A Kenyan Feminist’s Objection to Women in the Military Hierarchy

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

As a pacifist feminist who has protested Kenya’s war in Somalia, I cannot applaud the recent appointment of Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier.

Last August, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier of the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF). Fatumah Ahmed was promoted from a colonel to a brigadier as well as appointed the managing director of the Defense Forces Medical Insurance Scheme.

Ahmed’s appointment has generally been viewed as a win for feminism by feminists themselves, with the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC) hailing it as a “milestone” and praising the President for the appointment. NGEC Chairman Winfred Lichuma deemed the appointment a promotion of gender equality in the management of the affairs of Kenya.

“For the first time, Kenya has a woman brigadier who is all-rounded, competent and qualified to serve in our disciplined forces. This is an empowerment to marginalized groups in the country,” said Lichuma.

Ms Lichuma acknowledged the appointment as a way to integrate women into male-dominated sectors, urging the State to borrow a leaf from Ahmed’s appointment and ensure it brings women on board to serve in key decision-making organs.

I’m a feminist myself who certainly believes that women should enjoy equal access to career advancement and jobs in all spheres. Kenyan women are already part of the military and the appointment of a Kenyan woman to this rank just means that they are able to get as much credit for risking their lives as men do.

Nonetheless, while the appointment is deservedly a feminist victory, it is certainly a mixed one. On one hand, achieving equality for Kenyan women in military leadership illustrates just how successful feminism in Kenya has been in one of its key missions: achieving equality.

Military leadership is, in a sense, a defining male role. And exclusion from the military hierarchy, has, in turn, been a defining feminine trait. A policy that acknowledges the participation of women in, and capacity for military leadership, is, therefore, an important assertion that we are not our gender roles. It demonstrates that women truly can do anything, and must be allowed to do everything that men can do.

But here’s the thing, feminism has never been just about equality. While many feminists advocate the need for women to enjoy equal opportunities as men, many still advocate for the need to criticize male patriarchal ideals and values. And one of the male patriarchal ideals and values that has been consistently questioned and criticized by feminists is war.

Fighting has always been a habit of men, not women, a difference that has been developed over time by practice and law. Throughout history, the majority of human beings and animals have been killed by men – not women.

Yet, as many female soldiers and female politicians have demonstrated, women can be just as attracted to warfare as men. The satisfaction, ,necessity and glory of fighting – which I as a pacifist feminist woman do not understand, feel or enjoy – is clearly not restricted to that one gender.

That said, while the history of war may not be entirely male, it has overwhelmingly been male. And this fact is not a mere anomaly; it is a pattern that deserves our attention. Yes, we can view the exclusion of women from the military hierarchy and say, “This is unfair; women must be allowed to lead wars.” But we can also view that exclusion and say, “If half of humanity has been excluded from warfare, maybe it’s because fighting is an exception rather than the rule, an aberration rather than a necessity.”

The satisfaction, necessity and glory of war are often linked to masculinity, the need to prove one’s moral worth as a man. From one perspective, this too is the reason why it’s important for women to be allowed inside the military hierarchy. Its because war is the standard for moral action, and Kenya’s status as an ethical nation is today linked to its people’s willingness to fight and die in a “righteous” war.

If this is the case, if our morality is tied to battle, then women must lead in warfare if they are to be honored and valued as moral actors. When war is so integral to the moral experience, those who are not warriors cannot be deemed equal. That is why modern-day feminist cultural icons like Onyesonwu are often warriors. And it’s also the reason why equality in the military has been such an important goal for numerous marginalized groups. Women leading wars are a tremendous boost for feminism and gender equality. It will also get increasingly hard to justify discrimination against women now that we are openly leading the fight and dying for our country.

Kenyan feminists can then draw moral force from the Kenyan military. But this moral force comes at a high price. That price is the moral force itself: acquiescing to war as the moral force and the moral standard.

Judged by the experience of women, war has long been found to be wanting. However, Kenyan feminism seems at ease in judging the experiences of women in relation to standards of empowerment that are traditionally male – of which military leadership is a particularly good example. Such judgment leaves no room for feminist criticism of war and militarism.

The tragedy of Fatumah Ahmed’s appointment is that Kenyan feminists have lost one more justification to protest when our daughters and sons are sacrificed on the moral altar of war. Is having a woman rise up in Kenyan military ranks really worth the lives of our sons and daughters lost in war?

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