Keep your love, says the woman, give me respect and I’ll be fine

International Women's Day

Women at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre on March 2, 2023, during the commemoration of the 2023 International Women's Day.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

International Women’s Day is just around the corner, and I take this early opportunity to wish you happy and joyful celebrations. The main functions will be next Wednesday, March 8.

You know that this day has a long history, dating back to the 19th Century when women in most of the world did not even have voting rights.

Come March 8, 1857, however, the female factory workers of New York came out in a general strike and demonstration against the exploitative, degrading and oppressive conditions under which they worked.

That was a landmark in the raising of the woman’s voice, and it slowly and obstinately evolved, alongside other advocacy movements, until it was internationally recognised in 1975, the year of the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico.

International Women’s Day was originally promoted as an occasion for celebrating the woman and their struggles and achievements in all areas of human endeavour. But today it is observed as an opportunity to mobilise and energise women and all people of goodwill in the revolutionary fight against gender discrimination, and the feminist assertion of woman’s rights against patriarchal assumptions and presumptions.

Viewed from that angle, it is obvious that IWD cannot be a one-day affair. It is a continuous and permanent struggle. Every day of the year should, seriously and purposely, be a women’s day, until total gender equity is achieved. 

Indeed, this year’s rallying call is “Embrace Equity”. Equity is a specific right or entitlement claimed by the woman by virtue of her undeniable humanity. It is distinct from “equality”, a more abstract and controversial concept that is difficult to quantify. The speaker in one of my (currently displaced) pieces of verse emphatically says she does not want equality.

She rejects equality with all those murderers, robbers, thieves and rapists out there, or with cowards who flee, with their tails between their legs, from the responsibilities of the paternity of their children.

Harsh words and sentiments, but they are probably no tougher than the voices I have been hearing from my womenfolk over the past few months and which I want to share with you as we mark IWD 2023. We start from the realisation that the prime mover in all women’s emancipation and empowerment processes is the woman’s voice itself.

The most sensible approach to the struggle should be to let the woman speak for herself. The strongest note I seem to hear in the voices, and silences, of the women to whom I have been talking and listening is, “Keep your love. Give me respect.”

Friendship and affection 

These women certainly want friendship and affection. I think what they mean is that the kind of “love” that we macho men claim to offer is miserably far below the sisters’ expectations. Love that is an animalistic lusting after their bodies, love that is a trophy hunt, seeking to win and possess a chattel, which may be discarded at will, love that seeks women as status symbols, like the latest car models, love that presumes that partners will be baby factories or cheap live-in housekeepers, please, keep it to yourselves.

The message that I read between the lines, and hear between the silences, is that in a feminist emancipating and empowering context, recognition and respect of the woman as an equal fellow human being precedes everything in all relationships, whether social, business or romantic.

Here for the record is my evidence. It would be unrealistic of me to report on, let alone analyse, all the voices that one hears even in the course of one day. Here I comment only on what I consider to be the central message of the women’s voices to which I have been listening in the past five or six months. My three sources are related to texts with which I have been involved as a contributor, critic or simple reader.

In November last year, a young lady interviewed me for the online magazine Zeitgeister, published by the Goethe Institut. In the interview, which is available in English on the magazine’s website, the interviewer particularly wanted to know if one could meaningfully be a “male feminist”, as I have described myself in various fora.

The interviewer’s searching questions and my scramble for convincing answers made me realise how difficult it was to be convincingly and convincedly committed to the feminist cause. The would-be male feminist has to relinquish all male assumptions and preconceptions and humbly submit himself to re-education by listening intently to the woman’s voice, talking either to him or to her fellow women.

Indeed, prior to that interview, I had been “listening” to women dialogising among themselves in a fascinating publication by my sisters at FEMRITE, Uganda Women Writers Association. The book, titled This Bridge Called Woman, “gives us a precious glimpse into the realities of the international women’s struggle for full empowerment and self-realization,” as I said in a comment about it.

It is a series of real-life exchanges between highly educated and articulate women in Uganda and the United States, and it greatly educated me about the the woman’s courage, lucid reflection and bold assertiveness in the self-emancipation and self-empowerment enterprise.

Nairobi literary group 

Although seemingly at the other end of the spectrum from This Bridge Called Woman, another recent publication, this time from the Nairobi literary group AMKA, offers strikingly similar insights into the woman’s struggle.

The appropriately named Resilience, which we will launch next Friday at the Goethe Institut, is a collection of narratives of the daily experiences of Nairobi’s female street vendors as recorded by young female journalists.

I do not know about you, but I certainly had not paid much attention to these ubiquitous pavement operators until I read this book.

A startlingly insightful collection into the backgrounds, courage and resourcefulness and, of course, resilience of these patently underprivileged women, Resilience leaves one, especially us presumptuous males, with a completely new image of the Kenyan woman and her determination to survive and develop. Happy celebrations, with love and respect.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 


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