Dreaming of Freedom: The Role of Language and Symbols in the Liberation of Women


We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the protagonist Winston actively works to erase and create new words at his job in the Ministry of Truth. They call this language Newspeak and its limited vocabulary is one of the ideological tools used by the Party to keep the population pliable and subdued.

In Kenya, one can draw parallels between the fictional continent of Oceania in 1984 and the marginalization of women from active politics. The depoliticisation of women is made possible through erasure of heroines in the fight for independence and the liberation struggles that have taken place in the country since the white man physically left our soil. The lack of female icons that women can relate with and look up to takes away their ability to dream. It is difficult to imagine freedom when all you have known is oppression.

Language and symbols are powerful. They give thoughts structure which informs and justifies action. It is through language that culture is formed. Women in politics complicate the patriarchal structure of leadership. It is for this reason they are deliberately overwhelmed in the media and by nationalist politicians who choose to focus on their personal lives, giving it precedence over their value as leaders when a woman decides to run for office. 

The normalisation of violent language and use of derogatory terms such slay queen, bimbo or malaya and other expletives in the media informs the public’s perception of women, who in a case of extreme hypnosis through repeated narratives of gendered leadership and role models, have come to believe that the only spaces valid for occupancy by women are domestic, private and exist on the periphery.

By taking away the language and icons of freedom that show women as brave, courageous, satisfied and joyful, their thoughts cannot have structure and without structure, they cannot organise effectively and aspire to radically take political power.

Incidentally, because women are thought to be ignorant and vulnerable, they are treated as mere consumers of policy instead initiators of it. Even women empowerment groups are engaged in domestic related economic activities such as basket making, weaving and beekeeping which, while generating livelihoods for the women in rural areas and informal settlements, do not generate the kind of financial wealth needed to run for big political seats.

Wouldn’t it be more effective if, through political education on heroines, a radical and politically conscious mass was created, a mass that collectively engaged in ‘boys only’ economic activities such as trading in equity or insurance savings schemes? This way, coupled with the already existing activities that community based women’s groups are engaged in, a lot more wealth could be created and the women could select a candidate for president or senator or governor from amongst themselves who would accurately represent their interests in government. That would be real change. Not the slow, moderate, and mildly political donor-funded activism that is characteristic of some community based women’s groups today.

To create an effective women’s movement that counters the systemic and widespread oppression of patriarchy and the deep state, women must begin by reclaiming their language. We must sing songs, recite poetry and tell stories of bold and brazen women who dared to, and defied the chains bound on their feet. Women who, even though they stood alone, will continue serving as a masthead for our consciousness – they will be at the centre of the theory of our freedom. It is only through imagining our liberation that we can begin to agitate for it. We must resist the bourgeois and classist notions of individuality that isolate women from each other and prevent us from seeing the unity of our struggle. We are not free until all women are free. 

Mainstream Kenyan media has failed in its role as a conveyor of truth and objectivity, and is now the biggest purveyor of narratives that threaten the safety of women, exacerbate their depoliticisation and justify or rationalize gender based violence through sensational and biased journalism. Grassroots-based women’s movements must therefore create their own channels of information in order to preserve and safeguard their newly reclaimed language and icons from corruption. 

As women, we must also thoroughly examine ourselves and become familiar with every aspect of our femininity. We must embrace the parts of us that are wild and unconventional; we must feel through the clefts and paucities in our being and welcome them with the same openness as we do abundance. This way, our womanhood cannot be weaponized and used against us for we will already be open and loving of ourselves.

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