So Kethi Kilonzo has said “yes” and then no…and now maybe, to the idea of slipping into her late father’s moccasins. The journey will now begins for this soon to be lady politician. Kethi’s rise is unique because her path into politics took a very different route than that of other political inheritors like Ngala, Mudavadi, M’Maitsi, Juma Boy, Khaniri and a host of others. She is, first and foremost, the first female to inherit a political seat (and she will win if precedence on post incumbent dad’s death, poli-inheritance is anything to go by), all the others coming before her having been men.
The similarities with her male counterparts ends at that point. Kethi can actually lay claim to the title of emergent or a people evolved leader following her never before seen and people judged, classic performance, as an attorney representing AFRICOG, a social activist group, as an interested party at the historical Supreme Court 2013 election petition. Her papa was still alive and sitting right next to her in the courtroom, as she made her debut quasi-political statement and appearance. He annointed her his successor there and then. She acquired overnight super-star status and the local dailies and social media were awash with glowing epithets one of which said “Kethi for president!”Okay…that was a bit much!
But I am a tad worried for her. She has been plummeted into politics feet first amid the euphoria that surrounded the election petition. It is all so heady considering that she must have not seen that coming and is now transfixed like a deer caught in the headlamps of an oncoming car. Will she make it across the road or be struck down in the prime of her life and be consigned to the political wasteland of women who have tried so hard to be accepted as equals in politics, but have come through with titles like iron lady and little else is remembered of them?
I am concerned about the challenges that lie ahead for this young lady who is really going into this hostile territory as a political minion! What will be Kethi’s role in the Senate and how will she expect to fare as compared to those who have gone before her?
I call it hostile territory because historically, democracy has not been kind to women and has served men better than it has women. Political thinkers and philosophers of yore such as Aristotle, Plato, Hobbes…the darlings of our Basic Concepts class at the UON… thought women as being only fit for certain roles in society such as being good mothers and wives! Now who would have thought…The starters and discoverers of democracy as we know it today!
This thought has been sifted through the years and despite the strides that have been made in the increased percentage of women involved in politics today, women’s domestic role of mother and cleaner and cooker and everything else will come later, has remained deep-rooted and entrenched. It is like DNA that is hard to shake off and we remain attached to the hearth, with helix apron strings, while the patriarchy of the male ego reigns supreme.
In a 2005 paper titled Women’s Political Participation: Issues and Challenges prepared for the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) Expert Group Meeting held in Bangkok, Farzana Bari quotes Adrienne Rich to define patriarchy as “A familial-social, ideological, political system in which men by force, direct pressure or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.” That right there is the totalitarian nature of patriarchy and so what chance have women ever had…even before they started?
Consequently, when women enter politics within this context, chances that they will have a lasting impact are mediated and watered down by the stiff opposition they will experience from their male counterparts. Clearly, this is that last bastion of male dominance and as nature will have it, men will fight tooth and nail to remain at the top of the food chain in the political jungle. Women will forever be made to feel that they are where they are…whether in the Senate or parliament…as a token from the alpha male.
Never mind that in other circumstances women have to campaign 100 times harder than the men…and in high heels, skirts and with babies on their backs too! Women have to exert themselves harder campaigning on issues and at the same time dealing with demeaning insults that are grossly below the belt.
Wangari Maathai offers a classic example of a woman with an exemplary book education and who in jumping into the political foray found that the transition did not sit well with her supporters who thought she did a better job from the outside than if she became a hard core politician. She however went ahead and while vying for a political seat in the 1980’s, against her ex-husband, she stated the classical statement at one of her campaigns, aimed at her opponent…telling him that he should keep the campaign clean and focus on issues that are above the neck and not below the belt! She was of course referencing the unfair insults that she had to endure from her opponent’s campaign machine that unfairly alluded to bedroom issues and other sexual innuendo!
We have seen other brave ladies such as Martha Karua, come into politics leaving behind their professional careers and which they excelled at. She who become only the second women in Kenya to vie for the presidency, after Charity Ngilu. Ms. Karua would however carry the campaign further than even Ngilu but alas the criticisms that followed her everywhere including the fact that she is a mere women saw her perform badly. She was beaten into fifth place by a johnnie-come-lately-into-the-election maverick, Abduba Dida, who had campaigned nowhere nearly as long, hard and as widely as Martha Karua.
Martha, also known as the iron lady was the subject of so much male (and female) derision and they did not pass the chance to take pot-shots at her. They reveled in stories that told of her clandestine sexual escapades and her unwomanly or unmotherly instincts that cast doubt on whether she was not really a man dressed in female hormones!
As I was writing this piece, there was an interesting heated discussion on CNN on why Hilary Clinton will or will not win the 2016 presidential election. A statement by one of the discussants filtered through to me. Hilary Clinton will not win because she is too masculine…She might however win because she is cheerful. Really? Its back to basics and women even as powerful as Mrs. Clinton must first be the traditional happy woman?
So…Charity Ngilu, Martha Karua, Wangari Maathai and now possibly Kethi Kilonzo. She can choose to emulate past women politicians…Wangari Maathai had a checkered mainstream political career but was wildly successful as an activist or critique from the edge and went on to become a Nobel laureate. Martha Karua…also successful but thanks to sideshows we remember little of her success and more of her grit and iron and anger. Charity Ngilu…Oh well!
I have some advice for Kethi…She needs to do some soul searching and make quick decisions about what her objectives will be and how she will go about achieving them. She should determine what and how she can bring her immense popularity and while it lasts to her new job as Senator for Makueni. She should just be herself and not strive to earn the masculinity and other hardnosed titles. The people love her as the intelligent, soft-spoken but pleasantly surprisingly brilliant person that she is. They already know she is a mother too. She should remember it is not going to be easy…men will be men and when push comes to shove, they will push hard, despite who her daddy was!
Yes. Kethi has the unique opportunity of charting a new course: Finding and setting a new approach to winning our rightful position alongside our men in politics, while remaining a lady but winning hands down, without necessarily taking the bait and turning into a clone of our women politicians, that has been cleverly crafted by men about us, over the years.
©njeriOsaak is a trained journalist, a Public Relations professional and a College Speech Communication teacher / Consultant, currently based in the United States.