Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Is the personal always (effectively) political?

Last Wednesday, women in Kenya, led by The Women's Development Organisation coalition, imposed a week-long sex boycott aimed at pressuring the country's two power-sharing leaders Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki into resolving their conflicts. Amid fears that current rows could see a renewal of the election violence of 2007, in which 1500 people were killed and 300 000 forced from their homes, the women's groups have solicited the support of sex workers as well as Ida Odinga (left, pictured next to Lucy Kibaki), wife of Prime Minister Raila Odinga (below left, pictured next to Pres. Kibaki).

Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida), one of the organisations in the campaign, said they hoped the seven-day sex ban would force the squabbling rivals to make up.

"Great decisions are made during pillow talk, so we are asking the two ladies at that intimate moment to ask their husbands: 'Darling can you do something for Kenya?'"

It is the kind of tactic that certainly draws attention to power-sharing tensions in the country, but how valuable is it as a feminist action, and how effective can it be as a political strategy? Writing in the Guardian, Lola Adesioye declines to comment on the latter, but offers that regarding the former:
..this boycott is significant as it says a great deal about women's progress, the way in which women are reconsidering their role in Kenyan society and how they are reclaiming power where they can.


Africans can be pretty conservative on topics such as sex. For the older generation in particular, discussing sex in public is something you just don't do. In addition, unlike in the west, you tend not to hear African women sitting around talking casually and openly about it. Within that framework, taking such a politically-motivated sexually-orientated stance – actively withholding sex for a week and announcing it to the world – is, actually, a very bold and radical move.


Will this strike achieve its aims? That's debatable. However, even if the government doesn't end its feuding, this modern-day version of Lysistrata has already had a useful effect. It has put the spotlight on women's roles, power and rights and is showing how national politics affects the individual.

For women, at least, a week without sex is worth that.

But even in the context of a society where polygamy is still practiced, where sex is seen as a woman's duty to her husband and family, and where open discussion about sex is considered taboo and un-African, this strike is still a double-edged sword, with perhaps one side sharper and therefore more destructive than the other. Yes, it does represent a big "suck it" to the patriarchy that Kenyan women can declare ownership of their bodies and their sexual agency in this way. But at the same time, it says that this is their only card to play, their only value and their only contribution. And I find that problematic.

Adesioye argues that the strike " has put the spotlight on women's role, power and rights", but has it really? It seems to cast this role, power and rights strictly in terms of their usefulness as providers of sex and nothing else. It does not advance a dialogue on all the cases where even this role, even this sexual agency which is the minimum a woman should be able to exercise, is removed from her in the country's many cases of marital and community rape. It does not associate the lack of political consensus with other realities of women's lives such as insufficient access to water, food, health, education and security. And while it is encouraging to see women declare that their sexual lives are theirs to control or reveal as they decide, if the discourse stops here, then it arguably has done very little to advance women's economic security, their true political engagement, and the overall stability of fair and inclusive governance in that country.


  1. The point is not always "will we get our exact demands." Sometimes you can do amazing things just by having the action! This really inspires me. Women need to rise up and that's exactly what they're doing. Stuff doesn't always work the first time but it can set off a shockwave of other such events/create a much needed public discourse.

    It is problematic that their only power is sexual, but that seems to be more of a reality than anything else. Perhaps I am being too hopeful, I guess we'll have to see!

  2. Nome: of course. Use of the symbolic as activism has always been a powerful thing. But simply making a statement doesn't in itself always work: the statement being made - whether implicit or explicit - is important. There are two issues here: 1, the women's groups in question ARE in fact using this as a direct tactic. They suggested that pillow talk is what will sway those with power to action. So given that, the question of "we will get our demands" does become important. By their own admission, this is not simply a gesture.

    Second, regarding sex as public discourse, you're right. And as I indicated in my post, it is a pioneering step that "Kenyan women can declare ownership of their bodies and their sexual agency in this way." However, in a society where rape is already being widely used as a weapon, a tool of war and of political coercion, what is the statement being made? Do women want to reinforce the notion that the sum of their worth is the use of their bodies for political ends? The two are not the same, of course. They are glaringly dissimilar in ways that must be made clear: one is forced and a horrendous violation; the other represents the ultimate in sexual agency. However, the strike does beg the association, at least it does in my mind.

    I've read some Kenyan women's thoughts on it, and they fall on both sides. So clearly this is not a simple issue. But as I indicated in the post, and as you agree, it does give some much-needed visibility to the question of sexual freedom in Kenya and other African countries. And that can never be a bad thing.

    Thanks for engaging on this issue, nome.

  3. Thanks for commenting back! Ya, I think we agree on the issue. I definitely recognize that the situation there is much different than mine here in the US and I am trying to be aware of my privileges of living in a lesser rape culture, although I obviously can never know exactly what it is they face short of facing it myself. I suppose my hope is that this encourages more liberation for women in the country so they can have political power beyond sex.


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