BY MUKULU KIOKO
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures instead of flattering their fascinating graces and viewing them as if they were in a permanent state of childhood, unable to stay alone – Mary Wollstonecraft, English writer, philosopher, and women rights advocate
Last month, I watched in wonderment as people gave tribute to the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela. The star of the show, for me, was her daughter, Zinzi. She spoke with emotion and composure that was both moving and admirable. In her speech she said, “We (women) can be beautiful, powerful and revolutionary.” This, in many ways gives a summary of my feminism ideals.
For a long time, and indeed to this very day, the phrase feminism evokes all manner of emotions amongst people. Many times I have been warned not to identify as a feminist because then it means I am a bitter, man-hating woman, and I am “too young” to carry that kind of bitterness. Whilst this is a laughable position, informed by mostly ignorance, it is not hard to see why majority of the populace would have such a view. A big percentage of the Kenyan population derives its information – and by extension knowledge – from the media, as well as revisionist history and theories taught in schools. Media, be it mainstream or social, plays a big role in how people perceive things and the kind of conversations that are held in pubs and dinner tables with some degree of authority even by those who know little to nothing about the subject of discussion.
The misconceptions surrounding feminism are founded on years of a patriarchal society where anyone who dares question the patriarchal narrative is deemed rogue or bitter. It is a narrative informed by the assumption that feminists are rough edged women with no sense of womanliness and who are against anything that is thought to be inherently considered female.
The discourse around feminism could be traced back to the late 18th Century in the Age of Enlightenment, where women philosophers who contributed to the enlightenment were pushing for recognition of political rights for women. Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest recorded champions for white women’s rights is quoted as saying, “women do not want to be like men, women want space to be themselves”. Whilst this was a statement made in the late 1700s, it rings true today. The first wave of feminism was about the political rights, mostly of middle and upper class white women; the second phase was on the reproductive rights, and the third was for all the other women, who were not white. My interest is mostly in the third phase where black feminism emanates.
One of the most ridiculous things I have heard is that feminism is a Western concept, and that African and by extension Kenyan women talking about feminism are identifying with a Western culture they do not understand. The history of Kenya is itself ridden with no nonsense women like Wangu wa Makeri, Syokimau and Mekatilili wa Menza who assumed leadership positions and led their people to new civilisations. The history of Africa by extension is also full of women like Winnie Madikizela, Wangari Maathai, whose contributions have either been erased or minimised by the association with scandal that has earned men places of honour but has been used to negate the place of women in history. A lot of homes have been built on the backs of Kenyan women who have silently done their part and not been noticed or given any recognition for it because women are supposed to be modest and allow their husband’s and men in general to shine with their ideas, because “it’s how it’s supposed to be”. The question of the quantification of the input of women in a non-financial sense has been the subject of many judicial decisions and is the subject of another article all together.
The idea that women should be modest and not blow their own trumpets can be traced back to the 18th Century where British women were taught from birth that they exist for the sake of men. From a young age, they were taught modesty, chastity and all seemingly virtuous traits that men found attractive. Wollstonecraft argues that as a result, women learnt not to be modest but to pretend to be modest; not to be chaste, but to pretend to be chaste. Women are taught to be meek, to not shout their own praises so they are not too showy, and so they do not intimidate men who then won’t marry them. Women are taught to make themselves likeable. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her book Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” proposes, “Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”
Feminism is not about women wanting to be like men. In fact, women do not absolutely want to be like men. Instead, women want space to be themselves without the pressure of fitting into a neatly packaged box of what a woman should look like. I want to not to have to worry about being denied a position I am absolutely qualified for because I am a woman. I want to shake off the irrational expectation to carry all the emotional labour of my relationships because I am a woman. It is about women not being held to different standards than men on socio-economic and political matters. It is about women in power not being castigated and their legacies getting tainted for the same things that men use as claims to fame. It is about women not having to negotiate for their humanity.
I am particularly drawn to an illustration made by Wollstonecraft on the topic where she draws from the Biblical analogy that we are all created in the image of God. She then poses, if we are all created in the image of God, shouldn’t we all be equal in the eyes of God?