The struggle against gender oppression in Kenya endures. Following the recent unlawful arrest and assault of a transgender woman in the country, Audrey Mbugua voices the subordination of those who do not comply with the restrictive gender-based identities adopted by society at large. Mbugua unlaces these societal constructs that tie their subjects to an existence of marginalisation and abuse. Mbugua suggests ignorance and bureaucratised discrimination amongst Kenyan society is to blame.On 30 July 2010, a transgender woman (who I shall refer to as Storm) was arrested in Thika District in Kenya’s Central Province. She was arraigned in court for intent to commit crime and remanded thereafter in a female remand facility. It was discovered she didn’t possess ‘female genitalia’ the day after. She was thoroughly whipped by a warden for ‘causing the confusion’.
She was transferred to a police station and placed in isolation. While the senior officer was absent, one of the police officers transferred her to a male cell where she suffered sexual assault on top of being ‘baptised’ with a bucket full of urine. Her food was grabbed by some inmates. When she reported the matter to the senior officer, she was beaten up by the officer. Three weeks later a law court released her on a personal bond.
This case presents one of the many incidences of gender oppression transgender people in Kenya face. Gender oppression against transgender people takes the form of violence, sexual assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, victimisation and psychological torture.
The dynamics of these cases of gender oppression are not too hard to understand. First, people look at you and make the assumption that you are a man or a woman. Storm never mentioned that she was a female but the officers assumed she was. This is predicated by the assumption that there are only two sexes/genders: Male and female. Anything else has to be pigeon-holed in these narrow categories. Storm is a transgender woman and the best option would have been to have placed her in a ‘transgender prison facility’.
Secondly, it illuminates the invalid excuse called ignorance. Ignorance is used by many to justify the oppression of transgender people in Kenya. One police officer admitted that if the officers had known about the transgender identity, things would not have gotten out of control. What sort of moral and intellectual cowardice is this? Some of us transgender people don’t know much about pregnancy, but we don’t go around beating up pregnant women because they impersonate fat people. And why do people have to react so violently towards a transgender person? How is violence going to resolve the issue? Transgenderism is not an issue to us but it becomes an issue because people want it to be one.
A year ago, I reported a theft case in our local police post. A suspect was arrested, but not for long. The suspect told the police officers that I wasn’t a woman, but a man. The police released the suspect and raced hotfoot to my house. ‘We are arresting you for female impersonation’ said the leader. ‘And did I ever claim to be a female?’ I enquired. ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ asked the shorter one (Frodo). ‘Am none’ I answered to the boys in blue. ‘You can’t be neither, do you have two organs?’ they pressed. ‘You have no business knowing what I have between my legs and between my ears. Am a transgender, deal with that’ was my response. ‘What is transgender?’ both asked in unison. I explained the transgender concept in a simple way (considering who my audience was). ‘So, if you are a transgender, are you a male transgender or female transgender?’ they continued. ‘Am none of that. I said I am a transgender person. Your labels have no space in the world.’ Well, they went back to their station with their tails neatly tucked between their legs.
Storm revealed that one of the police officers brought his wife and two kids into the police station for a ‘freak show’. The police officer requested Storm to strip in the full view of the family. She refused and the officer rained blows on her as he tore her clothes. His family burst into laughter, aiming degrading remarks at her. Well, I am scared by this incidence because if this disfunctional family does not receive help soon, they will be picking prostitutes from the streets and torturing them before drinking their blood. As I said, ignorance is not the problem; it is the human propensity to harm vulnerable members of the community.
The politics of penises are evident in this sad tale. This is the assumption: A penis is a male organ and anyone having a penis is male/man. I have the greatest sympathy for this flabbiness in reasoning. A penis can also be a transgender penis. A transgender woman who has a penis is a transgender woman not a man/male. If anyone has a problem with that, then they must deal with it. Also, identities are personal and no one has the right to tell a transgender woman that she is a man because of so and so. We are sick and tired of people denying us our right to identity and dignity.
This reminds me of a confrontation I had with part of the gay community related to HIV programming for transgender people. Some experts coined the term ‘Men who have Sex with other Men’ (MSM), which initially was used as a behavioural term rather than as a noun. What these experts were ignorant about was that, whether the term is a behavioural term or a noun, it is disrespectful to refer to transgender women as men who have sex with other men. We are not men but transgender women. But then someone mentioned that most transgender women do have receptive anal sex with men, so the term serves them right. I don’t know where people got this rubbish from but I sincerely hope it will die out sooner than later. There are cisgender women (women born women) who have anal sex with men. Does that make them men who have sex with other men? In a nutshell: Their argument shoots itself in the foot.
This also takes us to the land of ‘misgendering’ transgender women by the gay hungry media and some sexual minorities organisations. A case in point is the just ended Tiwonge and Steven charade in Malawi. Tiwonge maintained she wasn’t male, but I guess a gay hungry media and some gay rights activists couldn’t hear of that. They reasoned: Tiwonge has a penis (and is therefore male), and Steven has a penis (and is therefore a male), so their union was a gay wedding. There is nothing wrong with gay weddings, but it is offensive to label a transgender person gay. You deny her the fundamental right to self-identity; you are simply calling her a man. She is not a man and it is also wrong to assume that a man dating a transgender woman is gay. Yes, explaining this to my 100 year-old grandmother might be a hair splitting exercise but it shouldn’t be quantum physics for the current crop of human rights activists. The valiant Monica Roberts wrote a moving publication about these shenanigans of turning transgender issues into gay issues:
‘We are getting beyond sick and tired of gay organizations misgendering and gayjacking transpeople's identities to fit their agenda … Hot on the heels of the misgendering and mischaracterization of the Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza relationship in Malawi as a 'same-sex' one… now comes the story out of Pakistan that an attempted marriage to a transwoman was broken up by Pakistani police.
'42 year old Malik Muhammad Iqbal and 19 year old transwoman Rani were arrested May 26 in Peshawar. She and the 43 other guests assert they were celebrating her birthday and Iqbal was just a friend… As the story unfolds, like clockwork the Advocate and some gayosphere blogs continue their ongoing patterns of misgendering Rani and other transwomen to pimp the story as a gay marriage issue.’
I am not being polemic or running away from the gay label. I would not be allowed to get away with the following argument: Female genital mutilations are part of African cultures. Any woman who opposes it is running from the ‘traditional woman’ label. Why do people feel they have the right to put a label on us as if we are some kitchenware in a mall? Transgender people need to stop sucking up to mislabelling and proclaim their true identities.
While we support efforts by gay rights organisations to have same-sex marriages and decriminalise same-sex activities between consenting adults, we abhor this ‘gaynising’ trend and spinning of transgender issues into gay issues. It is not wrong to be gay or a lesbian, but it is wrong to refer to a transgender person as gay. It is like referring to a doctor as a carpenter – not because being a carpenter is wrong, but because it is incorrect. Let us respect one another for the sake of sanity.
Another appalling phenomenon in Kenya is the know-it-all attitude people have towards transgender matters. After Storm was released, our lawyer and I were doing the paperwork relating to the case. One police officer started ‘educating’ us on how transgender/transsexuality develops: ‘These people were sexually molested while young so their “male” genitalia no longer works,’ he lectured. What a crackpot! First, no one had asked (or cared) for his expert opinion. If we needed to know what causes transsexuality, we would have sought it from the necessary authorities, not from a police officer who is just trained to shoot. Why is it that people at any level of ignorance feel they have the capacity to lecture about transsexuality? Had Storm been arrested for creating an atomic bomb, would this officer have lectured us on nuclear fission? I don’t think so. Kenyans, please refrain from jumping unto our issues like stolen bicycles.
Some antagonists might resort to using religion to deny us our claim for a third sex. God created two sexes: Male and female. Nothing else and in-between, we should not find flaws in God’s creation. This is not a matter to be handled from a pulpit using some pre-medieval mumblings not worth more than the papers they were written on. Doctors, gender activists and policy makers should not lecture priests on giving ‘Christian children’ alcohol which is christened as the blood of Jesus. We don’t go around reprimanding our priests on the taste of the holy loaf of bread. It doesn’t bother gender activists in any way, the same way the third sex shouldn’t interfere with their holy duties.
The structural roots that sustain gender oppression against transgender people in Kenya are complex but they have solutions. We need the government to recognise the fact that some of us are simply not male or female. We would best fit in a third gender. Gender markers on official documents need to change. It would be best if we didn’t have gender markers at all. What is the purpose of having information in identification documents whose purpose is to give other people an idea of the kind of spanner you have in your pants? If this is untenable, then people who aren’t male or female should be recognised (as the third sex) and the necessary instruments put in place to ensure equality and affirmative action.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Audrey Mbugua is a member of Transgender Education and Advocacy, a Kenyan organisation formed to address social injustices committed against the country’s transgender community.
* Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 Monica Roberts. Transgriot 2010. Chill With The ‘Gayjacking’ of Trans Lives for Your Gay Agenda.
Following the al-Shabaab bombing in Kampala, current plans to send more AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops into Somalia will simply jeopardise the possibility of a new moderate leadership emerging in the country, writes Abena Ampofoa Asare. Observers in the African Union, UN and international community at large would do well to look at Somaliland to the north, the author stresses. Solutions to Somalia’s civil war will not emerge in Kampala, Washington DC or Addis Ababa, Asare contends, underlining that a key lesson of Somaliland’s experience is that ‘effective government must come from within’.Just as Spain was seizing victory in the 2010 World Cup, bomb blasts ripped through Kampala, Uganda, injuring soccer fans gathered to watch the final game of the first World Cup hosted in Africa. Over 70 people were killed and numerous more were injured. Soon afterwards, Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahedeen, a Somali insurgent group, claimed responsibility for these attacks. Sheikh Ali Mohamud Raghe, an al-Shabaab spokesman, told reporters in Mogadishu on Tuesday that the attacks on Kampala were a ‘message to Uganda and Burundi’ that ‘if they do not take out their AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] troops from Somalia, blasts will continue…’
These attacks should not have been a surprise. After numerous threats, al-Shabaab followed through on its promise to bring the fight home to the countries participating in the African Union’s (AU) peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Since 2007, the AMISOM troops supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have been al-Shabaab’s primary military obstacle in Mogadishu. It is hardly the first time that international peacekeepers have been drawn into the quagmire of the Somalian conflict; however, on 11 July, the al-Shabaab attacks were a sign of the high and ever-increasing stakes of the protracted violence in Somalia.
The violence in Somalia has once again emerged as a problem with regional and global implications. After the bomb attacks, President Museveni of Uganda swiftly vowed to take revenge on the Somalian terrorists; a Ugandan army spokesman declared the country able and willing to send 2,000 more troops into Somalia. A chest-thumping op-ed in Uganda’s Daily Nation claimed that Sunday’s attacks ‘give Uganda’s role in AMISOM the popular legitimacy it lacked’ and strengthened the country’s resolve to emerge victorious in Somalia. For Uganda, what had been an international peacekeeping mission has now become a question of national security and patriotism. Avenging Uganda’s civilian dead is now part of the AMISOM mission. Neighbouring Kenya quickly warned al-Shabaab against attempting a similar feat in Kenyan territory. President Barack Obama unequivocally condemned al-Shabaab, claiming that the attacks showed the organisation’s disdain for African lives and were proof positive of its links with al-Qaeda as part of a global wave of Islamist terror. Even Jean Ping, the current chairperson of the African Union Commission, described the Uganda bombings as an event that has ‘strengthen[ed] the collective determination of Africa to play its part in the struggle waged by the international community to stamp out the phenomenon of terrorism.’
Clearly, the eyes of the world are once again on the hydra-headed Somalian civil war of Black Hawk Down infamy. This deadly conflict, which has destroyed millions of lives in the Horn of Africa, now threatens to seep deeper into East Africa and perhaps extend past African shores. And this time, the violence in Somalia is supposedly linked to a broader trend of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism. It is more important than ever to parse the intricate religious, historical and political web fuelling this deadly conflict or risk Somalia’s continuing deterioration into a playground for pirates and terrorists. After more than 20 years of civil unrest, the persistent suffering of the Somali people must be brought to an end.
Ultimately, we do not have to look too far to find an alternative path forward for Somalia. Just a few miles to the northwest the self-declared republic of Somaliland has been a beacon of hope, showing the world precisely what is possible in the Horn of Africa. Somaliland takes in thousands of refugees from Somalia every year. While Somalia’s al-Shabaab was plotting the Kampala attacks, a few miles away, Somaliland held a presidential election which by all accounts was free and fair. Although al-Shabaab warned Somaliland not to hold these elections, more than 1 million Somalilanders took to the streets and queued for hours to cast their votes.
Unfortunately, Somaliland remains politically invisible; the secessionist territory’s independence is not recognised by any of the world’s nations. The African Union, the United Nations and the broader international community would do well to look, and look closely, at Somaliland. The different trajectories of these two neighbouring communities offer a unique anatomy of both the causes and solutions of the Somalian civil war.
The collapse of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s government in 1991 is as good a place as any to start. Siad Barre became Somalia’s president in 1969 and ruled the country with an iron fist, alternately supported by both the USSR and the USA in some of the Cold War’s most unholy alliances. Barre’s reign was marked by terror; village massacres and political executions were part of his regime’s order. Eventually, Barre’s political inconsistency and his abuses of the Somali people alienated both the USSR and the US governments, despite the millions of dollars of arms which these governments had already pumped into Somalia. Without the support of international allies, Barre became vulnerable to the various local groups arrayed against his regime. His 21-year dictatorship ended in disgrace in 1991. However, the violence in Somalia continued. Without Barre’s iron fist, the clan-based political rivalries which had been artificially repressed for two decades bloomed and a country swimming in foreign arms and local animosity was plunged into a vicious civil war.
A UN peacekeeping mission attempted to intervene in Somalia in 1993, but retreated in 1995 after US troops suffered casualties in Mogadishu. Into this vacuum of effective power entered the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), a group of shari’a-based courts with political ties to Eritrea and ideological ties to the stringent Saudi Islamic reform movement. These courts took on the task of governing a country wracked by civil war and offered education, healthcare and security services, within a system of government based on shari’a law. In Mogadishu, the business community, civil society and other local organisations rallied together to defeat the warlords terrorising the capital city. Where international peacekeepers and foreign soldiers had cut and run, the UIC, working with the local population, struggled to extract peace and order from chaos.
Notably, aspects of the UIC order were harsh; thieves had their limbs amputated, murderers were executed and cinemas and soccer were banned. But to a people who had survived more than a decade of civil disorder and violent anarchy, the courts’ leadership was a welcome corrective to warlords focused on looting and destruction. Although the UIC’s conservative and singular interpretation of Islam was a shift from the plurality and tolerance of traditional Somalian religious practice, the UIC’s religious justice became popular in parts of Somalia. The UIC formed a military wing, where past and present leaders of al-Shabaab got their start, and battled the warlords for control of Somalia.
After September 11 and the consolidation of the global war on terror, the United States government’s Manichean division of the world lumped the Somali Islamic courts in with a global Islamist threat. In 2004, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) was formed, with the support of the United States, in order to wrest control of Somalia back from both the warlords and the Islamic courts. From the beginning, it was difficult for the TFG, which was formed in Kenya, to garner local support. Eventually the TFG moved to Mogadishu, but both the UIC and local warlords refused to accept the government’s authority. By 2007, a weak Somali transitional government called for international military action to help destroy the Islamic courts. Ethiopian forces – bolstered by the United States’ blessing and with the support of some its arms – entered the fray to destroy an organisation supposedly linked to al-Qaeda. However, this same organisation had won the respect of many Somalis by rescuing parts of the country from chaos and random violence. Although Ethiopia’s military action in Somalia decimated the UIC, it also forever de-legitimised the Transitional Federal Government.
The internationally supported Ethiopian invasion was the worst possible strategy for winning the hearts and minds of Somalis. The political rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia is the stuff of legends; at least twice in the 20th century, the tense relations between these two countries deteriorated into full-out war. In the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has historically been the military heavyweight with imperial aspirations, and even the local folklore reflects the historical enmity of these two populations. The TFG’s decision to use Ethiopian arms to secure the country immediately undermined this leadership’s intent and national identity. Immediately, the UIC members dodging mortar shells and escaping into exile were rendered nationalist heroes fighting for their country’s independence against foreign imperialists. The future of the transitional government was doomed, particularly when massive humanitarian crises accompanied the invasion and reports of war crimes against the Somali people began to surface.
The foremost ethnographer of Somalia, I.M. Lewis, penned a letter in 2007 criticising the European Union’s ‘astonishing, and imperialistic behavior … in completely ignoring Somali public opinion and its overwhelming rejection of [the TFG]’. All of the international support in the world could not give the TFG the one necessary thing it lacked, the support of the Somali people. If anything, the meddling of Ethiopia and the United States doomed the TFG’s prospects as the population’s distrust of the Transitional Federal Government and disgust at violent international intervention grew. As Lewis explained, the Somalian people would never forgive the TFG leadership ‘for the atrocities which had been committed in its name.’
Three years after the invasion, Ethiopian troops have withdrawn, but there are still scores of foreign soldiers (from Uganda and Burundi, among other places) in the country. The transitional government remains unable to hold much ground, despite the installation of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a man with considerable religious credibility, as president. Foreign soldiers are still charged with the tall task of training government troops, defending the government’s territory and winning the hearts and minds of the Somalian people.
Most importantly, the UIC soldiers who were bombed and pursued by American and Ethiopian forces during the invasion have returned to Somalia radicalised, bitter and with the mantle of martyrdom firmly affixed to their shoulders. This is al-Shabaab – a new organisation of Somalian youth led by members of the former UIC’s military wing. Appropriately, the organisation’s name means ‘youth’ in Arabic. Many of the radical young men in al-Shabaab’s ranks may have only experienced stability during the brief period when the Islamic courts ruled parts of Somalia. These men came of age in the shadow of civil conflict and foreign military incursions and are the reconstitution of the most extreme elements of the former UIC.
A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report on al-Shabaab describes the Ethiopian invasion as the event that turned the loosely organised Islamic courts coalition into a much more centralised and extremist organisation. Of course, the power of al-Shabaab is not unchallenged in Somalia. The ICG report offers a blueprint of ways to de-legitimise the hard-line insurgent organisation. Al-Shabaab is not the sum total of Somalia’s religious community; there are factions within the broader Islamist movement amenable to a political settlement with the transitional government and other organisations which have arrayed in opposition to al-Shabaab’s fundamentalism. Suicide bombs in Mogadishu, harsh social prescriptions and the destruction of Sufi holy places and shrines have rallied popular disapproval of al-Shabaab. More than anything else, the Somali people are weary of the chaos of war; al-Qaeda-style ideas of permanent military jihad do not retain much lustre to a people who have already contended with the ramifications of permanent warfare.