On one hand, advancements in women's political engagement have not entirely closed the existing gaps in safeguarding the rights of women and girls. On the other, female leaders embarking on this path confront a formidable journey, contending with the constraints imposed by gender norms and navigating the barriers ingrained within institutional frameworks.
Nevertheless, attempts to undermine prevailing discourses and challenge established norms emerge. Dramatically illustrating this is Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba’s experience. In February 2023, she seized upon a period stain on her white suit as an opportunity to spotlight the issues of period shame and period poverty in Kenya. Opting to proceed to the Parliamentary Proceedings, she encountered pushback. While her decision has sparked contentious debates, she successfully rekindled an essential and overdue dialogue on period poverty in Kenya, amassing widespread support for the cause. This article delves into an examination of her act of resistance within the framework of disciplinary power and resistance.
Body politics and discipline
The human body is coded with meaning; it is a vessel which communicates our identities. These identities are based on groupings and subgroupings under social constructs such as race, class, and gender. Under these classifications we are expected to adhere to visible and invisible norms, which dictate our ways of being and when adhered to, results in acceptance and belonging to a particular group.
Through our bodies we express how we see ourselves and how others see us (and vice versa), which ultimately influences social interaction. On one hand, within our various groups and subgroups, we are socialised and taught how to perform “appropriately” through rules. On the other, we assign ‘other’ human bodies with meaning based on our perceptions and interpretations of their identity(ies). This entrenches a structure that seeks to uphold rituals and hierarchies of separation to maintain control and order.
This article is grounded in Michel Foucault’s analysis of contemporary power as explored in Discipline and Punish. In this work, Foucault documents the ways in which discipline rather than coercion is the primary means by which modern power is exerted. Discipline, according to Foucault, serves as a patriarchal instrument to ensure conformity to prescribed societal expectations. Some of its approaches include normalising surveillance and weaponising shame and judgement to impose obedience. Disciplinary power asserts itself through the clear articulation of rules and ensuring their enforcement through social, cultural and political institutions, while instilling fear to quash any alternative interpretations that may disrupt the prevailing authority and established hierarchies.
For those in female bodies in particular, the expectations for their physical attributes, such as their shape, size, movement, and what may be deemed appropriate attire, is often pre-
determined and enforced into compliance through both direct and indirect pressure, where there are consequences for noncompliance. In a podcast, Prof. Awino Okech notes that, “The way you walk, how you dress, you know, what route you take to work, are things that you have to think about much more as a woman than most men think about.” This rings true in Kenya, where in 2014, an online campaign and demonstration titled #MyDressMyChoice was ignited following the stripping and physical assault of women who were dressed in miniskirts and other apparel that were considered “indecent.”
Multiple interviews with men from the area, covered by local media, revealed that they largely approved of the assailants’ actions, contending that these actions were morally justified due to what they perceive as "moral decay" in society. They further asserted that the victim needed to be taught a lesson. Additionally, some individuals criticised the "My Dress, My Choice" movement.
The above example demonstrates group dynamics and the expectations set by the dominant group (male) of the behaviour of the minority group (female), where digression from the expected rules of dressing unfortunately resulted in physical violence. Furthermore, the calls for modesty and decency typically signifies the opposition against the expansion of rights for marginalised groups. This can be traced to the colonial era, where disciplinary power was observable at play when Kenyans were compelled to adopt conservative clothing as a requirement for obtaining education and, consequently, financial stability. However, the post-independence era of the 1960s, saw a surge in the popularity of miniskirts, as an expression of liberation and a (re)claiming of autonomy.
Political struggles are borne then, out of the inherent tension between disciplinary power and bodies that resist it, as seen in the rise of the "My Dress, My Choice" movement. In fact, at the centre of body politics issues is the individual, collective, societal, and political struggles to reclaim control over one's own biological, socio-cultural experiences of the body. It is also important to note that the identities that are read from our bodies, significantly impact the political struggles we confront.
Confronting disciplinary norms
On 15th February 2023, Senator Gloria Orwoba wore a white suit to parliament that later appeared to be stained with menstrual blood. She acknowledged that “… the first thing that we have been taught is that periods are dirty and shouldn’t be seen." In line with this perspective, Mary Douglas in her book, "Purity and Danger" argues that a strategy for addressing behaviour that deviates from the norm and has the potential to disrupt social order involves labelling it as impure or unclean. This labelling, in turn, signifies the necessity for its expulsion.
While she was initially met with staff and colleagues who attempted to ‘cover’ her from what they presumed would be a shameful experience, the Senator chose to go ahead and attend the parliamentary proceedings. She later stated, "Since I am always advocating against period shame, I thought I should go ahead and walk the talk."
Senator Gloria attested that the biggest impact of her decision at Parliament was that she instigated the conversation around period shame and period stigma with men and boys asserting further that, “Period shaming starts with the man and the boy, because they have been brought up to believe that if a woman happens to have a stain, it’s an appropriate response to laugh at, or castigate her – and then the woman has been taught that they need to go into hiding. That’s the unlearning that we need to do.”
Despite Senator Gloria's important intentions, her actions drew criticism from both her female and male colleagues. Her presence, coupled with the noticeable menstrual stain on her suit, triggered a range of reactions, prompting questions about her adherence to the House's dress code. The backlash she faced labelled her as "indecent", "disrespectful to the House", with some even suggesting she was "faking it." This incident highlights the consequences that arise from straying away from established group norms, which often involves the manipulation of shame as a weapon and the looming threat of ostracisation.
As previously mentioned, within patriarchal societies, members take on the role of surveillance agents, scrutinising the bodies of women and girls to ensure conformity. This concept aligns with Foucault's proposition that disciplinary power shapes individuals into subjects who not only observe and regulate others' bodies to align with societal expectations, but also internalise this surveillance. This monitoring dynamic evolves from external observation to self-surveillance.
Moreover, disciplinary power functions as a controlling observational perspective, capable of implanting a similar genetic element into the female psyche, allowing them to adopt and embody a parallel male gaze. Foucault goes on to emphasise that this transfer of the male gaze aims to establish "a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power." Any deviation from the established norms and expectations could lead to consequences such as judgment, shame, violence, or exclusion, underlining the substantial control exerted by societal norms.
Resistance and the fight to eradicate period poverty in Kenya
While some have insinuated that Senator Gloria’s stained white suit may have simply been a publicity stunt (which is beyond the scope of this article), she has been applauded by fellow women activists for reviving the movement and discourse around bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights which is still a pertinent issue in Kenya. According to a Menstrual Health Country Snapshot Report (2020) the percentage of women and girls who have access to menstrual pads are 65% and 46% in urban and rural areas respectively. The situation has worsened due to the increasing cost of living resulting from inflation in recent years, making feminine hygiene products even more unaffordable.
Despite the aforementioned systemic challenges, Senator Gloria has demonstrated unyielding determination through continued advocacy, donations of sanitary products to school girls and tabling five Bills in Parliament; most notably the Sanitary Towel Provision Bill whose main objective is to address period poverty by the provision of free sanitary pads to school girls and prisoners. In the realm of addressing period poverty, several grassroots organisations have emerged as champions of change. Three organisations making such significant strides within underprivileged communities include PadMad, which combines Menstrual Health Management and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights education with biodegradable, affordable, and durable products for sustainable impact. Kenya Works' Makini Pad Initiative focuses on eradicating period poverty through reusable sanitary pads, offering practical solutions. Meanwhile, Msichana Empowerment Kuria is committed to tackling an array of challenges, including gender inequality, Female Genital Mutilation, child marriage, and more, emphasising their dedication to fostering impactful change across multiple interconnected issues.
Despite the progress made in increasing women's representation in political leadership in Kenya, there are still gaps in the realisation of women and girls’ rights. Female political leaders have to navigate treacherous waters, constantly pushing against gendered codes of conduct and institutional roadblocks. Yet, despite these disciplinary attempts, pathways of resistance also exist and can be leveraged to challenge dominant patriarchal discourse and practice. Nonetheless, within the framework of these efforts to enforce conformity, avenues of resistance emerge, bearing the potential to disrupt prevailing narratives and question established norms.
Exemplifying this, the actions of Kenyan Senator Gloria Orwoba in February 2023 stand as a testament. Her decision to amplify the issues of period shame and period poverty through her response to a period stain on her white suit ignited a contentious discourse. While her choice was met with opposition, it successfully rekindled a long-overdue dialogue on period poverty in Kenya, rallying extensive support for the cause. As we delve into an analysis of her act of resistance within the context of disciplinary power and resistance, it becomes evident that each instance of defiance, like Senator Orwoba's, contributes to the ongoing dismantling of deeply ingrained societal norms. By highlighting the struggles and triumphs of those who challenge the status quo, we inch closer to a more inclusive and equitable society, where the dynamics of power and resistance continually shape a better future.