Happy New Year! Excuses for the break since the last post. I have just moved country for work to a place with an unreliable and slow internet connection, so gaining access to this site is proving slightly complicated. However, with perseverance (and some research into the best internet connections in town) it is still possible, so I hope to continue to write and update over the coming year.

To begin the year, two extracts which offer a different approach to women’s rights. Firstly, an extract from a short story, Discovering Home by Binyavanga WainainaI, from the collection : Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, published by the New Internationalist.

I like the way this story addresses indirectly women and women’s rights and the way characters speak indirectly to those rights demands. I particularly liked the impressions of powerful strong women in this story. It is a great contrast to the many stories (or development and rights messages) of women as disempowered, weak or oppressed.

The women are also not presented in as sexy or alluring. They obtain their power through other means, in the same way as a man might. They do not use their ‘feminine charms’ to win over men, or to get what they want or need.

The main character Eddah, is smart, strong and capable. She has political power as a member of a political parties, economic power by asserting control and ownership of her husband’s resources as well as setting up her own business and physical power by acting together with other local women. She also has essentials provided to her via a garden which men tend for her and from a shop owner with whom she has an affair.

Indeed, these women possess most of the characteristics sought after by development projects for gender equality or women’s rights : political participation or participation in decision making and generating alternative forms of income. The methods used to accrue these forms of power may not be the most orthodox, yet it is difficult not to admire the strength and resourcefulness of these women and particularly Eddah who defies a system which could very well be considered intended to suppress her.

Here are the extracts which show some of the strong female characters and their ability to claim their own rights within their community.

“I met Eddah when she had just married Ole Kamaro. She was his fifth wife, 13 years old … I remember being horrified by the marriage – she was so young! … ( A) few years of schooling were enough to give Eddah a clear idea if the basic tenets of Empowerment. By the time she was 18, Ole Kamaro had dumped the rest of his wives. Eddah leased out his land to Kenya Breweries and opened a bank account where all the money went. Occasionally, she gave her husband pocket money.

Whenever he was away, she took up with her lover, a wealthy young Kikuyu shopkeeper from the other side of the hill who kept her supplied with essentials like soap, matches and paraffin.

Eddah was the local chairwoman of KANU (Kenya’s Ruling Party) Women’s League and so remained invulnerable to censure from conservative elements around. She also had a thriving business, curing hides and beading them elaborately for the tourist market at the Mara. Unlike most Masai women, who disdain growing of crops, she had a thriving market garden with maize, beans, and various vegetables. She did not lift a finger to take care of this garden. Part of the co-operation we expected from her as landlady meant that our staff had to take care of that garden. Her reasoning was that Kikuyu men are cowardly women anyway and they do farming so-oo well.

Something interesting is going on today. There is a tradition amongst Masai, that women are released from all domestic duties a few months after giving birth. The women are allowed to take over the land and claim any lovers that they choose … I have been warned to keep away from any bands of women wandering about. We are on some enourmous hill and I can feel old Massey Ferguson’s tractor wheezing. We get to the top, turn to make our way down, and there they are: led by Eddah, a troop of about 40 women marching towards us dressed in their best traditional clothing.

Eddah looks imperious and beautiful in her beaded leather cloak, red khanga wraps, rings, necklaces and earrings. There is an old woman amongst them, she must be 70 and she is cackling in toothless glee. She takes off her wrap and displays her breasts – they resemble old gym socks.

Mwangi who is driving, stops, and tries to turn back, but the road is too narrow:on one side there us the mountain, and in the other, a yawning valley. Kipsang, who is sitting in the trailer with me shouts for Karanja to drive right through them:

“DO NOT STOP!”

It seems that the modernised version of this tradition involves men making donations to the KANU Women’s Group. Innocent enough, you’d think – but the amount of these donations must satisfy them or they will strip you naked and do unspeakable things to your body.

So we take off at full speed. The women stand firm in the middle if the road. We can’t swerve. We stop.

Then Kipsang saves our skins by throwing a bunch of coins onto the road. I throw down some notes and Mwangi … empties his pockets, throws down notes and coins. The women start to gather the money, the tractor roars back into action and we drive through them.I am left with the picture of the toothless old lady diving to avoid the tractor. Then standing, looking at us and laughing, her breasts flapping about like a Flag of Victory.

A quick second extract looking at rights of women in an unconventional way is this great post by wrongingrights. The states that it is written in response to the recent high publicity rape cases in India (and also see) the USA and Lara Logan in Egypt and the misplaced attitude of public officials towards those cases of women, (see this perspective from India and this one from Canada).

The article approaches the problem from a different perspective and also one which hits directly home. The posts discusses preventing men from working in the media, going out at night due to the risk they sexually abuse or rape women. It is also suggested that they wear blindfolds in public to prevent them from being aroused by women in public places. The post seems humourous and what struck me on reading it was that I found it humourous. It made me reflect that  if we discussed preventing women going out after dark or wearing less provocative clothing or being unsuitable for certain jobs it would be taken as a serious article not a comic one. In this role reversal this article effectively highlights the cultural and social norms we so easily accept as truths regarding women’s freedoms.

Here is an sample, but do read the whole post:

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?

A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

(Just a little final note on Egypt, as I have been following women’s rights issues in Cairo for the past year, see here, here and here, it seems important to highlight that the issue of sexual assault goes much wider and deeper than the assault of Lara Logan, which partially inspired the wrongingrights post. Sexual assault is a complex problem in Egypt and one which women and activists face daily. For more information on that subject see Harassmap, Nazra and a plethora of media comment, including Egypt Independent, Washington Post, Aljazeera and of course this much discussed piece by Mona Eltahawy).

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