Willy and I first became acquainted over forty years ago, initially as members of one of the cells of the political underground and fellow activists in the university academic union of which he was Secretary General. Then in 1982 we were both arrested and detained at more-or-less the same time and eventually released within a week of each other. We spent several months together at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, cultivating a social and intellectual bond that provided us with tremendous strength and mutual support under those difficult conditions of confinement. The post-detention years offered a space of even greater intimacy between us, one that evolved first into a deeper friendship and eventually into a solid familial bond. Willy even named one of his sons after me, and had I had a son I would probably have named him after Willy. Against this backdrop, then, it should not come as a surprise that deciding on a Willy-related topic focused enough for a short essay proved to be a particularly daunting exercise for me.
Fortunately, I recently had the privilege of reading and becoming inspired by Karim Hirji’s new two-volume book, an intellectual odyssey of a sort on Religion, Politics and Society. In his brilliant analysis, Hirji employs a quasi-materialist-humanist approach that allows him to explore important arenas of tension, contradictions and conflicts while maintaining a disposition of respect towards all religions. I believe this same ‘Hirjian’ sensibility also frames Willy Mutunga’s personal relationship to matters of religion and religious faith, crystallized into a disposition that may have contributed to his capacity to listen, hear, appreciate, accommodate, and foster inclusiveness of a variety of views, opinions, and orientations. And it is this dimension of Willy’s life that I seek to explore here, taking his ear stud as my point of departure. I suggest that Willy’s stud can be read as an act of transgression intended to challenge the ‘mainstream’ about its gender prejudices and religious intolerance, advocating a shift towards a society built on equity and social justice.
As we may remember, the nomination of Willy Mutunga for the position of Chief Justice of Kenya in 2011 generated intense debate triggered, in particular, by the stud he wears on his left ear. The stud provoked both secular and religious reactions. On the secular side were some Kenyans who were still under the dated impression that a stud in one ear, be it the left or the right, somehow symbolized a gay inclination. Then there were both orthodox Muslims and Christians whose opposition to Willy’s stud derived from the association of earrings with women’s adornment. Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Muslims were strongly divided on the issue of Kadhi’s courts during the debate on the proposed 2010 constitution. Suddenly, the two camps found themselves on the same side of a new debate, brought together by their doctrinal interpretations of men wearing studs.
One of the ironies of the Mutunga debate are the two entirely different meanings of the word ‘stud’ in the English language. When worn in the ear some have interpreted the stud as ‘effeminate’. Paradoxically, the Concise Oxford Dictionary also defines the word ‘stud’ as ‘young man, especially one noted for sexual prowess’. In this latter meaning, the word ‘stud’ implies high masculine virility. It is only the former (feminine) meaning of ‘stud’ that became relevant in the debate about who was to become Kenya’s next Chief Justice.
There is, of course, a false presumption among both orthodox Christians and Muslims that the sexual division of attire and adornment is the same the world over. This is certainly not the case. Kenyans and Tanzanians know only too well that Masai men, for example, regularly wear earrings. So did men among the Kikuyu and several other ‘traditional’ African societies. Some Punjabi Muslim men traditionally wear one or two earrings. It is even arguable that the tradition of men not wearing earrings at all was for a long time Anglo-Saxon disproportionately. There is sufficient evidence to show that in the past at least there were earring-wearing men in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Different readings of Islamic doctrine have resulted in a distinction between liberal Islam as against literal or orthodox Islam. Many orthodox Muslims regard men and women as unequal in status, the amputation of the hand of a thief as justifiable under certain circumstances, and the death penalty as an appropriate penalty for adulterers. Liberal Islam, on the other hand, is anxious that women be treated as equals; that the amputation of hands of thieves be relegated totally to history; and that the death penalty be either abolished completely or be limited to such egregious offences as first-degree murder (and never be imposed on adulterers). To liberal Muslims, Allah is God of Compassion. And it is to this liberal school of Islam that Willy clearly belongs, convinced that new circumstances, new developments, new understandings, sometimes require new interpretations.
Neither its association with gay culture nor with women’s adornment, however, persuaded Willy to discard the object of contention. He insisted on retaining his stud even if it meant compromising his chances of judicial appointment as the Chief Justice of Kenya under the new constitution. After all, the stud had become an important symbol for unsettling the socially constructed boundaries of gender, and somehow emblematic of Willy’s own track record of standing in solidarity with Kenyans across the gender divide, demanding with them their impartial treatment and equal enjoyment of socio-economic and social rights.
We now know, of course, that Willy did not elect to wear the stud to imitate women’s adornment, to signal a gay disposition, or to adopt an emergent male fashion. His reasons rather were cultural, rooted in his Kamba traditions. In a sense his stud can be described as hirizi ya mila (a form of an amulet signifying the blessings of ancestors). It is different from the hirizi ya dini (the kind of amulet that, in some Muslim cultures, would usually contain verse(s) from the Qur’an and be used for protective purposes). In Willy’s public statements he made it clear that his stud, his hirizi ya mila was traditionally ordained as a symbol of spiritual oneness with those ancestors. This is one among many areas of cultural convergence between Islam and traditional African cultures outside the sphere of kufr, of associating other forces with realms of power that belong exclusively to Allah.
In Islam we are told that when a person dies, all his or her actions come to an end except in one of three ways. One of those is having a dutiful child who remembers and prays for the dead person(s), one who remains spiritually connected with them. In his family in Kitui, Willy is widely regarded as that dutiful child. His hirizi ya mila helps him keep the memory of his ancestors alive and foster a sense of communion with them. Hopefully, Willy’s hirizi ya mila will also stimulate the consciousness of Kenyans to be more mindful of our African cultures and regard our spiritual traditions with greater reverence.
In Kiswahili we say ‘Mtu ni Utu’. And in the Swahili imagination ‘utu’ is not just a matter of empathy with, respect for and compassion towards others. As significantly, it is the embodiment of that sense of union and interdependence with the world around us. It has been my experience of Willy’s life that ‘utu’, rooted in part in a Kamba worldview, is fundamental in the framing of his politics and political orientation.
Willy was born into his Kamba traditional religion in a household that was accommodating and inclusive in matters of religion. Later he joined the Protestant Church before converting to Catholicism. He eventually adopted Islam. Today Willy continues to be a Muslim by faith though in practice he has tried to be a bridge-builder between the various religious traditions in Kenya. In the aftermath of the violence that accompanied the 2007 and 2017 presidential elections, several inter-faith initiatives emerged to find a common religious space for contributing to national reconciliation. Willy has been the personification of this interfaith spirit, a personal attribute that added to his remarkable credentials for the position of Chief Justice.
In 1972, Maxine Rodinson published the French original of his Marxism and the Muslim World, essentially applying a materialist approach to Islam and Muslim societies. Since then, there have been debates about the (in)compatibility of Marxism and Islam. But with his orientation towards liberal Islam, Willy seems to have discovered a comfortable intellectual and political space of co-existence not only of Marxism and religious faith, but also of the various faiths that constitute the Kenyan community. And that epistemological space, I believe, has been a pivotal political strand in his advocacy for equity and social justice for all in Kenya and beyond.
But how sustainable, in fact, is this space of accommodation of different, sometimes conflicting, ideologies? Perhaps the answer is in the womb of time!