Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

10 Nov

I haven’t posted for ages – but wanted to come back to post the last blog entry I wrote for Times of Israel before we left Kenya earlier this year. This dates back to May this year when there was a big uproar in Kenya about a new polygamy bill of law that was introduced. Suffice it to say, the proud feminist that I am felt compelled to write in horrified response!

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Polygamy, cheating husbands and wife-beating – is this still the fate for women in the 21st century?

Times of Israel, May 11, 2014

From the time I – white, Jewish, feminist, western woman – heard on the car radio a male DJ recommending his listeners to get a woman blind-drunk so as to be able ‘to bed her’ on a first date, I’ve been wondering about levels of equality between men and women in Kenyan society.

I received a confirmation to the negative recently when President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill legalising polygamy, with a particularly hostile-to-women amendment:

The bill “brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners.

Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. [my emphasis]

Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.”

(BBC News, 29th April 2014)

What left me particularly speechless was this amazingly demeaning-to-women amendment. Not only does an existing wife apparently have no say in her husband choosing to take more wives, but he isn’t even obliged to have the courtesy to inform her that he is planning to bring into their home a second/third/fourth wife.

The BBC quotes a couple of male MPs who justify this amendment:

“When a woman got married under customary law, she understood that the marriage was open to polygamy, so no consultation was necessary.” (MP Samuel Chepkong’a, who proposed the amendment)

“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa,” (MP Mohammed Junet).

Kenyan female MPs stormed out of parliament in protest, but as they are a minority, were unable to stop the passing of the bill.

I’ve spoken to a few Kenyan women about this bill and they are horrified – but at the same time, feel utterly powerless to do anything about it.

Some local newspaper reports I read justified the developments by stating that polygamy is an effective way to combat men’s propensity to stray from their wives. In other words, if a man is allowed by law to take as many wives as he likes, he will no longer feel the urge to cheat on his partner.

Great news for women, then.

A Facebook group I joined for Nairobi mums has also opened up my eyes. Frequented by, from what I can tell, mainly middle-class Kenyan mums as well as expat (aka white, foreign) mums living in the Kenyan capital, what has struck me most is how much the Kenyan mums discuss straying husbands and issues of adultery. On Valentine’s Day, one woman posted a depressingly twee little poem giving all a blessing that their husbands should stay faithful to them on this ‘day of romance’.

At the same time, a Kenyan woman I know showed me scars on her wrist where her husband had attacked her with a broken bottle when he returned home after a drunken spree. She said he gets blind-drunk on almost a daily basis these days. And Kenyan newspapers are full of reports of drunken husbands turning violent.

As a white, Jewish, feminist, western woman, I’ve been caught in an ongoing philosophical battle with myself for the last I don’t know how many years. The two sides of my brain argue as follows:

Me A: Yes, I need to shout out against this treatment of my fellow women.

There are universal standards of justice and equality that all societies should strive towards.

Me B: No, the constraints of cultural relativism demand that I butt out and accept that ‘this is Africa’ [substitute Middle East, ultra-orthodox Jewish society etc etc], it’s not up to me to change other people’s cultural norms.

Luckily for Me A, the fact that Kenyan women themselves are angry gives me permission to express my own distaste at this anti-woman trend that hits me in the new culture I’ve found myself living in these last nine months.

In the meantime, as the wife of a rabbi of an orthodox Jewish synagogue here in Nairobi, I haven’t even broached the subject of how my feminism plays itself out in this communal role.

That will have to wait for another blog.

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