Category Archives: Feminism

To The “Good Men” Who Choose Silence

Recently, I watched a conversation on rape and sexual violence on Nigerian Twitter get derailed by men. I watched these men get into mentions of the women who were talking about it, castigating, insulting, and disbelieving them. They harassed them and taunted them and generally made an already difficult discussion even more unbearable. I even saw a man give an anecdote on how he forced himself on a woman. I imagined how difficult and triggering it was for the women having this conversation. Triggering because for majority of us, conversations of sexual violence are not just theory but out of experience. We have lived this, we know this.

A week or so later something similar happened on South African Twitter. The script followed was the same, the derailing tactics the same, the insults and mocking the same.  Whether it’s US, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, whenever these conversations happen men will come out in large numbers to derail and belittle the conversation. In the end the discourse will end up being extremely violent to the women, some of who choose to fight back. I can imagine the emotional toll this takes on them and how discouraging it is.

While I was watching this conversation, I thought about good men. There were some men who were involved in this conversation, male allies who were helping the women to fight against the harassers, but they were very few. There are always fewer than the men who were harassing women. I looked at the TL and thought about how many men who were seeing this conversation happening considered themselves good men. I wondered what, if anything was going through their minds, whether they felt bothered by what was happening. I wondered if they felt any need to get involved.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with one such “good man.” It was a long and tiring conversation. It was tiring because it’s a conversation I have had before and one I have seen many women have with men before. The gist of it was that it was unfair for women to lump in “good men” together with abhorrent men who abuse and violate women. It is also unfair to expect men to participate and speak up when these men attack women. It is unfair to expect all men to stand up for women.

It is easy to counter blatant, open sexism and misogyny. It reveals itself and never pretends to be something that it’s not and you can arm yourself accordingly to fight it. But it is much harder to fight benevolent sexism. This is the sexism which pretends to be good and in the fight for women in that it does not actively participate in the oppression of women, but it also does nothing to change the systems that oppresses women. Benevolent sexism is dangerous because it excuses itself and watches from the sidelines but then expects a pat in the back for not getting into the ring. Because this sexism knows there’s a problem, sees it, but choose to do nothing to stop it.

Many men who consider themselves good men, maybe because they don’t actively hurt women, or agree that a woman’s place is not the kitchen, or perhaps are raising their daughters the same as they raise their sons (forgetting their daughters are going to have to live outside their homes) but then keep silent when confronted with extreme situations where women are hurt, are benevolent sexists- although an argument can be made about their silence being a key reason why oppression of women continues. One thing that many men fail to understand is, as a man, whether you are good or bad, whether you actively participate in oppression or not, you benefit from it. Society is structured to benefit you. Every time a woman is denied a promotion because she’s a woman, the man who gets it has benefitted from sexism EVEN if he is qualified for the job. Every time a man is able to walk at night when a woman can’t, he is benefitting from an environment, which denies women freedom while he can do whatever he wants. And every time a woman’s “morals” are used as an excuse to abuse her, and yet a man can do the same things with no repercussions, he is benefitting. And so by virtue of being a beneficiary of this, men who are silent are not just ignoring what is none of their business. They’re actually ignoring something that works in their favour. By quietly accepting the world as it is, you are allowing it to continue as it is.

 

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But there’s one other thing I have also realized based on my conversation with men, and the many interactions I have seen, men do KNOW they benefit from this system. And many men don’t care to change it. For a while I believed that it was ignorance and all we had to do was teach and show them and they’ll get it and change. But now I don’t think so anymore. The man I argued with straight up told me told me that he knows he has privilege, he knows. But he also enjoys this privilege. And he doesn’t see why he should bend over backwards to change that. So according to him, it’s unreasonable for women to expect men to do anything to change a system that works for them. Further, he considers the constant call by women for men to be vocal and active in this fight as an attack of men. WE are harassing them.

Another reason I know that these men are comfortable in the current situation is because majority of these men are very vocal when it comes to other injustices. I have seen these same men who claim they don’t have to talk about “women issues” be loud about pretty much every thing else. They rant at politicians, the government, religious institutions, racism and many other social ills. Some of these men even organize protests to fight against these ill. So it’s not that these men don’t care about society and creating a better world. And it’s hard for me to believe that you can be a proponent of justice and equality in every way, but should not be obligated to do the same when it comes to women. The most amazing thing to watch is a black man using the language of racism to talk to black women. This disconnect is fascinating.

It’s a truly perplexing place to stand isn’t it? To acknowledge that there is a problem. That women are under attack, that this should stop, that it is possible for you to help even in just a show of support…and then choose to be no more than a spectator. To claim that it is unfair to expect more. When people who despise you are cruel, they’re really just doing what you expect of them. But when people who claim to understand your plight or empathize with you stand aside and watch this cruelty; what are you to make of that? Is it because they’re afraid that they will first have to confront themselves and how they have benefitted? Is it because they recognize that they are not really that good, that they have been complicit and allowed men to continue terrorizing women?

Throughout history, women have always fought their own battles in their own ways. Whether men stand by them, against them or somewhere else entirely, there will always be women taking up this fight and standing up for themselves and each other. That’s unlikely to change. What needs a change however is ‘good men’ happy to point out the rotten lot should be stopped and then reeling back in shock when women say, “then help us stop them.” You cannot claim to be a good man when you allow a problem that YOU benefit from to continue. When you choose silence, when you know that your voice will have an impact in changing things. Either you are part of the problem or you are actively working towards the solution. Those who stand in the centre have chosen to be part of the problem.BHF_aKqCMAAJxkk

(With contribution by Kevin Gachagua)

#MyUnkemptHair: The Politics of African Women’s Hair

I grew up with my cousins, six of us. Like most Swahili families, we were various shades of skin tones and hair types. Our hair varied from straight Arab hair, to thick curls with everything else in between. Mine was what most would at the time consider as “regular African” hair; just a bit softer with a looser curl pattern. But compared to my cousins’ it was kinky. So, while my hair was always in cornrows theirs was in pony tails and ribbons. We used to go to the salon together and every time, there were questions about my hair. Why wasn’t it curly enough like the rest? Wasn’t I a real Swahili? I eventually stopped going to the same salon as them. When I was in high school I finally  relaxed  my hair like most girls who had my type of hair. 3 years ago, I decided to stop relaxing and transitioned into natural  hair. Throughout the time I had relaxed my hair, the comments never stopped. It was either too thin, not long enough, too hard, or not Swahili enough. One of my favorites was when non-Swahili people commented on how sure they were that my hair was awesome under my hijab and how they wished that they had hair like mine.

My decision to go back to my natural hair was informed in part by social media, having seen the natural hair movement by African-American women where they reclaimed the meaning of beautiful hair. The other reason was that I wanted to do this thing that was unheard of in my community for my type of hair; to keep it as it grew. I  also wanted to prove that it could grow long, even though its texture and type was not the kind associated with long hair. But eventually, I got over that and I have learned to love and enjoy it as it is. Right now I’m at the point where if I wanted to cut it, I wouldn’t think twice about it. It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. Not that I don’t care, it’s just that it doesn’t define who I am anymore.

A few weeks ago a Kenyan man tweeted that African women are using the “natural hair movement” as an excuse to keep untidy and unkempt hair as long as “we’ve put a flower or ribbon on it”. He also said  that natural hair works for only some people. It was pretty clear he was trolling. It has become common for men on Twitter to say controversial things to get the attention of women, especially feminists, so that they can use the reaction they get to reinforce their sexism. If they get a backlash, they will then backtrack and say “the feminists are coming for me” to show that feminists are unreasonable and cannot handle criticism. This is a silencing tactic, because they know eventually women will stop engaging with them and they can continue being sexist without any recourse. I am very aware of this. And most of the time, I ignore such trolls. However on this day I chose to respond. But I did not engage him directly but instead posted pictures of my hair using the hashtag #MyUnkemptHair. Other Kenyan women joined in and before long our TLs were filled with natural hair in all types and textures and lengths and it was a glorious lovefest.

I chose to respond for two reasons.  The debate on African women’s hair is a long and complicated one. In a world where women are expected to perform beauty for the male gaze, and where hair is considered a marker of beauty, a lot of women consider hair to be a part of their identity. And in a world where whiteness informs the standards of beauty, there are specific types of hair that are considered beautiful depending on their proximity to whiteness. Therefore, in the global scale of beauty, black women’s hair is at the bottom. Disdain and demonization of African hair in its natural state has been pushed by a media machine which elevated straight hair of white women or hair close to it(Asian, Arab). In Kenya and most African countries the shift to straightening hair happened sometimes during the 70s and 80s when women started applying curly kits and relaxers into their hair. Hot combs and blow drying was also used for temporary straightening. For most of us, cornrows were for school going children and grown women had straight and sleek hair. And in the last 15 years weaves became common.  This is what you call assimilation where members of an oppressed group takes on norms of a dominant culture so as to fit in and avoid dehumanization because of being different.

In the last couple of years, more African women have started wearing their hair natural. In the beginning there was a backlash that natural hair was unprofessional, as it didn’t look “attractive” and even though this has improved, this notion still persists in certain sectors. In 2015, I have heard cases of African women, in corporate spaces still missing out on career opportunities because of wearing their hair as it grows. In addition, there are hierarchies in which types of natural hair is acceptable. Looser hair, with big curls is preferred where kinkier, tight curled hair is still frowned upon.

When I posted my pictures, I deliberately picked pictures where my hair was uncombed or unstyled. Majority of them were wash and go (where you wash your hair and basically, just go). But because I have a certain type of hair and texture, my hair is considered the “good” kind of natural hair. But if a woman with coarser hair did the same, her hair will be considered unkempt or untidy. It is also ironic that right now my hair is considered “good” hair, a far cry from when I was younger and it was compared to that of my cousins. What this also shows is that for women, there will never be good enough. No matter what we do for ourselves, a patriarchal society will always tell us that we need to do more, change more to be desirable.

Through this socialization most of us have internalized these standards of beauty. We no longer have to be told by the media, we do it to ourselves and to each other.  And so it has become commonplace for fellow Africans to call our hair in its natural state unkempt, dirty and untidy. On the other hand, it is rare to find someone describe straight hair, whether it’s uncombed or just washed as unkempt.

And it’s for this reason I responded. In this kind of environment, our hair becomes political. And when African women choose to wear their hair in its natural state it becomes a statement of defiance. So when an African man comes out and makes derogatory remarks about our hair, or how we look, or our skin tones, he is not just commenting on physical aspects, he is actually reinforcing years of damaging and dehumanizing notions about black women, which are used to continue upholding white supremacy. What this man and many who think like him need to understand is that they are being used as a tool of our oppression.

The second reason I chose to respond was basically what the hashtag morphed into. When other women joined in, it was Kenyan women showing their hair to each other, loving on each other, supporting each other, uplifting each other. It was us telling each other, I see you, you are beautiful and appreciated. On that day I saw us, taking the power back, choosing how to see ourselves, how to express ourselves. Choosing that we, alone, decide what our beauty is and that it is vast and diverse and all valid. It was amazing. And since then, every time I see a woman wearing her hair as it naturally grows, I give her a smile, an acknowledgment that we are enough

And even though some men tried to change the conversation on this powerful thing and reduce it to us performing to them and seeking their approval, , in reality it was us showing them that not everything women do or how they look requires their nod to be termed as beautiful. And we do not need their permission to exist. On that day I saw the manifestation of what Ann Daramola repeatedly tells us, “Power, not Permission.