I don’t exactly qualify for the award of the most influential user of facebook, but generally, I do write posts designed to give a different perspective to issues we all confront, and that will hopefully inspire my friends to think as free human beings. So I usually get at least a like or two for most of my posts.
Except the ones I question why men whine about lack of activists for the boy child but won’t fight for the boy child either.
I wrote one such post wondering whether those who complain about the girl child being favored over the boy child would object to a marketing campaign of Pilsner Imara beer that makes a direct link between the beer and manhood.
It’s amazing how many of us place “women’s empowerment” on the list of things that are making men violent, irresponsible and addicted to substances. The logic is this: women activists are talking about the girl child but never about the boy child, and so society is spending more time caring and raising the girls but not the boys.
There are major problems with this logic.
Second, the reason girls are raised, and not boys, is precisely out of discrimination – not out of favoritism. It is because girls suffer greater consequences as victims in our violent world, and because they are the gender that gets pregnant. Even the men who are fathers of girls know that they protect their daughters more than their sons, because if the daughter parties and is careless, she’ll be left holding the baby, that’s if she’s not brutally raped by men who are let scot free. So while girls have curfews, boys are given the keys to enter the house in case they arrive after everyone has gone to bed. Girls are raised by adults; boys are expected to raise themselves. Girls – when they are not married off – are protected till they’re in their twenties. Boys are told they are men when they’re still kids, when they are incapable of getting an ID, let alone getting a job and raising a family.
Third, to say that freedom for one human being is oppression for another is a very unfortunate argument. A society cannot be free when some of its people are in chains. Thomas Sankara (a man), put it more eloquently – “May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence.” Let’s extend this logic and ask: should the British settlers who acquired land unjustly have complained that the Mau Mau were racist because they were fighting for Africans and not for Europeans? I shouldn’t even ask, because essentially, they did end up doing that when they negotiated with Kenyatta I for Kenya to buy back the settlers’ land at an inflated price, and Britain gave Kenya the loan to do it. That’s what happens when we’re not clear about who are the victims and beneficiaries of oppression.
So why do Kenyans find comfort in blaming women’s empowerment?
Because we do not theoretically abstract and differentiate oppressors from systems of oppression. And actually, if those who are against women empowerment really studied the details, they would see that we who call for women’s empowerment make that distinction all the time. We identify patriarchy, flawed gender values, retrogressive traditions, poverty, poor legal frameworks and poor socialization – not men – as the culprit of women’s oppression. And many times we even acknowledge that some women are beneficiaries of patriarchy.
Why not do the same when it comes to men?
Why not, especially given that there are so many institutions and values that assault men? For instance, there’s the commercialization of manhood that equates men’s humanity to property and consumption. There’s police violence whose victims are mostly poor young men. We have a terrible exam oriented education system that stifles the creativity of our youth and prevents them from learning to imagine solutions to real life problems. There’s unemployment due to poor planning and governance by politicians. And unemployment is tied to other problems. Because we are all socialized to believe that employment is a tool of power that should be held by men, most women who are not salaried are still working as subsistence farmers or small scale entrepreneurs, and so the “unemployed” in Kenya are almost always men. And worse, the politicians use the unemployed as weapons for political violence, be it in election violence, terrorism or throwing shoes at the President.
The ogres devouring our men are very clear. So why won’t we Kenyans talk about them?
The class question
Understanding the crisis of masculinity in Kenya requires a discussion of class, wealth and power. The discussion would open our eyes to the fact that most property and resources may be in the hands of men, but probably of only 5% of Kenyan men. The majority of men are wallowing in poverty and hopelessness, or struggling to be decent against great institutional obstacles. Manhood in Kenya works like tribe – the ruling class is able to convince the majority that if we question how much land a politician (or his family) owns, we are threatening the rights of ALL MEN to provide for their families. If we question impunity for male violence, were not seen to be asking about law and justice for individual criminal men and individual victims, but we’re attacking ALL MEN. It’s the modus operandi in politics: when a politician is questioned for his own misdeeds, he says that his community is being finished.
And so I don’t have a problem with men being told to be kings, servant leaders, and to be responsible and caring. If anything, I’d like to get me a man like that. The problem is, we’re not understanding the environment and institutions preventing men from being those things. Manhood is not just effort; it’s also context.
And I don’t think that the problem can be solved solely by men acting individually. We also need social change. We need to oppose the exploitation, the corruption, the disrespect for the public which politicians display through uncouth behavior, the commercialization of masculinity, the poor governance and public services that turn poor men into criminals or victims of police violence. We need men to actually speak against advertisements that equate masculinity to drinking expensive alcoholic beverages which most men can’t afford. We’re setting up poor men to die and go blind from illicit and poisonous brews by forcing them to look for cheap substitutes to masculinity that they cannot afford.
Lastly, instead of attacking activists of women’s empowerment, why not learn from them? We could learn, for instance, from the great poem “Revolutionary dreams” of Nikki Giovanni:
i used to dream militant
dreams of taking
over america to show
these white folks how it should be
i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers
of correct analysis
i even used to think i'd be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
i would have a revolution
True men get thrown into prison for defending the truth and the defenseless. They take risks and admit their weaknesses. They get ridiculed as “bitter,” like Boniface Mwangi who led demonstrations simply because he wants a country where he can take his wife for an evening walk in the park and not fear for her safety. Sankara for example, slashed the salaries of government officials, had his children taken to school by bicycle, and earned a captain’s salary. He was a true servant leader, and the French didn't allow him to last. Christ too, was killed for being a revolutionary man. For saving the woman adulteress from being stoned. For feeding the hungry. For despising the religion of the Pharisees.
So in this world, to be a true man, to be our living African manhood, to paraphrase Ossie Davis’ eulogy of Malcolm, is to be revolutionary. And I suspect that most of us instinctively know that, but the fear of the cost makes us look for an easier target to blame: women's empowerment.