Gender, Ethnicity and Class: “Burying Otieno” Revisited


Gordon, April. 1995. "Gender, Ethnicity and Class in Kenya: “Burying Otieno” Revisited.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 20 (41): 883- 912.

Author: April Gordon


In the Summer 1991 issue of Signs, Patricia Stamp published an excellent analysis of a legal controversy in Kenya. Titled "Burying Otieno: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity in Kenya," Stamp's article focused on the place of customary versus common law, the primacy of ethnicity versus national identity, and the power of patriarchy over women's rights in Kenya. Stamp also discussed feminist politics, concluding that the results of the Otieno case would politicize many Kenyan women and be the terrain for future feminist struggle in Africa (Stamp 1991, 832-33). Although all of these issues are important, I wish to focus in this article on a topic - the importance of class as well as gender and ethnicity in the Otieno case- that Stamp did not discuss in depth in her analysis of a highly complex social reality. This complexity and the variety of meanings it can have are certainly demonstrated in the Otieno case by the widespread journalistic, popular, and scholarly commentary it has generated both within and outside of Kenya. My purpose, then, is to extend these other analyses.

Keywords: social reality, women's rights, land rights, Property Rights, patriarchy



"Gordon argues that the issues revealed in the Otieno case are more complex than an unambiguous conflict between patriarchy and women’s rights. It demonstrates that: “the often assumed unity in women’s struggles based on gender can overlook that there are fundamental differences among women that divide them, especially differences of class, race, religion, and ethnicity.” (885)

"Moreover, some women stand to gain more or to benefit at the expense of other women from particular women’s rights agendas. She argues that by examining how class and ethnicity as well as gender interrelate in Kenya: “we can get a better understanding of both men’s and women’s reactions to the Otieno case and what interests are at stake.” (886)

"Gordon takes Stamp’s point about Wambui being viewed as an individual and not as part of a group (whether gender or clan) and attributes it to something other than women being viewed as part of the household sphere, stating that: “although Wambui Otieno saw herself as fighting for women’s rights in Kenya, my view is that she represents primarily the interests of Africa’s emerging but not yet hegemonic capitalist classes rather than African women in general.” (886)

“Since the colonial penetration of Africa, precapitalist African social institutions and modes of production have been modified and used to further the interests of global capitalism and foreign and African elites. The resulting mode of production, which sustains dependent, underdeveloped capitalist development, is neither precapitalist nor capitalist but a mixture. And its success depends on the perpetuation of so-called traditional kinship and gender relations rooted in ties of ethnicity and the patriarchal extended family.” (887)

Topics: Class, Ethnicity, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy, Gender Equality/Inequality, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, East Africa Countries: Kenya

Year: 1995

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