Monday, June 13, 2016

Less than owed

Who are your heroes and role-models? Mine happen to be the only two people I have ever truly disappointed: my parents. They are famous - within their circles. If you google their names, by the time you get to page 10, you'll be exhausted. I want to focus on my mother, though, because I think her experiences are what made me appreciate the key phrase "legislative and other measures" in relation to "past discrimination" (by the State) against the women of Kenya.

One of the funniest things - at the time I was five or so and didn't know better - my mother ever told me was that until 1985 or so, women didn't really need national ID cards. After all, they were either a man's daughter or a man's wife. There was no third classification. A woman's father or her husband was sufficient for the purposes of identifying a woman in Kenya. You can imagine the scenario - that for a woman to register as a voter - the principle of universal suffrage was accepted in theory - she had to be accompanied either by her father or her husband. So if she wanted to stand for elective office, whether as a councillor or a member of Parliament, ditto! husband or father required.

This paternalistic view of women, even rebellious ones like Wangari Maathai, was the hallmark of the State and it prevails even today, though many of the ridiculous shackles have been loosened. When she won a scholarship to finish her PhD in the UK, she had not just to receive permission to leave the country from her university, the Ministry of Education and the Office of the President, but she also needed my father's written "consent" to obtain a passport and travel overseas. She smiles when she says this, but you can tell she found it ridiculous and frustrating in equal measure back then.

Today, you would think that the women of Kenya have overcome the entrenched patriarchy that has cause so much grief in Kenya. You would think so and you would be wrong. While women are free to obtain documents of identity without relying on their fathers or husbands anymore, and while they can travel to any destination whether or not their husbands or fathers think they should, in key areas, women continue to suffer disadvantages that hinder the full realisation of their full potential. 
I remember this line from a song with a wildly different context, "The oppressor says that turning to politics is the only way" and it seems strangely apposite when it comes to the question of how we can erode the entrenched patriarchy that holds half of the Kenyan population back. It is why we have internalised the false narrative that the only way to break with a perfidious patriarchal past is to elect or nominate ever more women to Parliament and county assemblies and appoint ever more of them in public service positions. (Or, if it is non-political women, hand over sacks of cash as part of "women entrepreneurship development" and hope for the best.)

The "legislative" part of our constitutional contract with women (and other marginalised groups) seems more or less settled; all that remains is for the political deal-making and horse-trading to take place, and, come the 12th Parliament, elected and nominated women representatives will form a substantial core of the elected classes. When it comes to "other" measures, other than "enterprise funds", women have received less than they are owed.

Take a recent discussion I had with a blogger I respect. She had been invited to moderate a panel that had just one other woman among three other men, yet the online advertising would lead you to believe that it was a panel of men alone. You would have had to click on the link to the event in order to know that it was a sausage fest. In subtle and insidious ways, we erase the presence of women in our lives, whether professionally, socially or personally. We mansplain them away without shame. It is why, try as hard as you can, few of you remember that there have been more influential women in Kenya than just politicians. (Google "Orie Rogo Manduli Safari Rally" and thank me later.)

My mother is an accomplished women despite the patriarchy she survived on her way to greatness. I am lucky that my father and my grandfather were contumacious that my mother and aunts were not treated any differently from my father and uncles. That cultural rebellion has given us a family that is well-rounded and well-represented in all the professions. Our family needs no government handouts or quotas in order to make a mark; we make a mark simply by being us. I am inordinately proud to be her son, even though I have done absolutely nothing to deserve her and one day, if the winds of fate blow in the right direction, my precious R will live up to my mother's expectations - the ones that I didn't live up to.

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