As we drove past Ruai shopping centre, Nairobi, I wondered what the market women were saying about Sharon Otieno’s death.
They had braved the hot, dry dusty day. They had defied the stereotype of a woman staying at home waiting for her husband to bring food and clothing for them and their children or exchanging sex for money.
They are full of self-determination and courage to even resist the occasional visit by the county officers, who destroy their goods or extort bribes from them. They are determined to live, work and feed their offspring from their own sweat.
Yet on the Nation front page was the picture of a young woman in expensive attire, make-up, hair-do and phone who has been murdered, allegedly over a love affair gone askew.
Influential elite women “fighting for gender equality” came out to condemn the “male” heinous crime. They even held demonstrations.
But the Ruai women are feminists of a kind: They were discussing the issue while trading and invoking God to have mercy on their children, who are pawns to rich men.
The elite women are mourning women as victims. But theirs are crocodile tears for they have set the standard for what a modern woman should be.
She should be dressed in designer clothes, shod in high heels, adorned in expensive artificial coloured weaves and fake nails and eyelashes, decked out in ambrosial perfume and suggestive lip rouge and ornamented with glittering gold bracelets and necklace and diamond rings.
Not to mention skin lighteners and an expensive state-of-the-art wide-screen smartphone.
They champion the idea of a beautiful woman who is white or wears Western mannerisms. They have perpetuated a consumerism fashioned like that of men.
If the men can club, why not have a girls’ day out at the pub? If the men can have rendezvous of the ‘forbidden fruit’, why not the girls?
It is a show of modernity and liberation to do all that the men do; hence, polygamy has been legitimised by a Bill in Parliament.
To save the girls, society needs to act. We need to evolve a brand of feminism that guards the dignity and well-being of women.
It is time we held conversations about sex and sexuality in our homes and communities.
We need to come out with clear rules and regulations on matters of sexuality.
That will help us to clearly define national laws that will apply to all ethnic communities regarding multiple sexual partners and the minimum age of first sexual encounter.
The community also needs to evolve clear guidelines on the role of sex and sexual unions.
Sex is based on mutual trust, not to fetch money or economic support or please one gender over the other.
Women should learn from the self-determination and courage of ‘Mama Mboga’, who wear a stern face as they go about their business: ‘Dare touch me and you will see’, sort of.
But then, elite feminist celebrities are always in the news celebrating their latest rich catch. These trendsetters need to be taken away from our everyday life.
Laws that address male sexuality should also be enacted — not only in rape but also normal unions.
It should be clear that ‘No’ means no for both men and women. The courts and councils of elders should make it easy to end sour relationships rather than force such unions to drag on.
Feminists must evolve from their ethnic cocoons and develop universal policies on sex and sexuality.
When women chop off male ‘transformers’ it is a Mount Kenya thing. When girls go through female genital mutilation it is Northern/Rift Valley issue.
When a woman is stripped by touts, it is a Nairobi problem. Now that Sharon has been murdered, it is a Nyanza affair.
Feminists should come up with inter-ethnic communication on issues, including sex and sexuality. They need to iron out bottlenecks and challenges communities face and draw lessons from one another.
In our indigenous communities, girls were encouraged to avoid wayward men. They would sing songs that educated them on the need to value and protect their virginity.
Parents and the extended family took serious responsibility of protecting their girls.
There were rituals that socialised boys and girls on sex and sexuality.
However, feminists have criticised these restrictive regulations and called for the liberalisation of sexuality.
They should now educate the young ones that even in a liberalised situation, choices about sex and sexuality have consequences — unwanted pregnancies, disease and mental illness in the case of failed relationships.
This means there is a need for activism to encourage proper sex education in our schools; we can no longer leave it to chance. We also need to learn from the Ruai women traders.
Dr Kinyanjui is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Nairobi. [email protected]