September 28, 2011 2 Comments
Back in the day, a brand in America had an ad with the slogan You’ve come a long way Baby!
This ad was a not too subtle allusion to the women’s rights movements of the 1960s and 70’s which not only broke the ceiling of all the earlier suffragettes had been fighting for. Burning bra’s and other feminist protests had unchained women from the kitchen. The word equal took on new meaning. Yes the world was changing and women were being liberated.
That was America and the Western world. Here in Kenya, things were different. Whereas some women in the developed world were disenfranchised, Kenyan women had the vote. There was also equal work for equal pay. We even had women leaders. Surely we won the feminist liberation war long before. But had we?
In the past three months, Kenya has lost three great women who each in their own way have shown that despite the current calls for quotas for women’s seats in leadership positions, we have a long way to go Baby!
Dekha Ibrahim and her work for peace, which won here the Right Livelihood Award – a little sibling of the Nobel Prize shattered the stereotypical perception. She was but one of the few women working in conflict resolution field. In a Kenya where harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage abound, Dekha showed that socialisation as young girls is just that. That the girl child can do anything and be anything, even if it means making peace with warring tribes.
Wambui Otieno was also a crusader in breaking the barriers. As a widow she fought her late husbands clan for her right to bury him. Though she lost, her tenacity in this battle showed her steely determination, which probably also served her well during her time as a freedom fighter of Kenya’s liberation. Wambui Otieno did what many young widows today still cannot do. Stand up to their husbands clan. Widow inheritance still happens. As if that battle was not enough, Wambui Otieno also broke another unspoken barrier. Marrying a man much younger than her – she showed that the old perception that women of a certain age are just that – women of a certain age does not hold water. This in a country where we still have polygamy and it is not seen as surprising for a septuagenarian to marry a girl just out of her adolescence. Wambui Otieno showed that we are the same as humans with the same feelings for companionship.
Finally, this week began with the shocking news of the demise of Wangari Maathai. Where to even start regarding her achievements in breaking the boundaries. As the First woman PhD from East Africa (and in the sciences!), first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize – we all know these and the many more achievements of Wangari Maathai. But on the other side, she has battled the establishment – old boys as it were. When she was with other women at Uhuru Park, she was labelled a divorcee just out to make trouble. As the winner of the Nobel Prize for her work in conserving the environment, she was a mere assistant minister in the very docket she would have been perfect for – the Ministry of Environment. How she was beaten and clubbed unconscious by marauding thugs as she was protecting Karura Forest, is an actual abomination. Not just in African culture but throughout the world. You never lay a hand on a woman. How did this happen? Was it that by being a divorcee who was outspoken against the male powers that be, made her a lesser being? Even after the Nobel Prize, Wangari Maathai remained more popular on the international scene than at home. I wonder if it would be the same if it was a man who had won the prize.
So back to why I ask: Women of Kenya … How far have we really come?
Do we still require the affirmative action being called for in terms of the quota of leadership positions?
For someone who has never felt my gender was an issue, today I wonder. I ask this because if we still have women bearing the brunt of war in terms of rape, if harmful traditional practices such as FGM and early marriage persist, if a girl can be made wife to a polygamous man much older than herself, if even with credentials women are tokenised in leadership, and if a woman is questioned if she does not fit into the stereotypical role that is expected – how far have we really come? But more importantly, how far have we to go?