CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD?
(An earlier version of this article was published in Eve Magazine in March 2002.)
Should men and women be treated equally, or should they be treated as equals? What is the difference, and does it matter? To commemorate International Women’s Day on 8th March 2009, one man shares his perspective.
This memoir of personal reflection is dedicated to my dear wife, Katindi, my sisters and to all of Africa’s women who refuse to be restricted to the space society has assigned to them, and thereby reject the invitation to become children of a lesser god.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female’
It was such a novelty. There she was hanging out by the open door of the No. 46 matatu minibus as it approached the bus stop. It was last December and I was making my way from Yaya Centre to the Kenya Human Rights Commission at Valley Arcade. The matatu stopped, I embarked, she blew the whistle and hit the side of the Ma3 and we were on our way.
She must have noticed me staring at her as she busied herself controlling an all-male crew during our short ride to the Arcade. She was young, she was fit, she was agile, she was competent, and she was obviously enjoying her job stopping the matatu to pick up and drop passengers. All too soon, it was my turn to disembark and I remember feeling a mixture of sadness and fascination as I stepped out onto the curb and prepared to cross the road.
“Keep shattering the stereotypes, sister,” I managed to tell her just as she blew the whistle and the matatu got on its way again. “Thank you,” she shouted back with a smile, and soon they were both out of sight, hurtling cheerily towards Kawangware.
Such scenes are unfortunately all too rare in our country. Being a matatu conductor, alongside countless other jobs, is categorized as ‘unfit for the girls’, regardless of whether or not our sisters might have liked to try their hand at it, like this young woman was so ably doing now.
It makes one wonder how many dreams over the centuries have been broken to smithereens, shattered against the wall of stereotype. Worse, how many could not be born and natured in the first place because they were aborted in the maternity ward even as some hapless young woman was taking her first breath of life, merely because she happened to be born a girl.
Relations between the sexes have attracted many a controversy all over the world; and minds better than my own have penned volumes of opinions regarding men, women, society and equality. I do not know much about feminism or the pros and cons of so-called women’s liberation, but one thing troubles me a great deal. Today, Africa is facing some of the worst crises since slavery. We are grappling for solutions to problems too big for any one gender to contemplate let alone begin to unravel.
In this state of emergency, we must ask ourselves this uncomfortable question: with all the enemies lined up against us, with all the devious plots and schemes hatched to ensure that we remain ‘the wretched of the earth, with all the challenges and scourges that threaten to annihilate us as a people and wipe us out as a nation, can we afford to go to war half-fettered and half-free?
Standing tall on borrowed shoulders
I was raised in the small dusty industrial town of Thika, among eight remarkable women – my mother and seven sisters. I was the second-last born (my twin sister, coming hot on my heels to complete the set of 11 children in all). By the time I went to school I had learned a great deal just from listening to or overhearing my sisters doing their homework. When I went to school, it was my sisters who took the time to help me with my homework. They laid a firm foundation for the person that I am today. Sadly, although they played such a vital role in showing me the way, none of them attained to half their own true potential. And that is not because they lacked the talent or intelligence. It is because they were women.
It starts subtly at home – girls being discouraged from doing certain chores or playing certain games; girls being confined to the kitchen while boys are encouraged to go to the great outdoors and explore and pursue and conquer; girls being dissuaded from dreaming certain dreams or aspiring to certain goals. This way, slowly but surely, by default or by design, a glass ceiling is firmly put in place. In most cases it turns out to be shatterproof, confining the better half of us to the lower echelons of society.
Because I have a twin sister, I have had the rare opportunity to see this discrimination first hand, almost like looking into the mirror and seeing something other than the reflection that you’d expected to find there. My sister recently confessed to me that when we were children, she had always felt like my shadow, and did not see the need to work hard and achieve for herself because it was not really expected of her. Today, she has done quite well for herself; but I am willing to bet that had she been born a boy she would have gone so much further. And every time I see women walking on the street, I can’t help wondering how many of them have really achieved all that they were truly capable of. There must be less than ten percent. And one cannot help asking oneself, surely can any society afford to waste so much potential and expect to come out on top in an increasingly competitive world? I think not.
I often meet people who have read my writings or heard about me but have never met me in person before. A surprising number of them make the same comment: I thought you were much taller! And I want to put the record straight here by stating, “Actually I am really quite short. But if I look tall, it is because I stand on the shoulders of the women in my life. Women, who have inspired and taught, nurtured and poured their lives into me; many of them having no choice but to cheer me on because they could not finish their own leg, as the lane assigned to them in this treacherous race was filled with obstacles right from the starting block to the finishing line.”
There was an unspoken rule in our community when I was growing up in Thika in the ‘70s, that the only attention that should be paid to the girls was what was necessary just so that they did not stray and get pregnant out of wedlock. In fact in retrospect, one almost felt like they were kept busy in school just to keep them on the straight and narrow until time was ripe for them to get married. Today, the same reality still confronts so many. Is it any wonder then that, for many women getting married is still regarded as the ultimate achievement in life?
Boys on the other hand were constantly reminded that the home and the community belonged to them and that they must work very hard to perpetuate the family name. The boy was expected to be tops, the girl was expected to be average. Why? Because she would get married and leave; He on the other hand would carry forward the family name and you must be fully prepared for the task.
Give me a place to stand, to speak.
One can forgive our parents for this monumental ignorance and its devastating consequences. I hear voices among some of my male colleagues now saying ‘I could never do that!’ But guys, let’s just pause and consider how we treat our sisters today. I will not even speak of those men who are physically and psychologically abusive to their spouses or partners. Rather let me address myself to those like me who consider themselves to be urbane, educated, and sophisticated.
No, you don’t physically beat up anyone, but think of how effectively we use words to keep women ‘in their place’, how often we dominate public space thereby ensuring women can’t get a word in edgewise and largely end up existing to be seen and not heard, or how many silly sexist jokes we crack or entertain that are calculated to put women down.
Can you recall a recent social gathering of men and women of which you were a part? Did you observe the dynamics of debate on any subject? My experience is that our sisters have virtually no space to express their views. Many times, by virtue only of the fact that we men have louder voices, we end up hogging up all the space. We recklessly elbow out the women purely by out-shouting them; and when this fails, we resort to insult, innuendo and intimidation. The final weapon of assault is to completely ignore a woman’s contribution – when a man speaks, everybody listens; when a woman starts to say something, it is time to refill your coffee cup while some take the few moments to rush to the restroom, or just to withdraw into themselves to evaluate what the man who spoke before her just said, or to plan what to say after this ‘commercial break’.
In fact women are so used to being elbowed out that many don’t even bother to air their opinion in public any more (and I am speaking about educated women here). A good number have stayed so long without the chance to express themselves that they see no point in having an opinion in the first place, especially on many of the issues that get us men quite animated. And so after a period of time almost half of our people have lost their voice.
Again I ask the uncomfortable question, how can we confront the great questions of the day if half of us are voiceless and only half are heard? How can we solve the problems of our time if the perspective of half of us is missing from the table? How can we move forward together if half of us are fettered and half of us are free?
A holy separation: stumbling at the last post?
As a Christian, it grieves me a great deal to hear and see how the Bible has been used (or rather misused) to keep half our people perpetually under subjugation. In this regard, the Church (and I count myself among the number) stands indicted of gross discrimination and we should urgently search our souls and repent.
The Church comes down through history with impressive credentials as a crusader for justice and equality. It was the Church that brought about the great reformation in the middle ages (Martin Luther and John Calvin) it was the Church that helped end slave trade (William Wilberforce and the Abolitionists); it was a Christian President that signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to war to end slavery (Abraham Lincoln); it was the Church that helped end racial segregation in the American South (Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy); it was the Church that helped end one-party dictatorship in Kenya (Bishop. Henry Okullu, Bishop Alexander Muge, Rev. Timothy Njoya); and it was the church that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa (Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Allan Boesak).
During all these dark chapters in human history, some tried to use the Word of God to keep the people of God in bondage. It did not work. The final frontier now appears to be the battle for gender parity. Sadly the Church seems to be stumbling at the last post. It has once again allowed the dominant group (in this case men) to set the agenda and misuse the Word of God to retain the status quo.
I have heard it argued that the Bible inherently sexist, and that Christianity as a religion is inherently discriminatory against women. Time and space do not allow me to do a critique of the Bible here. But I can speak as a Christian man from my understanding of the Bible and I would like to make a few points that are usually conveniently forgotten.
Whenever one thinks of gender discrimination and the Bible, the Apostle Paul easily comes to mind especially his admonition in, Ephesians 5:22 that wives should should submit to their husbands. Now Paul makes many controversial statements about the role of women that even I find hard to understand. In some cases he rightly refers to them as mysteries. Like any Christian, I cannot dismiss them merely because I do not understand them, but rather I look to see how they fit into the whole plan of God for humanity. But while affirming that God has created us male and female for a purpose and that we each have a specific place to fill in the kingdom of God, I do not think that God meant that any one group should dominate another. The book of Genesis makes it abundantly clear that both male and female are created in the image of God and mandated to rule over creation.
But back to Paul, a couple of points need to be made here:
First, we should note that the same Paul who is accused of bigotry wrote in his letter to the Galatians 3:27 – 28,
…for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
But how could he then go on and tell wives to submit to their husbands if, as he asserted, there was neither male nor female?
If we go back to Ephesians 5, we note that just before the controversial verse 22 which asks wives to submit to their husbands, the verse immediately before sets the stage for the specific admonitions to husbands and wives that follow. Verse 21, which is another verse that is usually conveniently ignored by those seeking to perpetuate gender disparity, says, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.’
Secondly, Paul’s statement to wives to submit to husbands (or even slaves to obey their masters) is usually taken out of context. Women in 1st Century Ephesus were largely there to be seen, not heard. The society in which Paul was working was one that was already oppressive to women. But the statement he was making on submission was not a political statement. It was not addressed to everybody.
Rather, Paul was specifically saying to the new converts to Christianity, that the hallmark of the Christian faith is individual liberty in Christ and equality before God (as we have seen in Galatians). We are all free and none of us should lord it over the other. In that context, in the marriage covenant between Christians, there was no one who was more equal than the other.
In this light, Paul’s admonition on submission was more strategic than principled; it was a question of process, not substance. He was saying, in effect, “You live in a society where you are required to submit. You have now become Christians where all are equal in the sight of God. But so that people will not say that this new religion encourages rebellion and undermines social institutions, submit to your husband just as society expects you to. However, the crucial difference is that you will now be submitting out of choice, not out of what the law requires of you.”
That is the only logical way to see it, otherwise, it makes little sense that Paul should be telling women to submit where the law, society and tradition already required them to do so. Paul was not a policeman; he was an apostle of the gospel! Unfortunately, men have taken this scripture as a license to require and demand submission from their wives.
But it is crucial to point out that in making these statements, Paul’s number one priority was to spread the gospel. He also regarded that all other Christians should make this their priority, which means that we as individuals should be willing to do what it takes to advance the message of Christ – including enduring prison and hardship and persecution and submission. Paul himself endured so much and sacrificed so much for the gospel, that for him to ask Christian women to continue submitting to their husbands so that the message of the cross is not distracted by political debate is neither surprising nor self-serving. It should also be remembered that Paul had nothing to gain personally from such an admonition since he did not have a wife.
It is usually conveniently forgotten that Paul also told husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Anyone vaguely acquainted with Jesus’ love for us, His body, will tell you what a tall order that is; and one cannot aspire to that level of love and yet require submission from their wife by coercion or as a matter of course. Submission will be voluntarily given in response to pure love or not at all.
And when it comes to serving in the church today, I believe that when God calls us to His service, He calls us according to the gifts He has bestowed upon us, and it matters not whether one is black or white, male or female.
Unfortunately many have chosen to twist the Bible and use it selectively to suit their own ends, just as they did with slavery and apartheid. But again I ask the uncomfortable question, can we hope to attain to God’s perfect plan for our generation and for humankind half-fettered and half-free?
Equality or equal value, and who picks up the tab?
The work place is one contested space where we need to completely level the playing field; and in order to level the playing field in the long run, we may have to slant it in women’s favor in the short.
I read a story in the papers in 1999 shortly after the then President Thabo Mbeki had appointed Ms Nkosazan Dlamini Zuma the Minister for Foreign Affairs. What caught my attention was the fact that the South African government had had to make alterations worth R70, 000 (Kshs. 700,000) to a wing of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to install a new ladies toilet. There had been no female toilet in her wing before.
I recount this story because of all the excuses, including cost, that one often hears for shutting women out of the workplace. (Should we, for instance, use smaller bricks in our building industry to ensure that women workers are able to lift them?)
This brings me to the question of what we mean when we seek equality for women in our society. In 98 percent of the cases, it means treating all people equally regardless of their gender. It means equal opportunity in education and equal access to public resources and amenities. It means removing structural obstacles that lie in the way of women realizing their full potential and the repealing all the laws that treat women as second-class citizens, as well as enacting laws necessary to give life to a policy of equality.
But there are other cases, which in my view constitute the remaining 2 percent, where it is not possible to achieve formal equality for women. But this does not mean that in those cases, they should be treated as lesser beings. Women have special needs, which require special attention. Pregnancy the first one that comes to mind. We do not ask society to provide for pregnant women on the basis of equality with men – since men don’t get pregnant. We ask for special treatment of women in this case not because they are equal to men, but because they are of equal value as men, and because the fact of pregnancy is itself valuable to society – indeed critical to its survival.
Thus where it is not possible to treat women and men equally because of some objective fact of their anatomy, we should endeavor nonetheless to treat them as equals. This would also include providing specialized and affordable health care, or such basic things as the provision of sanitary facilities in restrooms and other needs that are specific to women.
What about the cost? Surely it costs a company money to pay for maternity leave for women employees (sadly, many in Kenya just opt to fire them, or not hire them at all), money that would be saved if companies just hired men.
We must as a society be willing to bear the cost of treating equals equally in the short run in order to reap the benefits of a more just society, where all can realize their potential regardless of their gender, in the long run. When someone is learning how to drive and they find out they are too short to see the road ahead, they don’t give up on driving entirely; they buy a cushion. Society must learn to do the same.
We should not shut out women from the workplace merely because we have always done things in a certain way if it happens to make it inaccessible to them. We should do our utmost to adapt and to incorporate all that have the requisite skills to do the job. In the above example, the South African government could have chosen to relocate the ministry or fire the minister, or not hire her at all, and would have thereby saved quite a bit of money. But it recognized that the value to society of having Dr. Zuma in the Cabinet surpassed the rand amount needed to make the requisite alterations to her office. More importantly, it proved that it was waking up to the fact that after so many years of oppression, South Africa could not hope on a prayer if it continued to exist half-fettered and half-free.
Allies or Antagonists?
I began by saying that I was no expert on the subject I am writing on. This is not a scholarly thesis. It is a memoir of personal experience and an edict forged of individual reflection. I hasten to add that I do not speak from a high moral ground. Like most men, I too have received a lot of baggage and harmful socialization regarding the place of women in society. I am still working to get to the place where I will regard women as no more and no less than human beings who share our talent, our potential, our passion, our hopes, our dreams and the ability to live full, rich and successful lives, and to serve society and to lead.
But while there are many men like me who are willing to learn and to be a part of the solution (and I say this with the greatest respect), some women’s rights organizations in Kenya have tended to be rather exclusive in their approach, categorizing all of us as the enemy. A woman friend once told me that, being a man, I could not fully comprehend women’s issues and that therefore my contribution was necessarily limited.
That may be so, but women working alone will not achieve the goal of equality. They need to make alliances with men who truly desire to be compatriots in the cause of social justice and equality for all. They need to teach us those things that we do not yet fully comprehend even as they enlist us and send us back into our own ranks with this message of hope.
In closing, I invite you to return with me to the little house in Thika where my parents and 11 children struggled to find space when we were growing up in the ‘70s. From my testimony above it might appear that I considered myself to be quite successful. But in truth none of us in the family of 7 women and 4 men has as yet realized our full potential.
My parents meant well and did their best in reduced circumstances to bring us all up and give us some level of education. But still they failed themselves and us by unwittingly treating the girls as children of a lesser god. What they did not know – what they could not have known – was that by compressing the feet of their daughters they were thereby also retarding the steps of their sons.
Africa needs to learn the same lesson today. That it will take an upright manhood and an enlightened womanhood working together to fight and win the critical battles that lie ahead. And as we prepare to enter our Land of Promise to take a stand on high ground and as we clear our throats to loudly proclaim our humanity to a world that has increasingly lost its ability to be human, we must pause and ask ourselves one more time this uncomfortable question:
What conviction shall our voices carry if they tell only half our story, speak of a house divided, and recount tall tales of a people who failed to realize their full potential, because they sought to go to war and fight their battles, half-fettered and half-free?
8TH MARCH 2009