Letters from TZ

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Margaret Thatcher is one of the world’s better-known Stateswomen, after leading the Tory party and her country for 11 eventful years. She was one of the longest serving Prime Ministers of the 20th Century and the only female head the UK has ever had at its political helm. For that singularly spectacular achievement, she earned herself the title ‘Iron Lady’. And rule with an iron fist, she did. She dominated her all-male cabinet, running roughshod over their male sensitivities for the better part of her tenure. In the end, they gathered their wilted dignities about them and got up the courage to stab her in the back and throw her out of office. She was stunned first, and then devastated. Being the woman that she was, she didn’t believe for a second that she could be unseated. Never in a million years.

This was a woman who had moulded herself into the image of a supreme leader. She had gone to great lengths to suit herself to the premiership, including hiring a vocal coach to teach her how to modulate the timbre of her voice to make it lower and more authoritative. The voice she normally spoke in had been considered too shrill. According to an article by Baroness Thatcher’s biographer and close friend Charles Moore, which was published in Vanity Fair in 2011, thanks to the vocal coaching, her voice is one of the most instantly recognisable voices in modern history. “Soon her hectoring tones gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons,” he writes in the article, which marked the 20th anniversary of her retirement from the British House of Parliament.

Fast forward to the Kenyan election that will take place tomorrow, and you find Martha Karua, a woman who is moulding herself in the Thatcherite image, down to the modulation of her vocal tone. The Martha Karua of today is a different creature. In her heydey, she was described as many things, not many of which were complimentary. She was a no-nonsense sort, who could shut any man down with a withering stare and a voice that barked, striking fear with its ferocity. Today, that voice is gone, replaced with an unnaturally, girly lilt, that is so sugary, you are likely to go into sweetness overload. She does her best to convince you that her personality is as naïve and innocent as the sound of her voice, and the facade seldom cracks, except under extreme provocation from her competitors in the race to State House.

During the presidential debates, there were moments when the old Martha threatened to break through. Moments when the Kenyan Iron Lady was sorely tempted to shake her iron fist in defiance of the self-imposed restraints, but even when she broke cover, she rallied. Had we been unable to see the obvious switches between the old and the new Martha, we may have been taken in by the charade. Methinks she may have overdone it.

And yet, Karua is a formidable political force. The lady doesn’t know what it means to be afraid. She shoots from the hip and follows through. She is the only female in what has been a viciously contested election. Even if the chances of a Karua win are nil this time around, she is remains a sterling example of the strength of a woman. By standing for President with such fortitude, she is charting a path for other women to follow.

Which is not to say she doesn’t have her faults. She does. And they are well documented. She has not been untouched by the kind of impropriety that seems to follow every politician around. But at this stage in the game, on the eve perhaps of the most contentious election in Kenya’s history, I prefer to think of her as having taken hit after hit for ‘Team Woman’. She’s been our ‘Yes, we can’ girl, going round after round with the big boys. And she’s still standing. It cannot be easy to wake up every morning knowing that you’re not only standing against a group of men, but also standing up for the next generation of women who will remember you for taking on the establishment. History will remember Martha Karua. It will remember Wangari Maathai. It will remember Charity Ngilu. It will remember Naslin Umar.

So faults and all, I salute you Ms Karua. As the world turns its attention to women on Friday, 8 March 2013, it is an honour to have had you on the team, just like those before you, representin’ for the girls.