Why African ‘traditionalists’ should be the loudest supporters of feminism (including #mydressmychoice)

If you listen to discussions in the public space for and against all the the poor women who have been stripped, humiliated and molested in Kenya’s public spaces, you will see a strong and predictable thread that blames ‘modernization’ for society’s ills. This basically means that tv and media have transformed our women from the submissive angels they were into scantily dressed part-time prostitutes who’s sole mission in life is to confuse men by tapping into their wild and untamed sexual desires. These women are asking for it, and the problem is modernization.

Except it is not.

When we talk about traditional African values, we fall into this little happy place where we can fantasize about what it meant to be African. For the loudest and most ignorant, it simply means a society where women were passive, subjugated and at the mercy of their men. It was a world where male power went unchecked, and half of the society lived in misery. For others, it is not so clear- hence the comments about Africans being barbarians and the civilizing influence of Jesus. In this space, fantasy rules and everyone can find arguments to justify their half baked ideas.

I remember reading Koigi Wamwere’s autobiography and I was very surprised at his explanation of his childhood. I paraphrase but he said: Violence in society came from the top and filtered to the bottom. The man of the house would spend the entire day, humiliated by his colonial masters and unable to fight back. His masculinity was challenged every single day. He would go home and take out his anger on his wife,beating her senseless for perceived wrong doing. The wife, unable to fight against her husband, would take her anger and frustration out on her children, punishing them for petty things that children do in the most brutal ways. And the kids, they would kick the dog. 

Then I read Wangari Maathai’s autobiography and she had a little paragraph were she describes the perils of her childhood: We always had to be careful when going to the river to fetch water or coming back home in the dark. There were boys from the village who would lie in wait and force us to have sex with them.

I asked my own mother about this: she is not as old as Koigi and the late Wangari. This is what she said:

YES!! We learnt how to fight from a very early age. Those boys would try force themselves on us and you had to kick and scream and run away. Growing up in the village was tough. 

She also has scars on her legs from her brothers throwing burning pieces of wood at her. And she remembers being locked up in the latrine by her father and brothers on more than one occasion for her ‘wrong doings’

Hmm how about my generation? Some of my cousins tell me that the boys in the family gave them sweets and biscuits so that they could fondle them and try have sex with them. Yes, keeping it in the family indeed.

Let’s get some academics to back me up:

‘Hellish existence in the colonial world carries with it both the racial and the gendered aspects of the naturalization of the non-ethics of war. Indeed, coloniality of Being primarily refers to the normalization of the extraordinary events that take place in war. While in war there is murder and rape, in the hell of the colonial world murder and rape become day to day occurrences and menaces. ‘Killability’ and ‘rapeability’ are inscribed into images of the colonial bodies. Lacking real authority, colonized men are permanently feminized.’

Spot on.

So, is this the traditional culture that people are screaming for? Well, let me tell you that it is alive and well. Just move your family out of Nairobi and get your daughters raped in the name of upholding your culture.

What we know as “African tradition” is nothing more than a perverse system of distorted value and misplaced anger. We should not accept it.

How about pre-colonial Africa?

If these supporters of “African culture’ would only dig deeper, they would find out some crazy stuff.Look at this  particularly romantic description of women: ‘Women were treated with unparalleled respect because they were seen to be closer to the creator than men ever had the potential of being. This is because women themselves had the ability to create due to the fact that they were able to give birth. As creation of life, they were charged with the sacred responsibility of caring for the needs of the next generation, and because of this, they can be regarded as the originations of the idea that is now known as sustainable developments.’

And

One of the consequences of the advent of colonialism is the erosion of gender equality which characterized traditional African society. Both men and women had different roles they played in families and the society at large. But the case became different since the contact of Africa with colonialism…But since the era of colonialism, women have been placed on the lower rungs of the proverbial ladder by the dominant forces of capitalism, and now globalization, which emphasizes this need for power, superiority and compartmentalization of roles and responsibilities with different values attached to them

African society, like large parts of the world, was patriarchal. That is clear and we cannot deny it. However, ‘The positions of women in pre-colonial…differed according to ethnic divisions and the existing occupational divisions and roles of women within the economic structure and prevailing kinship systems. Women’s roles during pre-colonial times were perceived as complimentary to men rather than subordinate.’

What our traditionalists forget is that at the time, European civilization was characterized by some very rigid gender roles. These were they days when women were fainting in their corsets. When they were not allowed to leave their homes without male chaperons. When they had to cover their entire bodies lest an exposed ankle drive a man into wild, uncontrollable lust. When they were not allowed to vote (until the late 70s for some…)and were still being diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and treated by being manually stimulated by their doctors. When lobotomies were an acceptable way to ‘treat’ a woman with too many emotions.

These are the values that were imprinted on us. Through violence and emasculation. These are the values we are fighting for today as though they were our own. This is how we made that massive leap from the little skirts and swinging boobies to a society of people who cover their heads and insist that you wear skirts of a decent length (preferably pleated and shapeless) in the space of a few generations. The rest of the world has moved on. We haven’t. We have dug our heels in and are taking out our anger and frustration at society’s most defenseless people:

 Fanon analyzed how colonial violence influenced the colonized to be violent. In the first place he noted that the abused and violated colonized people ‘manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people’. In the second place, he explained that the colonized person’s confrontation with the ‘colonial order of things’ places him/her in ‘a permanent state of tension’. In the third place, Fanon argued that: ‘The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor’.

The way we think about our women, the way we talk about them, the way we allow them to be attacked and abused, it is a measure of just how much our minds have been conquered. It is a measure of how powerless our men are, that they have to attack and justify their attacks so that they can feel slightly more powerful.

Some people think that all this drama in the city is overrated. That we should be focusing on the girls being forced to get married at 13 in the villages. The girls who are being circumcised by their own aunties and mothers. But I say we are part of the same struggle. Injustice is injustice and they have the same roots.

Saying yes to this nonsense means that your mind is still colonized. That you are still enforcing Victorian values that were rammed down your parent’s throats through violence and abuse. That you are willing to live in ignorance and spout half baked nonsense to justify your bullshit. That, at the end of the day you are emasculated and you know it.

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