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Politics of the Womb

Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya

Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    Politics of the Womb
    Book Description:

    In more than a metaphorical sense, the womb has proven to be an important site of political struggle in and about Africa. By examining the political significance—and complex ramifications—of reproductive controversies in twentieth-century Kenya, this book explores why and how control of female initiation, abortion, childbirth, and premarital pregnancy have been crucial to the exercise of colonial and postcolonial power. This innovative book enriches the study of gender, reproduction, sexuality, and African history by revealing how reproductive controversies challenged long-standing social hierarchies and contributed to the construction of new ones that continue to influence the fraught politics of abortion, birth control, female genital cutting, and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93664-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Maps
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    During the last few months of 1929, thousands of African young men and women gathered on mission stations and school grounds in colonial central Kenya to perform a dance-song called theMuthirigu.This dance-song protested colonial interference in female “circumcision” or excision, a part of adolescent initiation.² It chastised white Protestant missionaries, British colonial officers, and local leaders who supported efforts to end the practice. The aboveMuthiriguverse mocked a black church elder by proclaiming that his uninitiated daughter was ill-mannered and incapable of giving birth to proper human beings. According to this central Kenyan perspective, girls who had...

  7. 1 Imperial Populations and “Women’s Affairs”
    (pp. 21-51)

    In his annual report for 1939, H. E. Lambert, the district commissioner of Meru, included an account of how the local population had reacted to the outbreak of World War II. According to Lambert, people generally had expressed a “calm interest” in the war, with many seeking out the latest news; headmen and elders had declared their loyalty to the British empire and readiness to assist in any way possible. Not all young men, however, were eager to join the cause. Lambert told the story of a group of young men who sought to avoid military service. He wrote that...

  8. 2 Colonial Uplift and Girl-Midwives
    (pp. 52-78)

    In July 1934 the Methodist mission station in Meru celebrated a momentous event. Ruth Mukiira, the first convert to renounce and successfully avoid excision, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. In a letter to a colleague in London, missionary Muriel Martin explained that when Ruth married Kornelio Mukiira—a Methodist evangelist, teacher, and, later, minister—without being excised, she was “cut off and cursed by her people, the curse being, she should be childless.” As we have seen, many black central Kenyans understood that a child conceived by an unexcised girl posed a mortal danger to kin and neighbors....

  9. 3 Mau Mau and the Girls Who “Circumcised Themselves”
    (pp. 79-102)

    In the mid-1950s recently excised girls in Meru sang this song as they performed punitive hard labor for having defied a ban on excision. TheNjuri Nchekeof Meru, the men’s council that H. E. Lambert had drawn into colonial administration in the late 1930s, unanimously banned excision in April 1956. When interviewed in the 1990s, people in Meru recounted how news and defiance of the ban spread quickly and widely. Ex-Headman M’Anampiu of Mikinduri remembered returning in the evening from theNjuri Nchekecouncil meeting at Nchiru only to find that “all the girls had been circumcised.”¹ In the...

  10. 4 Late Colonial Customs and Wayward Schoolgirls
    (pp. 103-134)

    In late January 1967 the Kinoru African Court in Meru, comprised of three local men appointed by colonial officers, heard the “illegal pregnancy” case brought by Ayub M’Muthuri against Francis M’Muthamia. Under Meru customary law, M’Muthuri sought 700 Kenyan shillings (Ksh) in compensation from Francis for impregnating his daughter, Jennifer Kinanu, and then refusing to marry her. M’Muthuri testified that after his daughter had informed him that she was pregnant by Francis, he had sent a group of male elders to discuss the matter with Francis and his father. According to M’Muthuri, Francis initially accepted responsibility for the pregnancy by...

  11. 5 Postcolonial Nationalism and “Modern” Single Mothers
    (pp. 135-172)

    In the early 1960s Lilian Tirindi wrote to the district commissioner (DC) of Meru, asking for his assistance with providing for her six-month-old baby boy, born outside of marriage. She began by apologizing for “this shocking letter” and explaining that she was only turning to him after having consulted “so many people about this matter” without receiving assistance. She stated that while in nurse’s training at Meru District Hospital, a “certain man,” who was not her “boy friend,” “conceived [her] by force.” Lilian explained that the man had instructed her not to report the incident to “the Doctor” and had...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 173-186)

    Throughout the twentieth century, struggles over reproduction were crucial to the construction of political and moral order in Kenya. Of particular concern was how to ensure that daughters became well disciplined—not wayward—mothers and wives. Late precolonial and early colonial central Kenyan communities situated the regulation of female initiation, pregnancy, and childbirth as underlying successful social relations. In communities in which properly conceived children embodied wealth and ties to the spiritual world, procreation was a matter of material as well as moral importance. It also enabled the elaboration of gender differences and generational hierarchies. Women’s power was rooted in...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 187-234)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 235-288)
  15. Index
    (pp. 289-300)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-301)