At the heart of Grace Ogot’s short story “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Taking different forms, this sentence runs through a wide body of writing by Kenyan women.
Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed features a female teacher who is forcibly abducted and raped by the male head of state. Ngwatilo Mawiyoo’s poem, “The Way You Felt Remains,” describes a public encounter where a young woman encounters a “chokora” who gropes her in public, unsolicited. Sitawa Namwalie’s “Let’s Speak a Simple Truth,” notes that, “the average man can without much planning / Take by force most average women in the world.”
Repeatedly, Kenyan women’s writing bears witness to a society where women’s bodies are considered available to all men, a society where a woman’s consent is considered irrelevant.
In fact, the question of women’s consent is considered irrelevant in our National Assembly. During the recent discussions of the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. John Murithi Waiganjo (Ol Joro Orok, TNA) described intercourse as “enjoy[ing] the facilities,” rendering women as inert structures.
Hon. Jimmy Angwenyi (Kitutu Chache North, TNA) insisted that marriage voided the need for women’s consent, arguing, “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.” Men’s needs take priority over women’s will and desire.
Further contributing to this line of thinking, Hon. Makai Mulu (Kitui Central, WDM-K) argued for a “cultural exemption,” saying, “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.”
Engaging these voices, Hon. Priscilla Nyokabi Kanyua (Othaya, TNA) reminded the National Assembly, “Our African cultures actually protected their women. The reason why we are here 1000 years after the discovery of man is because Africa protected women.”
If we turn to the body of writing by Kenyan men, the notion of bodily integrity is well articulated. Maina wa Kinyatti’s Kenya: A Prison Diary rails against the humiliation of being searched by prison guards. In Three Days on the Cross, Wahome Mutahi has nightmares that he is being sexually violated while in prison. Onduko bw’Atebe’s award-winning Verdict of Death features the dashing protagonist being brutally attacked and raped in prison.
Across a broad range of works set in prison, Kenyan men demonstrate that they know what it feels like to be vulnerable, to fear for their bodily integrity, to lack consent.
Across a broad range of writing—on twitter, on blogs, in poems, in novels, in non-fiction—Kenyan women describe their everyday lives as gendered prisons, where they are vulnerable, subject to bodily violations in private and public contexts, where their consent is taken for granted, their bodies mishandled by friends, acquaintances, intimates, and strangers.
At a historical moment when Kenyan politics is consumed by the question of security, we might pause to ask why so many Kenyan women feel insecure in public and private spaces: walking on public streets, taking public transport, attending colleges and universities, visiting friends and relatives, hosting guests at home.
During the debate about the Domestic Violence Bill, Hon. Aden Duale (Dujis, URP) argued that questions of domestic violence were minor. Kenya, he claimed, had “more serious issues” to contend with, including terrorism and food insecurity. It should strike us as odd that women’s security in our homes is deemed unimportant. In fact, it should strike us as obscene and unacceptable.
It should be unacceptable that Kenyan women feel they must submit to bodily violations to participate in public and private life. It should be unacceptable that section 28 of our constitution, which guarantees inherent dignity to everyone, should be suspended when it comes to Kenyan women. It should be unacceptable that women’s bodies are considered available for men’s use and consumption. It should be unacceptable that we mute women’s voices when they attempt to assert their rights to dignity and bodily integrity.
Kenyan author and activist Shailja Patel has said, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”
Kenya is full of homeless women, unhomed by official parliamentary discussions, unhomed by misogynist radio shows, unhomed by public spaces full of unwanted touch by strangers, unhomed in private spaces full of unwanted touch by friends and acquaintances, unhomed by a country that discusses women as property.
At the heart of Grace Ogot’s “The White Veil” is a simple sentence: “She felt helpless.” Let’s pledge to make this sentence unthinkable.