Tokenism is a big stick that is often used to beat women into submitting to societal expectations and roles thrust upon them.
Words like “allowed”, “given”, “handed”, “let” and their synonyms are the first signs that tokenism is about to be birthed. The words often imply that women need permission or favoritism to lead or sit at a decision-making table. It suggests that the positions given to women are meant to help tick a box. And it reeks of pretentiousness.
It was evident during the recently held Kenya Editors Guild elections in which I was contesting when my opponent used the word to disparage my candidature, conveniently forgetting that I had the skills and expertise equal to the task ahead, not just the “right” gender.
It’s the same argument that was put across by a section of MPs who dismissed the Gender Bill as one that would allow tokenism as “party leaders would gift their slay queens and girlfriends”. Interestingly , gender diversity in leadership minus the tokenism is what was being fought for in the first place. Any woman worth her salt will tell you that.
But tokenism is just one of the big sticks women have to contend with. The term slay queens, as well, has often been used to dismiss beautiful, accomplished, well-groomed women, as was deconstructed by columnist Bitange Ndemo in his 2018 article titled “Time to stop stereotyping women as slay queens”. He bemoaned the negative connotations of the word and rightly pointed out how the term is used to puncture holes into the successes and achievements of women.
The terms “tokenism” and “slay queens” are not the only enemies of women’s progress.
There is a small, tight box of expectations that a woman will always be forced into. It is a box so small and so tight that it can make anybody claustrophobic.
Additionally, the number of caveats or “buyer bewares” that a successful, educated, enterprising woman would have to deal with in her lifetime can drive one insane.
Any intellectually ferocious, successful, financially stable single woman in “the marriageable age bracket” will tell you about the extraordinary number of times they have been told they will never see the pearly white gates of marriage heaven. Not just by relatives and friends but also by strangers, including the pastor who could have overseen their marriage ceremony.
You will hear stories about their being too independent for marriage. Too opinionated for marriage. Too educated for marriage. Too financially stable for marriage. You will hear stories about women shy about revealing their true academic accomplishments because they were told it would intimidate their suitors. You will also hear of the women who were told not to speak about the house they bought in Syokimau because it was an impediment to their ascent to marriage heaven.
Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai epitomises this woman, as it is widely claimed her husband divorced her because she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”. All these “negative” traits suit the woman described earlier.
It is the classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t kind of scenario; with women often scrambling to get into the box of expectations while offering explanations and dismissals about their accomplishments.
They say “Oh, it’s just God” or “Oh, it is teamwork” or “Oh, it’s not a big deal” even when they have won the Nobel Prize for their achievements. They contort themselves to unimaginable shapes and sizes to fit into the box of expectations and what for?
There is a forced reality about how women’s lives should or must be which is detrimental to their wellbeing. Heck, it’s moving the whole country behind.
Misogyny is at the epicentre of all these expectations and labels thrust in the face of women. Sometimes it is conscious, targeted. Aimed at women with a sniper’s precision. But sometimes it is subtle yet equally lethal. Served in doses of “politeness” and “goodwill”, their aim is equally clear: to keep women boxed up. And we must resist this.