During his visit to Kenya, U.S. President Barack Obama, inspired a new crop of young feminists in Kenya. Obama challenged Kenyans to put the empowerment of women on the top of the development agenda, and warned that failing to do so would only be a roadblock for the nation.
While I was initially excited by the enthusiasm with which President Obama’s comments were met, I quickly grew perturbed by what emerged to be a very common sentiment in reaction to the speech: the idea that in this one address, President Obama had done more to highlight women’s rights than the 47 Women’s Representatives; criticisms that are informed by a growing dissatisfaction with this position.
In one sense, there is some truth behind such sentiments. Given the high profile of his visit, President Obama had a unique opportunity to amplify gender equality questions on a national stage, and commanded a national audience that few local activists are able to. However, it is crucially important that in recognizing this, one also recognize that Obama was not making novel claims, and in fact was only emphasizing what local women’s rights’ activists have been saying for decades. In fact, such reactions ought to raise the question: why aren’t local female leaders heard when they raise these concerns?
Well, one answer lies in the fact that this is a case where the cause and effect produce each other. Public discourse in Kenya is still heavily male-dominated, which makes it difficult for women to secure large and captivated audiences, and so women are not leading conversations about female marginalization and vulnerability. Another answer, I argue, is that current approaches to gender parity in government that are informed by a long legacy of gender segregated political involvement, misapplied.
There is a long history in Kenya of powerfully and distinctly female political action. In 1922, the Thuku protests were one of the earliest anticolonial uprisings and a moment that sparked the consolidation of underground resistance movements. Throughout the colonial period and the independence movement, women were able to utilize their bodies and social positions to contribute to the destabilization of the British administration. These modes of political engagement were decidedly female and, often, were responding to the unique marginalization and exclusion that women faced as women under colonial administration.
Although this ‘separate but equal’ approach to gender participation in politics has historical resonance, what we see today is a reproduction of the idea that male and female political participation differ in a meaningful way, without the social and cultural contexts that may have at one point made such separations coherent. The ‘Women Representative’ position, assumes that gender inclusion can be achieved by simply tacking on female leaders. In 1922, the Thuku protestors deployed the practice of Gutarama – naked protest – to communicate their outrage. In doing so, the women were strategically reviving traditional symbolism that resonated among the rural communities they were hoping to mobilize.
However, in transposing this logic to today’s parliament with the women’s rep seat, we’ve developed a model that continues to marginalize women by relegating them to a specific political role without recognizing that female politicians are now expected to play the “mainstream”, male-dominated political game. When female leaders are placed in offices with ill-defined powers and mandates, they are primed to be ineffective. This works to supports the misconception that women cannot effectively participate in the leadership of this country, and leads some to the (mistaken) conclusion that there is then no need to intentionally create space for women in leadership.
 For more extensive analyses of female modes of protest, see: Tibbetts, Alexandra, “Mamas Fighting for Freedom in Kenya” or Kanogo, Tabitha. “Women and Politics of Protest: Mau Mau.”