Tag Archives: religion

Rules of Matrimony and the Place of Gender

Gender is a very interesting construct in Kenya. In my opinion, women here are generally stronger than the men, upholding children and family lives with or without a present father/husband figure. They find ways of providing food, shelter, and school fees, while not having the same vocational opportunities as their male counterparts. This isn’t to say that all Kenyan men are weak, but the emphasis of their time and roles is very different from women’s roles. Several days ago I was meeting with two businessmen who have become friends, one in his early thirties, the other in his late thirties. The older man, Steve, is married with children, but was in the process of seeking out an mpango wa kando (girlfriend). Polygamous tradition seems to have led to this “modern” mpango wa kando cultural norm, of married men taking girlfriends, wooing them through the exchange of money and gifts. In fact, newspaper reports lead me to believe that many university female students will look for an older successful business man to help them with school fees (while girls in the village look for boyfriends/will exchange sex to boys for the local snack
mandazis or some texting credit).

I’m slightly fascinated with sexuality and the implementation of sex as a commodity in this area, so of course, I proceeded to grill Steve about his desire for a girlfriend, his motivations, and his rationality on why it was acceptable. Steve has a “girlfriend” he is currently wooing–he has told her he has a wife, and explained his desire to keep things casual. The girl, who works for Emirates airline, spends some time in Kenya, some time in Dubai, and therefore also has limited time. I asked Steve if his wife knew, and he said of course he could not tell her–in fact, he had to go home and be “sweet” to her (have sex) as he was to go the next day to see the girlfriend for several days, and didn’t want suspicion. Based on numerous conversations during cooking,
washing, etc. with other Kenyan married women, I told him that the wives were often conscious of the affair, but as long as the husband kept providing for them, it was okay. He agreed, but insisted his wife didn’t know. I asked him why he was taking another woman, and he said that for several confidential reasons, his wife was no longer making him happy. However, as they have children, he does not want to upset his children’s lives, so he won’t divorce his wife. Being a person who pushes for equality, I asked Steve what would happen if the wife found out, and decided to take a boyfriend… this made Steve a bit upset, but he explained that if the wife was to take a boyfriend, she must go with the boyfriend. He then referred to the newly minted Kenyan law, legalizing polygamous marriage (to those who are not Christian, Hindu or entering into a religiously mandated monogamous marriage), asking
me if I had ever heard of a polyandrous clause. I hadn’t. That’s because one doesn’t exist. Therefore, while Steve can have  girlfriend, that on the off chance might lead to a second marriage, his wife can’t have a boyfriend, because polyandry is illegal.

While totally foreign to me (which he acknowledged), the rational is based on a history and culture of polygamy, and of gender inequality. Women are not equal to men in relationships, and this is demonstrated throughout other sectors. This is why women here (especially in the village) are generally okay if a husband wants a second wife, as long as he is still able to provide some financial assistance to the first wife and her children.  I’ve met many young men in this area who swear to only take one wife, as they came from families with absentee fathers, and watched their mothers suffer greatly to provide food and school fees for their children. In contrast, Steve came from a family with three wives, who his successful father cared for. The world has a long history of polygamy, especially when war eliminates a large percentage of a male population. And yet, looking at the modern world powers, very few “first world” countries exhibit large amounts of polygamous marriage. Perhaps when it comes to development of a
country, the equalizing of gender is an important step. If Kenya was to follow this rational, and work to equalize gender, men and women would be equal, resulting in a law allowing polyandry (highly unlikely) or the end of polygamy (much more likely). This makes me wonder… does the promotion of equality lead to the decline of “culture” and “tradition”? Can it be argued that “new” culture and tradition form (although, based on the definition of culture and tradition – with the basis being history and long term practice), is it even possible to form “modern culture”? Or does equality lead to a population that works to not have differences, where culture and tradition become obsolete?

Defeat via Gender?

I just finished reading an amazing book, The Places in Between, about an adventure taken by a young man through Afghanistan in 2002, right after the Taliban fell. He decides to follow the famous Emperor Babur’s footsteps, walking across Afghani terrain to Kabul. Weaving the tale with threads of personal anecdote, history and observations of another culture, Rory Stewart’s adventure held my attention captive. He tells of evenings sitting with men discussing local politics and religion; moments of possible danger, trying to understand the motives of individuals, what the best answer to a question would be given the region and religion; he tells of moments of loneliness, uncertainty, and ultimately triumph when he accomplishes his goal. I looked forward to sitting down to read a chapter during a quiet period, holding a cup of tea close, taking in each scene he portrayed, the emotions he felt, the physical difficulties he endured.


What made him successful? Firstly, Rory’s knowledge of the language, culture and religion was of great importance in his journey, enabling him to get out of several very dangerous situations. Secondly, he is generally in good health, although experiencing some sickness on the trip. Finally, he is a man. In an Islamic society, I highly doubt a single woman, no matter her nationality, would be able to take such a journey alone. At one village, Rory describes that the women had never left that village, not to even visit a neighboring one. A woman traveler therefore might be at constant danger from local men who believe it is wrong for a woman to walk alone. As Rory often slept in mosques or village leader’s houses, there might not be a place for her to sleep, as she might not be welcomed.


While reading his memoir, I felt a certain sadness, due to the fact that I don’t think it would be possible for me to complete a similar trip. I’ve had almost a year of travel and living in new cultures, but my travels have stayed within certain limits. I was never in a place where I couldn’t get food or water, or where my safety was continuously threatened, or where my gender put me at a larger disadvantage.

But there are two strikes against me completing a similar journey to Rory’s: the first, having T1 diabetes. This is a huge logistical challenge, requiring a lot of attention and dedication, but can be overcome. But the second challenge, that of being female, is much more difficult to more beyond. As a woman, I am unsure I would be able to walk alone for hundreds of miles across an Asian, Middle Eastern or African state without putting myself in extreme danger, simply due to my gender.


Working so hard to pursue the dreams that motivate me, I have been able to overcome the challenges of Type 1 Diabetes in moving to Kenya, traveling solo in different countries and cultures, and learning about my body and limits. So how can something as basic as gender be the Achilles heel of adventures?