intimacy, believability, violation

At first, I had titled this post, “And Who Are We Now?” Now, I want to re-title it “affect, gender, violation.” In truth, it might be a post about the sounds that have yet to be invented. Certainly, it is about the tear produced when the intimate sphere—of friends, acquaintances, comrades, colleagues, peers, families, lovers, tricks—encounters ethical demands. Even as the possibility of that tear—it might be a rupture or a fracture or a wound—should compel us to consider how we are able to conceive of unethical intimacy, intimacy outside of ethical frameworks and demands. This post is about well-tended silences, about too-ready shoulders, about violations framed as “inevitable,” if not normal, about the “this is Kenya” that excuses and reasons away and sustains our unethical relationships to each other. This post is about the witnesses we have unbelieved, the witnesses we refused to support, the witnesses we charged to change the world, and subsequently abandoned. It is about patriarchy’s smile and feminist killjoys. It is, finally, about who we want to be.

i. what if?
What if sexual violation were not framed as a tax that Kenyan women must pay to be in public? What if sexual humiliation were not deemed a necessary rite of passage for Kenyan women?

ii. he said/she . . .
An impossible lie is taken as the grounds for an unethical argument.

iii. liberation and freedom
become impossible words in institutional frameworks, a language that cannot survive the pragmatic stifling of believing in unmaking systems. A trio of words: corroboration, substantiation, triangulation. A trio of system-supporting, freedom-unimagining words. The tone, we are told, is measured, refusing “hysteria.” We praise women for “avoiding hysteria.” We nod approvingly. Until their critiques begin to sound “hysterical.” (Watch for the turn.) As though the goal of women building state-engaging institutions were to make women less credible. A fault line appears.

iv. an unsent email
Thank you for your email. I agree with so much of what you say, that I think to push back in any way might be churlish. But I think what’s at stake—and we might clarify what’s at stake more carefully—demands that we be precise and rigorous in our thinking toward a better ethical us, if, in fact, that is the goal. I think it’s important to return to Professor Mwangi’s question: do we, as those assembled here, have a current sexual assault policy? While I’m encouraged by the various voices that have said they are personally against sexual assault in any way, I worry that the broader question remains unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable, relegated to the unethical fiction of he said/she said, which presumes sides should be taken. I worry, that is, that the way sides are being taken has assumed the form of for sexual assault/against sexual assault, and I think we need to clarify that kind of side taking.

As a thinker on emotion and language, I try to pay attention to the kinds of positions imagined and realized by the words we use. I note that Muthoni Wanyeki’s email is deemed “wise” and full of “gravitas,” implicitly (and, actually, very explicitly) positioning many other emails on this thread as “out of bounds,” “foolish,” “immature,” “unthought,” and, perhaps, “hysterical.” Credibility, in this instance, becomes hinged on “proper” affective responses. I can only suggest, here, the dangers of taking as credible those voices that appear to be the most detached or reasonable. As though anger or sadness or rage at injustice or violation are, somehow, irrelevant or illegitimate. This is worrying.

Part of what we celebrate in this motley assemblage of writers, activists, and intellectuals is precisely how different forms of writing can help us feel our way into those histories, situations, and settings discredited by mainstream channels. At our best, we take seriously the imaginative and the affective as political sensibilities, not to be tamed by institutional policies or strategies, but to hold whatever institutional demands might exist to more exacting standards. That is, I would argue that we hold legal institutions accountable to our affective and political sensibilities rather than conceding that their priorities and demands take precedence. Certainly, the long histories of global activism would have gotten nowhere had they decided that the formal mechanisms available were infallible.

It is precisely because we know about these long histories of entanglement with formal institutions—the police, the courts, the state, regional and international bodies—that we turn to community accountability, where the question of who we are and who we want to be takes priority—indeed, must take priority—over whatever forms of state management claim we are or should be. I should note, here, that these questions are very real for many of us deemed disposable by state actions and inactions in national and regional contexts.

Those of us who followed debates on the Sexual Offences Act and those now following debates on the Domestic Violence Bill know the contempt with which women’s claims of injury are met. Those who make laws have said marital rape cannot exist—because men pay dowry. They have said that domestic violence against a spouse cannot exist because beating a woman demonstrates love. None of this is fabricated—it’s in the publicly-available Hansards. These are the waters we swim in. It is radically unclear to me what we gain by refusing to acknowledge our contexts and by trying to imagine that those contexts might not matter.

It should not escape our attention that much of the writing generated on this group in 2008 needed to circulate outside of Kenya because the local media abrogated their responsibilities to tell the truth. It should not escape our notice that the tools most celebrated as coming from Kenya—Ushahidi, for one—find alternative, non-mainstream methods of gathering and disseminating data. It really must not escape our attention that mainstream channels refused to reckon with the massive ethical problem of #kasaraniconcentrationcamp.

I have worried that much of our conversation on this thread—in addition to ignoring Professor Mwangi’s question—has also tried to outsource collective ethical work to the courts, to legal systems, to anything out there, as though we might be safer if we refuse to outline our own ethical stakes and strategies. What would happen if we did not outsource the work we need to do on ourselves to these external systems? If, instead of retreating to various “I” statements—I stand with Tony, I stand with Shailja, I stand with Truth, I stand with Convenience—we took seriously the labor of being a “we,” of thinking collectively of what it means to be in a collective sense?

Because, you see, what we’re discussing on here has implications for other spaces, other events, other scenarios. It is, even now, generating structures and patterns of shame and silence, demanding, as Kenya always demands, that women be more resilient, accept damage and violation as a necessary tax, live in an ordinary circumscribed, at every turn, by the possibility of a violence described as “simply how things are,” on the one hand, and, “simply how men are,” on the other. Again, we must contend with the waters in which we swim.

And, frankly, if as Muthoni Wanyeki’s email suggests, the waters in which we swim are full of failure when institutional frameworks are followed—note how often the possibility of failure comes up in that email—then it seems to me that our ethical frameworks need to operate on different registers. Indeed, that very email suggests as much.

The ethical moment is always the moment of the impossible choice: Antigone teaches us as much. To side with the power and legibility of patriarchal authority incarnated in the figure of Creon or to choose to bury a figure now excluded from power’s approbation? We need not reach to Antigone. We can, in fact, look to Yvonne Owuor’s Dust, which asks which versions of Kenyan history can gain a hearing. And concludes, I think, by saying Kenya chooses silence. We might understand the final dissemination of characters in the novel as suggesting that no ethical claims can be made in or on Kenya.

It’s easy to claim that we are against sexual assault when it lives “out there,” in some court case that we read about from a distance and weigh with objectivity. It’s much more difficult when, as in this case, we are stuck in the muck, facing difficult ethical questions about where we live, how we live in that space, who we are, and who we want to be. We cannot afford to outsource this ethical work. We can choose to ignore it, to say it doesn’t matter, and that is a choice. If that is the choice, let us be explicit about it.

v. a handy alibi
I learn that Kenya, in concert with other African countries, has refused to defend or protect queer lives. It has, in fact, affirmed that such lives are unimagined, unimaginable, and, therefore, disposable.

A wife speaks, defending her husband. A friend speaks, defending a married man. Marriage speaks with its always-winning hand.

vi. a chorus of male legislators
Hon. Gumbo: [I]n our houses a lot of our female spouses like to follow the Mexican soaps. You go home and want to also watch another programme and the remote is in their hands and this brings friction. These are the realities of our times and there are people who have been denied some important things just because they wanted to change the channels so that the Mexican soaps cannot be watched.


Hon. Waiganjo: We are giving a policeman the judgement of suspicion. What we are saying is that an amorous policeman can come to your house and arrest you, without even a complaint because he suspects that you are abusing your wife. He can take you to a police station, deny you bail, run back to your house, get your wife and pretend that he is taking her to a safe shelter, enjoy the facilities, return your wife in the morning and release you without preferring any charges against you.


Hon. A.B. Duale: How do you define “economic” abuse as a form of violence? We do not want to create laws to manage our bedrooms and sitting rooms. We have more serious issues to do with terrorism, food insecurity, the devolved system of government, among others.

In this Bill, violence is defined as “emotional or psychological abuse”. Let me know the emotional bit of it. Of course, people do cry. When you sit with your other half and say good words and that person gets touched and emotionally breaks down, would it be an offence? The Chair of the Committee must address such aspects. There is also the aspect of intimidation. As you carried yourself to your bedroom, you meet your wife and she says: “The way my husband looked at me, that was intimidation.” On that basis, you go to jail.

Hon. Midiwo: If you talk about emotional abuse or psychological abuse— For example, if you were in your house for a moment and your opposite was in her bad days, you will find that she is not talking to you. Therefore, you would know that you will not take fish that day and she does not care. Would I accuse her for domestic violence?


This law can go either way. Any man or any woman who is here knows our opposites are quite often in bad moods. You cannot predict them because when you go home— There are very few days you would find her in good moods and I agree with hon. A.B. Duale – like this one. But on some days, we talk here and I go home tired after having quarreled with hon. A.B. Duale and I want to sleep— I can be sued for domestic violence.

Hon. Mulu: If you go and you are told that for the next two weeks you cannot enjoy what you paid to enjoy, it becomes very tricky.

Hon. Speaker, in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question. . . . To us, we cannot term sexual abuse as violence.

Hon. Speaker, I think we need to come up with a clause which takes care of cultural exemptions. That is because we all come from different cultures. In some cultures, it is a demonstration of love when you do a bit of beating to your wife.

Hon. Members: Yes!

Hon. Mulu: Hon. Speaker, if you do not do it, you are seen not to love your wife.

Hon. Angwenyi: Let us not enact laws which will destroy our family fabric and destroy the country. These are some of the kind of laws that have allowed some Kenyans to embrace gay practices. Hon. Speaker, just imagine a man looking at you and thinking that you are beautiful because the law allows it!


vii. ululation

It will be a place
Where women will shed tears of joy
Blowing their horns
As they dance singing with jubilation;
Their streams of bitter tears will find
An outlet to the lake
And the reeds will tremble in the wind
As the women dance and sing
Whistling at the fountain of sparkling beauty
Where their broken spirits
Will be revived at the life-given fountain—Rebeka Njau, The Sacred Seed

What would a movement bent on the freedom of women of color look like?—Cherríe Moraga

Every oppressed group needs to imagine through the help of history and mythology a world where our oppression did not seem the preordained order.—Cherríe Moraga

What might our relationships with one another look like if we did not feel we had to protect ourselves from the violent recriminations of our fathers, brothers, bosses, governors? What might our sexuality look like?—Cherríe Moraga

Women, especially, are not allowed to break down, because doing so confirms every prejudice men have of women as hysterical, unpredictable, or worse, unreliable. Most of the successful women I know are dormant volcanoes, all smooth and calm on the outside, and waiting to explode on the inside. But they dare not admit it.—Rasna Warah

Kenya, it seems, is on the verge of moral bankruptcy. Ethical behaviour has become a thing of the remote past. It is as if we Kenyans have no heart, no soul, and no consciousness. We are a dead society. We cannot weep for another; we cannot feel another’s pain.—Rasna Warah

viii. a child says
the emperor has no clothes

We are told not to be like children, to be adults, to stand in the streets and cheer at the lies that will save our lives, if not our worlds.

ix. and yet
why believe the killing lie that promises it will not kill you?

x. amidst all this
one fights to imagine the possibility of freedom

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