No easy walk for female academics in our varsities

 “Hello, daktari! And you, mummy, how are you?”

These were the baffling words that ushered Dr Mary Bwakire back into the hallowed halls of academia on her first day as a lecturer.

A complete stranger had concluded, on sight, that her male companion, who has a Masters degree and is a tutorial fellow, was “Daktari”, and consigned her to the realms of “mummy”. The male companion laughed off her concerns and said they were trivial, nothing to take personally. She was not amused. She realised she was being re-steeped, on day one, into the virulent patriarchy and misogyny that exists, with embroidered comfort, within our institutions of higher learning.

Preferential treatment

This contagious patriarchy and misogyny goes beyond the “trivial” matter of titles, although even that trivialisation is, itself, an example of its reinforcement. We remember one common-course lecturer at our local alma mater deducting, with unsullied elation, five marks from a possible 30 allocated for continuous assessment, because we students had referred to him on the cover page as “Mr” rather than “Dr”. He had earned his doctorate, mid-stream through our Bachelor’s studies, without our knowledge.

However, a female lecturer called ‘mummy’ is urged to relax, and indeed, deducting marks for a similar infringement would most likely land her in difficulty. The preferential treatment, even at this basic level, cannot be missed.

According to feminist scholar Lorraine Code, misogyny is the hatred of, or prejudice against women or girls, and can be manifested in numerous ways, including social exclusion, sex discrimination, male privilege, belittling of women, violence against women and sexual objectification.

The difference between misogyny and patriarchy are a subject of continued debate, but to simplify, patriarchy is a structural system of oppression and privilege, while misogyny is its more potent expression. In a sense, patriarchy is the system where women playing the same professional roles as men are paid less, while misogyny is the stripping of women on Tom Mboya Street because they are showing too much hip.

The link between misogyny and the female body has been well-researched by scholars worldwide. Peter Stallybrass argues that patriarchy sees the female body as grotesque, needing constant surveillance. This surveillance becomes symbolic; the grotesque qualities of disobedience for example, equating to chaos and even cuckoldry, are underpinned by the mouth, seen as lacking silence, and chastity.

The academy, despite its positioning as a tower of enlightenment, continues to marinate in the juices of misogyny, its key target being the female member of staff, who is of necessity not silent, and therefore, embodying questionable morality. In the academy, misogyny makes silencing of the female academic its sole mission, intent on putting her in her place which is, preferably, far from higher notions of intelligence and voicing of opinions.

The first step becomes delegitimising her academic status, perhaps unfortunately centred on titles. After all, it is easy to order a mummy to, for instance, take minutes, say prayers, serve tea or perform mundane admin jobs that male colleagues do not even allow to beep on their radars.

Suggestions to have male colleagues, even junior ones, do their turn are usually met with belligerence and annoyance. Even worldwide, this trend is evident. A piece of research published in April 2017 in Inside Higher Ed titled Relying on Women, Not Rewarding Them is one among many studies showing that female members of the academy are tasked with more internal and admin work purely because they are women, including counselling and mentoring students, record-keeping, among others.

While noble, these tasks, often unpaid, do take on a life of their own, robbing female academics crucial time to conduct research and publish, which are the traditional pathways to promotion. This presents a clear blowback, with the academy sometimes accusing female members of lacking crisp grasp of theoretical and epistemological tools in their academic work.

But it does not end there. Increasingly, female members of the academy, especially younger women, are subjected to antagonism and sexual objectification from both fellow staff members, and male students, which borders on sexual harassment.

Male students and colleagues making sexual passes at female staff is not uncommon, and this could take place through ‘innocent’, flirtatious and unwelcome WhatsApp messaging, or raucous, sexual jokes.

Even more absurd is the propensity of both male colleagues and students to resort to violent verbal and psychological abuse when their sexual advances are thwarted or rejected by female members of the academy.

Even simple classroom interactions become laden with threats. The lecture room itself, especially for young female academics, can be a very scary space. The academy is awash with stories shared in hushed tones by female members who are both fed-up, and a little afraid in the light of an emboldened male community protected by patriarchy and male privilege.

A female lecturer accosted and threatened by a male student at a city university for refusing to accept a very late paper submission was for instance subjected to comments insinuating that it was she who had provoked the student, who is otherwise known to be mild-mannered and gentlemanly.

Errant males

Unwelcome advice echoing a silencing narrative was that she should have been humble and accepting of the male student’s efforts. Subsequently, the male student was not subjected to any disciplinary action.

This male privilege is always the final bastion protecting misogyny and giving it a comfortable bed and pillow within academia. Errant male members of the academy, whether student or staff, routinely get away with misogyny.

Complaints by female members of staff are often reduced to emotionalism, hormone surges, exaggeration, and even insanity, as has been witnessed in the callous treatment of Dr Stella Nyanzi in neighbouring Uganda.

The offending (and often male) party is shielded by male privilege, leaving the burden of proof and propriety on the female academic who finds herself forced to defend her very existence, and her rightful place within academic spaces that are steeped in aggressive provocation, but offering little protection, if any.

It is a fact that many public universities do not have sexual harassment policies in place for example, and where present, their existence remains in the dark, and their fair application almost impossible in the light of this noxious patriarchal culture.

Few public universities have clear and transparent operational procedures that protect both faculty and students by setting clear boundaries, and clear disciplinary outcomes. We seem to be only consumed by corporate ‘targets’ – forced to sacrifice operational integrity for student numbers and easy passage through our pipelines.

This means these trends will continue to be the norm, as female faculty are left to sort themselves out. One ponders whether sleepy patriarchy will awaken when a female member of staff is physically attacked by colleagues or students, who now have the wherewithal to even bring explosive devices and others weapons into their campuses, or worse, if this is already happening, but being swept under misogynistic rags.

It is time to begin to drain this deep patriarchal cesspool in our public universities.

- Dr Omanga teaches at the Moi University. Dr Mose is a lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya