Grammar of Patriarchy: Women and elections in Kenya

Women in Elections

Despite gallant efforts over the years, the election platform in Kenya is still largely dominated by men. There are many ways in which elections are gendered in Kenya. Candidates, the media who are tasked with the responsibility of telling the stories of elections are mostly men. As in many patriarchal communities, ‘gendered language permeates the landscape as elections are described in analogies drawn mainly from the traditionally masculine domains of war and sports’ (Aulette, Wittner & Blakely 2009:361).

The expectations about the appearance and behavior of candidate are gendered, in ways that perpetuate the patriarchy stereotypes entrenched in the cultural traditions of many communities in Kenya.  The current research dwells on what I term as the ‘grammar of patriarchy’ in Kenya during elections in a way to highlight the challenges that women politicians in Kenya face. However, despite these many hurdles, the research notes that there have been significant developments in relation to their participation in the electoral and political processes in Kenya.

October 2015 saw Mexico City host The Women in Parliaments Global Forum. The theme of the meeting revolved around influence and power of women in parliaments. The choice of Mexico was deliberate because the first UN Conference on Women in 1975 was held in the city.

Kenya was well represented, with a number of female legislators gracing the occasion. Senator Zipporah Kittony was feted, for the virtue of having been a participant in the first conference 40 years ago, and for her long illustrious career as a woman leader.

Kenyan history has had a long tradition of recognized female leaders, before and after colonization. Young generations should be reminded of heroic acts of freedom fighters like Mekatilili wa Menza, Muthoni Nyanjiru, amongst many others who not only put their lives on the line by challenging the colonialist, but served as sources of inspiration in the fight against colonialism.

In the period after independence, we had courageous leaders like Chelagat Mutai that stood their ground, in the face of leadership that was strongly defined by patriarchy and communal values that relegated the role of the woman to the kitchen.

Prof. Wangari Maathai sole handedly saved Karura Forest and Uhuru Park from greedy entrepreneurs that definitely had the support of the system. Like her predecessors, the world renown conservationist paid for her gallant efforts through her tears, sweat and blood, but her green initiative is one legacy that she will always been remembered for, in addition to her Nobel Prize.

In Mexico City, Wangari’s footprints are all over, as the authorities always work hard towards keeping the huge city forever green. In Peru, the city of Lima dedicated a park in honor and to the memory of our Nobel laureate.

The point I’m driving home is that we don’t have a shortage of women leaders and the recognition of Nominated Senator Zipporah Kittony in the 2015 Mexico Summit emphasizes my argument.

However, despite having such important female figures in the history and politics of our nation, there is a lot that leaves to be desired in our contemporary political dispensation. The new constitution on paper guarantees representation that should reflect the face of the nation, especially in terms of the gender equality.

The Eleventh Parliament had 18 women in the Senate and 69 MPs at the National Assembly.[1] Kenya’s Parliament has been ranked in the 77th position in the world in regard to gender equality. Kenya has 27% women in their senate and 19% in the National Assembly.

In comparison, today in Mexico, 42.6% of the seats in the Mexican Congress are held by women, and 34.4% of the seats in the Senate. Women have had influential roles in Mexican politics since 1953, when the Constitution enshrined the suffrage of women after long years of advocacy by women’s organizations.

Again, these figures in both countries represent huge strides towards ensuring gender parity in representational politics. The rising number of women legislators in both Kenyan houses can be attributed to the implementation of the new constitution. However, whereas the constitution lays a strong legal basis in women empowerment, does this reflect on the mindset of our society?

I once had a chance to talk to Josefina Vazquez Mota, a former presidential candidate in the 2012 elections in Mexico. While acknowledging the political transformation that puts women in more positions of leadership, she decried the patriarchal mentality that dominates large sections of the Mexican society. She agonizingly pointed out that she got lots of resistance and negative feedback, from women and men alike in her quest for the presidency.

In Kenya, the numbers quoted above can be pleasing to the eye, but a lot remains to be done. Worth noting is that in 2013, no woman candidate in the senatorial or gubernatorial positions was successful. The numbers we have in Senate is buoyed by the nomination policy that obligated political parties to ensure gender parity. Similarly, in the National Assembly, 47 of the MPs are the female county representatives. Is there something amiss here?

I have also noticed the venom directed to female public figures when their names come up for discussion. Such comments coming especially from elected leaders do not warrant space in this article, but there’s a worrying trend. Highly performing female public servants have borne the brunt of a political class dominated by male species. Patriarchy aside, I think there is an element of fear in such men.

The discomfiting, chauvinistic remarks that populate acres of space in the media, in popular culture, in our everyday talk that continually demean the image of the woman does not bode well with living the ideals of our progressive constitution.

However, I have been particularly excited by the high number of youth and women candidates who have defied the flow of patriarchy and gerontocracy to emerge victorious. There is one sitting politician who lost miserably in the recent nominations but mostly due to the backlash from women voters whom he has denigrated over the period of his tenure. This trend should quickly take root because we must change how we approach issues in Kenya. Especially so, when it comes to issues around gender parity.

Over the years, despite gallant efforts over the years, the election platform in Kenya is still largely dominated by men. There are many ways in which elections are gendered in Kenya. Candidates as well as the media who are tasked with the responsibility of telling the stories of elections are mostly men. As in many patriarchal communities, gendered language permeates the landscape as elections are described in analogies drawn mainly from the traditionally masculine domains of war and sports.

The expectations about the appearance and behavior of candidate is gendered, in ways that perpetuate the patriarchal stereotypes entrenched in the cultural traditions of many communities in Kenya. As campaigns hit top gear, especially in those contests that pit a woman against a man, we are surely bound to hear loaded epithets directed against her. One candidate running for a gubernatorial position has come under sexist attacks from the people in her county, asking her to vie in a different county where her husband hails from.

There is always negative campaigning by a man if he is running against a female candidate.  One, the male politician will not shy away from aggressive confrontations in his campaigns against a woman, because the society has entrenched patriarchy in its values. Thus, the man will not care if the public deems him ungentlemanly. We are so well reminded of the ‘cougar’ remark by a city-based male politician. Two, that the male candidate will not strive to show that they are in touch with women’s issues while running a campaign against a woman.

That in the political competition, patriarchy will always favor the male candidate, because culturally, epithets that are anti-woman are widely used and to a certain level and thus, normalized. There are thousands of examples we can draw from here. But this also derives from our traditions, some of them that need a serious revising, going forward. The oral tradition in Kenya has perpetuated patriarchy and continue to view women as incompatible with leadership.

We have had proverbs, oral narratives or traditional songs that have been passed on from generation to generation, but that cast the image of the woman in a negative light. Scholars like Ciarunji Chesaina and Wanjiku Kabira have well documented this in their research in different communities.  These are cultural impediments that hamper progress of the participation of women as aspirants, but also that influence the voting patterns of the women. I witnessed this when I was in the 1997 campaign trail of the first woman presidential candidate.

Because of this, the woman in politics is rated purely on femininity rather than on substance. This being our culture, the woman candidate has been forced to endear herself to the voters on the bases of appearances, rather than issues. Words like manzisupuu, warembo all bordering on the dialects of patriarchy are bandied around, every now and then. But as Dr. Laboso, a gubernatorial candidate in Bomet County argues, “I am not selling my womanhood, I am selling my leadership, but that said, they are bringing all manner of things which a male candidate is not told”.

Those women who have succeeded in holding high office have often been perceived as exceptional women, who ‘act like men’. When they act like men, they often face criticism for being unfeminine and unlikeable. The gender ideologies give the stereotyped feminine traits of warmth, gentleness and compassion to women. One well remembers Martha Karua, being described as the ‘only man in Kibaki’s cabinet’ in the coalition government.

But this all said and done, one has to celebrate the efforts that women continually put in the fight for political space in Kenya. Although patriarchy stubbornly refuses to give way, the rise for the woman politician is unstoppable. I have been particularly impressed by the rural constituencies that are producing more and more women leaders, signaling a positive step towards actualizing our democracy. These are some of the issues politicians should be giving prominence in their campaigns.

In conclusion, paying lip service continuously to gender equity is akin to preaching water and drinking wine. Constitution aside, there is a genuine need to redress issues that continue to disadvantage certain members of our society. The two-thirds gender rule could be a godsend from a policy perspective, but our society mindsets should complement issues that the constitution seeks to protect.

Going back to Latin America and its stereotype of  a machismo culture, it is quite interesting  and challenging to note that it is one region that has a produced a large number of female presidents; Argentina, Chile, Brazil to name but a few. Any lessons we can learn from them as Kenyans?


Aulette, J. R., Wittner, J. G., & Blakely, K. (2009). Gendered worlds. New York: Oxford University Press.


[1]                      The just concluded elections in Kenya have witnessed an increase in the number of women leaders in both houses as well as in the gubernatorial positions. The numbers in parliament still fall short of the two-thirds constitutional threshold.


Article by: Maina wa Mũtonya

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