Another week, another story of a female politician abused by a male colleague.
Anthony Ndagita, a member of the County Assembly of Nyeri, was accused of assaulting his colleague Ms Pauline Wanjira at a workshop in Arusha, Tanzania. A photograph in the Daily Nation showed Wanjira beat up, face swollen, eye bloodied, arm in sling.
Now, male politicians do assault each other, but there’s a difference — they usually fight. However, they tend to beat down female colleagues, because that often happens in a wider politico-social power context in which the women are handicapped.
An insightful book, When Hens Begin to Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda, by law professor and feministic scholar Sylvia Tamale, was among the first in Africa to examine how patriarchy plays among otherwise “equal” members of a state political structure.
First published in 1999, it looks at the contradiction in a world where women’s political representation for women was dramatically improving.
While political space has opened for women to run for office, notes Tamale, during campaigns male politicians are accused of corruption, tribalism, inexperience, name it but women have to deal with questions of “their marital status, sexuality and (in)fidelity”.
In Parliament, male MPs are still wont to make reference to a female colleagues’ legs, hair and backsides. Men dominate debates, and “when a woman is on her feet, she is more likely to be met with noise and inattention in the House than a man is”.
Beyond that, we see that the men, for example, are more likely to lead “powerful” organs, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This further relies on an extended network of male privilege embedded in society, so the media will cover male MPs more that it will the women.
Thus two decades later we are still a world where you end up with situations such as happened in Uganda recently, when parliamentarian Onesmus encouraged men to beat their wives to “discipline” them — in a country where nearly 34 per cent of lawmakers are women.
All that happens because, outside assemblies and parliaments, inequality still pervades many other sectors, where, on the face of it, it might seem as if there’s a level gender playing field.
In companies that have women in senior management positions, during meetings it’s not uncommon for the male CEO or director chairing it to default to asking one of the women to take the minutes.
Not too long ago, I was in an airport lounge for hours with a group of Kenyan female editors and television presenters after our flight was cancelled. The stories they told were unbelievable.
Presenter Terryanne Chebet spoke of a time when, power suit and all, she went to interview a visiting business delegation (it turned out they were all men) from a rich Asian country.
Cameras were set up, lights turned on, and then a longish awkward silence descended. One of the men finally asked her: “Where is Mr Chebet?”
Perhaps one of the most dramatic illustrations of this duality that still gets women elected to places that are hostile to them has to come from apartheid South Africa.
Anti-apartheid activist, feminist and liberal politician Helen Suzman was, between 1961 to 1974, the only opposition politician — and woman — in Parliament.
The Nationalist MPs are reported to have subjected her to some strange abuse.
One of them, Piet Koornhof, said to her in Parliament: “If I should come home one evening and my wife should rant and rave the way the Honourable Member for Houghton did this afternoon, there would be only one of two things that one could do to her ... I think she deserves a good hiding.”
P. W. Botha, when he was minister, on one occasion told her in the House: “The Honourable Member … is in the habit of chattering continually.
“If my wife chattered like that Honourable Member, I would know what to do with her….”
Years later, we have this remarkable confrontation between her and Botha, again, who, by then, had become Prime Minister:
Suzman to Botha: Stupid!
Botha to Suzman: Woman!
The word “woman” had become a serious insult!
So, why do we have this debilitating duality?
Because the wheels of progress often run on very reactionary and conservative roads. It’s a reminder that gender equality has been a result of battles won.
The war itself is far from over.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data journalism site Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. Twitter: @cobbo3