Sex Strike: Motivation to Explore Gender, Ethnicity and Class?

Published on 15th May 2009

The weeklong “sex boycott” announced by the Group of Ten (G10) women organisations rekindles debate as to whether women activists and gender justice organisations have got their priorities right, let alone understanding their real problems. Without appearing to downplay the gains women activists have made in advancing Kenyans’ human rights; protecting the dignity of women; opening and expanding the democratic space, it is my contention that some of the pronouncements, actions and demeanor of our women have been impediments to the advancement of the status of women – good intentions notwithstanding.


The biggest problem facing Kenyans today is concentration of inordinate proportion of our resources in the hands of a tiny minority at the exclusion of a vast majority- or unbridled capitalism- in other words. Perpetration and perpetuation of non-class divisions based on ethnicity and sex is the key mechanism sustaining surrogate capitalist relations of production, therefore upholding class society in an underdeveloped economy. But class cannot be understood without understanding the interconnection between oppression and exploitation. Because it is only through oppression – a “tribe” and gender-based oppression – that capitalist relations of production can be perpetuated.


Class stratification is a reality. Marx was spot on when he postulated that the relentless tendency of capitalism towards greater and greater monopoly would eventually polarize society into two classes. This has taken long in coming. There have been middle strata, scientifically referred to, the petty bourgeoisie and so on, but even they are now being forced away and out because of the Nakumatts of this world, Shoprite in South Africa and in England Tesco, a similar sort of company. All small shopkeepers don't really stand much of a chance, leave alone Mama Mboga (vegetable sellers).


In the Kenyan society, different modes of production exist alongside each other. We have hunter-gatherers (Ogieks, Njemps and others), primitive communalism (among a sizeable rural population) and capitalism existing alongside each other at the same time. The ruling class pretends to us that somehow it doesn't exist, or when they are forced to acknowledge its existence, they dismiss it as unimportant.  Why? They know that if we really understood it, we would not consent to it but do something about it. Ninety percent of Kenyans, like those elsewhere globally, would not consent to being exploited by 10 percent of those who own and control everything. So how do they do it?  The capitalist relations of production exist through division by using such differences as skin colour, linguistic differences and through gender.


It is relatively recently that women have stopped being treated like chattels even in the Western capitalist society. We rant about how awful it is for Muslim women being forced to wear veils, but don’t ask when women got rights to vote. In England, women only had the right to vote in 1930 and in France in 1946. Women were seen as the property of their husbands. The long march for women's equality isn’t finished. It has just begun.


Marx quotes cotton manufacturers who said that they delighted in the fact that they wanted to employ women in the factories, in the so- called "dark satanic mills," which fuelled Britain's industrial revolution (which of course was based on slavery). They preferred to use married women because they were more docile and needed to procure the necessities of life to bring up their own children.


Women have always been given lower pay than men for work of equal value. Wage show that women earn two-thirds of the pay of men in real terms. So, all this nonsense about women making it just because we have a handful women MPs and lots of women on the television – is nothing. What about working-class women? What about house helps? And all women sweating it out in maize fields, coffee plantations and picking tea?  The relations of production are absolutely dependent on maintaining these divisions.


Everybody who sells their labour power for a wage is a worker.  We do not own or control the means of production. We are forced to sell our labour power. Those who command the system blind us into thinking that just because you earn a bit more, you're middle class. This doesn't mean anything, except in terms of an ideology which blinds us.


I am happy that Kenyans are finally talking class. But they are wrong. When they talk about “political class,” I am amazed since in my understanding, all classes are political. Classes are created through our engagement with the substructure – relations of production and distribution. A good number in the Left have got it wrong here, because they are just talking about income, status and power. They are not talking about class as an economic relationship. We can only turn to Marx, Engels and Lenin in defining class. It is science. You cannot define water as anything other than a compound of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.


But we must also not be dogmatic. So far we have relied too much on quoting the canons and not developing our theory in common to fit the material circumstances in which we are. We have been relying on a dogmatic and ossified form of Marxism, and I dare aver that Marx would turn in his grave if he knew what we were doing. If we want to advance class struggle, we have to learn and further develop historical materialism so as to understand what is new, what is changing and what is happening within the working class today. How do we, for example, define the worker in today’s economy where 60% of global trade is trade in services? The theory must encompass a real understanding that class is fundamentally related to the divisions, the major divisions of ethnic communities and gender.


We appear to completely misunderstand the main motor of capitalist production both at a material and an ideological level. In Britain, the Marxist historians, the people Mary Davis calls the "mainly manly Marxist greats," the likes of E. P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class and didn't mention women except in about three pages. Women were actually the engine. They were the core of the working class.


You can only exploit a huge empire if you have an ideology – an ideology of superiority. That ideology of superiority was inculcated quite successfully in the minds of British workers quite deliberately throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. That brings us to the other aspect of the manner in which class relations of production are reproduced through such divisive ideologies as racism, tribalism and sexism. But we must contextualise the question of sexism. Just because aspects of the women's movement have forgotten working-class women and peasant women who are oppressed and exploited through ethnic bigotry didn't mean that the issues that they raised weren't vitally important and are still important.


We can only cite Engels, when he said that in the family, the man is the bourgeois, the woman is the proletarian, and that family relations, or the monogamous family, developed to coincide with the development of class society. It mirrored the needs of those who had property, so that they could pass their property onto children of undisputed parentage. So basically, if we want to talk about the global economy as well, or imperialism on speed, then the issue of the super-exploitation of underdeveloped countries and women workers is absolutely critical to maintaining capitalist super-profits.


Looking at it the other way round, can we really understand oppression without understanding class? I submit that we cannot. This is the confusion that our women activists are caught up in. They rightly enumerate obstacles that stand on the way of women who aspire to elective political offices – use of money, violence, sexual exploitation, manipulation of culture and traditions. These are all true. However, our women activitists fail to recognize these as manifestations of class domination. Understanding oppression without understanding class leads to a confusion between oppression and discrimination and they are different.


If we do not understand that, what then happens is people attempt to understand the issues related to sexism and ethnicity by using the notion of equality which, in my view, is poor, very poor, indeed, because equality really only means partial gains under the law. If we do not understand the relationship of oppression to class, we are going to be blinded also by the new wave of "feel sorry for us" politics.  The labour movement  have not admitted this until now. They will have to be dragged kicking and wailing into the 21st century. We have to rid the unions of labour aristocrats. They have to recognise that women are half the work force.


We have to have a definition of class, which understands fully that women are not just non-class entities, they are not just out there as new social forces. It is understanding the nature of those immensely oppressed groups and the relationship of that form of oppression to class exploitation. In so doing we will have contributed to what Engels wanted us to do, that is to understand the three areas of struggle, economic, political and ideological, and it's the ideological struggle that we have to take up fiercely.


By Oduor Ong'wen



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