My first encounter with Nairobi Woman Representative Esther Passaris was in 2013. As a cub reporter for a local newspaper, I was tasked with profiling women in politics in the run-up to the 2013 elections. Other than her striking beauty and bubbly personality, Passaris struck me as a strong woman, perhaps visionary and quite forward-thinking. She did not win the 2013 poll, but in 2017, Nairobians overwhelmingly elected her as their woman rep. Today, I wonder if Passaris knew what was ahead of her—and if at all she was prepared for the bumpy ride that is Kenyan politics—and most importantly, if it was worth it.
I say this because no woman in Kenyan politics right now has been maligned, embarrassed, shamed and bullied more than Passaris. Most recently, on Madaraka Day, she was insulted by Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko who told her—in public—that he is not obligated to pick her calls because he is not her husband. Days later, alleged phone calls and conversations between Passaris and Sonko surfaced online after which the governor accused Passaris of corruption in a television show which she was not invited to respond to the allegations. Two years ago, Passaris was called a ‘socialite bimbo’ on live television by a male politician who outrightly told her she had nothing to bring to the table other than ‘beauty’.
An old photograph of Passaris in a beautiful, see-through black dress—in which her legs are seen—has been used to shame and embarrass her. Passaris has been branded by her male opponents as an amoral, money-loving and corrupt woman who uses her looks to get ahead. I know I speak for many people when I ask loudly how and where in the world Passaris summons the strength and energy to wake up daily and show up for work.
But Passaris is not alone.
Wajir woman rep Fatuma Gedi has been to hell and back. Two days ago, Gedi was minding her own business in Parliament when a male MP, the ‘honourable member’ for Wajir East Rashid Amin, confronted her over a budget issue and even before she could explain herself, Amin punched her in the face.
Last year, many of you might not know this, Gedi was a victim of fake news and online bullying when she was accused of being the woman in a viral sexual video that was published in some swampy parts of the Internet. Just to be clear, the woman in the video is not Gedi and, secondly, the video was published online in 2016.
Being a female politician in this country is hell, literally. The way we treat our female leaders reflects what a rotten and backward society we are. Our female leaders have become our societal punching bag; we insult them unprovoked, we plant malicious stories about them in newspapers and blogs, we slut-shame them, photoshop their pictures in compromising and dirty photos, doubt their capabilities and on top of that, hold them to a higher standard than we do their male counterparts.
When a woman gets into politics, the first thing we want to know is who her husband is and who is funding her campaigns, besides the lingering accusation that she must have properly ‘lobbied’ to get the party nomination.
We do not see our female leaders as intellectuals, but as flower girls to be objectified and harassed. She will be damned if she is a looker because we will accuse her of being a ‘slay queen’ and also damned if she is not much of a looker because we will accuse her of behaving (and looking) like a man.
But the most disgusting aspect of our society is how we have normalised violence against female leaders and incubated this brazen male impunity in which we allow men like Mike Sonko, Miguna Miguna, Evans Kidero and Rashid Amin to get away with assaulting our women leaders.
The blatant hypocrisy with which we approach violence against female leaders is outstanding; that we condemn and bring to book men who mete out violence on their wives, yet not even lift a finger when Amin assaults Fatuma Gedi.
Granted, female politicians are not angels. Some are as corrupt and incapable as their male counterparts. Neither am I advocating special treatment. All I am asking is that we treat our female leaders with the respect they deserve.