It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…
The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”
The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.
Everyone should have been outraged.
Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.
To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics. She used a clever method to isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude. In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.
So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity.
For women in the United States now, or Kenyan women back in 1979, the challenge is both similar and familiar. Social norms have evolved over centuries to make the repression, subjugation, objectification, and even physical and psychological abuse directed at women and girls “normal”. Fortunately, the Washington Post did not adopt the bemused “shrug” of the Nairobi Standard article of 1979. Instead Ms. Winkler reached out to other leading female voices within the economics of gender to capture at least a hint of outrage, a shade of despair. Still, her article was no clarion call for change, no expression of disgusted outrage at what this student’s findings signified.
The social norms remain much the same. The “bright line” threshold of human dignity has yet to be drawn. This isn’t surprising to most thoughtful people, in America or around the world. We know the norms, we’ve been conditioned by them, we know what they lead to. That isn’t to say that there isn’t indignation, and often passionate intensity among many people seeking that elusive path to the transformation of social norms so that patriarchy isn’t always the default. Women and girls who are most adversely affected by such deeply entrenched sexism, objectification, discrimination, and exclusion know that such a transformation is a monumental challenge. They choose their battles. If they are smart, they choose their male friends and partners carefully. They even need to choose their female friends and partners carefully. So much is on the line.
Dignity is on the line.
Let’s be clear, however. I’m coming at this from a different place. It’s a place of rawness, and at times a place of being utterly astonished. It’s also embarrassing, yet very telling, that such is the case. You see, as a transgender woman, I was raised as a boy and socialized accordingly. I held a place within the patriarchy that I simply took for granted. We call this “male privilege”; yet many men and boys have no perception of what this entails, or even that they are its beneficiaries. It’s just the way things are.
“It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”
My personal story is different from the men and boys I was placed with, as I struggled over decades to find my path to the authenticity I now so happily embrace and embody. Mine was an odd way to womanhood (having never been a girl) but I’m here now and I’m where I should be.
What a world I see around me! I wasn’t entirely blind before; even as Stephen I was an early feminist and in the 1970s I fought earnestly alongside my female friends for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. I’ve always felt a deep kinship with the sisterhood. No surprise really. Being transgender means that I was never truly male, even if I was embodied and socialized as one. That’s nearly impossible for others to understand. So be it. I’m Chloe.
Now, as a transgender woman in a new era of intolerance, the lessons are still coming hard and fast, even though I’ve long known that patriarchy is inimical to women, to femininity, and to men who are not “masculine enough”. It can even be pretty hard on some men and boys who are playing by the norms. But for most women and girls, it’s appalling. Now I’ve come to feel it and live it, to know what it is to be targeted by it, and to despair as the women and girls around me internalize it (even if I know they do so because they must; they need to get by). Although I transitioned to become Chloe nine years ago, for me the rawness of experiencing gender discrimination and entrenched bias has yet to diminish.
This is particularly poignant now, with America’s increased divisiveness and the president’s recent crass political exploitation of transgender persons (in the military specifically, but also to the demographic as a whole). As for the far-right conservatives who have been clamoring for the institutionalized exclusion of transgender people, their ignorance about our humanity is only eclipsed by their self-righteousness in disparaging us. All the time that our human dignity is being assaulted, patriarchal and transphobic social norms are getting quite an airing.
It isn’t pretty.
“It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.” Gradually, there is progress being made in Africa toward the realization of universal human dignity, due in no small measure to heroic efforts by African feminists (mostly women, but a few men as well). It is painfully slow, but those feminists are resolute. And here, as American women confront a system – political, economic, religious, social, cultural – intent on “teaching us manners”, we must both thank and celebrate Alice Wu and all who expose disturbing truths through robust evidence. Claiming that the dignity threshold must be universal demands nothing less.