No Sex Please
I have been trying to summarise my thoughts on the recent political sex strike in Kenya ever since it began. On April 29th, a consortium of women’s groups, led by the Women’s Development Organisation launched a 7 day sex ban to protest poor leadership, chaos and disunity in the government. As the BBC reported, the nation’s political disputes had been “moved to the nation’s bedrooms.”
It was bold. It was radical. It was even laughable. Bringing the word ‘sex’ into public discourse, as taboo as it remains in Kenyan society, was shocking. Linking it to politics was even more provocative. However, it seemed to me that these women were negating some important aspects of the feminist agenda that they advocate by using a strategy which reinforced patriarchal ideas about male/female sex roles.
But I was well-aware that my analysis was a very simplistic one, and it has taken me some time to even write about it. After all, I knew nothing about the concept of witholding sex for political reasons or the history of ‘sex strikes’ per se. I discovered that this was not the first time public sexual protest had been enacted anywhere in the world. Apparently the ancient Greeks did it, women in Colombia did the same a few years ago, and Liberian women also initiated a ‘successful’ sex protest as one of their strategies for ending the Liberian civil war. Clearly sexual boycotts were not a new or revolutionary thing. In fact women in Ekiti State, Nigeria were holding a half-naked strike to protest the electoral process just a day after the Kenyan ban began. However, I was really interested in hearing what fellow Kenyans thought of the ban, and it was only a matter of days before the blogs and magazines were abuzz with the story.
All political issues aside, the sex strike highlighted some real concerns about the state of women in Kenya:
* Did we have to resort to a sex-strike for women’s voices to be heard? Why did we have to resort to using sex as a political bargaining chip? What are the alternatives?
* According to a local newspaper, in at least one province in southwestern Kenya, women reported being beaten by their husbands for participating in the protest. This is not shocking, but it is disturbing. It is disturbing that women who chose to take political action for the sake of their country were abused for doing so.
* This sexual divide is the same divide that maintains other problems (and they are not exclusive to our country). Not surprisingly, polygamy is still legal in Kenya, women continue to be disproportionately infected with HIV within marriage, and women still face violence for not cooperating as their husbands wish.
*Lastly, the overwhelming presumption that on average (Kenyan) women do not enjoy sex (unless they are sex workers who are making a living), therefore this was not in any way a sacrifice for them and were only using this strategy to punish men. This is a view I dispute completely. I’m afraid some women also took the protest too literally, you can read one response here.
We are obviously a long way from having women’s voices truly valued and respected in the political arena, and even farther away from having the same in our homes. When it is okay for a man to beat his wife for not fulfilling her sexual ‘duties’ (and when we still think of sex as a woman’s obligation), then we have a long way to go in terms of making gender equity and human rights priority issues for all Kenyans. Clearly, the cause for the strike was completely lost one on man who decided to sue the activists for “anxiety and stress” because he was restricted from enjoying his “conjugal rights” for 7 days.
Whether or not the strike was a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ is not a judgement I am willing to make. I believe those who have tried to assess it that way are missing the point. The point was to create dialogue about the political problems facing the nation, unfortunately this was totally overshadowed by the strategy. However, these women were able to achieve one thing and that was to challenge the status quo and shed light on the gender inequalities that go along with our political problems. In addition, I think Mutahi Ngunyi’s op ed nailed some of the most important outcomes of the strike: it succeeded in creating a simple but powerful movement while unifying women across the tribal divide, and I think the strategy can be applauded for those reasons. Whether or not it is one which can or should be used again is a question that is open for much debate.
But I must ask: What about the women who have contributed to the political problems the nation faces? Are they innocent? Were they striking? Or is it only our men who are responsible for the country’s problems? I suspect not.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell A documentary on the Liberian women’s grassroots activism which succeeded in ending the nation’s civil war. The women used peaceful protest and also included a sex boycott.
More articles of interest:
Kenyan Women on a Sex Strike: Why They Did It (with my comments)
Anti-Sex Protest Diatribe by Gitau Warigi (Must read)