing these toxic online wars, it feels as if the men hold a God given right to define whether a woman’s views are valid or not, or whether her profile picture on Facebook is too ‘sexy’ and therefore she should be dismissed. We have Amb Amina Mohammed, a woman, speaking for us on the world stage but we want to silence those that speak uncomfortable truths within our borders.
Worse still is when women speak out about this issue, they are branded ‘drama queens’ and their femininity questioned, for this in itself is a threat to the status quo, a threat to a system which demands possession of the female body and mind. How many will read this piece and dismiss it? How many will brand the writer and anyone who agrees with her as ‘having issues’ or being a ‘man hater?’ or ‘not understanding culture?’
From the boardroom to the bedroom to the streets, the toxicity of misogyny, in which the media, government, institutions and individuals have been complicit, has suffocated many into silence. From schoolgirls to sex workers, it manifests in a variety of ways with one common consequence: the disempowering of women in Kenya. We can legislate all we want and throw in quotas and requirements for how many female MPs there should be and the like, but both patriarchy and misogyny can only be challenged through a revolution in our individual thinking – through a redefinition of what it is to be a man. Masculinity should not be equated with control and power, and women should be able to empower themselves without misogyny being a barrier.
No longer can culture, casual sexism or societal practices be allowed to justify the existence of a system which somehow makes undermining one half of the population the norm. This is not about gendered roles or women being oppressed, it is simply an acknowledgement of inequality. In the words of Keguro Macharia, misogyny has been able “to recruit young women to its cause” that they do not even realise they are victim to it. It has become too easy to be a man, too easy to understand women as quirky girls with charming habits and idiosyncratic style.
Is it however not just silence which allows it to grow, it is denial.