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ONEYA: Why we need more bad women

Wednesday January 23 2019

The society values

The society values "goodness" over many other attributes that a woman could have. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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One of my deepest concerns as a feminist and mother of a daughter is the amount of importance attached to a woman’s “goodness” in relation to her worth as a human being.

I call it the “goodness cancer”.

A conversation I had recently with a colleague brought this to the fore.

She had signed up to Tinder, a dating app and a married male colleague, on seeing her profile there, told her that online dating is not the kind of thing that good women do. That it’s not for decent women.


Thankfully, she brushed off his unwarranted comments with the ruthlessness they deserved.

“Who is he to think that his comments or his yardstick about goodness mattered?” she later asked me as she was narrating the story.

But she is a different kind of woman.

In my experience, women, including myself, have more to fear about their reputation than men in nearly everything that they do.

“What will people think of me?” is a question that plagues us constantly.

But why is this?

Growing up, I remember my mother regularly rewarding us with little treats here and there and affirming us whenever we were “good”. So my siblings and I strived to be good girls.

The “bad girls”, the ones who answered back the teachers, the ones who did not finish their homework, the ones who questioned authority, were whipped and shamed, as an example of what would happen to us if we chose “badness” over goodness.

Our “goodness” showed up in the relationships we had with our teachers because we avoided doing anything that would make us look bad and ended up really never questioning authority because we wanted to be seen as good.


The burden of this “goodness” would show up in romantic relationships too, where we were told by our mother, aunties and every other entitled person (and they were many) about what good girls or good women did or did not do.

Good women were obedient, respectful, neat, never spoke back, cleaned up after their men, never spoke too loud. Good women curbed their ambition and stood behind their men, supporting them and basically cheered them on even if they did not deserve this.

One of my university lecturers, an accomplished, successful woman by any stretch of the imagination, once confessed to me that her mother worriedly pulled her aside when she got her PhD and told her not to use her title (Doctor) because she would repel any potential suitor.

“Between your house, this PhD and your big car, which man will dare approach you?” her mother posed.

In short, she was saying that a good woman should hide her accomplishments to make the men around her—her potential suitors—feel more secure about themselves.

My daughter, too, constantly seeks affirmation about whether she is a good girl or not.

“Mummy, am I a good girl?” she often asks in the middle of doing a task I’ve assigned her.

“Yes, you are a good girl,” I will often respond.

In retrospect, I’m guilty of making her feel that being a “good girl” is supposed to be a life ambition. And that whatever she does, she should strive to be a “good girl”.

My attitude lends credence to the popular cliché that a woman is as good as her reputation, which is a lie given the unfair definitions the society has on what a good woman should or should not be.


The good woman, if the society had its way, is the one who does not leave a man, even when she has every reason to.

A good woman is the one that would rather die of loneliness than use technology to widen her net and broaden her perspectives in finding a partner.

A good woman is the ambitionless one who comes to work everyday and diligently does her job, hoping that the men in suits upstairs will notice her goodness and give her a promotion at work.

A good woman is the one who hardly speaks up in meetings and sits at the back, serving the attendees tea and mandazi and does not raise a single point throughout.

A good woman is the one who does not speak up if sexually harassed in the office so as “not to ruffle feathers” and “spoil the man’s job”.

A good woman is the one who does not wear what she wants because she “might provoke the men”.

A good woman is the one who bears five children even though what she really wanted was two children and a holiday in the Maldives once a year.

I could go on, but you get the point.

The societal expectations place “goodness” over any other virtue like ambition, adventure, purposefulness, confidence, success and assertiveness.

And since this is what the society has decided a good woman is, I think we need more bad women.


We need bad women like Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, whose husband divorced because of alleged adultery.

In later interviews, she suggested that the actual reason was that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”.

In short, he divorced her because she was a bad woman.

So bad was she, in fact, that she became the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctoral degree and is to date,  a revered activist hero.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, said the following of her:

“Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.”

Martha Karua is the other bad woman I would like to honour today. In an interview with The Standard Newspaper in January 2019, the trailblazing lawyer and politician said:

“I don’t have the need to be liked. As long as I am doing my job the best way I know how, I am fine. If that makes me bad, then I want to be very bad.”

That is why we need more bad women.

It’s a challenge to me too to parent differently.

So the next time my daughter asks me if she is being a good girl, I tell her yes, definitely, but I will also encourage her to speak back to me, to challenge my rules, to be confident, to be ambitious, to be bold, to be authentic, to be ‘bad’.


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