What you need to know:
- You might be wondering how and why a supposedly educated modern man in his forties, as I was then, should need “education” in gender matters. It is difficult to explain.
- I still remember the vulgar names Wangari Maathai was called, in very high places, for daring to speak out against environmental delinquency. And that was already in the 1990s!
- Why, in law, for example, should the pronoun “he” stand for both “men and women”? Why should the whole of humankind be monopolised by terms like “man” or “mankind”? And is it only “manpower” that we need to execute a task?
It’s not every day that a man becomes a woman writer. So, I never tire of boasting of the process that made me, and keeps me, such a phenomenal woman writer.
First, I should cite some evidence. I am one of the contributors to and associate editors of the Eastern African region volume of Women Writing Africa, published by the Feminist Press of New York. In fact, I wrote the preface to it.
But even before that, I had become a founding member, though honorary, of Femrite, the Uganda Women Writers Association, which specialises in publishing creative writing by female authors.
I am still a member, and I am contributing to their forthcoming collection of stories related to their roadshow aimed at taking authors and their writings countrywide to the people.
But it all started in Nairobi in the mid-1980s. Through close interaction with scholars and authors like Marjorie Macgoye, Kavetsa Adagala, Wanjira Muthoni and, especially, Jacqueline Oduol and Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira, I began to appreciate the significance of the woman’s voice, in society, and in literature.
Our systematic and formal initiation into gender sensitivity was through KOLA, the Kenya Oral Literature Association, which organised seminars and workshops for us facilitated by experts in gender and feminist studies, including our esteemed sisters from FEMNET.
SUBJUGATION OF WOMEN
You might be wondering how and why a supposedly educated modern man in his forties, as I was then, should need “education” in gender matters. It is difficult to explain.
We need to remember that, even as late as the 1980s, the concepts of women’s emancipation and empowerment in East Africa were, at best, quietly tolerated and, at worst, raucously ridiculed by male chauvinists and not a few female self-enslavers.
“Feminists” were popularly vilified as nasty, loud viragos and men-haters who had miserably failed in their relationships and were letting their venom out on anyone in sight.
I still remember the vulgar names Wangari Maathai was called, in very high places, for daring to speak out against environmental delinquency. And that was already in the 1990s!
Anyway, I found the kind of awareness that I received from my trainers one of the most enlightening and empowering experiences of my life.
And I believe this was true of my fellow male participants, like Masheti Masinjila, who made it a lifelong professional commitment.
Our gender trainers alerted us to the basic facts of gender inequity. Male opportunists have been, and still are, exploiting biological differences to construct social structures and strictures that condemn their mothers, sisters, daughters and partners to lifelong contempt, degradation and marginalisation.
We learnt that it was necessary to fight this discrimination not only for the sake of the disadvantaged woman but for the sake of all humanity. Denying a half of humanity its full rights to education, self-expression, employment, equal pay, and even nutrition, is quite simply wasteful.
For me, the most telling lesson was the realisation that, in order to achieve gender common sense, we must liberate men, especially from ignorance and their unadmitted, but real fear of women.
What lies at the root of the subjugation of women — the stereotyping, the silencing, the mutilation, the sexual and other physical violence — is the men’s pathetic fear that if they let the women live their lives in freedom, they “will get out of hand”.
Yet probably all that our sisters want is their space, the liberty to organise and live their lives without undue imposition and suppression. It’s not even about “equality”.
As the speaker in one of my verse pieces puts it, no sensible woman wants “equality” with all those rapists, drunkards, murderers and thieves boasting about their “manliness”.
For us in language and literature, our main contribution to the empowerment effort is to expose and purge those nuances in speech and writing that promote and perpetuate sexist attitudes and practices.
It’s surprising how embarrassingly gender-insensitive our language can be, once you begin to listen with informed ears.
Why, in law, for example, should the pronoun “he” stand for both “men and women”? Why should the whole of humankind be monopolised by terms like “man” or “mankind”? And is it only “manpower” that we need to execute a task?
These may sound trivial to the uninitiated, but we all know that they lead to thoroughly pernicious attitudes, and expressions, like “the weaker sex”, or assumptions that a group of men will be discussing points while that of women will be “gossiping”!
This is the conditioning that prepared me to join Femrite wholeheartedly in the mid-1990s, apart from the coincidence that I was sharing an office at Makerere with its founder, my dear sister, Mary Karooro Okurut, currently the Ugandan Minister for Gender Labour and Social Development.
And through Femrite, I was to end up in Bellagio, Italy, and at the Feminist Press in New York, editing Women Writing Africa, together with some of the most wonderful men and women I have ever worked with, among them my fellow Mswahili, Mlinzi Mulokozi, from Tanzania, and our own Naomi Shitemi, formerly of Moi University, now sadly departed, and the absolutely unforgettable Florence Howe.
Howe, the founder of the Feminist Press, is now in her 80s, but still as energetic and as active as ever. She has been an indefatigable fighter for people’s rights nearly all her life, especially in the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements in the US in the 1960s.
Maybe her undying struggle underlines the best lessons we should remember from all this: That women’s rights are people’s rights, and that we never should relax our guard in the fight for gender justice.
The struggle is continuous.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent changes in his government, bringing a few women into the Cabinet, were ridiculed in some sections of the Press as a “petticoat reshuffle”, insinuating that they were appointed more for “glamour” than their perceived competence!
Who says that the battle for equity has been won?