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BIKO INTERVIEW: Man at Centre of Women’s Rights

 

In the 34 years that the Federation of Women Lawyers (Fida) has been in existence, it has received over 250,000 cases fighting for gender equality. There are six men who work for Fida. Samson Oketch Orao, a senior programme officer in the Women and Governance department is one of them. Before joining Fida, he worked for African Centre for Women and with AIC Children’s Homes.

He met JACKSON BIKO for tea at Geco Cafe on Mbaazi Avenue, Nairobi for a chat about gender.

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Are people always surprised when they learn you work for Fida?

All the time! (Laughs) When one Uber guy realised I worked at Fida he asked me with concern if I was in trouble because no man just goes to Fida unless things are pretty bad. (Laughs) It was also a problem for my friends and family and it’s still a problem with guys who don’t know me on a personal level. Some people wonder why I can’t work for Maendeleo Ya Wanaume instead, that I joined ranks with the enemy which makes me an enemy. Even the women themselves are taken aback. It’s not easy because as a man working in a woman’s space, you have to prove that you understand the issues and not bring patriarchy to such kind of an environment.

How come after over three decades men still view Fida as “anti-men”, an organisation that is exists to suppress them?

Biko, you know the Fida we knew when we were growing up was very militant, if I can call it that. One Cabinet Minister said that Fida is an organisation run by bitter divorcees, women who want to oppress men. That tag has not been washed off because Fida has been at the forefront of advocating and championing for women rights.

I think the perception has stayed because at Fida we don’t keep quiet about injustices.

We have nice laws but we don’t practice them and so people just step on women not thinking that, this could be my wife, my sister, or my mother. For instance, it’s sad that men see the Sexual Offences Act as a law that oppresses, not many see the goodness of it.

Because you are on the inside, are men better behaved now than they were 35 years ago?

Kenya has come a long way and the work that civil societies have done has made this country a better place for all of us, not just for women. Look at the Sexual Offenses Act and The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. These are important gains. These laws have brought sanity. Kenyans now know that there is recourse.

What do you think could be the biggest disconnect between men and women in this day and age?

Women have become empowered and they take empowerment for equality. But the truth is, even as I fight for women’s rights, and this is an odd statement, equality is never really there.

There’s what we do as men, which our physical structure has made us to be able to do and then there are things women will do because of their biological make-up. The second disconnect is that we are trying to act modern but we still have cultures that hold us back. Take inheritance for instance, there are many communities now that still don’t consider women to be worthy to inherit ancestral land. These issues are still unresolved.

Do you find that you understand women better now that you work for Fida?

That’s a very difficult question (Chuckles). Is there any man who understands women? (Laughs) I don’t know. Women are special species, you can never understand them. You try and compromise.

But working at Fida means I’m more aware about what we need to do, I’m more aware about human rights and women’s rights.

Which of the women’s right do you find that men find most confusing or don’t understand or are not even aware of?

The right to their bodies. (Pause) Wait, do men even understand women’s rights? The truth is, and now this is Samson speaking, and not Samson of Fida, men do not understand or do not see that women have voices and they need to speak, be heard and to own property. When a woman driver makes a mistake what will men say? They say women hold steering wheels like this. (Demonstrates). Women really get bullied.

How was your childhood?

I grew up in the village. I was the last born, between me and our first born brother were all girls. The people I interacted with closely were my sisters. Dad was polygamous, he had three wives and about 20 children. My parents were all teachers so they really struggled. My dad was traditional; I was never allowed to step in the kitchen as a boy. I was always expected not to cry like a girl. There was some level of violence, competition and struggles to pay school fees.

My sister had to wait for two years until I finished high school to see if I had passed enough to be paid for fees. As a boy I was given priority to education.

How did your childhood shape you as an adult? Also, I’m curious to know if the interactions with your sisters helped you in your job now at Fida?

Well Biko, I’ll never be polygamous. And growing up with girls has made me more comfortable around women. I am more accommodative and willing to give my sister or my wife a chance to speak, to listen to them, but also to consult them. It’s also taught me that girls need education because they need their own income. A woman with income is empowered.

What do you find yourself struggling with when it comes to gender relations as a modern African male?

That’s very interesting. (Pause) But first define for me what a modern African male is, because these modern men are facing so many scandals.

Someone who has evolved in thought and behaviour enough to fit in the current society because I think any ape can wear an expensive suit and download an app.

(Laughs) That’s a very tough question to be honest. (Pause) Listen, even though I’m more aware of gender sensitivities than an average man, my DNA is still male and sometimes I struggle with these gender stereotypes. For example, recently I had travelled and my wife used our car, we have one car. When I came back I found the car had moved and I thought OK, what’s that about? She should have asked me. I felt that she might not be a better driver to handle the car than me because of her gender … and I’m the man who is ‘woke’ when it comes to gender issue. What’s your gender experience?

I was born in the late 70s. I never recall my dad, a very decent man by many standards, making my sisters feel less important than us. Actually, he favoured them more. But of course our fathers, uncles and male neighbours were from that era. Now we find ourselves in this different era; one part the modern African male, the other part just like our fathers. For me it happens a lot in traffic especially when I wait as a woman reverse-parks; I’m always thinking to myself, “Oh of course, take your time. We all have until Christmas.” But the question is, how do we reset this socialisation? How do we become better men?

(Laughs) We’ve got to be honest to shape our values. Forget about the law, because laws are made for men. We just have to think of treating women as how you would your mother or your daughter. As human beings.

Are you a happy man?

I’m a sober man. (Laughs)

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