Myopic focus on gendered leadership blinds us to the potential of women in high politics

Myopic focus on gendered leadership blinds us to the potential of women in high politics
By Leonard Wanyama Flattery is like cologne in water – to be smelt, not to be swallowed. A recent profile on Ambassador Amina Mohammed by Nicholas Asego and Ted Malanda in The Standard of July 22, 2016 aptly sums up the essence of the preceding statement. Obviously, credit must be given where it is due; the Foreign Affairs cabinet secretary has done very well in hosting various events and dignitaries. Yet, one would be hard pressed to quite follow whether the point of the article was comedy or a literal review of the Cabinet Secretary, in light of Kenya’s hosting of a number of recent international conferences. Whatever one’s ideological, professional or political inclinations, it is imperative that the “punditocracy” or “commentariat” encourages people to take the leadership of women in Kenya a great deal more seriously. The flaw of using toadying language in their examination of Ambassador Mohammed fatally measured her merits on account of a vague manhood quotient and peppered it with very sexist references. Anyone can tell that the advantages of having a qualified diplomat are not on account of their looks or stylishness. Essentially such a myopic focus on gendered leadership blinds us to what is actually one of the most remarkable constitutional gains in Kenya today – the emergence of women in high politics. High politics focuses on all the issues that are fundamentally important to the survival of a country, namely its state security and international relations concerns. Normally, within the Kenyan context, such functions are performed within the presidency and its executive offices. Never in the history of the Kenyan republic have the current number of women occupied such varied positions at the executive level. This is especially the case if principal secretaries, among other high-ranking officers, are included. In this, Ambassador Mohammed is not alone, if one is to also think of Ambassador Rachel Omamo. For who would have thought some years back that our current wartime foreign affairs and defence ministers respectively would be women! Following the adoption of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, this is a clear indication of some gains in the status of women in Kenyan political life. However, recent political intrigue, chauvinism and apathy in debates concerning the gender bill show Kenya still has a long way to go. Indeed, it is a worthwhile effort to critically think of how to continuously improve the opportunities afforded to women leaders, especially in light of world trends and the probable monumental election of the first woman – Hillary Rodham Clinton – as president of the US. Unfortunately, it seems that exemplary performance by women does not obviously translate into an improved or higher career trajectory. If it were so, for instance, wouldn’t we currently be asking whether Ambassador Mohammed or Omamo, or whoever else, could possibly be thought of as a future presidential contender? Nonetheless, while – due to our parochial politics – the possibilities of such chances look slim in Kenya, we have to deeply appreciate how new constitutional provisions have enabled women to join the ranks of men in what were previously very exclusive domains of government. Decision-making So, what would a good profile of women’s leadership in high politics look like? First and foremost, one cannot avoid the discussion of gender roles in this sphere in terms of decision-making. Understanding how women get things done within a context of underrepresentation or stratification is pertinent in perceiving their status, influence and role in both positive and negative developments. Secondly, scrutiny must take into consideration their manifestation within the Executive. While women may not be occupiers of the presidency yet, they serve as officers within the executive office. This manifestation puts them as a different version of national leaders in their own right. Unfortunately, going by the Asego and Malanda profile, cultural contexts still limit this real freshness with scrutiny on the basis of their beauty, feminine elegance, association with spouses, and relationship with children rather than the skills they bring to the table. Rehashing the first point, it is clear that in becoming a new form of national leadership, we have to ask what this meaning translates into in regional terms. Malanda and Asego perceived it only as a question of Kenyan nationalism on account of her Mulembe adoption or upbringing. However, there is definitely more to it if you think about her assigned portfolio and the terms in which Kenyan foreign relations finds itself. Somali Diasporas in East Africa, on account of various forms of migration, are growing considerably, not only in Kenya but Uganda and Rwanda as well. The Somali question has immediate and future resonance to the region in terms of developing solutions for Somalia and offering opportunities to its people. Consequently, having a woman of Somali heritage with Western Kenya experiences in upbringing highlights a rarity in the Kenyan leadership trajectory, or prospects reflecting how possibilities abound for individuals of whatever background if migration challenges are tackled in the region. We also have to examine the challenges she could face in being a representative of the executive from a secular democratic country while dealing with those who are not so much like us. Not too long ago, Ambassador Mohammed faced a surprisingly tribal social media backlash when her dressing was compared to her counterpart from Somalia. However, it would be more interesting to emphasise how she maneuvers the bureaucratic maze in delivery of her responsibilities instead of occasions such as these that she has easily brushes off. A third point to focus a gender profile on would be the role of professional education, social and economic status in the conduct of her activities. This ties in well to know how women earn their positions of influence. It cannot be easily forgotten that she was once a contender for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and so it is interesting to actually understand what specific elements she has brought into guiding Kenyan foreign policy. The fact that women rarely, if ever, feature in many high political calculations, such as occupancy of offices, is a reflection of the hindrances they face within electoral processes. So much so, that it is increasingly likely highly qualified women would likely be allocated positions with lower levels of autonomy, security and individual privilege than their male counterparts. A narration in this light on how the Cabinet Secretary has dealt with this would prove much more informative. Ambassador Amina’s pathway to power and influence is also very important point of examination because it showcases the benefits of merit and professionalism over kinship or familial ties. Even within the rumour mills of Nairobi, the benefits of her marriage to former Mandera Central Member of Parliament Abdikadir Mohammed, never feature in her day-to-day workings or implementation of policy. Abdikadir is currently senior adviser to President Uhuru Kenyatta as Head of Legislation and Constitutional Affairs. We therefore cannot look at a possible mentorship under Martha Karua within her time at the Ministry of Justice as something to passively mention. This could very well be a strong pointer of how political or policy ambitions can very well triumph over patronage networks within the context of narrow-minded structural or institutional machinations. Dr Monica Juma’s unfortunate rejection for position of Secretary to the Cabinet can be contrasted with Ambassador Mohammed, particularly, in light of the tribal, parliamentary and other local rivalries that played out as revealed, in one instance, by her spouse Prof Peter Kagwanja. Lastly, any profile cannot gloss over the relationship between individuals and the existing institutions in their relevant context. In a dispensation subsequent to the post-election violence (PEV) of 2007/08, Kenya is still in fear of its state fragility. Political instability on account of tribal and religious factionalism, together with consistent terrorist activity, threatens its nascent democratic regime stability. Facing such prospective turbulence, it would seem that women have been thrust into leadership as unifying officers with constitutional guarantees. This is on account of their qualities of seeking negotiation, collaboration or deliberation, unlike more independent quick decision-making approaches to issues by their male counterparts. While the jury is out on the kind of scrutiny or criticism they face in the event of mishaps, the same still applies on whether this will encourage women to aggressively pursue more appointive or even elective positions in the future. Ultimately, women are a pragmatic choice for executive leadership and roles. Echoing Jane Austen in Persuasion, “[They] hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of [them] want to be in calm waters all [their] lives”.

The author is a development practitioner and a part time lecturer of International Relations

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