In a Cabinet reshuffle last Friday, Norway reached a milestone in the representation of women in government. The country’s top three political positions – Prime Minister, Finance minister, and Foreign minister – are now occupied by women.
At the parliamentary level, many more countries have made progress, with Rwanda having the most women in its lower house in the world, at 62 per cent.
While these developments hold out the promise that countries, including Kenya, which still are struggling to bring the representation of women in politics close to their percentages of national populations, could close the gap, a bigger hurdle exists for women.
That hurdle is how their place in history is told. They hardly exist in stories. In recent months, we have seen a big push to improve the coverage of women in the most influential online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Within Wikipedia itself, white women are better covered than women of colour. And when you break it down further, African Americans in history, are covered far better than African women.
I have been doing a project of both the famous and obscure figures in African popular history over the last year, and I was gobsmacked to realise that thoroughbred horses are better profiled in terms of depth than African women on Wikipedia. But you have to love the Internet. It never runs out of surprises.
I was researching Tanzanian nationalist Bibi Titi Mohamed (1926-2000), when an article about her on African Feminist Forum answered a thousand other questions about why women get shortchanged in history – and the structures that enabled them to contribute more to politics.
The article says that the bulwark of Julius Nyerere’s independence party, the Tanganyika African National Union (Tanu), were women. In an insight that also explains politics elsewhere in Africa, it notes that because at that time hardly any women were employed in the colonial government or formal work places (companies, etc.), and worked mostly in the informal sector that the State - then and today – had little control over, the cost of political activism was lower for them.
The men feared or hesitated because they would be sacked from their jobs. Thus the very factors that excluded women from being employed in the public and private sectors, and thus from benefiting from accumulating bureaucratic capital; and where information about them could be recorded and photographs taken (making it easier to track and arrest), also made them a more revolutionary force.
In West Africa, for this reason, market women became a potent force, organising several demonstrations against colonial governments. (The lesson for governments is that if you want to prevent revolution, reduce the size of the informal sector).
However, women tended to be treated as a mob, and rarely were their leaders singled out. Or if they were, there was hardly any biographic data. Thus when you read history, many birth dates of women in African history are not known, but that of the majority of men is recorded.
A typical example is Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, who has been credited with what some scholars suggest was probably first non-violent protest recorded in Kenya.
In March of 1922, Nyanjiru led a protest to Kingsway Police Station (today Central Police Station) in Nairobi, demanding the release of nationalist leader Harry Thuku.
The police fired on the crowd, killing 250 people in what some patriotic Kenyan bloggers and historians have termed a “massacre”. There are even dramatic reports of white settlers at the nearby Norfolk Hotel joining in the shooting of the “natives”.
Nyanjiru was among the first to be killed. Her story has been celebrated in song and theatre, and she is indeed considered a hero. Besides the events of March 16, her profile on Wikipedia notes: “Little is known of Nyanjiru’s life, save that she was a Kikuyu woman.”
While there are books and dozens of articles on Harry Thuku, I couldn’t find a profile of Nyanjiru’s that is even 1,000 words long. And there are no photographs.
Just artist’s illustrations. No such problem for Harry Thuku, in whose name she died.
In this digital age, this backdrop is one of the reasons I am sympathetic to all those socialites and women who flaunt their “provocative” photographs on Facebook and Instagram.
In a strange sort of way, they are contributing to correcting the historical visual injustice of a century when women weren’t photographed.
The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]