This story was written by Tessy Aura from KENYA.
In my culture a woman belonging to herself is rarely tolerated, let alone celebrated. When a girl is born she belongs to her father or her brothers, and when she is of age she is given away to another man, her husband who is now responsible for her.
Growing up I remember hearing countless stories about women being evicted from their matrimonial homes and returning back to their birth homes, just to be rejected there as well. I heard stories about girls who spoke out of turn and thus never got married or got divorced. About women who suffered immensely because they never found a man to love them enough to take care of them physically, emotionally, mentally and financially. And stories that served to warn me against being too independent or else risk being alone and banished to a life of economic destitution. The consensus being that there is no silver lining to being an independent woman, and not having a father, brother or husband in your life to manage your independence is the quickest road to poverty.
The other day I learnt that our language does not even accept the ownership of property by women. I was visiting my grandmother, and when it was time to leave I told my uncle, “It is time for me to go back to my place.” Surprised, he asked me, “Are you married now?” and I responded “What does that have to do with me going home?” He made me aware that when a woman says that she has a home or a place, it is assumed that she is either referring to her parents’ home or her husbands’ home and since my mother was in a different country they knew I was not going there so the latter option was the only possible one. But in actuality, I was going back to my apartment that I paid rent for every month. While I did not own it, the only other human being who contributed any money towards it was a woman – my mother – who had been paying her own rent since she was in her 20’s and owns multiple properties in her name with money she earned. So I asked my uncle, “What about when my mother says she is going home?” He and the other men in the room all laughed and said that my mother was an exception and not the rule and that I needed to change how I spoke, be less argumentative, and more docile if I ever wanted to get married and not go through the same suffering my mother did.
I had always had trouble internalizing these stories and practices because I was raised by a single mother who defied the norm – a woman who was independent, who despite the death of her father and the absence of her child’s father was able to celebrate herself and not tolerate anyone putting her down, whatever gender they were. When I was old enough to understand, my grandmother told me stories about the adversity she had to go through to ensure that the income she earned went towards educating her children, not to my grandfather, who would decide how to spend the money himself.
I was raised by a single mother who defied the norm – a woman who was independent
The women in my family have prioritized education and independence and strived to make that our legacy. It is this, not the cultural practices upheld in my community, that contributed to me having my first job at the age of 16, completing high school, going to college and subsequently attaining a Masters’ degree by the age of 23.
For every remark about my intelligence and independence being a flaw, I was encouraged to sharpen my skills, read more and work harder to achieve all that I wanted in life. For every time I was ridiculed for being too smart, and every time I tried to ‘dumb it down’ to be more feminine and confer to men as the only possible authorities in the room, my mother insisted that I speak up and let my presence be known. For every time, I was told to focus more on being pretty and silent to attract men, I was motivated to be opinionated.
So even though the stories the masses choose to share are of women who were doomed for their intelligence and independence, for my family it is imperative to share success stories about intelligence and independence. That is why my story defies traditional tales. Through not shaming me, and instead sharing with me their stories about their choices and struggles as women, they have in turn shaped the woman that I am today. They have instilled in me the same legacy of sharing to make a difference, sharing to inspire, and most of all sharing to encourage acceptance and freedom.
This story was part of Safety First for Girls (SAFIGIs) #SharingNotShaming campaign.