(This essay by Wambui Mwangi was originally posted, a year ago, at Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman, and has been slightly revised. I thank her for writing it, and allowing me to share it.)
When it comes to gender-based violence, Kenyan men like to say “these are women’s issues.” Many Kenyan men also wonder aloud if having a woman as the Defence Secretary and a woman as Foreign Affairs Secretary is a good idea. These men opine that women in general know nothing about war, conflict, violence or international relations of force. They are wrong.
Women know a lot about conflict and war. Women have a very intimate knowledge of violence. Men usually initiate the wars and men do most of the killing, but it’s women and children who suffer the most. It is so also often women who have lost the men in their family who must make the heroic efforts to repair the tattered social fabric in war’s aftermath. It is so often women who suture back together the jagged edges of family and community, with equal measures of desperation and determination.
Nevertheless, as Eve Ayiera has cogently argued, sexual and gender based violence are not “weapons of war.” Sexual violence might intensify in the long-tail aftermath of conflict as some men celebrate their war “victories” and others compensate for their “humiliated” sense of manhood with acts of rape and sexual violence. But these kinds of men prey upon women, children and other vulnerable men on their return from theatres of conflict, as well. When “rape is a weapon of war,” the issue might not be whether men should rape and sexuality assault women; the issue might be which men get to rape and sexually assault “their” women, in ordinary life and at all other times. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in war and also in peace, even fellow soldiers. Stories and survivor testimonies abound. Many non-military women also experience their homes and lives as a war zone even when their countries or communities are not officially “at war.” Peacetime life can be radically insecure.
Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in brightly-lit bedrooms and in poorly-lit bars. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in hotels and in hospitals. Men rape and sexually assault women–and sometimes other men–in homes, on streets, in schools, at work, in elite clubs and in public transport locations.
Kenyan women are mostly silent about this violence. Reports have been published on post-election violence, and survivor testimonies tell us that the targets of gender-based violence were mostly women and children, and that the perpetrators were mostly men. But the witnesses who told their stories to the Kenyan Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission had to explain that it was difficult to talk about their experiences. Their communities and families disapprove of women “speaking of sex.”
Sexual violence violates and traumatizes in the initial assault, but the imposition of collective silence violates the victims again. Without justice, without the release of standing witness to their own lives, these women are imprisoned in the memories and the consequences of their untold experiences. By abdicating the emotional labour of grieving, and of building a more sharable and liveable life for all, the community victimizes these women once again.
As the Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie has said:
Let’s speak a simple truth,
The average man can without much planning,
Take by force most average women in the world, all average children,
Rape her or him,
With an angry penis, or even a metal rod, if one is handy,
And while he’s at it, call his friends,
“Come let’s have some fun.”
An unauthorised coupling, in rhyming couplets?
And then, when it’s over,
And he is discovered,
No need to fret,
He can rely on the average man to cover-up and declare his crime a mere transgression,
A mistrial it must be!
It was the clothes she almost wore,
A tiny miniskirt, it barely covered her virtue, she was asking for it you see,
My imagination was sorely tempted,
What was I supposed to do?
It was all her fault.
She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,
In a bus at night?
Why does she go out in public at all?
A woman’s place is strictly in the kitchen, everyone knows that!
She fought back,
She should have lain there and taken it, well, like a woman!
She must have enjoyed it, really they always do, with me!
It was legitimate rape,
Within the bounds of natural justice,
A woman cannot be raped unless she wants it.
The man who was a judge quickly declared a mistrial.
In June 2013, a Kenyan court ruled that the Kenya police “have contributed to the development of a culture of tolerance for pervasive sexual violence against girl children and impunity.”
In Kenya, men dominate social, political and economic institutions from the rural elders’ councils to elite golf and country clubs; from the labour unions to the corporate associations; from the sports’ federations to the scientific institutions; from the manufacturing to the matatu industry; from the political parties to the prison system’s administration; from the legal to the criminal establishments; and from newspaper columnists to the street-corner vendors who often read these newspapers to their customers.
In Kenya, daily assaults on the dignity and bodily persons of vulnerable human beings continues to the general unconcern of Kenya’s institutions and society. In India, hundreds of thousands of men have held public demonstrations in solidarity with women and in protest against sexual and gender based violence; in Kenya, women die and bear physical and emotional scars for life to a deafening silence, broken only by the occasional wink-nudge encouragement of mostly male politicians, mostly male secular intellectuals, and mostly male spiritual authorities.
Men in the business community mostly do not speak out when women in management, women workers, and women customers live under threat. Radical men working for social justice mostly do not question their participation or acquiescence in daily violence against half of “the people” for whom they claim concern. Fathers of daughters mostly seem not to notice that the daughters of other fathers are being raped. Men who have sisters are mostly not bothered when assaulting the sisters of their friends.
Patriarchal cultures debase and objectify women, and support violence. Misogynist speech encourages violence against women–and sometimes men–by a daily attrition of their humanity. Social attitudes that are habitually passed around also buttress violence against women, against children, and against other men. Fathers teach their sons to feel contempt, habits of mind passed from brother to brother, from neighbour to neighbour and from friend to friend. They are refashioned in popular culture, made respectable by male icons of literature. They are circulated in bars amongst men and in boardrooms amongst men.
Some men are quick to blame women for the “dissolution of society’s morals.’” Some of these men are in positions of public authority. Victim blaming works by distracting attention away from the real sources of the violence and terror in our communities. These male authorities do not condemn Kenyan men or accept their own accountability for lost public trust.
Racism recruits some black people into self-hatred. Colonialism recruited some Africans into inferiority complexes. Misogynist practices recruit some women into woman-hating speech and actions, which appear in many disguises in the “normal” daily micro-interactions between men and women. They take on virulent forms throughout our society.
Earlier last year, in Kitengela, Nyeri and Bomet, women passengers at matatu stops were set upon by “mobs” of men who violently assaulted and stripped the women naked while abusing them. These men said they were correcting the women’s “indecency.” The studio anchors presenting this story on television barely restrained their sniggers, apparently not realizing they were watching a horrifying crime. Male authorities advised women “to dress more decently.”
When a powerful Kenyan Minister died, the newspapers reported that the daughter of the Minister’s herdsman came forward to claim that he fathered her son. If her story was true, the Minister must have had sex with her while she was still a minor, statutory rape. But he had been a powerful man, so there were calls “not to speak ill of the dead.” The benefit of the doubt was not for the young woman and her son, but for the powerful man. There were speculations that she was lying, that she had been paid by the dead man’s political enemies. As Shailja Patel noted, some Kenyan citizens are apparently “disposable girls.”
When a flurry of anti-pornography condemnation broke out in the Kenyan mainstream and social media, I turned on the television and saw the image of a man’s hand fondling the buttocks of a woman wearing white trousers. I thought this was the pornography we were talking about, but it turned out that the hand belonged to the long arm of the law. The Kenyan state is in touch with its female citizens. The policeman’s hand was “helping” the woman into the waiting vehicle while arresting her on charges related to forms of “indecency.”
There are many terms of abuse for Kenyan women who work in the sex-industry. Their male clients are “men who have gone astray.” Most of the producers, profiteers, and consumers of the sex-industry are men.
Rappers refer to women as “bitches” with monotonous regularity, a global male habit of contempt for women. The Nyali “pornography” story as it first circulated involved some young women, a mysterious foreigner, and a dog. The dog was later retracted from the public story by the police, but not before the narrative and its exclamations of horror at the women’s “bestiality” had reached every corner of Kenya and the Kenyan Diaspora. The young women’s morals were even compared unfavourably to those of the imaginary dog. Amidst the furor, young men on Kenyan college campuses found it hilarious to bark lasciviously at their female colleagues. Some men of all ages engaged in this behaviour on public streets.
They did not notice how peculiar they looked growling and woof-woofing lewdly at complete strangers.
When a respected psychiatrist and a revered public intellectual responded to the questions of a self-described survivor of incest and child abuse, his considered professional advice was full of tender concern towards the man who inflicted the abuse. The doctor worried about the man’s reputation, warning that he might be “a respected elder by now.” The doctor told the self-described survivor of incest and child abuse that she might be delusional or acting from malicious motives.
Many Kenyan men inflict bodily harm on other human beings in the name of affronted masculinity or compelling masculine “needs.” Many Kenyan men have violently destructive behaviours. Many Kenyan men hide each other’s crimes, with silence, or with complicit nods, winks and shrugs. Many Kenyan men ignore pervasive violence as it occurs in front of their unseeing eyes. Many Kenyan men deny all of this.
Some Kenyan men do not. Some Kenyan men write fiercely and passionately against misogyny and patriarchy with scholarly discipline or poetic lyricism. Male CREAW and Femnet activists work with other men to change the violent masculinity of frustrated and marginalised male youth. “The Men’s Pledge“enlists men against gender-based violence. Wanjala Wafula writes against the “plague of sexual violence;“ Coexist Kenya acts to end it. Kenne Mwikya objected that the men canonizing Prof. Wangari Maathai after her death had publicly vilified her while she was alive. Godwin Murunga has well-researched and rigorous scholarly critiques of flawed hegemonic masculinities. Keguro Macharia repeatedly decries “banal misogyny.” Michael Onsando self-published a poem about the silencing of women’s truths after the doctor’s response to the self-described abuse survivor appeared.
Many other men are committed to creating a safer world for men and women. Many other men work hard to increase all citizens’ everyday security and freedom from harm. Many Kenyan grandfathers and fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues ensure that their domestic, professional and public environments are safe and supportive of human dignity for all.
All these men combined are still a miniscule proportion of Kenyan men.
If men stop treating women like chattel; if men stop treating women like second-class citizens; if men stop stereotyping women as available for men’s pleasures; if men stop laughing at misogynist jokes; if men refuse to be complicit in misogynist acts; if men value their daughters as much as their sons; if men speak out about rapists who are their friends and sexual abusers who are their relatives; if men insist to each other that sexual- and gender-based violence is unacceptable; if men acknowledge their responsibility and join other men to transform the culture of violent masculinity: women and men, together, might bend the arc of Kenyan history towards justice.