John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


It is purely incidental that the person who inspired this article happened to have been a South Asian woman, encountered via a facebook post, as manifestations of the phenomenon which I have chosen to write about truly abound. To withhold her name deliberately, she declared that, unaccustomed as she was to public posturing, she felt a great urge to make it known to many that she had recently dyed her hair an unexpected colour: silver. And sure enough, the post was complemented by four pictures of her with her brand new, silver locks, seen from different angles. Below it was a litany of comments of high praise: You look fabulous! True Beauty! You haven’t changed a bit! Ageless! And so it continued.

Now, given this edition’s editorial theme I am certain that it will highlight the experiences of valiant and courageous women who should be role models to all our sisters, wives, cousins, nieces, daughters and granddaughters: women who can be defined, without apology, by their achievement alone. However, the more I allow myself to think as independently as is possible without recourse to received wisdom, the more I am inclined to think that far too many women wish to be defined by their looks and, further, by their looks as registered by men. Consider the cheerleaders whom we see at every interval during televised Super Bowls and One Day Cricket encounters; consider the female broadcasters on our own screens who arrest our concentration  more  by their fetching appearance rather than by the questions that they ask, as they coyly interview heads of state more than twice their age; consider the female politicians whose careers are curtailed because they don’t look attractive enough; consider the continuing obsession with ‘body image,’ worldwide.

Be that as it may, the trigger from facebook led me to ask some of my Kenyan friends of South Asian origin –and there are many, particularly after so many years of classroom teaching in high cost mixed race schools and of association with Awaaz – what they thought of the objectification of the female in their larger society, in the face of a growing, universal call for gender parity. I spoke to women, young and of a certain age, only. The generation gap made for differences in response but two things became clear: one, my interviewees took unashamed ownership of their quest for beauty and two, none of them declared themselves to be feminists, per se. Leave that to the West. The feeling seemed to be that their traditional norms affirmed them sufficiently and allowed them sufficient space to ‘self-actualise’, in the jargon formulation, without the need for a liberationist, feminist movement. Those of an older generation admitted that their businessmen husbands still held on to the role of breadwinners and they, as wives, were quite content to be homemakers with time enough for pedicures, manicures, visits to the hair dressers, visits to go shopping for resplendent saris and to enjoy their bridge. They also had lots of time to oversee their children’s growth and upbringing, with a little help from faithful ayahs or house helps. If their men prefer to segregate themselves at their stew-making and whiskey-swilling korogas then that’s simply the way men are. Boys will be boys. It is to be lamented but not condemned. So, at the end of the day, these women are living as they are to please themselves, not men, even if it is their men who make it possible for them to live that way.

As for the young 25 to 35 year olds, several of whom were former students,  times have changed and to their benefit. They have careers alongside their husbands, to which they return, if they have babies, after three to six months maternity leave. As for ‘looking good’ they, too feel that it is their preserve but for a slightly different reason: going to the gym and hitting the treadmill, lifting light weights and diving into the swimming pool is an investment in optimal health and active longevity. A visit to a beauty salon is simply the icing on the cake and who is to deny that a South Asian woman looks attractive in an elegant   sari? In similar fashion, their refrain is: ‘we are doing it for ourselves!’

So, was I to assume that the subtext: ‘Leave us alone? We don’t want calls for radical change? We don’t want (with exceptions of course) to marry outside our various community divisions and castes or outside our race? We don’t want to take our men to task about the way they treat us? Well, on the strength of my very rarefied sample, apparently yes. Not to forget that I had no access to those insular, ultra-conservative communities which also have a significant population in Kenya. Surely one of their representatives would be of the same opinion.

As an African, my conclusion was that South Asian society in Kenya has been extremely resilient to change in all matters pertaining to gender and sexual interaction. On the other hand, since the outsider partitioned our continent at the Berlin continent, just one hundred and thirty four years ago, we have been much traumatised as a race by the imposition of an alien culture. And in the present moment, it could be said that women in village settings are not happy because the notion of gender parity is relatively unknown to them. Similarly, their counterparts in urban settings are not happy because men will not readily accept the emancipation which they crave. Hence more break-ups, more single mothers, more fatherless children, more dislocation, generally. However, for all this, another conclusion might be that most women, everywhere will continue to make themselves as arrestingly beautiful as possible, for whatever reason.  

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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