On International Women’s Day Kenyans celebrated neoliberalism

In Kenya, capitalism has sought to trivialise women’s rights and social justice through empty slogans and philanthropy.

Margaret Kenyatta
Kenya's First Lady Margaret Kenyatta was in the media spotlight during International Women's Day celebrations in Kenya, writes Wandia Njoya [File photo: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]

On March 8, most of the world marked International Women’s Day. Some women went on strike demanding better working conditions, others protested violence and oppression, still others debated various issues related to feminism. In Kenya, the mainstream media was preoccupied with discussing the number of women in Kenyan boardrooms, while corporations used the day for cheap PR stunts (McDonald’s, for example, turned the M of its logo upside down to read W).

But perhaps the most bizarre part of the celebrations was the government’s decision to focus on Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, to commemorate the International Women’s Day.

The day began with a tweet from the president’s account, recounting to Kenyans the story of his love life. President Uhuru Kenyatta told the world of seeing a beautiful lady at a swimming pool, a facility out of reach of most Kenyan teenagers, and of being nudged by his father, Kenya’s first president, to talk to her. And the rest, the tweet implied, was history.

The Kenyan media then picked the cue to write an article that essentially turned International Women’s Day into St Valentine’s Day.

And so began a series of events in which the Kenyan government reduced women’s issues once again to the private sphere not of women, but of men. With sentimental soundbites, Kenyans were essentially told that the path to gender equality goes through gaining access to the women in the private lives of Kenya’s male politicians.

Throughout the day, the government, with the support of the UN office in Nairobi, was reducing International Women’s Day to the “First Lady Day”.

The spotlight was on Margaret Kenyatta launching the strategic plan (it can’t get more neoliberal than that) for her foundation at an exclusive event. Among the elites who attended the ceremonies were representatives of the UN, an institution that has already played a problematic role not only in Kenya’s tumultuous elections but also in healthcare projects.

The first lady’s involvement in healthcare issues has also been criticised for at least two years now. Last year, her foundation announced its annual Half Marathon to raise funds for maternal and child healthcare at the height of the Kenyan public doctors’ strike. The public backlash against this apparent hubris, in the face of heated public campaigns for healthcare, forced the foundation to cancel the event, citing the desire to avoid politicisation.

Kenyans celebrated the cancellation as their victory against the insensitivity of the regime to their problems. Some, in fact, see foundations like Kenyatta’s as a sign of the government’s abdication of responsibility to provide quality healthcare.

But the persona of the first lady has made her clearly neoliberal project difficult for women concerned about social justice to criticise. The first lady is petite, modest-looking, soft-spoken and lives largely out of the public eye, and so she seems to be genuinely well-meaning. But ironically, this demeanour is oppressive, because it means that outspoken critics of her neoliberal endeavours, especially women, are blasted for being “negative” or “ungrateful”.

So, in a way, our “First Lady Day” was a perfect illustration of what is wrong with institutional talk about women’s rights and women’s issues. The conversation and action on these issues happen within a capitalist reality that suppresses social justice and the grassroots. The Kenyan president’s pseudo-Valentine’s day tweets, the exclusive events, and all the pomp of corporate capital and neoliberal politics distorted International Women’s Day and its message. They sought to whitewash a celebration of women’s and workers’ rights because it brings up inconvenient truths that expose the brutality of neoliberalism.

And so, for Kenya, the International Women’s Day marked by the successes of one percent of women which were used to silence the social struggle of the 99 percent. Capitalism and neoliberalism sought to romanticise and trivialise women’s struggles through sentimental platitudes and philanthropy.

But as Tithi Bhattacharya aptly put it, the International Women’s Day of the 99 percent is not concerned about the number of women CEOs, but about dismantling the system “that produces the CEOs”. We must not forget, as she said, that the focus on the few women who have broken the glass ceiling hides the reality that “the majority of the women are in the basement cleaning up the glass.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.