by Kennedy Kanyali
When I spoke to a friend of mine about Brainstorm’s decision to do an issue on “(Re)defining Kenyan Feminisms”, she raised the question (or I raised it, I don’t remember) of what exactly about Kenyan feminism needed to be redefined.
Certainly, there is a lot about Kenya’s history of women’s activism – against colonialism and white supremacist domination, against state repression, against neo-colonialism, against environmental degradation, against harmful cultural practices – that needs to be asserted, restated, yelled from the rooftops. When the Alliance Française recently showcased protest music from Kenya’s past and present, all the composers and performers were male. Yet we know, at least from what’s available, that performance in women-led protest had the key component of the indignant chant, the mournful dirge, the “in-your-face” excitement of getting one’s voice out there. So, women haven’t been quiet all this time and their work and world-making has been essential to what we call “good” in Kenyan society today.
And yet, there is a need to redefine Kenyan feminism or at least make it known that what feminists say and do today has been made possible by what other women and feminists who came before us have said and done. I am a feminist who also happens to be a queer cisgender male. Surely we must account for how this has come to pass in a society that demands that only two “sexes” exist and in which the roles, aspirations and worldviews of males and females differ markedly (though not naturally).
When I made peace with the inevitability of my queerness, way back when I was eighteen and fresh out of high school, I also made the decision that feminism and solidarity with women and feminists was how I was going to live out my politics. And when the chance presented itself in 2011 to meet and commune with fellow feminists (who are also based online), I enthusiastically took this as an opportunity to finally “come out” – to myself and to others – as a proud feminist. Till then, I had never thought that I’d be able to sit in a room full of feminists and just talk. We ended up working through a lot of issues, some of them arising out of our “personal” experiences in our day to day lives while others meeting us on account of activities that we had been conditioned to recognising as only “political”. It was in these meetings that I saw the feminist mantra “the personal is political” being rigorously applied in a way that was meant to change how we carried ourselves and our work, not necessarily making feminist work easier, but more wholesome and rewarding.
Since this transformation and sense of “becoming”, I have applied feminist ideals in my day to day life and in the way I interact with my surroundings. It has also made me aware of how my being a man in society means that I have access to a whole set of privileges kept away from women.
When I walk on the street, I don’t have to face harassment and catcalls from men who firstly view me as an object of their whim, nor am I afraid of walking at night or constantly keeping an eye for a potential rapist. I am listened to when I speak and declared “assertive” when I speak out. I say these things not as a confessional, way after which I have no responsibility for my complicity in the patriarchal system that privileges me at the expense of others.
I’ve spoken to male friends of mine who know patriarchal oppression and their complicity in it when they see it but nonetheless choose not to speak out. Why? Some don’t want the inconvenience of confrontation (as opposed to the high potential for violence or intimidation when women call men out on their sexism and misogyny). Others simply decide that they wouldn’t want someone to call them out when (not “if”) they act in the same way. People (or at least the younger people I hang out with) will rarely assert on the violence of patriarchal ideology to justify some sexist shit they’ve engaged in, but will definitely behave as if gender inequality and oppression is a given.
Patriarchy is bad for all of us, especially when primarily used as a means to justify violence, the present state of our political organisations, inequality, culture and even our relationship as humans with other species.
It is most effective when it accords certain privileges to certain members of society, while withholding the rest to a group of men. In Kenya and elsewhere, this is especially true about how the state is fundamentally a patriarchal organisation which discretionarily decides to what extent it will recognise the rights of women, or how adaptable it will be to the needs, goals, demands and existence of women who challenge its most fundamental premise.
Patriarchy is not a “ghost in the machine” in which its effects are free of human interventions. We have all been raised to recognise men as “leaders” and women as “followers”. We have been inculcated to believe that a man has pre-eminent control of a woman; he controls her labour and movement and “owns” all her productive and reproductive achievements. The family is the institution from which the state models itself, empowering it in such a way that it remains the first line of defence in social control. Think about how governments threaten individuals – not through them personally but their families – or how some people fear quitting an oppressive and humiliating job because they can’t afford to put their families in economic risk. Patriarchy works because some people are willing to defend it and benefit from it.
Many Kenyans realise how messed up our system is but fail to link our unique set of problems to a common denominator. When we talk about aggrandizement by political elites, massive socioeconomic inequality (8,300 Kenyans own three times as much as what the whole country spends on its budget), extrajudicial killing, militarism, high rates of crime, lack of amenities, a precariat class of urban slum dwellers living one day to the next, the killing of our environment, a new wave of state authoritarianism and so on, many of us refuse to choke it down to a political system that is modelled to precisely lead to these kinds of problems.
A kernel of truth exists in all these issues – wherever violence, inequality and heightened vulnerability is to be found, a patriarchal capitalist elite has caused it. When feminists seek to expand the scope of Kenya’s problems to include the longstanding economic, social and cultural oppression of women, we are branded as angry and bitter, and everything we say is ignored on account of its perceived irrationality. If “shrieking feminists” have ever existed, it is on account of screaming the truth that refuses to be acknowledged so many times.
When I think about what feminism means to me, I go back to that boy just fresh out of high school, coming into contact with the hatred and dissonance of this world – the homophobia, the violence, the exposure to a world which you’d always suspected existed but which you hoped never to see. The book reading queer kid, who searched everywhere for something that would smile back at him and found a home in the life-world of feminists who spoke out against the patriarchal roots of homophobia and who strived to create a space as safe as feminism for me.
In a world where political elites are making the decision that queer life should be snuffed out of Africa, I return to that place where I have been welcome so many times, where my contributions have been encouraged and accepted, and have affected me in much the same way as I intended them to affect others. Here I talk, I learn, I debate, I discuss, I create in ways that I have been told were inconceivable. That is what feminism means to me.
This essay was first Published in When Women Speak (Re)Defining Kenyan Feminisms. Download the full ebook here.