The third “most popular” article in the Daily Nation as of 8 am today is “Honey, You’re a Nag.” It is the latest in the Nation’s ongoing and relentless campaign to trivialize women’s lives and concerns. Though it focuses on the “private” and the “intimate,” ostensibly the “domestic,” and quotes are necessary here because Kenya is not the U.S. and the domains of the private and the public do not have the same histories, the article has important implications for women’s public and political participation.
It is the third “most popular” article at a time when Kenya faces a constitutional crisis over gender. (Gender means women in Kenya.)
Clause (or is it provision or sub-section?) 81.b of the Constitution reads:
not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender
Because gender means women and women are always “lesser than,” this statement has been translated as, “women shall hold one-third of all elective public positions.” The translation itself is a problem, but I want to shelve that for now.
Earlier this week, the Kenyan Cabinet met and decided that the clause could not be implemented. Thus, they proposed to amend the Constitution to get rid of it. Predictably, many people who fought to pass the new Constitution are worried about the implications of this decision.
Shall we amend the parts of the Constitution that a male-dominated, patriarchal, and greedy parliament deem to be “too difficult” to implement?
Early yesterday morning, the Daily Nation headline read, “Storm Rages over Proposal to Drop Women Seats.” At the time, I believe the “Honey, You’re a Nag” article was the seventh “most popular.” It’s worth noting the obvious: the article on nagging has become “more popular” as the debate on gendered representation has intensified. It takes no real training in critical analysis to realize how the juxtaposition of these two articles functions: women are nags. And those women who are insisting that we live up to our Constitution are nags. Even though we love them and call them “honey.” (When I woke up this morning, at about 7 am, the article on “Storm Rages” was among the “most popular.” It has since been banished from the list–at 9 am.)
Let me repeat that I am in the realm of the obvious, tending toward the “it need not be said.”
We know that the political is an engendering space—if nothing else, the picture of Sarah Palin’s toenail polish should remind us of this. Women who enter into this space face relentless scrutiny, and those who succeed are often praised for “transcending” their gender. Indeed, Martha Karua is often praised for being “just like the men.” Here, the problem is that rather than expanding how we think about women’s capacities and abilities, instead of understanding gender as an infinitely elastic category, we reaffirm and police arbitrary boundaries.
It is also true that the ostensibly non-political is often drawn on more often when women enter into the space of the political: articles from lifestyle magazines and bar gossip are deemed authoritative treatises on “how women are.” We know now, for instance, that Michele Bachmann spent a lot of money on a new wardrobe and stylist—this an indication of her frivolous nature. We also know that in Kenya we have Justices and Lady Justices. The Lady a constant reminder that we police gender.
What does it mean that we understand women’s entry into and participation in the public as a form of nagging? What is the shape of the stage and the nature of the setting when a woman speaks in public? What are the acoustics of public spaces and how are they oriented toward different tonalities? Indeed, how is space itself oriented around speech? How are sound waves shaped by gendered assumptions? Where do they land? How are they received? And by whom?
In practical terms, what would it mean if one read the “most popular” articles in order, starting from the first through the last? Before one reached the very serious debate on women’s representation, one would have learned that women are nags. We might call this salted earth. Still in the realm of the obvious, it’s worth noting that many of the articles on male leaders have focused on anger and rage.
Women nag. Men rage.
I am interested in how we apprehend (understand, seize hold of, grab) gendered and gendering discourse as an anticipatory space and practice, that is, I am interested in the various ways we prepare for and are prepared to receive gendered and gendering discourse. I am interested in the acoustics of gender—what we apprehend (volitionally and not) as harsh and shrill and angry and furious and commanding and pleading and boring and animated. How do we prepare ourselves to hear these various tonalities? How do we orient our hearing, bend our ears, incline our heads, modulate our static?
Kenyan women are speaking and they are being heard. I think we need to pay a little more attention to how they are being heard.