sexist language shows patriarchy refuses to back down


In December 2020, a senior Kenyan political party official, Edwin Sifuna, made vulgar remarks against a female MP. While campaigning for her political allies in a by-election, Sifuna said the woman was “not attractive enough to be raped”.

In January this year, controversial Bishop David Gakuyo, who is seeking MP, made demeaning remarks about two female politicians. He accused them of looking for voices while “swinging bare buttocks”.

Sifuna and Gakuyo then half-heartedly apologized to the police after complaints surfaced about the language they used. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a government agency tasked with taming politicians’ excesses, has remained largely silent.

As Kenya’s general elections approach in August 2022, the use of aggressive language is likely to persist. Based on my research, I believe this is the reality of Kenyan society – a reality that increasingly hinders women’s participation in politics.

In my research, I sought to understand the grammar of patriarchy that impedes women’s participation and engagement in elections.

Drawing on examples from recent events, I identify a series of factors that perpetuate patriarchal attitudes. These range from the language used in the media to the resulting stereotypes and cultural traditions.

The 2017 Kenyan general elections marked an improvement over the 2013 poll in the number of women elected to various positions. The elections saw the first-ever female governors and senators – six in total – emerge victorious from positions previously held by men in 2013. Kenyans elect 47 governors and 47 senators in general elections.

Read more: How Kenya courted a constitutional crisis over parliament’s failure to meet gender quotas

Despite efforts to improve women’s involvement in politics, the electoral platform in Kenya is still largely male-dominated. Overall, women held only 9% of the total number of elected positions in 2017.

Women face a multitude of obstacles: insufficient political support from their parties, especially in the primaries; a lack of financial resources; gender-based violence; gender stereotypes; and patriarchal structures in society.

There are several ways in which elections are gendered in Kenya. In my article, I explore, in particular, the use of language and grammar.

The language used

My research considers the grammar of patriarchy by examining examples in the Kenyan context and finds that gendered language permeates the landscape.

The candidates and the dominant voices in the media are mostly men. Elections are depicted in analogies drawn primarily from the traditionally male domains of warfare and sports. Headlines often talk about “do-or-die” contests and battlefield Regions.

Kenyan politics is also fraught with linguistic sexism. In the run-up to the 2017 elections, former Kiambu County Governor William Kabogo directed unsavory remarks at former Thika MP Alice Ng’ang’a, a single mother. He said single women “caused trouble” and implored young women to find husbands. He added:

Now we are going to start the practice where if you want to be elected, you declare your intention with your wife or husband by your side.

Former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero dismissed one of his contestants saying, “Nairobi is a serious city…you can’t elect a cougar.” “Cougar” is the term used to describe an older woman who preys on younger men for sex.

Married female politicians also face their share of derision. When the issue of their spouses is brought up, it is often accompanied by undertones of tribalism.

Joyce Laboso, one of Kenya’s first three women to be elected governor in the 2017 elections, has faced sexist attacks from her competitor’s supporters. She was called a foreigner because her husband comes from a different ethnic community than hers. She was told that she no longer belonged to her community and that she had to stand for election in the region where her husband came from.

In the contest for the Embu County Senate seat, contender Lenny Kivuti urged residents not to vote for any of his female opponents as she would be exporting resources to her husband’s area, which is located in another county.

Kenya’s electoral process has often highlighted the fact that male politicians do not shy away from aggressive confrontations in campaigns against a woman.

A 2017 TV interview that aimed to give candidates for Nairobi County Governor’s seat a chance to sell their agenda illustrated the depth of this negative campaign.

Miguna Miguna, a man, ripped a female opponent for the seat, saying she is “so beautiful, everyone wants to rape her.” You chase men everywhere, no one wants you. You think you’re beautiful, you’re not.

In another incident, President Uhuru Kenyatta, during an altercation with the County Governor of Mombasa, sarcastically reminded the latter that “mimi sio bibi yake” (I am not his wife). He reproached the governor for “following him everywhere”.

Male bias

In political competition, patriarchy favors the male candidate. Indeed, culturally, anti-women epithets are widely used and, to some extent, normalized.

There are proverbs, oral histories and traditional songs that cast a negative image of the female leader. The woman was portrayed as “unreliable, disobedient, irresponsible, disloyal, disagreeable, adulterous, cunning, foolish, easily deceived, forgetful, unreliable, bad, trickster, lazy, etc.

This negative portrayal contributes to “social constructions of gender that call for the control of women in society and legitimize male dominance”.

Read more: Violence against women in Kenya: Data provides a glimpse of a grim picture

Based on these cultural barriers, women who venture into politics are largely judged on femininity rather than substance. Because of this, the candidate was forced to endear herself to voters based on her looks rather than her issues.

Words like ‘manzi’, ‘supuu’ and ‘mrembo’, common slang words meaning a beautiful woman, are used around a woman’s political campaign.

Women who have succeeded in occupying high positions have often been perceived as exceptional women who “act like men”. However, they are often criticized for their lack of femininity and their antipathy.

Martha Karua, a former presidential candidate and cabinet minister, was described as “the only man in (former President Mwai) Kibaki’s cabinet” in Kenya’s 2008 coalition government.

What needs to be done

The patriarchy stubbornly refuses to give in to Kenya. Nevertheless, the rise of female politicians is accelerating. Rural constituencies are producing more and more female leaders, signaling a positive step towards deepening democracy in Kenya.

But much more needs to be done – both in terms of legislation and from a human rights perspective – to improve gender equity in Kenyan electoral politics.

Kenya’s 2010 constitution guarantees representation that must reflect the face of the nation, especially in terms of gender equality. This requires that:

the state should take legislative and other measures to implement the principle that no more than two-thirds of the members of elected or appointed bodies should be of the same sex.

However, the two-thirds rule has not yet been fully applied. It would be a major boon for women if it did. But the mindset of society should also complement the matters the constitution seeks to protect.


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