Fungai Machirori interviews Brenda Wambui and Michael Onsando, co-founders of the Kenyan thought leadership platform Brainstorm. They recently launched a quarterly online journal with the first edition titled ‘When Women Speak’.
Can you briefly tell me when and how the idea of this journal came about and why you chose feminism as your first topic?
Brenda Wambui (BW): We had been toying with the idea of a quarterly supplement/e-book since late last year. Having published an essay a week on the Brainstorm site for six months, it felt natural as we wanted to expand our content offering and create bodies of work around issues we feel are important to the Kenyan existence.
Also, we had been getting pulled into discussions that revolved around feminism frequently and realised that there were a lot of misconceptions about feminism. So feminism was at the top of both our heads.
The articles in the journal are quite in-depth. And furthermore, the journal is distributed online. Some might argue you are preaching to the converted.
BW: You would be surprised to learn that even online, we have several people who wake up each day and disparage women just for the hell of it. People still mock and bully feminists online for having the courage to speak out. These people, too, need to see what we have written. It is easy to think that just because people are online and have internet access, they will not be sexist because they have easy access to information that can change this, but this is not the case.
About the articles being in depth; that is why we decided to do this on a quarterly basis as opposed to monthly. People can take their time to read and re-read the e-book, as the next one only comes out in three months.
Michael Onsando (MO): We really tried to keep the language simple and to the point. We hope to reach the people who still think feminism is out of reach of the ordinary citizen.
How freely do Kenyan women identify as feminists?
BW: It used to be that being a feminist was a bad thing, because as the stereotype goes, feminists are ugly and angry because no man wants them. However, with the rise of the internet, and especially social media like Facebook and Twitter, women who identify as feminists have been able to articulate what we are fighting for, which is equal rights and equal opportunities for women and men. With this increased understanding, more and more women are willing to identify as feminists.
And how freely do Kenyan men identify as feminists?
MO: Not many men identify as feminist. The feminist has been painted as a bitter single woman. Therefore, identifying as feminist creates a situation where one’s masculinity is called into question; I know mine has. And even the men who would be feminists don’t like the word, as if it is dirty and as if using it will somehow kill them. This is not to say that there are no Kenyan men that identify as feminist. They exist, and I feel dearly for them. But those against vastly outnumber those for.
There’s a poignant thought in one of the pieces: “I don’t know if our mothers think their sons are not the boys … that will hurt women. If they do, I don’t know if their fear that their daughters might be raped is equal to the fear that their sons may one day rape.” From a Kenyan perspective, what do you attribute this to?
MO: There is a lot to be said about nurture. There is a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude here. As if, from birth, the male child has been given up on. Of course, it falls back to the patriarchal nature of society. The man will continue to be allowed to do as he wills while the woman submits. This is what we are taught. This is what we learn.
And then there’s the rapist. The rapist is constructed as a faraway mythical creature that is easily identifiable by how he walks talks, smells and acts. No one dares imagine that the rapist could be well-groomed, eloquent and middle class. Yet, more often than not, he is.
BW: Women are usually the ones who are warned against many things. Almost all parents will warn their daughters against being out at night, wearing short or tight clothes, getting pregnant at an early age and instruct them to wait for sex within marriage. Yet they rarely ask themselves who is going to harm or impregnate their daughters. Is it not young men like their sons? Parents believe that their sons are not the ones raping or harassing girls; but the statistics say otherwise.
You say you seek to redefine Kenyan feminisms. However, the language of feminism remains embedded in historical and emerging American feminist rhetoric – rape culture, privilege, intersectionality, self-care – much of which is to be found in ‘When Women Speak’. Can you redefine feminism without redefining its accompanying language?
BW: I feel that there are only so many words we can invent to describe something – feminism over the years has done a great job of hashing out language and terminology, and describing what is problematic and what is not. The language used by feminists, in my opinion, is okay. What we need to do now is to contextualise the conversations to Kenya, and Africa. When you read about rape culture in New York, you may become wiser but still unable to apply it to your own existence.
MO: The thing is, we speak a western language. It is almost impossible to find ‘Africanness’ within English. And even if we manage, somehow westernisation will creep in. I think this is why a lot of African feminists struggle with language. There is something about finding one’s tongue within a language that doesn’t fully accommodate your existence that is very frustrating.
Is there space in today’s world to not identify as feminist, but yet embrace its ideals?
BW: I encounter this argument a lot and it saddens me because many people want equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women, but do not want to be identified as feminists, probably due to misinformation and negative stereotypes. That is why we sought to (re)define feminism in our e-book. Perhaps once people are well informed about what feminism hopes to achieve, they will more easily identify with it.
MO: I think the idea of identity these days is used to skirt around many issues and to alienate others. There are presumptions that come about with identity and that’s why many people chose to, or not to, identify as many things – particularly as feminists. What’s more important to me is what you stand for. If you’re standing on the side that fights for justice then, I find, I hardly care what you decide to identify as.
‘When Women Speak’ is available for free download at www.quarterly.brainstorm.co.ke
Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher. She runs Zimbabwe’s first web-based platform for women, Her Zimbabwe, and is an advocate for using social media for consciousness-building among Zimbabweans. Connect with her on Twitter.