No Men Allowed – A Blog by Katie Dempsey
The Samburu district is situated in Southern Kenya, this district is made up of many semi-nomadic tribes and villages. One such village is the village of Umoja; created twenty years ago, Umoja is a village of women which allows no men.
The Samburu district’s society is built upon centuries old traditions and is a patriarchal society. Its foundations are built on strongly enforced notions of male dominance and power. The theory of dimorphism; that is: ‘the assumption that human beings can be easily and un-problematically divided into two distinct categories based on their physical forms.’ (Shepherd, 2010:5) can be seen in the way gender roles are differentiated in Umoja. The notion that gender is performative is clear to be seen as local men believe that their women have no rights and are completely under their control and by abiding to their every wish and carrying out daily chores they are thus performing to a notion of gender in which the man is all powerful and the woman is his property. The women of Samburu are suffering both of the effects of living in a domineering patriarchal society and also due to disastrous consequences of colonialism.
I have chosen to dedicate this blog post to Umoja as, currently; women’s rights and representation issues are now more than ever at the forefront of international debates. However, the lens, I contend, we have been looking through; looks at such issues from a western perspective. Many theorists criticise the Western notion of feminism and ‘argue critically against white, Western, middle-class feminist discourses that tend to leave issues of racism and neo-colonialism out of sight.’ (Lykke, 2010: 53) Feminism as an issue of equality is most easily understood to an individual based in their own personal experience and this I believe then dictates our opinions and actions in regards to gender. However, I think, it is just an important now to look at women’s equality on a global level. This is a global issue affecting every woman in different ways. Intersectionality certainly aids us in understanding different women’s experiences of gender. I think it‘s important to recognise this in order to comprehend feminism and gender inequality internationally. Umoja for me is an interesting example of a matriarchal society, where due to certain factors, the women of today’s generation chose to leave men entirely to set up new villages which are either all female or female controlled. They focus on educating future generations in order to remove certain practises which are harmful to women’s health.
There are three main issues which led to the creation of Umoja and of a women’s movement in general in the Samburu district, these are; rape by British colonial soldiers, cultural tradition and female genital mutilation. Umoja was co-founded by Rebecca Lolosoli in 1990. (The Land of No Men, 2015:2m) She states that
‘As a Samburu woman you have no rights. If [your] husband wants to kill you, he [has] a right to kill you at any time, because you are [his] property’.
Rebecca Lolosoli. Co-founder of Umoja
The village of Umoja is the only example of a village in the Samburu district where men are completely banned. The women however do have a choice of having relations with men outside of the village’s boundary. The women that came to this village, came to escape isolation, scorn, violence and oppressive tradition, many of them do not wish to get married or return to their home villages. (The Land of no Men, 2015:10m)
For over fifty years Britain has maintained military training regions in the Samburu region. 600 rapes claims have been filed against the British military. (The Rape of the Samburu Women, 2011: 2m) In an interview with a local woman she describes how she was raped by two British military personnel. She became pregnant and gave birth to a child of mixed race. When she gave birth the man she was with left her and their two children and never returned. The men blame their wives for allowing the rape to happen. They want nothing more to do with them. (The Rape of the Samburu Women, 2011: 3.53m)
‘Our husbands hate these kids born out of rape by the British soldiers. They have tried to throw our children into latrine pits’. (The Rape of the Samburu Women,2011: 4m)
In 2000 an NGO called Impact began working with British lawyer Martyn Day to try the military officers in British Courts. Perhaps unsurprisingly after a three year investigation the British military cleared all soldiers of wrongdoing. The Kenyan government has so far failed the take the issue up. I ask: how can justice rightfully be served when the British military in investigating a case made against its own soldiers?
As well as rape, a huge factor of the setting up of Umoja and similar villages by women such as Rebecca is to escape the harsh patriarchal system of their societies. The men hate the women’s villages; they symbolize a loss in power. For them; these women cannot be controlled. A woman is considered her mans property. If he can’t have her he prefers her dead; men sometimes go to Umoja to rape and try to kill their spouses. The women stay up all night in shifts to protect each other. (The Land of no Men, 2015: 7m)
One extreme way in which men use their power to dominate is by continuing the cultural tradition of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Women are not considered to be grown up unless they are cut. If they get pregnant before they’re cut, their child is killed as they are considered unholy. The procedure can lead to women bleeding to death. After being cut they face problems giving birth as their skin has been cut to the bone. (Umoja: The Village where Men are Forbidden, 2010: 40s)
The women in these villages had to discover a new way of supporting themselves without them. For me, I saw many similarities in the barriers these women face in making a living with the five barriers Irish women face in the Irish political system. Childcare; culture; confidence; cash and candidate selection. (Gender and Politics Lecture 8, 2015) Of course these barriers come in different forms in Umoja.
In regards to earning their own living; the women use beads to make attractive jewellery to sell to tourists. The international invasion on a culture can be seen as good or bad in different situations. From my perspective it is good in this situation, not only because the women sell their produce to tourists allowing them to earn a living and remain independent from the men but also because it brings the issue to a global scale and allows for further intersectional analysis through a new wave of feminism. On a personal level, I admire the entrepreneurship these women have displayed in finding a way of supporting themselves and no longer being dependant of their male counterparts.
The women firmly believe that they cannot change the men in Samburu today, but through education they can educate future generations and this is how they hope to bring about change. The Umoja women have set up a school which is open to children male and female across the district; alongside the Umoja children themselves. Boys are allowed to attend the school; as long as they adhere to the Umoja rules and do not attempt to dominate the women. In effect, I think Umoja has become a training centre for younger people to aid them in making better decisions whilst promoting human rights by curbing current negative cultural practises which harm women.
Umoja is a very unique example of a matriarchal society. However, the long term purpose of these villages is not simply to separate men from women indefinitely but to provide a safe haven and an educational facility for vulnerable young women and teaching them how to support themselves all while crucially educating future generations about the harmful practises that are currently in place in their society.
For me, looking at feminism and gender equality in a different part of the world, sheds a crucial light on the plight of women in other cultures, it shows that different societies are facing vastly different issues and barriers in achieving gender equality. The women here are undertaking their own version of a feminist movement. However, they recognise that rather than attempting to change the present and the strict cultural practises in place; they are working towards improving the future. I believe their story is inspirational and one to be known. It is not a standard feminist movement that is seen in Western society but it is a feminist movement towards equality. At the moment I believe that feminist movements are arguably regional, perhaps due to Intersectionality, but I think there is an argument for a more global united women’s organisation to give unity to the fight for women’s equality worldwide.
Back Productions (2010) ‘Umoja: The Village Where Men are Forbidden’
Accessed at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF46KeGSvxs
Broadly (2015) ‘The Land of No Men: Inside Kenya’s Women Only Village’
Accessed at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrnmBLB-UX4
Cultures of Resistance Film (2011) ‘The Rape of the Samburu Women’
Accessed at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AF6XDj8jDw
O’Dwyer, M. (2015) ‘Gender and Politics, Lecture Week 8: Gender Representation’
Lykke, N. (2010) ‘Intersectional Gender/Sex: A Conflictual and Power Laden Issue’ in Feminist Studies: A Guide to Intersectional Theory, Methodology and Writing. New York: Taylor and Francis
Shepherd, L. (2010) ‘Ch1: Sex or Gender? Bodies in World Politics and Why Gender Matters.’ In Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations. New York: Routledge
I am a second year Bachelor of Arts student studying for a joint major in Politics and French .
I am very interested in studying the role of gender, both in everyday life and in the political world. I particularly am interested in gender roles in non-western societies and how they contrast to the norms and values of the so-called ‘western world’. This topic is what I have focused on exploring in my blog entitled ‘No Men Allowed