The (Kenyan) Male Gaze

Levi-Strauss writes of a Native American people for whom every dream has a hidden sexual meaning, except explicitly sexual dreams, for which it is imperative that non-sexual interpretations be found. I am reaching for an Oscar Wilde aphorism here. Everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. The Freudian in me demurs against this pan-sexualization of everything, and even more against reducing sex to power. But the feminist in me tarries at this sex:power locus, because it is where patriarchy inheres, turning sex into a zero sum conquest with winners and losers. The sexual terrain becomes stark, arduous. One must guard against being had. Against becoming just another notch in another belt.

A friend recently alerted me to the #TeamMafisi hashtag on Twitter. Mafisi is Swahili for hyenas. Armed with the banality of Twitter hashtagging, this “team” of mostly young Kenyan men directs its violent gaze on women’s bodies—their prey.

In her email, my friend wrote:

They disgust me. It’s one thing to objectify women. But that’s not enough for them; they go on to body shame, to call women ugly, to declare entitlement to a woman’s vagina (because a woman has nothing else to her name except a vagina). And of course, women are referred to, richly, as bitches.

Like most violence, misogyny deploys shock and awe to confound our responses beyond coherence. I felt like I did not know how to begin this post. I feel like I have very little to say. Mostly I feel angry.

Although the misogyny on #TeamMafisi might seem reflexive, it is not. Rather, it is so deliberate and organized that it has defenders within the Kenyan blogosphere who lay out its codes of conduct and memos. One could even say—to borrow from blogger (and English professor) Keguro—that the misogyny here is banal. The banality, say, of tweeting and hashtagging, is part of the socio-historical through which misogyny becomes reflexive. Banality becomes the training we put ourselves through to make misogyny reflexive. What might it mean to understand misogyny through the kind of training that produces reflexes? Certainly the banality of tweeting and hashtagging labors to traffic the misogyny of #TeamMafisi and pass it off as ordinary, everyday, as part of the affects and intensities exchanged through the internet, and therefore something one must put up with. The fallacy is that misogyny is slightly inconveniencing.

As Western media deploys an Orientalist lens that locates rape and misogyny squarely in India—meaning, in the Global South, outside the West, and, yet again, as the need to save brown women from brown men—I would like us to think locally. Misogyny is not just a problem in India; in Kenya; or on Twitter. It is a problem everywhere, including here in the West from where I write.

* The image is taken from artist Wangechi Mutu’s work.

2 thoughts on “The (Kenyan) Male Gaze

  1. I think the position Kenyan men view women has been legitimized by our society. When a woman walks into a bar for instance you will see all the men staring and whistling at her, and on the other end you will find everyone including women laughing or smiling as though that is alright, so this team mafisi to me epitomize kenyan men (only that they have taken it to the next level-twitter). Apologies kenyan men but its kinda true…

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