Bad Activist Women! Bad!

The Nancy Baraza-Rebecca Kerubo story dominated Kenyan minds prior to the ICC ruling that now consumes our time. I want to think about the context of the case against Deputy Chief Justice Baraza, more specifically, the role of women activists and the much-debated gender requirements of the constitution.

To give the quick and dirty, DCJ Baraza is accused of pinching Kerubo’s nose and, later, threatening to shoot Kerubo, who was trying to perform her duties as a security guard at one of Nairobi’s most exclusive malls, the Village Market. Baraza reportedly told Kerubo that she should “know [important] people” and, implicitly, not trouble them with the minutiae of mall security procedures.

Since the case broke, public comments on newspaper articles have highlighted Baraza’s status as an activist and reformer:

What an embarrassment to the women’s movement, FIDA, and women lawyers as a whole! Lady up madam and act with the decorum that deserves that office you hold!

Ms. Baraza, Power! Power!

Kenyans, it is now my pleasure to present to you the so-called reformers.

We are getting what we asked for. We have chosen to have radicals as our judges. We have chosen to have ‘born stubborns’ as our referees. We thought we could change them, but here we are. Once stubborn/radical, always one.

One more reason why I cannot vote for a woman to be president. It is not a male chauvinism but just an age old observance of African ladies who have power over their subjects. Sorry if I have hurt the feminists and the politically correct individuals.

The real issue as mentioned here is the quality of vetting for these jobs. All the plum jobs are going to members of a small “club” of civil society players whose main claim to fame is globe-trotting, Ivy league education and support for Western values especially gay rights. But these guys are untested in the real world of work. Worse, as in the case of Baraza and MM they are or are perceived to be arrogant and out of touch with “Wanjiku”.

Critics have blamed Baraza’s behavior on her gender. Murithi Mutiga, for instance, describes the courtly behavior of leading lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee when faced with a difficult situation to suggest that men know how to handle power. As he notes in an aside, “If it’s any consolation, though, at least [Baraza’s] boss [Willy Mutunga, the Chief Justice] is . . . one of the most easygoing judicial officials you will ever meet.”

We will be saved by our men—perhaps even by those accused of crimes against humanity.

It is worth remembering that the Kenyan parliament—or whoever is in charge of these things—has not yet come up with a formula for complying with the gender rules of the constitution—no more than 2/3 of seats shall be occupied by more than one gender, even as presidential appointments of ministers and senior leaders continue to ignore gendered considerations. In the meantime, Kenyan women continue to undergo scrutiny: newspaper and magazine articles continue to emphasize their natural roles as wives and mothers: wives and mothers are too busy to stretch their minds. And those who do are unnatural and have unhappy husbands or boyfriends. Week after week, the newspapers print yet another disciplinary column instructing women to act like women if they want to get and keep men.

Successful women are described as arrogant—DCJ Baraza is now, unfortunately, the poster child of the arrogant woman who cannot handle power. Many fingers have been wagging in versions of “bad woman, bad!” Others, “bad activist, bad!” Others, “bad reformer, bad!” And the lesson we are enjoined to learn is that women cannot handle power. Activists and reformers are hypocrites.

Women activists are the worst hypocrites!

Meanwhile, we have yet to ask persistent questions about class politics: what is alleged to have happened between Baraza and Kerubo represents quotidian interactions between Kenyan employers and employees. One need only walk into Nakumatt or Uchumi or Chandarana to see any number of wealthy women striding around followed by their uniformed maids pushing heavy carts or, at times, carrying the two light items that employers dare not deign to carry. It’s not uncommon to enter stores in town where employers openly insult employees. And domestic workers in Kenya are, to borrow Zora’s language, the “mules” of the world.

While I do not want to ignore the specificity of the Baraza-Kerubo interaction, I’m interested in how we might use it to frame and enable other discussions about labor practices and politics in Kenya. (I totally had no idea this post was going to head this direction—I thought I was writing something else. I’ve been thinking a lot about the occupy movement and how it might speak to Kenya, where our version of the 1% are comfortably situated within government positions or in near proximity to office holders.)

The conflation and condemnation of women-activists-reformers upholds the myth of a benevolent, gentlemanly patriarchy while obscuring substantive discussions of class privilege. Those who have critiqued DCJ Baraza’s “arrogance” have ignored class and labor and focused on gender and activism, that is, Baraza does not represent the moneyed elite to which she belongs, but, rather, women activists. (I’m splitting hairs for strategic reasons.)

DCJ Baraza is our contemporary Wangu wa Makeri, a leader who, in some versions of the story, got drunk on power and misbehaved in public. The lesson of Wangu wa Makeri, one taught in primary schools when I attended, is that women cannot be trusted with power. They will always misuse it.

In treating the Baraza-Kerubo case as a lesson in “when women misbehave” we ignore the very real conversations we need to be having about Kenya’s version of the 1%, who have thrived under Kibaki, and the many others who struggle to survive in a country that barely acknowledges they exist.

7 thoughts on “Bad Activist Women! Bad!

  1. like very much..Keguro..thank you for steering the debate to class not gender…will use this somewhere if you allow me

  2. I agree it feels almost quaint to comment on this issue post-ICC, etc. but as I read your observations last week, my mind kept going back to about a year ago (already?) when another woman – Sally Kosgey – had the “bad manners” to denounce the ministerial flag as “just a cloth” that got her quickly through traffic… Obviously her circumstances were different but her indignant comments about gender and the inner circles of power were quickly turned against her in a similar backlash (and the “foolish woman” label got used a lot more readily than any effort to interrogate whether or how elite privilege was at work). Thanks for the reflections!

  3. Njooki, feel free to use this. I’d love to see it more fleshed out–this is tentative. Also see Kweli’s follow-up post that highlights our misplaced indignation.

    Needless to say, the “misbehaving woman” is a common attack against Kenyan women who work in the public sphere–it was used again Wambui Otieno, Wangari Maathai; is used against Martha Karua and Charity Ngilu; and, even in sad cases, it’s used against victims of violence–think of the Mercy Keino case. It really is violent and disciplinary.

    1. Keguro..sawa will do and have it in the dailies shift debate albeit in a small way..thanks for your always thought provoking brilliant thoughts

  4. There’s one aspect of this debacle that no one has explored or offered an opinion on- the body-guard’s conduct. If indeed, the firearm in question was for the bodyguard, oh why, oh why did he relinguish it? One would expect, nay pray that the assigned dudes would be more discerning in such situations. My surmise is that we should look at how we deploy our resources to such positions.

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