This article, first published in The Northerner Magazine, is about an issue that is close to my heart―gender-based violence.
I once tried to advise my mum about cutting her clothes out of a brighter, breezier fabric so that she would not pass out due to the heat when she is walking from Suuq Mugdi to Bulla Adaan. My genuine, heartfelt recommendation, however, only got me a highly-judgmental smirk that probably said, at least in my head: “Waryaa, waan hayaa waxan. Maxaad iishegi aniga!” A statement that can be directly translated as: “Boy, you really trying to teach me about gambis? I gat this.” I waited for the will-you- next-try- to-teach- me-how- to- give-birth line, but surprisingly, she forgot to use it.
And I must say i was deeply concerned she forgot to use that card. This was weird. I almost rushed her to the hospital because she never passes up the opportunity to rub it in our face. But I figured it must have been the unforgiving temperatures that were causing her some mild amnesia, and messing with her head. Regardless, I was glad she did not use it because you can never argue with that one. It is every mother’s trump card. That one and the I-carried- you-for- nine-months card.
I felt ashamed, though, that I would even try something like that, the veil thing― I mean, the old girl (gal?) has been wearing them since she was old enough to put on anything, which for a sSomali girl is as soon as she can breathe. And she meant it when she said she “gat this” because she had a solution for it: she started pouring ice-cold water over her head when the temperatures got a little too steamy. So steamy I wasn’t sure if the smoke rising from the top of her head was due to the heat or the freezing water or her scalp burning.
As a result, whenever I see any thick hijab-clad woman, I am reminded of the old lady. So when I met her, I had the exact thought.
I met her unexpectedly a few weeks ago while strolling with my friend Sylvia through one of the neighbourhoods of Nairobi. From a distance, she would have easily passed for my mother― middle aged, light-skinned, dust-baked eyes, and the trademark matching, black, thick (very thick) hijab and bui bui.
Sylvia apparently knew her, and the two ladies said a quick hello to each other before departing.
“Oh that’s Imbaru by the way,” Sylvia told me, as we headed off, deeply engrossed in her phone, playing Candy Crush or Pokémon Go! “She’s my neighbour, you know, the Somali lady who normally runs to my house to escape her husband’s beating?”
“Imbaru? That’s a strange name,” I muttered. Why would a sane parent give their child, whom they are supposed to naturally love, such a weird name? Poor thing.
“It sounds..errrmm..Ugandan.” I said. Or the name of a character from the Ice Age movies. Like that funky, African-American zebra that Chris Rock plays. And not that there is a correlation between the two.” I quickly added to repair the damage because Sylvia herself descends from the Buganda tribe.
She rolled her eyes at me.
“Wait, what? She runs into your house to escape beatings?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
I asked Sylvia to set up a meeting with the lady because I felt I needed to hear her story. And she did. A few days later, I sat down with her in an open air restaurant within the neighbourhood. She looked at me from head to toe and asked me whether I was Swahili or “Habashi” (Ethiopian). Between the ripped jeans and the shaggy afro, I wouldn’t have believed myself either. I said I was Somali with as much certitude as a Trump tweet.
“Somali sijui,” she courteously corrected me.
“Mahadsanid,” I muttered. Thank you. Thank you very much for pointing that out.
She asked me why I kept calling her ‘Imbaru.’
Isn’t that your name?
No, she said, it is Ambaro.
Oh, right. Of course. That made more sense.
Ambaro told me her story. This is a real life story. She talked for a long time. She stared down at her hands as she talked. I wondered whether she knew I was still there, or whether she slipped into an alternate universe where she could finally voice her troubles. She mentioned that she was 23 years old. But I could have sworn she was at least in her early forties. She came from Garissa when she was still a teenager, or at least that is what she thinks. It was so long ago, she says. He was from her sub-clan, and he had a night job in Nairobi. He had met her in one of the shanty restaurants in Garissa town where she served food and drinks. Her parents quickly agreed; they were not well off, and they saw the promise of the bride price. The knowledge that she is from home town is like daggers to my heart. The mere knowledge of it multiplies the pain.
She protested, she continues. He was three times her age, he had another family, and he never asked for her opinion on the matter. Her parents insisted, and she soon ended up in Nairobi, but not before she was already pregnant with her first child. She has had three and is already pregnant with a fourth in the three.
I look at her unseemly young face, her supposedly young face. I see the scars on her skin, pale skin. She is of average height, and her lean frame is lost beneath the large, thick, beige hijab she is wearing. And her eyes, they are reserved, and look down or into blank spaces, away from other people’s eyes. Tears start forming in her eyes, but she tries to hold them back. I can also read fear, isolation, and even death in there. Her eyes regularly dart to the road, as if afraid her husband might appear. Her lips are dark and charred. She is talking about how she is not given enough utility money, but her husband expects her to feed everyone in the family, including himself. About the non-stop beatings even when she is pregnant, which is all the time. About how she would run to Sylvia’s house to seek asylum in the middle of the night. About the fact that she is illiterate and she cannot even navigate the streets of Nairobi. How she cannot do anything to help herself.
While there are many things wrong in this story, but the beating is perhaps the worst, in my view. As she talks, I think of her children. Will they grow up thinking this was normal? How would their understanding of family, marriage, and relationships be affected as they grow up in such an environment? It reminded me of my own childhood: I was once like one of them. I have gone through the same situation. I have seen my own mother go through that, too small to do anything about it.
As a man, I am probably the least qualified to talk about, much less understand, the suffering of women, the same way I cannot teach my mum anything about hijab and buibuis. But perhaps this― the fact that I have seen it up close and personal― is the only reason I can talk about this issue. Many of us have either lived this story or know somebody who has gone through it.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is still a serious concern in Kenya. While both sexes fall victim to this act, women and girls account for the majority. While most incidents go unreported, about 45 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 go through sexual or physical abuse at the hands of their spouse at least once in their lifetime, according to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2008-09 conducted by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and ICF Macro. This is a huge figure. GBV is perhaps the most prevalent and most violated human right violation in the world.
A few significant steps have been made regarding this issue. GBV was integrated into the major human rights conventions. The elements that constitute GBV in the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women have been expanded. Locally, the ratification of these international instruments makes GBV recognized as punishable criminal acts. The Kenyan government and non-governmental organizations are all involved in ensuring our women are safe from any form of violence. Moreover, Part XIII of the Marriage Act isregards to penalties, though implementation is still an issue. The general legal framework, despite devolution and a new Constitution with a more liberal Bill of Rights, is by large merely prescriptive at best, and it is still alien to most victims of GBV.
GBV is, as a result, still rampant. Closer home in Northern Kenya, the situation is the same, if not worse.
But beyond the statistics and the reports, there is a story such as this one – the human story. Behind the graphs, there are thousands, if not millions, of Ambaros who are suffering in silence, in a quiet rage, because of, among other reasons, a certain way of thinking.
All these laws and treaties do not mean anything if we do not change our thoughts. You see, GBV and its related components are not just cultural, legal and social constructs; they are first and foremost psychological constructs. GBV’s raison d’être – its reason for existence – is tied to the broader unequal gender relations in the society, in its various forms. This unequal gender relations lead to the mind-set that the female is an adaptable, manageable being who serve the whims of the male. The more she is controlled, the less she attains and use the critical consciousness that could transform her life, the community, and the world. The more she accepts the passive place imposed on her, the more she might adapt to things as they are and to the partial view of reality indoctrinated into her.
Or perhaps it is not as complicated. Perhaps it is just an unconscious act brought about by a long-held culture. Perhaps, in this sense, it is the only way the perpetrators of GBV know, the ‘right’ way.
Regardless, this mind-set, or lack thereof, will never propose that the woman critically considers reality and plays a more substantial role in the society. It concerns itself, instead, with having her bring forth life and provide care. This “humanism” of this school of thought masks the efforts to change the woman into an automaton, and it is a negation of her natural role to be more fully human, and her right to play a more significant role in the grand scheme of things.
The GBV perpetrator is essentially a liar and a hypocrite. He or she purports to love the victim, at least by by virtue of their marriage to them. He or she pledges, no, vows, to take care of the victim in all the ways that one possibly can. Then turns around and becomes their supposedly loved one’s number one enemy. He purports to love his children but inflicts harm on their mother. He loves and respects his mother and sister but still visits immense pain on his partner. He destroys her, slowly, day by day, blow by blow. He then justifies his brutality by arguing that he is doing it out of maintaining control of the household or simply out of mere customary practices.
The GBV perpetrator is also a necrophilic― a lover of death, rather than life. German thinker Erich Fromm once wrote that the necrophilic “can relate to an object― a flower or a person― only if he possesses it; hence a threat to his possession is a threat to himself. He loves control, and in the act of controlling, he kills life.” Oppression, in whatever form, is necrophilic, as it is fed by the love of death, and not life. In this regard, the thinking that GBV perpetrators have is based on a static, mechanistic view of reality, one that attempts to control action and thought, and that inhibits the true role and power of the victim.
In her husband’s mind, Ambaro wants for nothing because she is supposed to be a wife and a mother, regardless of the conditions of the life she is living in. He may think that she shouldn’t complain, that she shouldn’t feel. That she shouldn’t desire to be treated a little better, like a human being with dignity. But doesn’t she deserve that little more? Shouldn’t life be about a little more for today’s woman? Doesn’t she deserve to feel safe in her home? Can we restore her capacity to act? Can she truly act? And how? In the bigger picture, is her life a mere symbolic participation in her husband’s life? Isn’t her life the illusion of being where in real terms she is only submitting to and becoming part of those who are in charge?
Unfortunately, the powers that be, the patriarchy mostly, will dismiss any attempt to alleviate the suffering of women as Western propaganda. But this is, in the real sense, an effort towards humanization; we cannot be really human while stopping others from being so.
Ambaro sits in silence now; she is not staring at her hands anymore. She is gazing into the space behind me, as though some weight was lifted off her shoulders so that she has gained the courage to look up to look at the world, maybe to see if it is any different now. It isn’t. And it probably won’t be for a long time. I can’t help but think that that maybe we live in a functionalist society that needs the status quo and complacency for it to exist. Perhaps Durkheim was, although tragically, right on this. Or maybe there is hope, and that we will start changing our thinking to be less mechanical and more organic.
The solution, I reckon, lies largely in changing ourselves, our thinking, not just with the government, organizations, and statistics, reports, and the myriad recommendations. Because when our thinking is changed, we can stop GBV and even take action. Let us start from here. Your thinking, your voice, is a powerful force for equality.
The March Nairobi afternoon sun was unforgiving. Ambaro orders a glass of ice-cold water.
“If you had one wish and it would be granted, what would it be?” I ask, not out of sheer curiosity but perhaps because I did not know what else to ask.
Ambaro takes a sip of the cold water and pours the rest on her head. I wondered whether that was more than just cooling off, or whether it was an unconscious effort to quiet the silent rage inside.
“For my husband to be a better man,” Ambaro said.