In 1992, Wangari Maathai did the unthinkable – she backed a group of women activists, who stripped naked in public.
She and a group of women had camped at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to demand the release of political prisoners, who had been arrested and detained by the Moi regime. In response to the protest, the government had sent police to forcefully evict Prof Maathai and her fellow women protesters from the park.
In defiance, the women stripped naked. It was a bold and unsettling act of protest that not only reverberated all over the country, but also caught the attention of the world.
In an interview years later in 2005, a year after she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and Peace, she told the Ecologist, an environmental affairs platform: “I never saw myself as an activist… When all this began, I was a very decent professor at the University of Nairobi. I was a good girl. But once I started I realised activism was a necessity.”
Wangari’s brand of protest, just like that of outspoken cleric Timothy Njoya, who recently released a book called Selfhood: Divinity of the Clitoris, essentially a protest against female genital cutting, took place before the advent of social media, the new home for activism.
Reverend Njoya will be remembered in history as one of the few men of the cloth who boldly protested the oppressive Kanu regime.
Boniface Mwangi’s name has occupied the Kenyan social justice space for over a decade. He is a child of two worlds, that of street activism and online activism.
He has participated in numerous protests and actively documents the grievances of the common mwananchi on his social media platforms, most recently sharing information on cases of police brutality as a result of the national curfew.
With activism now largely online, hashtags have become a popular tool of social change in the digital age, influencing discussions online and bringing forth the grievances of diverse groups across the country.
In the past decade, the conversations started by hashtags such as #MyDressMyChoice and #WeAre52pc have catalysed physical protests demanding that the rights of women are recognised and acted upon.
The latter manifested in a petition to the Chief Justice to dissolve Parliament in 2017 for failing to implement the two-thirds gender rule. The petition has since been co-signed by the Law Society of Kenya, who re-ignited the process late July.
#LipaKamaTender is another hashtag that comes to mind as a nationwide strike by health workers under the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union umbrella gained momentum regarding the state of their employment in 2017. Low pay and unfavourable working conditions resulted in a 100-day strike that culminated in a Collective Bargaining Agreement with the government.
As recent reports would reveal, these needs are yet to be met, but the conversation spurred by the hashtag endured as one of the hallmarks of healthcare-based activism.
The most recent one is the #covidmillionaires, which followed an exposé by NTV on the massive corruption in government institutions that led to sale of supplies, some donated, set aside to fight Covid-19, in the process enriching a few unscrupulous individuals. Angry Kenyans took to Twitter using this hashtag to condemn the blatant theft, demanding that those behind the atrocity be arrested and charged.
But we can’t talk of the rise and rise of online activism without mentioning online feminist activism. Shaking the digital table is a task feminists in Kenya have taken upon themselves as they agitate for women’s rights countrywide via online platforms.
Spur social change
A recognisable voice is that of Dr Njoki Ngumi, a writer, feminist thinker and director of the NEST Collective. Her Twitter threads are just one of the ways in which she performs her activism. By identifying teachable moments and documenting her thoughts, Dr Ngumi has used her platform to lead important conversations that eventually spur social change.
A long-running digital protest under the hashtag #MyAlwaysExperience is one of the more prominent demonstrations of her candour. The protest, which highlighted the substandard state of the Always brand of sanitary pads, was escalated to Procter and Gamble, drawing the involvement of Nairobi Woman Rep Esther Passaris. Its apogee was Kenya Bureau of Standards’ investigation of Always pads.
In the recent past, this group of women who relentlessly amplify issues affecting their gender have been belittled as “keyboard warriors” by men and women alike, and rained upon by ad hominem insults for discussing issues such as body politics and female representation in government.
Yet the feminist movement on Twitter remains relentless in its battle for the safety of women, using their voices to challenge the status quo.
Building communities for women to share their grievances online and sparking these conversations is a task that activists such as Aisha Ali, known as bintiM on Twitter, have taken in stride since the dawn of the Digital Age.
Ms Ali, a writer, has used her platform on the site to educate the public on various feminist topics from as early as 2011, participating in initiatives such as The Atieno Project and Weavers, a social media campaign that sought to highlight matters related to gender-based violence in 2014.
She is also part of a collective known as #WeAre52pc, collaborating with women such as Marilyn Kamuru, who describes herself as an unapologetic feminist on Twitter to continue the conversation on the two-thirds gender rule that calls for gender equity in public office.
With a following of about 11,900 people, Ms Ali continues to advocate for community-led development with the Mama Hope collective, a cohort of 12 women from Kenya, Guatemala, Uganda, the United States and Tanzania.
However, due to rampant online abuse against her over the years, her account has remained private, seemingly as a shield from the digital pitchforks that often come her way during the often controversial debates on women’s rights.
Scaled down her posts
Ms Christine Odeph, who describes herself as an inter-sectional feminist on her Twitter handle, @kenyanisa, affirms that social media is not kind to women who dare to “speak their truth”. She should know.
A few years ago, she was forced to take a social media haitus when her followers viciously descended on her following a tweet that obviously did not resonate with Twitter users, KOT, as they are referred to.
Following that incident, which she refers to as an act of bullying, she has since scaled down her posts, and is careful to sensor her thoughts lest she invite more intimidation.
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“The harmony in Twitter is seasonal, one minute you’re a darling, another you’re pariah; people will only agree with you as long as they agree with your arguments,” she says, adding that being candid only invites attacks on the individual’s looks besides dragging of one’s past to the full glare of social media where one is harshly judged and sentenced.
“I hold back more now, I’m more reserved and rarely participate in conversations,” she says.
A 2018 iHub report noted that an effect of such online attacks is self-censorship as a result of emotional trauma and the glaring intimidation extended to the women affected, curtailing their online freedom. Feminists on Twitter rarely post personal pictures, as their looks are often scrutinised where a controversial opinion is involved.
As social media becomes a popular source of news and an arena for public opinion, the rejection of feminist ideals has been a peculiar trend to watch in the past decade.
Phrases such as “feminists watakukujia” and the continued abuse of vocal women on these platforms in an effort to silence them counter the very notion of female empowerment that many Kenyans choose to identify with, almost simultaneously.
These incidents of cyberbullying are almost endemic to women, degenerating to a point where the public is privy to their private information should they dare to share their opinions.
Female politicians have been on the receiving end as well, with some shying away from using platforms such as Twitter until their positions in the public sphere required it.