Until all women are free

Sophie Ngugi
Posted September 9, 2009 from Kenya

Last, week we got into a discussion with a friend of mine. He was of the opinion that the fight for women’s rights has neglected the boys and in fact boys and men are more in need of these interventions. The discussion was interrupted hence we didn’t come to some conclusion but not before I mentioned that I believe women all over the world have so much in common and hence ‘we will never be free until all women are free’. Today (Tuesday 7th September 2009) as I travelled to work I couldn’t help but note various cases women’s rights violations that were highlighted in the media. Top on this is the story that has been in the limelight over the last few weeks of Lubna Hussein. Lubna is a Sudanese woman who was arrested at a Khartoum party in July with 12 other women and had faced the possibility of 40 lashes for wearing trousers deemed indecent. Ten of the women were flogged in July, but she defied this and instead opted for the court option. There has been a lot of public outcry on this and finally she was sentenced on September 7th.

The court ordered her to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds ($209) or a one month jail term. She refused to pay the fine, saying she did not want to "give the verdict any legitimacy" hence opted for the jail. She was later freed after one day. Mohedinne Titawi, of the Sudanese Union of Journalists, said the union had paid the fine to secure her release. Hussein's case was seen as a test of the decency regulations, which many women activists say are vague and give individual police officers undue latitude to determine what is acceptable clothing for women [1]. The refusal to pay a fine was in characteristic with her earlier actions where she opted to resign from the UN where she was entitled to immunity, but instead chose to face the Sudanese law. She says “I fight for Sudan’s future generation” in her article in The Star daily (The star, Tuesday, September 8, 2009, page 15).

Further flipping the pages of ‘The Star’ I came across another issue of a young woman who is facing the wrath of her community in her bid to offer leadership (page 22). Amina Muhumed Sirat is the area chief of Meri Sub-Location in Wajir South in Kenya’s North Eastern Province. However the elders (read men) have driven her away as they wouldn’t have a woman as a leader! Amina was appointed to her position on 20th July 2009, as a Chief, a local administrative position, but she can not even live in her own home. She had to flee with her husband and son to the District Commissioner’s home. The fact that she has grown up in that area doesn’t help her matters in the Somali community where the elders have clearly rejected her. For her to have pursued her academics to a Diploma level in this stereotypical environment must have been quite a challenge for a girl, yet after all the efforts she is not able to make the difference she wishes in her community. She is qualified and hardworking, but that counts less, she is a woman, not a leader hence she can not give orders.

Kenyan is a signatory to many international protocols and conventions, and the constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Every person is entitled to certain rights – simply by the fact that they are a human being. They are "rights" because they are things you are allowed to be, to do or to have. When human rights are not well known by people, abuses such as discrimination, intolerance, injustice, oppression and slavery can arise. Born out of the atrocities and enormous loss of life during World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created by the United Nations to provide a common understanding of what everyone’s rights are. It forms the basis for a world built on freedom, justice and peace [2].Men and boys also face discrimination, in different ways in different areas. However in Africa, most of the violations that women face are due to the patriarchal system which gives men domination over women. Culture is used to justify these actions and most of the times the cultural issues get mixed up with religious issues.

However, worth to note is that most of the violations of women’s rights have similarities in different regions despite the socio-economic and cultural differences. While Lubna and other women face the violations associated with dressing, many women in Kenya have faced these violations with different justifications. Some unlawful groups in Kenya have violated women in the name of ‘reserving the culture’ whereby women are forced to undergo female genital mutilation and banned from wearing trousers. There have been cases of women being stripped naked in public for ‘dressing indecently’. In October 2008, a pastor for a Church in Nairobi declared that trouser wearing was banned in his Church. On the other hand the counter part in Nigeria of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Pastor Enoch Adeboye, banned women from wearing trousers to church [3]. At around the same time, in (October 2008) South Sudan's president shut down a police investigation that saw scores of young women arrested for "disturbing the peace" by wearing tight trousers. The police officers had been rounding up young women in Juba for apparently disturbing peace by wearing tight trousers. "They were wearing trousers that were too tight, disturbing the peace," said Deputy Police Commissioner of Juba County Raiman Lege[4]

The ripples went further in Uganda where in September 2008 there was an uproar and long debate that permeated into Kenya when the ethics and integrity minister sought to have miniskirts banned “because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents”. Nsaba Buturo told journalists in Kampala that wearing a miniskirt was like walking naked in the streets. "What's wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally," he said [5]. The debate was live even in Kenya and more so the local FM radio stations with mostly male callers supporting this call.

In these cases the women and girls were seen as ‘leading men into temptation’ and men as the innocent victims and in the long degrades men’s power of self control, while blaming women for any crimes committed against them. It has led to justifications on violence against women and especially sexual gender based violence where the women are blamed for the violations against them. Questions like ‘how were you dressed? Where were you going?” etc have deterred many women and girls from reporting cases of violation while the perpetrators feel justified.

Amina’s case is also not unique but women have faced this in different ways in different regions at various levels. While some communities in Kenya have allowed women to speak in public, this is also limited to some areas that are not so public hence women who aspire to be in top leadership face a myriad of problems more than the male counterparts. The stereotypes that assume leadership to be a male domain are still persistent hence women who break the odds are often given masculine names / connotations. The former ministry of Justice & constitutional affairs in Kenya, Martha Karua has been acknowledged as one of the great leaders in Kenya and was often referred to as ‘the only man in the government’. Those same words were used on a woman leader in the Kenyan history. Cierume was a woman from Mbeere who was very famous because of her perseverance and bravery. By the time the British came to Mbeere and Embu, Cierume had already established herself and become renowned as a leader of her Community and a great warrior and was later made Chief by the colonial rulers. It is said that her name came from the name ‘mundu murume’ which means man since her great leadership could not be identified with women [6].

The challenges that women in leadership faced and still face is associated with the beliefs that leadership is a male domain. In Kikuyu custom for example, there is a process for a man to be made an elder hence be welcomed into the ‘kiama’ by giving out a goat. Up to date it is believed that a man who has not given this is still a boy hence can not chair or give judgments. This is one of the roles that Chiefs and Asst. Chiefs are expected to perform yet the ‘kiama’ is not for women. This therefore presents a quagmire for women who are appointed into such positions. A friend of mine, Mary who is a District Officer shared with me that her time working in a Division in Rift Valley province of Kenya was rough since they kept referring to her as ‘the girl’ hence she had to work extra hard and rely on the support of the male District Officer in order to fulfill her duties. These and other experiences bring to limelight the similarities in women’ issues across the globe. The spiral effects of abuse of women’s rights in one region to other regions can not be over emphasized. It reminds me of a quote by Susan B. Anthony, "The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. "

True no woman is free until all women are free, and the human race will be developed.


[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/africaCrisis/idUSL7656737?rpc=60[2] http://www.youthforhumanrights.org/introduction/index.html[3]http://naijablog.blogspot.com/2007/08/rccg-bans-trousers-for-women.html[4]http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4976YT20081008 [5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7621823.stm [6] http://maflib.mtandao-afrika.net/MAF060063/WomenInHistory.htm

Comments 5

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Sep 09, 2009
Sep 09, 2009


Thank you for sharing this with the PulseWire community. You are so right, in that we must work to see all women free. We are not there yet, but as you said through examples, women are striving to claim their equality. It's happening, and it won't stop until our goals are attained. Thanks for the empowering words. We will reach equality. We will. Together! Jody

Jennifer Ruwart
Sep 11, 2009
Sep 11, 2009

Since Voices of Our Future just wrapped up a section on op-eds, I couldn't help but notice that this is a great op-ed!

As I was reading this, I couldn't help but think of all the men who subject us women to "indecent" exposure. Why is this never mentioned? Here is my opinion about that: http://www.worldpulse.com/node/13232

Consolata Waithaka
Sep 13, 2009
Sep 13, 2009

Hi Sophie, The society is that querrel. The women has been subjected to wrong judgement since time immemorial. You are very right, a woman is always sort for by the Law to condem her. Sometimes of the issues which done by a man the law will turn a blind eye on him. I believe the World pulse is all about raising our voices loud and clear and let the society understand we are also human beings and we need our space. Lets join hands and fight for our Rights! Yes we can.

Emma-Louise Elsey
Sep 22, 2009
Sep 22, 2009

Great article. I am in awe. Keep up all your good work.

And I agree, no woman is free until all women are free.

Sophie Ngugi
Sep 22, 2009
Sep 22, 2009

We have to keep up the struggle.... until all women are free! Cheers