In February when the media was awash with reports about wives battering husbands in Central Kenya, the chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation Rukia Subow was quoted as saying that men who were not responsible deserved a beating. Just like that.
Maendeleo ya Wanaume had released a report showing that 460,000 men were battered in Central and Nairobi every year. Subow pointed out that men should be responsible if they expected their wives and children to respect them.
What a strange response coming from the chairperson of a national body dedicated to the advancement of women! If everyone were to justify domestic violence on the grounds that their partner was not “responsible”, there would be plenty of missing teeth and broken ribs in households throughout Kenya.
One would have expected Subow to give the public a more enlightened perspective on the issue. Domestic violence, whatever the arguments of the perpetrators, is always wrong and must be condemned without buts. Or is violence reprehensible only when a woman is the victim? Subow’s remarks came around the time when the top news story was about Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Barasa who had allegedly pinched the nose of a security guard for requesting to frisk the judge before she entered Village Market in Nairobi. Justice Barasa was later suspended and President Kibaki appointed a tribunal to investigate her conduct.
Whereas the Barasa story kicked up a lively debate dominated by calls for her resignation and prosecution, Subow’s clearly unacceptable remarks did not provoke any discussion: an indication, perhaps, that our society is tolerant of husband battery, or at least pretends the phenomenon doesn’t exist.
The Subow and Barasa stories highlight a major problem facing women in public life in Kenya. The things they do and say raise interesting questions about women and power.
One really wonders whether the women concerned take time to think about the perceptions they may generate in a society that is generally sceptical about women’s leadership abilities and which has a vibrant media industry whose influence is quite pervasive. Do they worry that their public actions and utterances could entrench terrible negative stereotypes about women?
This is particularly the case in politics, where high publicity comes with the territory. One’s image as it comes through the media is important. Only a small number of Kenyans has personally met President Mwai Kibaki, for example. But we all know him through the media. For that reason, a public figure has no option but to pay particular attention to their media image.
It is doubtful that Kenyan women in politics fully appreciate this. If they did, how then would Special Programmes Minister Esther Murugi suggest at a conference that people living with HIV should be quarantined? Or that she would strip naked in protest if Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta was detained at The Hague?
How does the minister hope to be taken seriously by Kenyans when she says these kinds of things? At an NTV breakfast show not long ago, ODM nominated MP Rachael Shebesh told viewers that, yes, she has an “attitude” problem. Did she by any chance know she wasn’t seated at a counselling session? Did she expect sympathy from viewers?
There has been extensive media coverage of campaigns for the next election, especially the formation of alliances along tribal lines. In those tribal outfits, women politicians have come across as cheerleaders for the male brigade. Their rhetoric is no less virulent than that of the men whose schemes they champion. Only Gichugu MP Martha Karua has unequivocally rejected the alliances.
On the political hot potato that is the ICC trials, again it is only Karua who keeps reminding people that Kenya voluntarily ratified the Rome Statute and that MPs refused to set up a local tribunal to try perpetrators of the PEV, preferring The Hague option.
Assistant Minister Cecil Mabrire is latest female politician to rail at the ICC, calling it a slaughterhouse during the charged GEMA convention in Limuru. Before her outburst, people had been waiting for the day Kenyatta would be detained at The Hague to see if Esther Murugi would keep her word to strip in protest. That pledge led to hilarious caricatures of the minister on social media.
What a man can do
There is a saying within the feminist circles that what a man can do a woman can do, and even better. Well, that does seem to be the case where incompetence and corruption in public office are concerned. Kenya has, or has had, several women Cabinet ministers working under President Kibaki who came to power ten years ago promising “a working nation” and “zero tolerance of corruption.”
A full review of their performance over the last decade would require a book. But in recent times, there have been allegations of corruption and abuse of office at nearly all the ministries headed by women. Water Minister Charity Ngilu pledged to sort out the country’s water woes by building dams. A parliamentary committee had difficulty understanding why most of those projects were set up in Ukambani where Ngilu comes from. Ngilu attempts to defend that decision were not quite convincing.
There have also been allegations of corruption at the Water Ministry, even involving Ngilu’s relatives. She denies any wrongdoing and attributes the claims to her political enemies.
Murugi’s Special Programmes has failed to end one of the country’s long-running eye-sores: the plight of citizens displaced four years ago. She has made numerous empty pledges to settle the IDPs. Once she tried to cover up the failure by sharing a meal on Christmas Day with the IDPs right there in their hovels. During Naomi Shabaan’s time at Special Programmes, millions of shillings meant for IDPs reportedly vanished. A few small fish were fried over the scandal.
Prof Helen Sambili, the current Higher Education Minister, looked lost at Youths and Sports. Perhaps the appointing authority never looked at her competencies and interests. Assistant Minister Kabando wa Kabando seemed to have a better grasp of things. Agriculture Minister Dr Sally Kosgey hit the headlines when she denigrated the national flag while attempting to say that she wasn’t too worried about losing her ministerial post. Still, farmers complain that they can’t get seed and fertiliser in time for the planting season, or good prices for their produce at harvest time.
Well, what a man can do, a woman can do – even better! Or are all those stories created by a media that is hostile to women?
Honing political skills
In the old days of Kanu, women generally came into elective office mostly as beneficiaries of patronage by the regime’s bigwigs. They were not many, but they generally enjoyed peaceful tenures in those times of restricted civil liberties.
Things have since changed, a bit. There are self-made women politicians today. But they would do well to hone their political skills as they navigate the public space where the media picks up its stories.
We all recall the media circus involving Housing Assistant Minister Bishop Magaret Wanjiru of Jesus is Alive Ministries when she tried to marry a South African churchman. Her estranged husband, James Kamangu, was still alive at the time. But scandals of this nature aside, one the gets the impression that in Kenya voters, be they male or female, tend to think a female MP is unreachable and generally socially illiterate. Perhaps this is due to patriarchy, where political socialisation lionises the men. But isn’t it often the case that women of class tend to cut themselves off from ordinary folk?
The expression “a man of the people” refers generally to a male politician, not a woman. In Kenya, as in all young democracies, political leadership goes beyond the formal responsibilities of representation, law making, oversight and so on. It is the male politician who is likely to throw a round of beer on entering a pub in his rural home. A woman MP is absolutely unlikely to enter such a place. A male MP might make an impromptu stop at a market and address the people there, cleverly working well-known idioms to cause uproarious laughter and promising his thoroughly excited audience, for the eighty-ninth time, heaven. Few people take these pledges seriously, but they return to their humdrum lives feeling a little better.
That is why huge crowds turn up at political rallies. People are not so foolish as to think that they will leave a rally materially better than they were at the start of the day. Of course, they would be happy to receive handouts, a T-shirt for example.
But generally, Kenyans attend political rallies for entertainment. They don’t attend to be taught how to live their lives: they have enough of that from the local priest, councillor and the chief. Nor do they really want to hear detailed ‘development’ plans and educated speeches about Vision 2030.
People want to laugh. They enjoy rhetoric delivered with punch. Give them Bifwoli Wakoli. Or Kalembe Ndile. Or Mike Mbuvi “Sonko”. Prime Minister Raila Odinga scores well with audiences by aping a football commentator, or with his ‘vitendawili’ (riddles). When not so uptight, President Kabiki does well castigating the imaginary drunkard or the over-ambitious politician with the ‘bure kabisa’ epithets.
But, as a matter of fact, women politicians tend not to be very interesting to listen to. They hardly have mastery of electrifying oral delivery. The well-educated ones who left their rural homes for boarding school at an early age – or actually never lived there at all because their middle class parents worked in town – are a complete disaster in their speeches. They have little sense of humour or may fail completely to read the mood of their audience. They seem to be ill at ease at the sight of so many ordinary folk – precisely the sort of thing that gives the male politician the kick.
As part of politicking, some women politicians resort to stunts that sometimes backfire, earning them plenty of bad press media. Minister Ngilu has stormed police stations to release persons detained there. Whereas she received support from certain quarters, many eyebrows were raised over an anarchic Cabinet minister who had no respect for institutions established by law.
Attempts by women politicians to ape the antics of their male counterparts don’t always work well. Storming a police station may be okay for Ferdinand Waititu, but not Ngilu. A speech laced with sexual innuendo, say by Bonnie Khalwale, at a political rally would seem okay. It is double standards, no doubt. But it means the woman politician has the challenge of coming up with her own unique way of engaging with the public, without appearing petty or high up there and out of touch with the so-called “common man.”
When former Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission chiefPLO Lumumba sensationally claimed last year that Tourism Assistant Minister Mbarire and her husband had tried to bribe him to prevent prosecution over a scandal involving the Ministry of Water, a tearful Mbarire appeared at a pres conference to say she and her husband were innocent. Of course they were. No court of law had found the couple guilty of any crime. But Mbarire came across as being excessively defensive and overwhelmed by PLO’s allegations.
That must have raised interesting questions in the minds of the people watching her on television. If you are innocent of accusations made so publicly by a senior state official, you simply step forward and calmly but firmly rebut the claims. Or proceed to court and sue for defamation. Tears do not add any value to the whole thing, for the simple reason that the people watching you on television are not just your family and friends, or even your constituents, who could be moved by your inability to hold yourself together. TV viewers are Kenyans who are very sceptical about politicians generally and want straight answers to questions that have been raised about probable misuse of their money or abuse of public office. It may help to keep the emotions in check in public affairs. Except at funerals and disaster scenes. People, both men and women, seem to have long concluded that a grown woman’s tears are never a clear indication of how things stand. If they are not for joy, it is likely the tears are an attempt to blur issues through emotional blackmail. So many months after Mbarire appeared on TV to defend herself and her husband, what remains in memory is her teary delivery, not the grounds on which she attempted to rebut the allegations against them.
Another case crying for better media skills involves NARC-Kenya presidential candidate Martha Karua. The cover story of the March issue of The Nairobi Law Monthly magazine was about the mysterious death of wildlife photographer Julie Ward in the Maasai Mara way back in 1988. The story was written by the late woman’s father, Ward.
Mr Ward reports that he was very optimistic when the NARC government of President Kibaki came to power in 2002 that the new administration would help him get the truth about how his daughter died and why. But, Ward reported, he was disappointed in the clear lack of interest in the matter by Kibaki’s then Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Martha Karua. Despite promises to help, Karua reportedly fell silent. So far, the NARC-Kenya presidential candidate, not known to burry her head in the sand, has not responded to Ward’s claims in any way. It is quite likely that this matter will come up from her critics when the campaigns for the next election hot up. Whenever she responds, people are likely to wonder why she never said anything when the issue first became public.
Why personalise politics?
Kenyan politics is infamous for being personality-based and tribal – and women politicians are no exception. Long ago, Ngilu used to talk about empowerment of women and politics of national development, etc. But in recent years, she seems to have decided to make a career out of bloodying the nose of Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka. There are many news headlines about the unending little fights between the two Ukambani politicians. Not once, Ngilu has publicly humiliated Musyoka by refusing to take his hand proffered in greeting. Now isn’t that absolutely reckless on Ngilu’s part? In this God-fearing nation of ours, and in politics in particular, it helps to appear to love your enemies – even when you are plotting their death. And this happens to be Africa. Humiliating a man so openly in front of his peers and lesser mortals does not win the aggressor any nods of approval. How does despising Kalonzo help Ngilu’s politics? Especially when Kalonzo, famously the born-again Christian, takes it in his stride? What is the point of taking political rivalry so personally? Let’s finish on much happier note. A recent survey by Ipsos Synovate found that nearly 50 percent of the respondents polled said they would vote for a female president. Great news! The deep-rooted stereotypes could be dying after all…
But wait: these gains could fail to translate into votes at election time if the women in power do not show that they can be better leaders.