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Politics and marriage make a highly volatile mix for women

Saturday January 25 2020

politics and politics

Crumbling marriage: Married and divorced women in politics have had to contend with the surnames they identify themselves with. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

SIMON MBURU
By SIMON MBURU
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After 26 years of marriage, Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Gladys Boss Shollei has divorced her husband, Sam Shollei.

Their marriage was annulled by a magistrate’s court two weeks ago over what the judge termed as irreconcilable differences.

Gladys and Sam married in a colourful wedding ceremony at St Francis Church in Karen on December 10, 1994. Over the years, they were blessed with two children.

They had built wealth together, and had good careers. Sam was a top corporate leader while Gladys had served as the Chief Registrar of the Judiciary before shifting to politics.

The two lovebirds were the envy of many couples. But beneath the surface, their marriage was falling apart.

It all started with claims of infidelity. Things got worse, and in 2016, the couple separated. Then Gladys filed for divorce.

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During the hearing, she told the court that her former husband had been planning to publicise the details of their divorce case in a sensational manner that would injure her reputation and image as a female politician and public figure.

PUBLIC CRITICISM

Efforts to reconcile the two hit a snag and, a fortnight ago, the court delivered the final blow to their once-upon-a-time happy marriage.

“Efforts to reconcile them have borne no fruit… It is highly unlikely that they will get back together and perform spousal duties as envisaged by the law and the vows they took when they got married. It is only fair that their relationship be terminated and they be allowed to move on with their lives. I allow the petition and order the marriage to be dissolved forthwith,” the judge ruled.

The court also stopped Sam from accessing their multimillion-shilling homes in Kitisuru - Nairobi - and Plateau Estate in Eldoret.

In the heat of the divorce news, pictures emerged on social media suggesting that Sam had married the woman at the centre of Gladys’ infidelity claims in a traditional ceremony.

News of the divorce and Sam’s remarriage spread like bushfire and became the talking point on social media.

Opinions and reactions were divided. On the one hand were commentaries that encouraged Gladys and castigated Sam.

Susan Catherine Keter said: “When a man leaves his successful wife to go for a woman who is much younger than his wife, it reveals a lot about him. Gladys Shollei will rejoice in the long run.”

Her comment was echoed by Wanja WaEmbu: “Her reasons for pursuing the divorce sound genuine and justified. It is not just about money and property.”

WOMEN BECOME SCAPEGOATS

But some blamed Gladys’s political position for the failure of her marriage. “Marrying a woman who is a national politician is a recipe for such endings,” said Mark Dishon.

John Mayieku concluded that she was no longer fit to lead after failing to salvage her marriage. “If she can’t nurture a family, how can she be a leader?” he asked.

Others also cast aspersions on who was to blame. “I once worked with Sam. He is such a gentleman. I wonder who between a politician and a technocrat has more time for the family,” said Meshack Ongare.

The commentaries that attributed the divorce to Gladys’ political occupation betrayed how marriage and politics often prove to be strange bedfellows for women in politics.

They also showed how women in politics end up taking the heat for their failed marriages, regardless of the reasons behind the divorce.

Her divorce has also portrayed how women in politics gain attention when details of their marriage go public in contrast to their performance as leaders.

Take former Taita-Taveta Woman Representative Joyce Lay, for instance. She became a pet subject in Kenya after her separation from her husband, Bill Lay, during the divorce filed by Mr Lay and their reconciliation after spending four years apart in December 2018.

GENDER REPRESENTATION

The Kenyan Constitution requires that women occupy at least one third of all seats in Parliament, and one third of all appointive political positions.

But prejudices against women’s marital status have gone a long way in ensuring that these targets are not attained.

And where attained, the risk of a separation or divorce looms large. “Socially, politics is consumed from a patriarchal high table. Not even women who have played critical roles in shaping this country’s political discourse and future have escaped the wrath of this political high table,” says sociologist Constance Mundia.

Take the case if the late Wangari Maathai. She was the ordinary face of an extraordinary Kenyan woman.

She was the first woman in East Africa to acquire a PhD, in 1971. She would go on to become the first woman professor in Kenya.

She lost jobs due to government malice, got sabotaged by courts, refused to be boxed by her gender, and battled with riot police officers during the heady push for multiparty democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Years later, her sacrifices were handsomely rewarded when she broke the glass ceiling to become the first African woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite her sacrifices and successes in Kenya’s political and social spheres, she was often put under the microscope for being divorced. Wangari’s marriage broke up in 1979.

IDENTIFICATION

The ability to stay in a marriage is socially equated with the ability to maintain a political office, regardless of the holder’s capacity.

This means that a woman’s marital status is put way ahead of her qualifications. But it is not only women in politics who have troubled marriages.

Women who are married to politicians, or who date politicians, have equally frustrating relationships and marriages.

According to Chris Hart, a psychologist based in Nairobi, all professions that involve a lot of personal ambition, odd working hours, and a lot of travel are hard on marriage.

Politics is one of these, and is especially tough on women, who are naturally preferred as nurturers and homemakers.

At the same time, married and divorced women in politics have had to contend with the surnames they identify themselves with.

For example, Kirinyaga Governor Anne Mumbi had opted to retain the name of her ex-husband Tony Waiguru after their divorce.

It is only after her traditional wedding to lawyer Kamotho Waiganjo in July 2019 that she dropped the name.

“A name is just a name, but I think the problem lies in the issue of identification in politics,” she said.

DEEMED OUTSIDERS

After her marriage to Waiganjo, Mumbi was culturally claimed to have shifted her allegiance to Murang’a County, where her husband comes from.

“It is culturally assumed that a woman assumes her husband’s home area upon marriage. This is why female politicians married outside their birth regions are labelled outsiders,” says Mundia.

Incidentally, this was the predicament that the late Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso faced.

Her marital affiliation was called into question by nominated MPs and Kenya National Union of Teachers Secretary-General Wilson Sossion in July 2016.

According to Sossion, Laboso was unfit to vie for a political office in Bomet because she was married in Kisumu.

Before her marriage, Mumbi’s rising political star had on social media been attributed to romantic affiliations with top political figures in the country.

Now that she is officially wedded, her marriage might be an added advantage should she seek a higher political office.

A few months after her marriage, she suggested that she might go for a top office in 2022. “I will be seeking to sit at the bargaining table since I want to contribute to the governance of this country,” she said in December last year.

POWER IMBALANCE

Christina Chanya Lenjou, a Nairobi-based sociologist, says that since the Kenyan society is patriarchal, the role of women is largely seen as subordinate to men’s.

But some marriages break down due to incompatibility and power imbalances that surface after a woman attains a political post.

“Apart from the political dynamics, there are women who lose respect for their husbands once they assume a higher, a powerful status,” says Lenjou.

“The men in their lives cease to be powerful and worth submitting to. To reclaim their positions as the head in the marriage, some get aggressive, violent, or egotistic, to the detriment of the whole marriage.”

One of the reasons why women – and sometimes men – in politics are compelled to find a mate is the political and social thinking that a married candidate is better positioned to win a high office than a single one.

“Socially, both single male and single female politicians are at a disadvantage compared to their married competitors. Somehow, it helps to be able to ‘be normal’ in public life, and that still means married, for most adults,” Hart says.

This has also seen prominent women in politics embrace polygamy. Nairobi Woman Representative Esther Passaris is one of the few politicians who have openly said they are in a polygamous marriage.

SKEWED PERCEPTION

In 2017, Murang’a Woman Representative Sabina Chege was forced to come out in the company of her husband and say that she was married to only one man.

During the 2017 election campaigns, she was accused of raising campaign money through dubious means.

This means that politicians who are single or whose private life is unusual in any way will always be judged negatively.

To make amends, single female politicians are pressured to adopt masculine political traits associated with political success such as dominance and competitiveness, aggressive and dominant body language, intelligence and scheming.

Kenya’s Martha Karua and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf are two of the female politicians who earned the tag “Iron Lady” for their political astuteness.

“Feminine traits of being nurturing, compromising, and sympathetic always get trashed in politics,” says Hart.

Incidentally, these are some of the key traits that build marriages, which implies that their lack and/or replacement with aggressiveness often leads a marriage to sure death.

For example, according to court filings, the late Wangari Maathai was divorced by her husband because she was too strong to be a homemaker.

In the Wangari Maathai v Mwangi Maathai (1980) case and the Civil Appeal 21 of 1979 court filings, Wangari was accused of being adulterous, too strong-minded, out of control, and cruel.

MOTHERHOOD

Apart from taking the heat for their marital status, women in politics have also had to contend with questions about motherhood.

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo has been a victim of political attacks due to her inability to have children.

In 2013, she says, she was sold out by her political rivals as unfit to be a parliamentarian because she was a "lur" - a Dholuo word for a childless woman.

In 2017, the 52-year-old politician says the childlessness and distant marriage card were played yet again.

“They (rivals) attempted to dissuade my party from giving me the nomination certificate because Suba North people deserved more than being led by a barren prostitute,” she said in September 2019.

The attacks were further exacerbated by controversial Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko, who claimed that Millie had a “weird” marital life. Millie’s husband lives and works in Zimbabwe.

For the marriage of a female politician to succeed, Ken Munyua, a psychologist based in Nairobi says, the man must be ready to calm his ego down and allow his woman to lead.

“Take Edwin Abonyo and Laboso’s marriage. Abonyo showed that it is not harmful for the man to relish his political woman’s power and success. If the man won’t compromise, power games will inevitably disintegrate the marriage,” he says.

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