Gender and Minority Based Discrimination and Oppression in Kenya’s South Asian community

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 06/11/2019
Prof. Attiya Waris

Associate Professor of Fiscal Law and Policy, Commercial Law Dept., Law School, University of Nairobi.

By: Attiya Waris

I have for the past decades watched as my friends and family go through all sorts of oppressive interactions; and to which there has seemed to be no recourse. Growing up I heard that when we had the attempted coup in Kenya in 1982, many many women were raped and these included South Asian women, but very few of the latter group ever reported the incident. ‘Family honour’ was claimed: ‘who will marry this girl, if they know she has been raped?’ was the constant refrain.

And this was not a racially based discussion as it is well recognised that this sexist sense of entitlement is the preserve of ALL so-called important male businessmen, politicians or government employees. So women are advised: ‘Just stay away from X, Y and Z.’ Or ‘Stay indoors, do not talk to boys’ - a defence mechanism which kicks in across the entire Asian community. A lot is rumour and speculation because of course no one filed reports and often the men folk would say ‘Do you really think the government cares? Remember they do not even want us here,’ referring to the infamous ‘Asian Question?’

In the 90s, the population reduced, we were all studying hard in school, getting jobs, living lives. Then a female friend did not come back to school, it was the era when we became aware of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It was across communities and whether you were a Black Kenyan or a Brown Kenyan being a young girl going through initiation was a trial of survival. Government ultimately banned FGM but under the covers it has continued and continues to date.

While many know that Kenyan Somalis, for example,  still practice FGM, very few realise that some communities of Kenyan Asians also practice FGM, albeit secretly. Recently, in Australia the government threatened members of the Dawoodi Bohora sect with deportation back to their countries of origin if they did not stop this practice. In the USA there is an on-going case of Bohora doctors performing FGM in their community. They call it ‘khatna’ and claim that it is a religious ritual. Recently I asked a Bohora friend with a daughter whether he supported the practice and was relieved to hear him say, ‘I told my parents if they even think of it I will abandon them.’

However, growing up with male siblings who are treated better than the females continues to have repercussions; brothers have been known to hit sisters and even their mothers and grandmothers. The female member of the family is consistently encouraged to compromise, be soft, reflect and forgive: be the more ‘mature’ person. Of course this ultimately determines on how the boy child then goes on to treat his wife and daughters in future. We learn more from actions than mere words!

After puberty, for most South Asian women comes the marriage season. It often goes by in a blur but last weekend I went for a wedding where I heard the Muslim priest say, ‘Remember you can hit your wife but you cannot hit her on her face!’ It was the first time I had ever heard this and I felt anger, and then overwhelming sadness - here was a couple getting married and the last guidance they received before marriage allowed the man to engage in domestic violence: illegal in Kenya and almost everywhere globally. Later I chatted with my cousins, half of whom are divorced or going through a divorce; and all were silent. Then one cousin quipped ‘I am so tired of that sermon, he says the same exact thing every single time we have a wedding.’

After marriage, while the lucky few may be happy, the challenges I have seen facing women of all economic statuses continues to be mind boggling. From upper class women who move with their children to foreign universities, sometimes in order to escape a difficult spouse, but who, being completely financially dependent, do not ask for a divorce to others who do divorce and others who tolerate the abuse until they are no more. This continues unabated. Fear of going to the police to report on wealthy spouses who have political and economic reach remains a challenge for them. If they do leave, there have been cases where refuge homes in Kenya have refused to take in these well-dressed women with not a penny to their names – simply because they are Asian and therefore must be wealthy, another fallacy that needs to be debunked.

A twist in the tale is the continued arranged marriages of Kenyan Asian males to women from the Indian subcontinent. These too have been flagged: women of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationality trying to escape their abusive situations in Kenya with their children; face insurmountable barriers. Brought in on dependent passes here for a year which stretch into decades or a lifetime because their husbands never apply for citizenship for them.  Even work permits and/or a permanent residentship remain completely under the control of the spouse and the wife is unable to develop even a modicum of financial independence. In scenarios like this I have heard of tales of jewellery and clothing being taken away; phones checked regularly and of in-laws being physically abusive to daughters-in-law. Do the High Commissions of these countries take any interest in the horrendous fate of their nationals, I wonder?

As these women age and their children move on with their lives, comes the next layer of problems. Cases of the elderly (both men and women) relegated first to servant quarters of their family homes and even, unbelievably, later on the pavements - with community members trying to resolve issues; have occurred. My legal advice to parents is: ‘Just do not hand over the title of your family home to anyone during your lifetime; no matter how loving those children may seem to you at the time.’ There have also been cases of disabled members of a family being left on the side of the road.

This piece is not intended to castigate any community as a whole but rather to raise awareness about problems facing people in diverse spaces of vulnerability in Kenya and the need for these issues to be discussed in civic and judicial spaces, debated and a resolution found. These challenges are facing people across the world and as we push into the era of ‘no person left behind’ these people MUST also not be left behind. As a member of a minority community in Kenya I am constantly aware that, because we are a minority, not only do we get nationally discriminated against in some ways but even within our own community structures, discrimination and outlawed practices, especially against women, remain rife and hidden as we continue to mistreat and exploit each other.


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