Two Kenyan heroines died within a week of each other. One, Prof Wangari Maathai, was celebrated around the world, and her achievement crowned with a Nobel Prize. The other, Dr Margaret Ogola, was celebrated for her award-winning literary work and her human rights and pro-family advocacy. Both were strong women, both were felled by cancer, both mourned by many.
So today we reflect on the strength of a woman. We tend to equate strength with muscles, strong character with tough physique. Hence the historical prejudice by which woman was called the weaker sex, meaning ‘fragile’ or ‘frail’. A woman’s variable emotions, her tears and her compassion were considered proof of her weakness. This prejudice still exists, and is found both in women and in men.
When the youthful Kingwa Kamencu declared her interest in the presidency amidst tears, men and women reacted with similar disdain and asked her to toughen up. I found it surprising, the cultural consensus that strength and tears cannot go together. Yet strength does not mean being dry-eyed nor hard-hearted. Masculine traits like bushy chins, deep voices, iron-hard muscles or testosterone-induced aggression do not necessarily mean strength. Tom-boys and he-girls are a caricature of strong women.
Unfortunately, society unconsciously expects women to model their strength on masculine traits. So the caricature of the strong woman, mulier fortis: a big-bosomed strong-armed woman whose physical strength causes Maendeleo ya Wanaume nightmares. This caricature views the strong woman as a dominant person who subdues the men in her life, or at least slugs it out with them, physically and emotionally.
True strength, whether of woman or man, is something more than physical or muscular strength. It doesn’t mean competitive advantage but something else altogether. It means strength of character, fortitude, courage. It implies patience and perseverance, loyalty and humility. And while strength is always discovered in the way a person acts on others and the environment, true strength springs from a person’s dominance of self.
In an ancient King Arthur’s tale, the story of Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, King Arthur was issued a challenge. To save his life, he had to answer the question, “What do women desire above all else?” Eventually, through Lady Ragnell he learns the answer: “What a woman desires above all else is the power of sovereignty, the right to exercise her own free will.”
A woman’s strength is found in a compassionate heart that covers a core of steel. As Mark Twain insightfully explained, “Women have far more endurance and patience and fortitude than men.” Hence, we say, “Behind every successful man there is a woman.” Woman is always present where man is, uplifting and stabilising him. Sadly, the reverse is often not true, due to all the absentee fathers, husbands, brothers and sons that our culture churns out.
Margaret Ogola’s ‘The River and the Source’ is about four generations of strong Kenyan women. The book exposes the woman’s voice that was often absent in literature, indirectly highlighting a certain cultural tension that afflicts men when interacting with strong women.
In Wangari Maathai’s life, that tension is highlighted when her then husband sought divorce because she was “too strong minded for a woman.” But Maathai in ‘Unbowed’ explains that relationships were the source of her strength: “When the road bends and I have no idea what will emerge, I think of [my children] and gain the courage to follow the curve and walk forward, though the path ahead be yet untrodden.”
The passing on of Ogola and Maathai should help us all to appreciate the many strong women in our midst. They run our families, and have shown that their increasing professional and public participation is the balm our society needs. Sarah P. Smith, a young artist and writer, explains: “The strength of a woman can carry the weight of the world.” As we mourn two Kenyan heroines, let us toast to the strength of a woman.
(The author is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya)
Adopted from www.lifematters.co.ke with the kind permission of the author