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Feminism vs gender agenda: It’s time women recognised their political rights

Tuesday April 26 2011

By NYOKABI KAMAU

In a recent opinion poll during this year’s International Women’s Day, it came out that if Kenya was to go to the vote then, 60 per cent of the electorate would vote for a woman president.

That was, indeed, welcome news for those in the women’s movement, who have worked day and night over the last 50 years with the hope that in their life-time, they could see a woman occupy the highest office in the country.

Was the opinion poll doctored to suit the mood of the day or was it a fair reflection of the reality on the ground?

This is a question for another day. But whatever the case, it was a nice beginning to make Kenyans start imagining their president in a skirt.

The question for me is whether voter consciousness and an interest towards women’s leadership has, by any chance, been influenced by the feminist agenda.

My experience especially with university students, shows that feminism is still treated with suspicion among Kenyans, not just by men but even some women who have worked in the women’s and gender movement for many years.

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There are many Kenyan women, who, though their work supports what feminists stand for, still find it difficult to refer to themselves as feminists. This is due to a misconception of what feminism is and its association with the more radical stance that is given more publicity than the core of feminism, which is basically humanism, justice and fairness for all.

Kenyan voters generally have a negative attitude to feminism and they would find it difficult to associate with those who refer to themselves as feminists.

This may make even women who describe their stance as feminist not to say so publicly for fear of being seen as men-bashers or people who stand against family values.

Unlike the feminist agenda, the gender agenda seems to be attractive. However, not all aspiring women leaders and politicians even bother to understand the gender agenda and what it stands for.

An example comes to my mind when one morning, in the run-up to the 2007 general election, I listened to a radio interview with a woman parliamentary aspirant. She articulated quite well what she would do once she got into Parliament.

Towards the end of the interview, the radio presenter (a woman) asked the aspirant if she would be different from other women MPs who seem to focus only on gender issues and ignore other equally important issues of development.

The aspirant said she would surely focus not just on gender issues but on issues that affect men and women in her constituency.

The contradiction here from both the radio presenter and the aspirant was making it look like focusing on serious development issues that affect men and women is not a gender issue.

My interpretation from that one incident was that there is still a problem of lack of understanding of what gender issues are — they tend to be seen as “less serious” issues focusing on women only — as if focusing on women is not serious enough.

Coming back to feminism, I think it has a place in modern Kenyan politics where women, in particular, are struggling to find their rightful place in politics.

Women should, however, not just pursue power for the sake of it, but power that transforms social-political-economic structures.

The political consciousness that needs to be embraced as we draw close to 2012 is that every woman has power that she can exercise to advance feminist struggle.

Feminist ideology can clarify for women their power especially as voters and show them the ways this power can be used to resist oppression and exploitation.

If Kenyan women are to achieve their quest for equality and equity, they must continue to fight the negative challenges posed by state, tribal, class, ideological and cultural mechanisms that perpetuate their marginalised positions.

I am convinced that most of what Western feminism stands for can be applied to the Kenyan context especially with regard to women taking their rightful places in the political governance of the country, and, indeed, hold the seniormost office in the land.

Dr Kamau is a gender specialist and senior lecturer at St. Paul’s University. ([email protected])

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