Nationalising Sex, Dictating Sex: Womxn’s Pleasure (or not) in Kenya’s Public Imaginary
Wairimũ Mũrĩithi writes on womxn’s pleasure (or not) in Kenya’s public imaginary.
It is election year and ’tis the season to hyper-weaponise everything – the police, food prices and availability, polling stations, the media, booze, ID documents, the judiciary, peace, sex.
7 August 2017.
A friend and I are chilling in her dark study, scrolling through our timelines, occasionally reading out loud some piece of election commentary or other.
I don’t know who sees it first.
I don’t know who reads it out loud.
The words are just there, posted after we’d gone to bed the night before.
We spend the rest of the day laughing, scrolling, clicking, sharing, waiting for more from the Rev. Dr. Timothy Njoya, the author of the book The Divinity of the Clitoris.
Perhaps the last time a book evoked such strong emotions in so many Kenyan public spaces was in 1974, when David Maillu’s After 4:30, the fictional account of a Kenyan woman who works as both a secretary and a sex worker, was published and subsequently banned. For a while, it feels as if the violent realities of the election are suspended in the hilarity of banal patriarchal outrage.
Then the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) fucks us over, as so many of us said they would, and the Supreme Court nullifies the election results. Now, in this exhausting limbo that this never-ending phallocracy has cast us into, I am most attached to Maillu’s insistence on human dignity, freedom and sovereignty – all central tenets of the 2013 Constitution, also written by WE THE PEOPLE – as necessarily inextricable from respect for womxn’s bodies.
Read: The sex lives of Northern Nigeria
Here are five true stories, set a few months apart:
1. January 2017 – Mombasa Women’s Representative Mishi Mboko urges her constituents not to have sex with their partners if they are not registered as voters.
2. June 2017 – Irene Kendi, the former vice chair of Student Organisation of Nairobi, declares that she will not have sex until Uhuru Kenyatta is re-elected and Linturi becomes Meru County Senator.
3. July 2017 – Raila Odinga, head of the opposition NASA, encourages his supporters not to have sex on the eve of the election because they are going to war.
4. July 2017 – A group of women in Siaya start an initiative to “deny their husbands ‘conjugal rights’” unless they commit to voting for all six NASA candidates on the ballot paper.
5. October 2017 – A group of women in Nyeri decide to deny their husbands sex on the eve of the repeat election and/or until Uhuru Kenyatta is president-proper again.
Most of these public statements were made by womxn, most of them were particularly addressing married womxn, all of them imply an explicit awareness of married womxn’s consent to sex, all of them inevitably recall the sex strike of 2009 and the broader tradition of sex boycotts across the world. Importantly, all of the statements were uttered within the sustained national tradition of a disregard for womxn’s sexual health, pleasure and freedom.
For instance, I could throw it back to a parliamentary meeting in 1977, when one lawmaker said, “If you do not slap a woman, you will note her behaviours will not appeal to you. Just slap her and she will know you love her. This is when she will call you darling.”
Or 30 years later, in a 2006 Parliamentary meeting, when another lawmaker said, “An activity between a man and his wife in his bedroom cannot within reason be constituted to be rape. Many people believe this is not an African issue. Marriage creates sexual licence to each party […] that is the licence they get by saying ‘I do’.”
And so, in the 2006 Sexual Offences Act, ‘intentional and unlawful acts’ are punishable by law – except where the people involved are married to each other.
Every genuine, faked or imaginary vote counts, yet if we were to look where Kenyan womxn have been positioned in the phallocratic public imaginary, it would be easy to see whose vote – and in certain vernaculars, whose political power – and whose pleasure dominate our public and private political spaces every day. As political subjects, married men, for this period only, have no control over sex in the household. The rest of us – married and unmarried womxn, queer and gender non-conforming people – well, we appear somewhere else in this fucked-up construction of nationhood…
What is the unmarried woman supposed to do
when it itches
and there’s no man around to scratch her?
– Emily Katunga, After 4:30 (1974)
I am watching this advert with my friends: Sometime in 2013, on the way to the market, Mama Michelle tells her friend she is really tired of her husband’s drunken shenanigans and, anyway, she is getting that good-good somewhere else. Her friend asks her if she is having safe sex with her lover. Mama Michelle looks like she does not want to say her ‘no’ out loud. Cue her friend’s monologue on how important it is to use a condom, regardless of who she is sleeping with, for the sake of her health and that of her family.
My friends and I can almost count the seconds until the priests and the imams are raising holy hell about Sodom and Gomorrah. The advert is soon pulled from television. The following year, the Kenya Film Classification Board bans the documentary Stories of Our Lives for “obscenity, explicit scenes of sexual activities and promoting homosexuality, which is contrary to our national norms and values”. It is the first in a series of bans on podcasts, music videos, cartoons, the whole Netflix (they tried it) and women-only speed-dating parties. And now, the notorious Ezekiel Mutua is peddling his homophobic pedagogy in schools.
who has carnal knowledge
of any person
against the order of nature
is guilty of a felony and is
liable to imprisonment for
—Kenya’s Penal Code (1930) (Yes, we’re still being pushed around by a document passed by a colonial government before the Second World War.)
I am 10 years old and hanging out with my friends in the playground of our all-girls Catholic school, and I place my head on my homegirl’s lap.
“Ewww, Wai, you’re such a lesbian!” homegirl says.
“No, I’m not!” because I don’t like homegirl’s recently acquired propensity for calling me names. But that evening, I ask,
“Mum, what’s a lesbian?”
Usually, she tells me to check in the dictionary. Today she looks at me sharply and asks me where I learned the word.
“Thabiso called me a lesbian today.”
“A lesbian is a woman who loves another woman.”
“I don’t want you to be friends with that girl anymore.”
Of course, I do not stop being friends with her until she has broken my heart and trampled my self-esteem good and proper – classic school stuff. The day I go home, mourning the end of our friendship, my ma does not say, “I told you so.” For ages, I do not remember this incident, not even years later, when, on a Sunday night in Dar es Salaam, it occurs to me to stop ignoring the fact that I am drawn to this woman dancing in front of me, now dancing with me.
Read: Learning To Be Free: Stacey Gillian Abe’s artistic exploration through vaginal sculptures
I remember this incident when the story ‘breaks’ that “homosexuality starts in primary school”. It is part of a larger national concern about student unrest, because kids have been burning down their schools. Nothing is quite clear, except this: Kenyan schoolchildren are curious about pleasure and the exploration of their desires outside of the heteronormative soundtrack to which we are raised.
– try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming –
translates into angry, angry infernos.
Why must men always sit there
making law for the woman?
– Emily Katunga, After 4:30 (1974)
Article 81(b) of the Kenyan constitution (Author: We The People) states that no more than two thirds of any public elective body can be represented by more than one gender. This means that the much-celebrated Supreme Court of Kenya (SCoK), the 12th National Assembly of Kenya and, since the recent resignation of two members, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) are all unconstitutional. Yet in the six weeks since the SCoK nullified the results, the National Assembly has managed to change the constitution’s election laws, and the IEBC is going to preside over the second election despite having admitted they cannot ensure its credibility. So, of course, the same old refrain of ‘womxn’s issues’ can wait. Yet, as we are witnessing, it is not even that hard to change a whole constitution and Kenya has always been so good at killing us and then pretending we did not exist in the first place.
It is with all this in mind, and body, and spirit, that I return to think with the Reverend’s mother, Wandia Njoya, whose feminist liberation theology predates that archaic [Penal] Code and centres the clitoris-as-symbol – selfhood as the essence of being human, free and sovereign – which necessarily demands imagining and creating a world without violence against womxn. A place that feels good. And as I often do, I turn to the knowledge-makers in my books that are making me feel good and think just: Alexis Teyie’s “The Voice is the First to Go” in Queer Africa 2 and Ndinda Kioko’s story “Some Freedom Dreams”.
* Womxn: A way of spelling women/woman that acknowledges and subverts gender relations and hierarchies.
The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.