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PYWV Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The sexism that Kenyan women political leaders must grapple with.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The sexism that Kenyan women political leaders must grapple with.

By:Anne Mugo June 25, 2022

In a recent political rally, a renowned county woman representative gave campaign remarks that started a debate on what women running for political office should or should not do. As is the norm during Kenyan electoral seasons, aspirants establish political alliances to increase their influence on voter decisions and improve their chances at being elected. Often donned in one colour themed outfits, they move around the country selling their ideas, policies and the occasional jabs at their opponents. But something else is sold in these rallies, image. In their tone, mannerisms and dance, leaders aim to portray what the public wants to see. It is the contrast in what male aspirants portray in comparison to their female aspirants-and the publics reception of it- that is particularly disturbing. For men, voters want to see bravery, wit, charisma and an understanding of everyday people’s challenges. For women, the same is expected but with a dose of sexism

In this particular rally, it was not the ratio of men to women aspirants in the podium that was shocking.  We are a country that has still not managed to implement the 2/3 gender rule after all, intended to ensure equality in political leadership, more than ten years after it came into force. The most publicized moment of the rally was when the woman representative, who is running to be a member of parliament, began her speech by highlighting how a particular male aspirant from an opposing party was not worthy of dating her, and part of the reason she gave was that he often spoke in a soft powerless voice, which could only be expected of a woman. She went on to describe her ideal man, whose attributes coincidentally matched with those of the man who leads the alliance she is running with.

While this was clearly intended to pull crowds and draw attention to her policies, it may have achieved just the opposite. No one is paying attention to her youth-centric ideas including unemployment, maternal health access and access to education financing and student debt. On the other hand, the highly debated right or wrong of her remarks, and the resulting gender discourse has clearly shone a spotlight on her. Kenyans voting patterns are rarely influenced by policies but rather by popularity and numbers. In this regard, she may just have had her defining moment.

Interestingly, the woman representative was widely acclaimed for her remarks and equally criticized. The public that was physically present in the rally reveled and cheered on as she equated her political ambitions to her dating prowess. One could say they even demanded it. In the digital space however, what followed were insults and sexist comments often intended to show how unfit she was to lead. As usual, we seem incapable of judging women as individuals, or even holding men to the same standards, so this has also been widely used as an example as to why women do not belong in political office.

This isn’t the first-time political aspirants have used sexist remarks to gain voter popularity. We are aware of incidences where male leaders have exchanged jabs at one another by highlighting how many families they have under their belts. It is not uncommon to come across social media posts by female leaders, still dressed in formal attire, depicting themselves performing simple domestic chores to show how all rounded they are and praising the value of a well accomplished female leader who also happily performs domestic labour. The public often eats these incidences up and votes these leaders in. The disconnect for women eyeing political office positions is how to exist between the two worlds, one in which civility is praised and expected and another that demands vulgarness and popularity.

The key question is whether it is possible for a woman running for office to fairly compete and not fall into the sexism trope? Should we even expect them to? Are we demanding better of our leaders or are we simply expecting civility from women while ignoring the fact that it is often used as a tool to silence them? Any interrogation in this discourse must come from an intersectional lens. Patriarchy is a hungry machine that we feed everyday with what we do and what we demand of each other and one that we must all do our part to dismantle. As bell hooks said, patriarchy has no gender and we must remember people’s allegiance to it isn’t static.