By: Stephen Muthoka Mutie, Ph.D. (Kenyatta University)
Growing up, my mother was, and still is, a powerful, caring woman and a provider. Mine was not a single-parent family, but we knew it was my mother, through hard manual work, who placed food on our table, saw us to school, and instilled in us, all six boys, the value of respect, especially to women. According to her, any society that disrespects its women is doomed. I saw her, on several occasions, defiantly fight for the rights of peasant women in my locality. I saw her stand up against wily male politicians and lazy government functionaries who did not respect women. I saw her single-handedly do menial demeaning jobs to pay for our fees. This image of my mother has never left my mind. It has been the drive in my career, mentorship, and writings.
Through her, I realized that inside every African woman, there is untapped potential that needs to be nurtured; there is magic. I endeavor to spot, ignite, and nurture this magic in my teaching, mentorship, and writing. This passion has given me direction and focus and firmly rooted me as an activist-scholar and staunch supporter of women’s rights as enshrined in the Kenyan 2010 constitution.
My budding activist-scholar demeanor received a big boost when I was selected as a laureate and attended the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) 2018 Gender Institute in Dakar, Senegal. In this workshop, themed Feminist Scholarship, Universities and Social Transformation, I learned that the academy could play either a significant role in erecting and installing structures that stifle women’s growth or provide a space for dismantling hierarchies of privilege that act as gatekeepers thwarting women’s empowerment. After the two weeks at CODESRIA, I came out as a deliberate, articulate, and non-apologetic intersectional scholar. CODESRIA allowed me to see how women’s oppression impacted the whole structure of society; development, democracy, and peace.
Through CODESRIA’s Gender Institute, I learned that one of our biggest problems in Africa is leaving more than half of our population behind and pretending to strive ahead. Silencing and “otherizing” women is a hidden pandemic that, like Sisyphean boulder, has made our advancement as a continent difficult. Illustratively, curtailing women’s development, denying them a seat at the political table, and labeling them as stooges, indecisive or sex puppets is only making this Sisyphean boulder heavier, challenging, and may soon crush us all. The issues of gender, peace, democracy, and development are conjoined on the hip, remove one, and the continent falls apart.
This is why I am fascinated by Prof. Wangari Maathai’s work, speeches, and writings. I have written three articles on her, in which I examine how she uses intersectional environmentalism as a resource to bring down hierarchies of privilege that curtail women’s progress. Wangari Maathai’s life and writings use ecological justice as a locus to expose gender oppression and undemocratic practices during President Moi’s dictatorial regime. By recentering the discussion on gender and rightly placing it as one of the pillars in achieving sustainable development goals in Africa, Maathai’s thoughts show the importance of women in leadership positions. This knowledge of the importance of women in policymaking has gravitated my intersectional thinking towards understanding how law plays a pivotal role in ensuring that women, like Maathai, actively partake in decision-making. Hence, my desire to research and write on the unique dual position of the legal system in supporting gender-based discrimination and addressing it. To this end, I have recently published a book chapter “Femicide and judging: Social media as an alternative online court in Kenya” in Gender, Judging and the Courts in Africa: Selected Studies (2021), edited by Prof. Jarpa Dawuni, an exceptional leader and scholar from Howard University and the current executive director of the Institute for African Women in Law. This book employs different theoretical approaches and explores how women negotiate multiple hierarchies to access the judiciary and how gender-related issues are handled in courts. My chapter locates technology, especially social media, as a resource in gender and judging can help promote women’s rights now and beyond Covid-19. This is the area I want to pursue to great length, primarily how the new media can serve women, the judiciary and aid in access to justice.
Today in Kenya, it is not yet uhuru for women in the family and public spheres. Today, some see women as intruders to leadership positions, yet it is mainly because of women that countries have stood. When I hear women in leadership positions today being slut-shamed or labeled as stooges and sex puppets for male sponsors, I shudder. So I write more, I teach more, exposing the cultural, religious, and patriarchal myths supporting these debilitating falsehoods. As I do this, I always remember the image of my mother standing tall among men, telling them that men and women played a complementary role designed by God and that it was not until our village realized that fact and stopped looking down upon women that we would move forward. My mother was neither a politician nor a politician’s wife, she was a partially educated peasant. Yet, through her persistent activism for women, she gave hope to other village women who were jolted into action.
As a student, I told myself that when I grew up, I would follow in the footsteps of my mum. I will contribute to gender equality through my research and advocacy. I have never looked back.