Wednesday, 18 May 2011

In Kenya, pro-gay nominees to senior legal jobs stir backlash

Mutunga, as portrayed on one Kenyan blog
Nominees to Kenya's top two legal jobs are proving extremely controversial - because of their pro-gay history. Kenne Mwikya looks at the context, and the strange focus on the fact that Kenya's proposed next Chief Justice has an earring.

The nomination of Dr. Willy Mutunga and Nancy Baraza to the post of Kenyan Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice has brought with it a unique chance for Kenyans to rethink stereotypes and the policing of certain bodies, values and ideals differently. The Judicial Service Commission, the body mandated to vet candidates who had applied for both positions made it clear that one of the main reasons it chose the said candidates is that they were known reformers, were outsiders from the judicial system (meaning they are lawyers rather than judges) and they would likely bring fresh ideas and extensive knowledge of the law into the judiciary.

The JSC Chairperson said of the nomination and nominees:
“We have picked people who will reform the justice system and our judiciary. ... We wanted someone who can provide leadership to the courts and has shown passion and zeal to help Kenyans realise the dream in the new constitution, especially its values of equality, justice, fundamental rights and freedoms and a commitment to the rule of law”
Though their nominations by the JSC and the fact that President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga have agreed with these nominations paving way for their vetting in parliament it seems that their passing through parliament will be a bit tougher than expected. A lawyer in Nairobi has already petitioned the High Court to reject the nominations on various grounds including the fact that both candidates that “promoted homosexuality” and the selection of one nominee per office “tied the hands of the President, the Prime Minister and Parliament in consultations and debate”.

Lawyer Harrison Njuguna who presented the petition also questioned the unanimity or difference in voting for both the members of the JSC in selecting the two candidates. Dr. Willy Mutunga is said to have facilitated the registration of the Kenyan Gay and Lesbian Trust and Miss Nancy Baraza is doing a doctoral thesis on sexual minority rights (though whether this fact was presented in the petition is not made clear) and also once served once as the chairperson of FIDA, a women rights body composed of lawyers and other professional.

William Ruto has also indicated that he is against the nomination; wondering aloud how a man who wears an earring could lead the judiciary and going further to say that Kenya needs prayers. Religious leaders from the National Council of Churches of Kenya have stated that the nomination of the two could lead to the erosion of Christian values. SUPKEM, a Muslim body in Kenya, has stated that is satisfied by the nominations.

I will use the long prelude above to put Mutunga’ earring, Baraza’s doctoral thesis and their interaction with LGBTI rights and women rights activism prior to their nominations to put into perspective the interpretation of queer and queered bodies and their subsequent discourses in the following paragraphs.

Once upon a time, sagging of pants and wearing earrings were thought to signify deviant sexualities and sexualized identities outside what was considered the norm. Though the stereotyping of gay men as being earring wearing pant sagging deviants has certainly lost its urgency over the years, it can still be potent if invoked at the right place, at the right time and over certain bodies. It is with this thinking that I perceive the kerfuffle that has erupted after the appointment of Willy Mutunga and Nancy Baraza for the position of Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice respectively.

It is difficult to know what earrings and other modes of interpreting queered bodies in the recent past mean today, possibly because they haven’t remained as statically stereotypically representative of one group of people as before.

The young population in urban areas like Nairobi and Mombasa and other urban areas in Kenya is increasingly exploring with different modes of expression especially through dress: I’m seeing more skinny jeans, lots more tattoos, multiple earrings beyond the facial territory and hair styles which would be unthinkable wearing a decade ago. Considering that this population is one of the most visible in country, do they represent the queering of bodies?

In the US where sagging pants has become de rigueur in affirming masculinity amongst men in some areas (I emphasise “some”), what does this mean for the effeminate (hence emasculated) conceptualisation of homosexuality in relation to “manliness” here? With this in mind, it becomes pretty easy to denounce the grounds on which that Dr. Mutunga shouldn’t be given the post of the Chief Justice because it is difficult for them to hold water under objective questioning.

The only main explanation that is somehow sticking – and will be used over and over again over the next week when the names are presented to parliament for vetting – is that the offices of the Chief Justice and others which interrupt publics profoundly have to somehow be sanitised to represent some conceptualisation of the values such publics esteem.

The very term “values” is nebulous and we can’t all definitely move to esteem uniform values in who we choose, nor can these values be a standard on which to measure up certain leaders. The bodies to occupy these positions, as it is turning out, have to hold up certain standards (age, biological sex, marital status, modes of dress etc) to the last marking in the body, no matter what. The earring, with its neo-historical attachments and its dynamisms then becomes a big deal when it shouldn’t. The fact that Willy Mutunga has stated that he wears it for spiritual reasons other than the pre-ordained Christian/Muslim specific becomes grounds to dismiss his nomination, it clashes with these “values”.

Nancy Baraza
The grounds under which Nancy Baraza’s nomination should be rejected; that she is one of the founding members and former chairperson of FIDA, and that she is writing a doctoral thesis on sexual minority rights (most news articles that have actually paid attention to this are writing it down, or off, as “gay rights” something that I’m not really sure about) are worth looking at.

The fact that her activism has been primarily on the rights of women and that she is willing to use her knowledge to pursue societal figures whom most argue should be deprived of even the basic right to life is, to some, a major course of concern. Feminism, in Kenya, is a bad thing and should be undercut at every turn. FIDA is increasingly being drawn up, as in various other instances where it has featured in mainstream, as an organisation ran by divorced women, women who broke their marriages to pursue some conception of freedom or living that did not have men in it. In the messages that I have read concerning Miss Baraza, the fact that she is divorced, is in an organisation that is run by divorced women just goes stated as if to show that it carries its own potency.

I blame the current FIDA bashing over the fact that feminism has become such a bad word in Africa that it has become less associated with trying to gain equality of women in all aspects of life and has become simplified to fit into patriarchal aspersions of feminists being “men haters” and lesbian. Politics in Kenya, which is patriarchal in every sense of the word, thus weds (heterosexual/hetero-productive) men with the public political sphere while women are relegated to the private, to unpaid domestic work and child rearing to become bodies that produce to the extent that they become non bodies themselves.

Of course, the world is changing and having such a mind set in 2011 is offensive not only to women but to the patrilineal kinship ties that are esteemed so much. Women have done great jobs being our mothers, sisters and wives they can sure handle political and public office so long as they keep off feminism or the pursuit of equal rights for all women.

Rejecting Miss Baraza’s nomination because her pursuit of knowledge might involve the chronicling of lives that have been and continue to be destroyed, that discriminative laws have been used to imprison people and to deny them the most basic of human needs and have relegated these people to the darkest corners of our minds and societies sounds like the kind of policing that impedes academic freedom. It becomes much worse because the said person is a woman; it invokes a rich history of subjugation and immoral control over the lives of others.

That Mutunga’s earring ‘might’ be representative or demonstrative of queerness and that Baraza’s doctoral thesis ‘might’ be questioning of laws, stereotypes and beliefs that have been used to discriminate against queers shows just how much we need fresh faces that combat these myths and that challenge us to think beyond what we have come to view as ‘necessary’ or ‘normal’.

As I write this now, we have people who are saying, on social networks and list serves, that Kenya rather have a non reformer than an LGBTI-friendly reformer. This is a dangerous argument; it effaces and does not replace that which it effaces.
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1 comment:

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