When I started this Digital Ubuntu blog, I hoped it would be a space that other people could use to share their views about the good, bad & the ugly that is the digital space in Kenya, and beyond. My first piece took me two weeks to write. It was long. But every single word had to be written. It was the best thing I could do for myself, and as I was soon to learn, others. Women keep emerging each day with their stories or perspectives on the current state of Cyber Violence in Kenya. Some of these stories are really terrifying. I can’t even begin to describe the fear, agony, and anger I felt when a sister I didn’t know tweeted me a week ago saying she was ready to commit suicide because of cyber attacks. I thought I was five hours too late when I read her tweet. I did not have time to google “How to prevent suicide on twitter.” It’s a long story, but thank goddess she’s alive. I hope that she can get the professional and social support she needs, and that one day she’ll be ready and able to tell her own story. In the meantime, here’s another story. It’s a reflection of the recent Anne Waiguru furor, written by a sister who goes by the pen-name Niara GreySwan. I hope this is another opportunity for reflection, constructive dialogue, and growth for us all. Who we are online is a direct reflection of who we are offline and vice versa. Every day, we can either promote, perpetuate or do our part to help end Cyber Violence. It’s time to #TakeBackTheTech and help end Cyber Violence against women.
Peace & Blessings
Rise Above…the Rogue and Wrong
by Niara GreySwan
Last week I was having a drink with a friend; he casually pulled out his phone and showed me a Meme that had gone viral. As I stared at the screen in shock, he matter-of-factly stated “and you thought you had problems”.
There is a new violence sweeping across our nation. It is not necessarily new, but it is intensifying. Human cruelty is absolutely nothing new, but it is the spread and reach that has amplified. I am talking about cyber violence, harassment and humiliation. I ran across the digital ubuntu hashtag, and was very touched by the messaging. It made me realize that I could not remain silent.
Unless you live under a rock, you must be quite familiar with the name Anne Waiguru. The former Cabinet Secretary who resigned following a social media assault and public mauling that was traumatizing to read and watch. It was a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred, free-for-all, and anything goes scenario. All sorts of insults were hurled at her, including the question on the paternity of her children, number of sexual partners, and the mode used to climb the professional ladder. Some of the things said were totally ludicrous.
I chose to write about this particular incident because I have experienced this violence.
Looking back at what happened to me, all it took was one pissed off, misguided and misinformed individual who managed to rally the other crazies and all hell broke loose. As I grappled with trying to understand why hundreds of individuals would be taking part in a virtual stone throwing, mudslinging attack on a stranger (because technically we don’t know each other), I realized that the issues were deeper. The attacks on social media are conducted by individuals who do not know you and also do not know the FACTS about the situation that has brought this attention to you.
That is the back-story.
Being ambitious, powerful and successful are not characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity, and challenging those traditionally assigned gender roles often provokes serious backlash. The problem, of course, is that women are supposed to wear success and power differently.
If you do not believe me, ask Anne Waiguru.
Now, before you jump down my throat, understand that I am not here to defend any allegations leveled against her. I’m here to talk about how we handled her in the name of seeking truth, justice and holding her accountable.
You see experience has taught me one thing: to solve a problem you have to understand it. What I understand about the whole issue is that it was the attempted cover-up of an audacious scandal within her ministry, which resulted in a Public Relations fail! Her goose was cooked, and instead of her advisors/handlers ensuring that she explicitly understood this, they embarked on a journey that we would all agree ended up very badly. Her resignation. Defeat. Humiliation.
On one side stood the die-hard defenders, exuding bravado and shutting down any criticism. On the other side the venomous jubilant critics, condemning and chiding the “why-me” tweets. Last but not least was the much anticipated resignation presser that yielded more questions about repeated denials “I knew nothing; I am not responsible” by the CS.
In my opinion, Anne’s immediate inaction opened the floodgates of social media hell, and unfortunately failed miserably in developing and maintaining a sense of credibility towards the general public.
In all her statements, since the scandal broke, she maintained her innocence and denied any knowledge of the questionable transactions. This is why I call this whole debacle a PR fail! Matter of fact, her replacement better send the whole communications team home. They let her walk into this situation eyes wide shut. She just spoke too much! (Then again, before I vilify the communications team, sometimes guys just don’t take guidance until it is too late. Note to any public figure: the communications team is the secret sauce, ignore them at your own peril!)
This meant that all her comments and statements were dissected. As if this wasn’t enough she shows up at Integrity House flanked by you know who….and with a crowd. Wait is she a politician? Who are those guys and who does she suddenly think she is??? Any element of trust between the public and Waiguru had now been vanquished. She instantly became just another politician who had participated in some type of corruption, and was now hanging on desperately to the “watu wangu” narrative/defense.
This mismanagement of the original issue now led to a secondary crisis. In this case her behavior became the secondary crisis, her cavalier, if not arrogant exclamations about “going nowhere” and staying put, began to grate on people in a completely raw way from before. Even her supporters were suddenly put off by her attitude and behavior.
Waiguru desperately needed to adjust her strategy greatly in responding to the questions around the improper financial transactions within her ministry. Instead of attempting to distance herself from it and her employees, she should have owned up to, at the very minimum, the fact that she was their superior and ultimately responsible for their actions. No matter how uninvolved she actually directly was, boys and girls this is the not-so-fun fact about leadership.
A leader must admit when their organization has committed a wrong whether they are involved or not.
This is the expectation during a scandal. The head/leadership at the heart of a scandal apologizes. Well, in all fairness she did, apologize heavily during her resignation press conference but the damage was done.
Within the communications world, a proper crisis strategy is to admit that something has happened and then apologize, and whether or not the leadership team at the ministry was directly or indirectly involved in the financial misappropriation, she needed to get out in front of the scandal and take responsibility for the actions of her staff, with whom she is directly involved … yes Mangiti et al. ( I’m looking at you Mr./Mrs. Semantics….I don’t care what story you’re still running with, this docket squarely sat on her shoulders). This act alone would have gotten her major brownie points and bought her credibility mileage. This would have significantly brought a sense of understanding between the public, the media and the administration, and given a clear indication that there were processes in place and steps that would follow to ensure that this criminal behavior was brought to book and every individual involved held accountable for their actions.
This is what, in my opinion she did or where it went wrong. Where did WE go rogue and wrong?
The truth is very few people would be able to withstand the pressure that Anne Waiguru has been under, nor survive or better yet muster the panache to take on #KOTs’ (Kenyans On Twitter) best shots for as long as they wished. While she had more spine than most, the point is that no matter which camp you’re in, this audacious scandal has cost Anne Waiguru deeply. She was consistently and continuously attacked for her reputation, character (perceived/real) rather than her politics/work. The attack was heavily personal, degrading and very calculated. The misogyny inherent in this was so obvious and almost expected, but the most stinging vitriol unfortunately came from women. Internalized patriarchy. This might be a topic for another day.
This attack was meant to humiliate.
It was done by everyone (men and women alike), which perpetuates the idea that the only way we can hold a woman accountable is by shaming her “morally”, which was done by talking about her hypothetical sex life.
What we all seem to agree on, is that she was a very ambitious and powerful woman. Anne Waiguru dared to venture into a space that MOST men in Kenya and the world over still consider their exclusive territory. Power. Money. Politics. Yes, she dared to believe that the sky was the limit.
The truth is ambition knows no gender. However, powerful women become mesmerizing targets. A trait that is widely celebrated in men, often leads to the demonization of women who wield power.
My concern is about the result of these attacks and their chilling effect on women who dare to go after power. What does what we just witnessed unleashed on Anne Waiguru mean for women in positions of power, be it public office or private sector. This is the issue that I want to discuss. What message are we sending and what does it mean for women in Kenya? This proposed cabinet could be a result of the assault we just unleashed on her. Maybe the President offered seats that were declined by women.
I ask you to think again about what we just did to Anne Waiguru. Was she guilty? I don’t know. Did we all just get pulled into a political fight? I don’t know.
What I do know for sure is that this violence is real and it is consistently being meted out on women in public life, in politics and the media. It seems that the most dangerous time for a woman in leadership is when she raises her profile and gains visibility.
“You have always had the power, my dear. You just have to learn it for yourself” ~ unknown
The truth about power and ambition is that smart and aggressive women have to conceal it with grace, charm and everything in between. If they do stumble and fall everyone forgets the smarts, skills and the charm and talks only about the aggression, not even what caused the stumble. We lose focus and immediately they are publicly demeaned and diminished based on the fact that they are women. They become the objects of sexual slurs, innuendo and are insulted using sexual terms. It is almost as if everyone is on a mission to see who can get more insulting and graphic.
In the name of “free artistic expression” these women are depicted as dominatrix, sluts, whores and strippers in memes that go viral, and cartoons that are published in national newspapers.
This is due to the fact that there is an unwritten rule that states we have to compete, pursue and hold power differently.
The path to power for women looks more like “hunger games” on steroids and only the gladiators with nerves of steel make it through. The few who do, have to be clad in armor to survive the gender stereotyping that comes with the position.
The late ’80s and early ’90’s were an interesting time for women in politics. We all remember Phoebe Asiyo, Grace Onyango, Wangari Maathai and Martha Karua and all these women leaders who continue inspiring women. I remember from an early age the violence and gender stereotyping of women in politics which really pissed me off – all these women have been demonized along their quest for power. Today, this violence is now bigger and badder, and very alive on social media. Unfortunately, technology has introduced another level to this game, which makes it even more ruthless.
As you walk away or ignore or even laugh at the “ground zero” that is Anne Waigurus’ public life and possibly personal life, I ask that you step back reflect. Ask yourself, was this necessary? By this, I mean; the cyber violence, harassment and humiliation? We basically dehumanized her, in the pursuit of justice. But, imagine the injustice for any woman out there who might have been considering public life/office. You have just sent a message that if you fall, whether you get tripped or do it on your own, this will happen to you. We will destroy you and your family.
What I have heard many people say is that she should have walked away the minute the attacks started, and should have known that it would not end well. She should not have walked down that path. And what was that path?
We need to bring back civil engagement. We need to have spaces where women do not fear being powerful or anyone for that matter does not feel this undercurrent of fear watching their visibility and or influence grow. We need to realize that we can hold each other accountable without it being ugly and devastating for the other individual. I have written about women, touched on gender, but the concern here should be the violence. Interchange the word “women” with tribe, political affiliation, social/economic standing, etc. Do you follow my train of thought? This violence needs to stop.
If we are not careful, today’s ‘harmless’ jokes, ‘harmless’ tweets & unchecked accusations will lead to tomorrow’s civil rights agenda. It’s time to check ourselves my fellow Digital Ubuntu citizens. Let’s all play our roles, know the facts, and take responsibility for our behaviour online.