During my 7-weeks, I began asking Kenyan women this question: “What does it mean to be a woman?”
Women replied boldly: “Women are the soul of the family.”
“Women hold things together when everything is breaking.”
“Women are a pillar, men don’t do anything.”
One man even said, “Women are everything.”
With these bold statements, however, they also described the innumerable responsibilities they had in their homes. As traditional roles of homemakers, Kenyan women were responsible for all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, raising children, managing shops/small businesses, harvesting food, shopping, church activities, etc. Implications for these responsibilities? Some younger, unmarried women told me they are taught to believe that if there’s a problem in the home, it’s the wives’ fault, never the husbands’. If the kids have bad values, it reflects poorly on the mother. If the kids are spoiled, it’s the woman to blame. When I asked what the man’s role was in the home, one Kenyan said, “to live on the women.”
The Kenyan women I met have immense pressure placed on them by these gender roles, but something that struck me was that they would describe their responsibilities, never their rights. They never complained, but assumed their gender roles with dignity. They unashamedly make bold feminist claims like “Women are strong! Women can do anything!” because they can back up those claims as married/single/divorced women who play major and vital roles in their homes and communities and churches. The Kenyan women I spoke to found their identity primarily in their families, as many in collectivist societies tend to do. Many people in Western culture find their identity in their jobs or careers. I think it’s easy for Americans to do that because ideally your career celebrates you as an individual–your interest, your passion, your skill set–and therefore, a fulfilling career is an extension of yourself.
I personally find such rigid gender roles distasteful, but I respect the Kenyan women I met who performed those roles faithfully. They were strong, amazing women. They did everything, and they knew it. Even the single moms didn’t blame the men who failed them; they were still faithful to their families, put their kids first, and lived sacrificially. They demonstrated that to be a woman, from a Kenyan perspective, means to be sacrificial, community-minded, responsible, and serving.