by Wairimu Muriithi
“Mr Speaker, if you do not slap a woman, you will note that her behaviours will not appeal to you. Just slap her and she will know you love her. This is when she will you call her darling.”
Kitale West MP Wafula Wabuge, July 1976
There are things that are said every day.
“A woman must understand that a man has needs he cannot control.”
There were friends you used to have.
“Sure guys will thirst over your naked pics but on the real no ninja wants to wife public property.”
There are things you often come across.
“Don’t dress that way. What are you trying to tell men? Do you want to be raped?”
There are ways to be.
“It’s because I’m a married woman. When you have a husband, you will understand.”
There are questions you ask.
“Boys will be boys.”
There are lessons you must learn from birth.
Feminism triggers, perhaps forces, memory-work.
Consciously coming into, living and learning through feminism calls for re-examination and necessary readjustment of personalities, priorities and perhaps most importantly, relationships.
There are jokes you cracked or cracked up at that are no longer funny because they have always been dangerous. You realize you have been policing yourself and others according to your socialization within very real patriarchal structures. You hear yours and your friends’ stories and comments about the women they met in the club, on the bus, in a meeting room, for what they really are – banal misogyny. You cringe at the person you have been, and the possible effects of the subtle and not-so subtle acts of violence you have committed against anybody who isn’t the heterosexual Kenyan – and typically respectable – man.
You wonder why it is that you were like that.
You begin to remember.
Your memory narrows in on those who are closest to you.
Feminism recognizes the importance of teaching the men in our lives, from as early as possible, not to endorse rape culture. There are necessary conversations to be had.
Last year, I talked to my teenage brother about rape for the first time. It wasn’t the most comprehensive of conversations, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but I was relieved—and, admittedly, a bit surprised—by his answers to my questions. He knows that rape can be committed by anybody. He knows not to victim-blame-and-shame. He knows that ‘nonviolent’ rape is just as bad as ‘regular’ rape. I remember specifically asking him if our mother had ever spoken to him about rape, as she has several times with me. He had never had this conversation with anybody: he just knows.
“Your dress is too short. You need to show men that you respect yourself, or they won’t respect you. Honestly, if it’s not for sale, don’t advertise it.”
Statements like these are commonplace in many women’s lives. We see and hear variations of them in our dailies, on the internet, in quotidian conversations and even, at some point, even in our own conscience. As I begin to remember, though, I realize how many times these words were said in my home, by my mother, in my brother’s presence.
I feel what is beginning to be a familiar stab of resentment.
When I re-hear the things I have been told by my mother, aunts, grandmothers and teachers over the years, a blame game begins to formulate. They have taught me to be afraid, just as they have taught my brother that women are, and will be afraid of him. They have taught me to be just-loud-enough-[but]-not-too-loud, and they have taught him to expect women not to be as loud as him. They want me to be just-successful-enough because there will be problems if I generate a salary higher than that of my husband, or because a too-successful woman is likely to pay less and less attention to her man and kids. They have taught him that women should hold themselves back for him. Many things we know about the static ways of men, we have learnt first or most vocally from a woman.
As I remember these life lessons, it once looked to me that women, more than the men, are largely responsible for upholding oppressive patriarchal structure, while many men can appear blameless and claim innocence. This is embodied in the defensive argument given by men when a feminist is calling them out for enabling patriarchy, especially by endorsing rape culture—the “not all men are rapists/misogynists/patriarchal/that bad” argument.
Superficially, this can appear to be true. I cannot recall a time my father, uncles and grandfathers have expressly forbidden me to do anything because I am a woman—this, I understand, is my privilege. All relatively successful in the capitalistic sense of the word, they encourage their daughters’ education, career formation and financial stability. Rarely has a future husband or child been mentioned. This is the forward-thinking, respectable man, who supports the empowerment of all women.
Yet this is the subtle manipulation patriarchy has taken on in an increasingly neoliberal world. While there are still plenty of men who are publicly and proudly the authority on the place of women, they often don’t need to say anything, or anything particularly ‘extreme’. Earlier waves of feminism have done what they set out to do. There are successful women occupying senior positions in businesses and governments and many manage to do so while’ juggling’ both marriage, in which they do not overshadow their husbands, and motherhood, to which they must commit themselves above all else. The ones that don’t, we must not turn into.
“Poor thing. I hope she is able to find a husband one day.”
“Don’t be a feminist, okay? Because I want you to be a nice girl.”
An OB/GYN I saw recently does not approve of feminism. Often, people’s introduction to feminism is fraught with stereotypes and/or singular stories. A feminist, according to popular opinion, is an angry woman who hates all men. She fights for female professionalism and equality in the workplace, and against marriage and children. She argues for equal rights in the eyes of the law and against the social requirement to look presentable and act feminine. She wants to have too much sex —angry sex— which makes her a whore, or no sex at all because she doesn’t need a man to satisfy her. In the long run, therefore, she will end up old and miserable and lonely, with no eggs and no man.
“There are things that are our culture. A very intelligent woman who teaches at the university sat here in front of me and told me she cannot cook for her husband. I asked her what she thought her mother thought of this silly behaviour.”
Given this introduction, there is little surprise how many women steer away from feminists and feminism. ‘Calling someone out’ on being a feminist, or performing feminism in subtle ways, becomes an insult. Calling an African woman a feminist comes with a further accusation from the rest of hetero-patriarchal Africa: feminism, like homosexuality, is Western.
“However you behave over there is up to you. But Kenya has not changed since you left, or even since I was a girl. Men here will not stop to think you are a feminist before they rape you.”
I shut up. Her lip curls. In the village they insist it takes to raise a child, the list of mothers dwindles. I used to call her my teacher. We no longer talk.
“You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.”
“Kenyan women have been laying their bodies on the line for years.”
Wambui Mwangi, ‘Silence is a Woman’
“You must do your best; work hard, succeed and take care of yourself, because the world has never been, and will never be, kind to women.”
Women have survived. Women continue to survive. Feminism requires paying close attention to layers of histories underneath seemingly unremarkable words and deeds. In their continued warnings, anecdotes, forbidances and ‘excuses’, we begin to hear something else.
“You need to be careful about some of these men you befriend.”
“No man is going to marry a woman who constantly fights him. How long do you think the world will respect you as a single woman? And what man stays with a woman who will not give him children?”
Even though they may tell us, it is impossible to know the experiences they have had in the years before and during our existence. Nobody can speak of fear, or compromise, or adaptation unless they have known them intimately themselves. Somebody taught somebody taught somebody – showed them that certain things could be avoided if they just stayed in their place.
“Whatever happened to Mercy Keino didn’t have to happen if she’d been careful. I pray every day it doesn’t happen to you.”
We all know women who did not survive.
The seemingly logical solution, therefore, is that we should learn from their ‘mistakes’ so that our survival comes easier. We cannot emerge unscathed, for this would be impossible, but we are expected to remain strong in the unchanging niches carved out for us by conforming to them and avoiding trouble. This is their survival.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is a favourite feminist go-to. Self-care is an inherent part of the struggle. What we may be guilty of ignoring, however, is that our methods of self-preservation exist in a different frame from those who have brought us up. We, as self-proclaimed feminists, may be quick to condemn our mothers for anti-feminist, and by extension anti-woman, performances. This thread of arrogance assumes our methods of self-preservation, whatever they may be, are superior to theirs. Our willingness to be known as feminists does not place us above their decisions, conscious or otherwise, to adjust themselves within patriarchy in order to survive rather than actively fight it.
“They wouldn’t grant me a passport without written permission from my husband, because I still had his name. All this country knows is that your husband owns you. I changed my name back, because nobody owns me. I am my own person.”
Conversely, it would be an act of violence to impose upon these women we look up to, having considered their own experiences and defiant survival, an identity of feminism if they do not do it for themselves.
It is the same violent erasure that accompanies the Strong Black Woman. Not only is the label of feminism as identity secondary, or even impossible, but seemingly small performances of defiance against patriarchy do not belong to feminism, just as compliance with it is not necessarily actively anti-women. Whichever it is, it is first and foremost self preservation. With this in mind, do we hear their warnings about how we dress, act and speak as projections of this self-preservation and not as active attempts to maintain policing?
“Well, I can’t tell you how to dress anymore. All I have to say is that if you are determined to be this way, I hope you’re prepared for the consequences of it all.”
There are words more brutal than blows.
This is how one of our conversations ends. My mother has heard feminist arguments for years. She wonders why I am willing to put myself in harm’s way for what she calls my intellectual-not-realistic principles. My aunt tells me she used to be a feminist, and then she got saved. That I am no longer Christian is her proof that feminism does more harm than good to the self.
I don’t know if they can tell that I, too, am afraid.
“Men don’t think the way we do. Boys will be boys.”
“Yes, and my brother is a boy.”
I don’t know if our mothers think their sons are not the boys that will be boys —the ones that will hurt women. If they do, I don’t know if their fear that their daughters might be raped is equal to the fear that their sons may one day rape. I don’t know if they believe their sons will be different from the men they have known and survived.
Another memory from many years ago:
“If ever a man touches you in any way you don’t want him to, scream. Run. Fight. leave. Come and tell me. There shouldn’t be anything you cannot tell me.”
I love you, she says [even though you are a feminist, her sadness and anger whisper.]
I love you too, I say, and see that I may never be able to tell her about the nights I walk home alone exhausted and in tears, the smell of fear and drunk men who got too close clinging to my clothes. I cannot survive the “but I told you not tos; I am not sure she can survive the pain.