(un)Making Kenyan Women

The way you felt when the chokora
reached for your left breast in the street,
held it, you in your checkered school uniform
and bag, socks and shoes, the breast
barely settled in to its seat on your chest, he
sooty and blue, coated in unknowable filth.
—Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, “The Way You Felt Remains”

Stories accumulate of Kenyan women abroad murdered, beaten, abused, by Kenyan men. Stories by men of unruly women who “did not know their place,” who “forgot their place,” who “tried to be different.” Stories by women of unruly women who “forgot how to be women.” The unruly must be brought back into line. Women abroad had better not forget that they are Kenyan first.

Kenyan first.

Bound by what Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira describes as a “blood knot”:

I feel that women of Africa have this bond that ties them together. We are tied together by our experiences of oppression by a patriarchal system that has relegated women to second class citizens. We are tied together by colonial and other foreign rules. We are tied together by our common experiences in marriage. Religion, whether Hindu, Islam, Christianity or African, oppresses women. Traditions also oppress women. We are tied together by subservient roles that societies have given us. (A Letter to Mariama Ba, 29)

In the same week that the Daily Nation publishes a story about a Kenyan man in Minnesota who killed his wife and children, it publishes an article about a “marriage that works.” This marriage works because the husband, a young Gikuyu man with a previous failed marriage, has taken away his wife’s autonomy. If she wants him, she must obey his every dictate.

Adrienne Rich calls this Compulsory Heterosexuality.

A narrative emerges in our hetero-patriarchal press: good women, submissive women, are rewarded with husbands. The problem with Kenyan women is that they are not submissive enough. They dare to acquire education, earn money, pay their way, voice opinions, believe in equality. They dare to understand their rights under the law, to exercise them. They un-man.

Because fragile Kenyan masculinity cannot survive independent women.

When my father died, the ghouls lined up to watch my mother fail.

These stories are not new.

Historical narratives by Tabitha Kanogo and Luise White tell stories of Kenyan women embracing the challenges of urban and colonial modernity. They also tell stories of fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, clients who worried about women’s independence.

Archives from the early part of the twentieth century have traditional male elders trying to clamp down on women.

In one account, members of a Local Native Council wanted to enact a new law that specified young women needed to ask for permission to leave their homes to go into urban centers.

Repeatedly, the archives show, as women’s social, cultural, and economic opportunities increased, and as they took advantage of these opportunities, men worried, fretted, tried to create new restrictions.

A brief scan of the newspaper Kenyatta edited, Muigwithania, reveals anxious men, intent on delimiting women’s roles. Women can embrace modernity, as long as they remember their place.

This place that does not move. This place that promises women safety if they stay there. This place lies. This place is a convenient fantasy, ever-changing in response to the men who need it to exist. There is no safety in this place. This place does not exist. This place exists as a convenient fiction from which hetero-patriarchy can justify itself.
The opening stanza to Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s “The Way You Felt Remains” tells us about this place. This place where class and education and age make no difference as the chokora asserts his right to a young woman’s body.

What is it to know vulnerability as a condition of being?

This right was repeatedly claimed during the making of the Sexual Offences Act.

Male MPs claimed that their right to court women trumped claims of sexual harassment. We saw enacted in this and other scenarios both the creating and occupying of male space as a right.

To pass the bill, women MPs and activists assumed a posture as wives, mothers, and sisters, occupied a space of dependency, asked, essentially for the law to act as a husband, brother, son.

The process of making this law materialized a space that continues to shape our national discussions of gender.

It would be careless to blame this law-making process for the long history of gender-making, gender-unmaking, gender-remaking that has been central to Kenya and that continues as Kenyan-ness thinks of itself across and beyond national borders.

It functions, more properly, as a nodal point.
An earlier draft of this post discussed Kenyan masculinity: how it gets made, where it travels, how it travels, how it is understood, how it is received. Following Paul Gilroy, it wanted to mark the transnational and the diasporic as especially fraught zones where the demands of collectivity take place through enforcing gender and sexual normativity.

One “becomes” and “remains” black by endorsing myths of strong black men and regal black women. And it is only those who experience the discipline of these descriptions who dare to speak against their normalizing violence.

And even fewer of us are able to inhabit the place of failure productively: I am a failed African man and I write from this position of failure, and often to champion failure.
A Kenyan immigrant to the U.S. hit his wife with a golf club and then strangled her to death.

Her name was Bilha Omare.

She was 32.

4 thoughts on “(un)Making Kenyan Women

  1. Am a Kenyan woman and yes this post brings tears to my eyes. There has to be a better day for us all.

    Ps: you should read Muthoni Likimani’s What does a man want?

  2. I remember a while back when myself and three other friends were driving in Nakuru. We drove past a young man fighting with a girl. One of her eyes was bleeding badly. The car breaks were floored and we all got out without even saying a word to each other.

    I floored the young man with a punch and told him to never, ever hit a woman in his life. My just doctor friend tended to the young lady before we left. I believe that it is the defensibility of men to keep other men in check when it comes to our women.

    We as men need to teach our daughters that they should never settle for anything. Go. Get it.

    I am indeed disturbed that Kenyan men are taking the wives of their wives and children. And as I asked on Twitter after the recent killing by a man of his wife and kids, is there an underlying problem for this.

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