Nothing confuses my maternal grandfather more than the concept of single women making it on their own. ‘Single’ here is used broadly to refer to unmarried, separated, divorced or widowed women. It makes no difference to him. Because in his mind, a woman needs a man in her life to achieve anything.
It has to do with the way he was socialized. See, when he was born, women had no place in the society. His father taught him that he was superior to the women folk because he was a man. Which is why circumcision was so important in the Meru culture. Because an uncircumcised man (Mwiji) had no status. He was the same as a woman. Which, if you were a boy, was okay. But if you were a grown up man, to be called a woman or a mwiji was an insult. A man had to be, well, a man. Courageous, hardworking and a leader. Yet, even weak, lazy and fear driven men, while looked down upon by the society, were still a head and shoulder above the strongest, most hardworking and most courageous women. In fact, a woman of this latter kind was likely to be held with suspicion and disdain.
Unfortunately for my grandfather, unlike his father who died while status quo remained, the ground has been shifting quickly under his feet. More and more women are getting empowered. And this is too confusing to him. Like I said last week, we take comfort in culture because it is predictable. We can rely on the wisdom passed down to us by our forefathers. That is why we do not know how to react to sudden cultural changes. Because they put us out control of the situation.
Some of the older men have accepted women leaders at the work place. Others have not. They feel insulted if they have to take instructions from a woman, however kind she is. Because she still remains a woman. In 1997, a man in my village called Kairu was a supporter of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and he was ridiculed around the village by men and women alike. Okay, my home area was a Democratic Party (DP) stronghold. Kibaki did not have to campaign, we always had his back. (That ‘we’ is an exaggeration. In 1997 I was only 7 years old, and therefore had no vote. But you get the point). But the fact that Tharaka Nithi was a DP zone was not the reason people ridiculed Kairu. I mean, my grandfather was a supporter of Raila’s National Democratic Party (NDP) and nobody bothered him. The problem with Kairu and SDP was that in 1997, SDP’s presidential candidate was Charity Kaluki Ngilu. A woman. He was ridiculed for supporting the idea of a woman president.
Make no mistake. Women, especially older women, also do have difficulty accepting the revolution. They have been socialized to be inferior to men. Key word being socialized. If many men think women cannot handle business or politics, it is because many actually cannot, even when presented with the opportunity. Not because they genetically lack the potential, but because they lack the courage and confidence to step up. Patriarchal socialization has killed their self-belief.
But that has been changing. Women started going to school and getting jobs. And there starts the conundrum. Men the age of my grandfather were not equipped to teach their sons, our fathers, how to deal with these modern women. So they stuck to the script they got from their fathers, which held on to the superiority of men. Women too, did not know what to teach their daughters. Their girls now had education and money of their own. In the confusion, many mothers also stuck to the script they got from their foremothers (hehehe). That men are their lords. A few women discovered that that they had the same capacity as men and fought for their space. And a generation was caught up in confusion. The battle lines in the battle of sexes had been drawn. Men fighting for relevance. Women fighting for equality.
This confusion was passed on to us. But it is even more intense. Most of our (‘our’ referring to boys) fathers (and yes, mothers too) stuck to the script of their forefathers. But here is the thing. We are taught that men are the leaders. And we should be men. But we are also taught that we should give women space to excel. But they do not tell us how to reconcile the two. Because they also do not know. Women are told they can be anything (what a man can do…). But they are often also told to respect the authority of men. This leads to total confusion. I will give two illustrations.
Once, I was walking in this City with a romantic interest. Now, at night I often lose my bearing and sense of direction, especially if I am in a part of the city that I am not very familiar with. This evening was one of those. So I told her I was lost, and asked her if she knew where we were in relation to where we were going. She said yes. I told her to lead the way, because I had lost my sense of direction.
“No you are the man. You are supposed to lead me”
“Come on, you know the way. Just take us there”
“No, I cannot be a man and at the same time a woman”
It turns out we had actually arrived. We only needed to make one turn and we would be there. But I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out where we were and the direction we should take. All along the girl was saying nothing. I thought that was ridiculous. I still think it was ridiculous. That’s illustration number one.
For illustration number two, I will take us (I can lead now hehehe) to a church wedding. Pastors give this advice to young couples: wives, submit to your husbands and husbands, love your wives. Which is okay, and actually Biblical, 1 Peter 3:1-7. But when it comes to explaining these concepts, very strange theories arise. What does submit actually mean? Does it mean that I solely make key decisions? Most pastors say yes, but you should consult her. But what does consult mean? Asking for her opinion before setting out to do what I had originally planned? We saw the trouble with that word “consult” during the Grand Coalition government.
The reasoning often is that there cannot be two centers of power. There has to be one who makes the final call. Which is true. But here is the thing. The President is the head of a country. He/she is the overall leader of the country. But is he/she the only center of power? Of course not. There is Parliament. And there is Judiciary. We saw Obama get frustrated by Congress. And Kibaki’s wings were once sensationally clipped by the courts. In a properly functioning state, where these arms respect each other, the state functions smoothly. Trouble begins when there is power struggle between the arms.
And that is our problem today. Power struggle. Some people have misunderstood feminism. They imagine that it is a venture to prove that women are better than men. This leads to two results. Arrogant women who think that they should be given special treatment just because they are women, and insecure men who think they should suppress women to remain relevant. But here is the other thing. Women are not better than men. They cannot be. Why? Because the concept of “women” and “men” as singular entities does not exist. They are collections of distinct individuals. Therefore, there are good women just like there are good men. Competent women and competent men. Wicked women and wicked men. Lazy men and lazy women.
Feminism is simply an acknowledgement that because of the historically patriarchal nature of the society, women are at a disadvantage, and therefore need a helping hand to catch up. That is what empowering women is all about. It is not about disempowering men. Because in the ideal society, where men and women have equal opportunities, the best women and the best men will succeed. So ladies, feminism is not about rewarding mediocrity. It is giving opportunity to the disadvantaged woman to succeed, and applauding her success when it comes. But the opportunity alone will not make you succeed just because you are female. You have to work for it just like everyone else. I will illustrate. If you combine sexism and racism, the most advantaged people are the white men (especially in the West), and the most disadvantaged are black women (especially in Africa). But there are many African women who rise above poverty and cultural setbacks to be very successful, while many white men brought up in affluence and comfort in Europe squander their opportunities and resources and live below average lives. Why? Because advantage does not translate into automatic success. White male or not, success takes work. Advantage simply means it takes less effort to succeed, but there has to be effort. Affirmative action seeks to remove this advantage between the sexes and level the playing field. Of course some individuals will always be more privileged than others, but the advantage should not be merely because of sex or race.
We (both men and women) need to accept that women are just as competent as men. Different yes, meaning we use different styles to operate, but we are all capable of achieving results. We should embrace our differences to complement each other and make a better society. We should acknowledge that we are partners in the society, not rivals. We need to do away with the script that our forefathers and mothers left us. I may be named the head of my family, but that role is no longer substantive. It is ceremonial. Because my wife and I need to agree on all the key decisions. If I insist on shoving them down her throat like my forefathers, resentment will build, and the marriage will inevitably fail. Outside the marriage institution, we are peers. My current boss is a woman. I respect her the way I respected my former boss, who was a man. And she respects me the same way she respects my female colleagues. That is the way it should be.
There is a Bible verse that sums up the message in this post. Right below the seven verses in 1 Peter 3 that pastors use to teach gender relations. It is the verse that I think should be the key one in teaching gender relations today. 1 Peter 3: 8 says:
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.