What you need to know:
- The rise and establishment of departments, centres and schools of gender and women studies was one of the most progressive developments at our universities in recent decades.
In my few reminiscences of the late Prof Micere Githae Mugo, two weeks ago, I suggested that one of the reasons why the political Establishment of her time persecuted her was that she was a woman.
The predominantly male and patriarchal powers-that-were found it difficult to tolerate an articulate and assertive woman who was passionate about ideologies that they hated.
Those who were there and care to remember may compare her predicament with that of Chelagat Mutai or Prof Wangari Maathai.
Since my comment, a new and fierce discourse has emerged in the literary community regarding a patently dissident view of Prof Mugo.
Though not directly related to what I said, I think that the sub-theme of how we approach the subject of women in our discourses is highlighted in the current heated exchanges. In any case, the conversations reminded me of my longstanding intention to revisit, with you, my favourite subject, women.
I believe I told you some time ago of my subversion of a line from a famous piece, “An Essay on Man”, by the English poet Alexander Pope. “The proper study of mankind is man,” wrote Pope. I would, obviously, object to this because of its sexist diction.
“Mankind” is only a part of humankind, and “man” does not necessarily include all humans. Whether intentional or not, such insensitive speech ignores or belittles women.
“The proper study of humankind is the human being,” should, thus, be the appropriate, gender-sensitive thing to say, never mind the metre.
For my fighting purposes, however, I broke my own rules and went further to suggest that “The proper study of mankind is womankind.” This was, especially, after I heard the “news” that some eminent people were saying there was no need to spend three or four years studying for a degree in Women’s Studies.
This was, of course, within the broad context of vilifying the humanities while glorifying the sciences. As I have said heaps of times before, I have no objection to promoting the sciences. But I insist that you cannot run a viable human and humane society on the basis of the physical sciences alone.
I found the murmurs against Women’s Studies particularly disturbing. I thought that the rise and establishment of departments, centres and schools of gender and women studies was one of the most progressive developments at our universities in recent decades.
This rises from my feeling that many of the crippling development problems we face in our societies arise from our neglect and abysmal ignorance of women’s affairs and gender issues.
We are and we will remain primitive and backward as long as we discriminate against our women, oppress them and deny them equitable opportunities for participation in all our affairs.
The surest way out of this pathetic primitiveness and backwardness is the emancipation and empowerment of our women. This “emancipation and empowerment” (EE) code is crucial to unlocking the growth and development potential of our societies.
This is for the simple and obvious reason that women comprise at least a half of any normal human community, and there is no way any community can develop properly while denying equitable access to the development factors to a half of its population.
But who is denying them, you may be wondering. I will not blame you if you do not know, whether you are a man or a woman. It is quite possible that many of us have never even thought seriously about these things.
We take them, the status quo, for granted, telling ourselves that that is the way things are and they have always been, and it is no use muddying the waters by asking inconvenient questions and taking drastic actions to challenge and, if possible, rectify the glaring injustices.
It takes the vision, passion and courage of the likes of Wangari Maathai, Chelagat Mutai and Micere Mugo to confront the entrenched age-old systems of gender-based privilege for men and disenfranchisement for women.
This lopsided, wasteful dominance by the male is what we call “phallocentrism” or patriarchy. Most of those involved in the struggle against sexism and gender discrimination believe that it is women, like the above-named, that will lead the ultimate strike against the monster.
For the struggle to succeed, however, the revolutionaries must be equipped with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the issues and the best strategies and tactics of waging the struggle.
This alone would necessitate a competent mastery of the origins, history and theories of gender, feminism and the processes of emancipation and empowerment. It is naïve to imagine that anyone specialising in a field as complex as this needs anything less than three or four years. In my opinion, this is material for lifelong research and study.
I would go further and suggest that gender and women studies should be obligatory courses for any reasonably educated person, certainly so for university graduates, for two main reasons.
The first, as suggested above, is the need for the awareness, knowledge and skills for leading and undertaking the necessary transformational action.
Secondly, adequate understanding of gender relations, even among those who may not want to be activists, will facilitate acceptance of transformational action in society at large.
For I believe that ignorance, especially among men, is what lies at the heart of our dreadfully poor gender relations. We know and understand so little about women that we end up actually being afraid of them.
We resort to denying them access to power and resources, and to brutalising them, in the fear that allowing them any significant space would lead to their dominating us.
The matter is so urgent that we should be prepared to even hand over gender and women studies to the sciences. Then it would be studied empirically and experimentally as “feminology”, in the broad perspective, and as “feministics” in the strict and narrow sense of the “mechanics” of the feminine entity, physical, social, mental and spiritual, based on evidence by the women themselves.
What we cannot afford is smug, chauvinistic ignorance.
- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]