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Cover Story

Engaging Norms that Undermine Gender and Human Rights in Kenya

Volume 15, Issue 1  | 
Published 10/07/2018
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In the year 2000, during a protest by Muslim women against the equality bill, Mariam Muhammad uttered the following statement: ‘The place of the woman in the Qur’an is not negotiable, it is very clear that the woman must submit to the man and we cannot change that’. The following year during a regional women’s seminar in Nairobi, the president of Kenya at the time, Daniel arap Moi made this statement: ‘You [women] can achieve more, can get more but because of your little minds, you cannot get what you are expected to get!’ The president said this while opening a regional women's seminar in Nairobi. These two statements allude to perceptions about the status of women in Kenyan society. It is attitudes like these that led to the rise of women across the globe in the 19th century, resulting in what is popularly known as the ‘Woman Question’.

As radical changes brought by industrialization and capitalism transformed society, these questions persisted. Labour roles, economic status, and educational opportunities challenged traditional gender expectations. As the social status and role of everyone was defined in society, the Woman Question emerged with questions about women’s rights to various opportunities presented only to men. In Kenya, the Woman Question was centred around social inequalities and ideals that confined the woman to a lower status than that of a man. Concerns about levels of illiteracy, unemployment, types of occupation, property ownership rights, role in decision-making processes and social cultural practices, such as child marriage and female genital cutting were all on the table.

Many communities in Kenya embrace a culture of male dominance, and female subordination. This perception, which is instilled in children during the socialization process, influences attitudes and behaviour towards women. Perceptions that the man is physically, intellectually and morally superior to the woman are commonly expressed in communities such as the Nandi of Kenya. The Nandi refer to the girl child as lagok ab got meaning children of the house, while boys are referred to as lagok ab sang meaning children of the outside.

Cultural practices such as widow inheritance are common and are considered the norm. In most communities, widows are coerced into marrying the brother or cousin of her deceased husband. Female circumcision and virginity and fidelity tests before marriage are also common in some communities as culturally legitimate ways to enforce fidelity and general subordination of the female by controlling her sexuality. Wife battering is widespread and is even encouraged in

some communities as a means of disciplining and keeping women in ‘their’ prescribed place. Although a woman is allowed to inherit property from her husband and to live on any land as the guest of a male relative by blood or marriage; often they are required to first get permission from male persons of their household, clan or village.

The status and role of a woman in society is reinforced by social norms and utterances of leaders as illustrated above. In another incident, Moi responded  to the demand of Kenyan women for more representation in the national decision- making process by arguing that ‘God did not make a mistake in making the man head of the household, and that even if women were appointed to high decision- making positions, they were still expected to be subordinate to their husbands at home’. Moi and Mariam Muhammad are merely echoing socialized norms that designate women as weak and subordinate to men.

To understand the social status and roles of women in any society, one must appreciate the complex norms, the socio-historical and geographical context, recognizing that every society has its culture and ways of defining and distinguishing between the female and male genders.  Culturally specified features of gender are often points of reference for identity and social status. As scholar Susan Okin aptly explains, the ‘modes of thought and attitudes’ about women inform not only values but also educational opportunities and social status. Most women’s place and role in society must be understood within their traditional bonds. Those who resist these bonds are often labelled as dissidents, divorcees, frustrated, single and domineering; a common weapon of ridicule intended to stigmatize those who disagree with or disregard cultural expectations of a woman as submissive, dependent and passive.

To ensure that this system of male dominance is sustained, most communities employ legitimisation techniques. One of the most powerful strategies of legitimization is religion because it is usually never questioned. The three religions in Kenya, traditional values, Christianity and Islam, have participated in the legitimization process. For instance, in traditional African communities, rites of passage are used to reinforce gender status and roles in society. Girls are taught to desire early marriage, to be submissive to their husbands, to accept physical discipline (wife battering), to be good homemakers, and to persevere even in difficult situations.

Among the Kikuyu for instance, a ‘good’ woman is called ‘mutumia’ meaning one who keeps whatever thoughts she has to herself, perseveres, does not answer back, expresses no opinion, is seen but not heard. A good husband is encouraged to discipline his ‘disobedient’ wives by beating them ‘at least once’ if he is to avoid the curse of his ancestors. Most girls drop out from school after circumcision because they are either pregnant or because they believe that their education is valueless. Among the Maasai, for instance, a girl can be married immediately after her circumcision wounds have healed. In some communities, wife beating is considered as a way of expressing love to the wife.

Traditional mythology has been used to reinforce values of female subordination and male dominance. Among the Kikuyu, for instance, the myth about Wangu Wa Makeri, a female colonial chief is often told to discredit women’s ability and sense of responsibility. Wa Makeri is said to have fallen from grace because she became so intoxicated with conceit and the craze for power and is said to have danced naked before a crowd of people to the shame of her community. She was thus removed from power. This myth is meant to socialize girls and women to the fact that women cannot be trusted as rulers. On the other hand, while indigenous values are undoubtedly patriarchal as well, they encouraged complementary gender roles, especially in leadership.

Although Christianity and Islam were presented as superior religions over localized religions, they eroded the flexible gender considerations that were offered in these traditional religions. The theologian, Mercy Amba  Oduyoye, explains how the imposition of Christianity, western education and the introduction of a new economy and local government administration added European sexism to the patriarchal elements of traditional cultural values.

Christian values assigned specific roles to women in the church with the additional labelling of women as sinners, temptresses, child bearers, servants and subordinates, and limited their roles to performing domestic tasks. St. Paul’s instruction about the status of women as subservient and obedient is often used in the church to portray women as submissive agents whose role is to be found in the domestic sphere. Paul’s biblical texts about women as subservient are a common reference whenever the place of women in society is under discussion. Sexist attitudes within the church were and still continue to be displayed, as in the language of the marriage ceremony where most women are reminded of the Christian affirmation of how to be the ‘good woman’.

In the Qur’an, the status and role of women is said to be justified in Sura 4:34 which teaches about male dominance. Claims that ‘men are the managers of the affairs of women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and that women who are defiant should be admonished and kept apart from their husbands’ beds and beaten’, clearly enforce subordination of females to men. By emphasizing male dominance and the status of women as second class, religion in Kenya is a powerful agent of socialization and legitimation. 

To engage gender values that undermine the status and role of women, it is not only important to appreciate socio-economic factors that influence attitudes and behaviour. Proper interpretation of scriptures that abide by the theological skill of hermeneutics of interpretation, is one way to engage scriptures that sanction gender inequality.  For instance, preachers should learn to preach verses such as Ephesians 5:22 in the Bible bearing in mind the times and the context within which they were uttered and in relation to the overall message of God: Love. Challenging utterances that endorse sexism and what Emily Onyango calls the vumilia theology is a central approach in engaging an oppressive theology.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2018 09:59
Prof. Mary Nyangweso

The Chair in Religious Studies at East Carolina University, USA. Her area of specialization is Religion, Human Rights and Gender. As a trained sociologist, theologian and an activist, she has a passion for intersectionality as a model of examining social issues.

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