Peace is costly, but it’s worth the expense.
– Kenyan Proverb
Kenya is currently in a volatile period heading towards its general elections. Election periods in Kenya and around the world are often characterized by very active social media participation discussing a wide range of topics, including politics, religion, economy, tribal profiling, and geopolitical marginalization. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, a day meant for global action for gender equality, Kenya will not be left out. As in many other years, Kenya celebrates this day through walks for women, seminars, campaigns, and lately social media activity on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp. In this article, I celebrate a woman making social, economic, political, and religious change through social media on the Kenyan coast, a society that is deeply rooted in religion and patriarchal concerns: Maimuna Siraj, a female youth leader and activist bringing hope to Mombasa. This inspirational woman has been using social media as a platform for activism for the inclusion of women’s participation in all facets of life, while speaking out against gendered conflicts brought by patriarchal forces. Maimuna’s activism focuses on three aspects: politics, community empowerment, and mentoring.
Female activists are often marginalized on social media, with hateful rhetoric and criticism directed towards them on their social media pages while they conduct rigorous debates on social injustices. Maimuna Siraj echoes these experiences, sharing that it is difficult to practice activism as a woman in Mombasa. This is because the community is heavily patriarchal and women are relegated to the homestead. She acknowledges too that women in Mombasa are influenced by men in their families when it comes to decision-making, and their opinions are never taken into account. An unwritten code of conduct for women restricts them from participating in shaping the political and development agendas.
Through research on how “gendered” the use of social media is on the coast, Maimuna observes that “women in Mombasa rarely use mobile telephony for internet use. The power to [use] mobile telephony is left to the men as they are assumed to [be] the most informed and are ‘allowed’ to use the mobile phone for other things other than call, send text messages and carry out money transaction.” Due to this, Maimuna reaches her target audience through being actively involved with groups like the Pwani Youth Network, Kenya Youth for Change, and the Kenya Community Support Centre. These groups focus on topics surrounding social and political peace, health care, and women’s property rights.
At only twenty-six years old, Maimuna and her work are driven by the African proverb: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” As a result, she mentors young girls, which has led to their achievement of remarkable grades and allowed them to continue on to high school. However, without funding, Maimuna struggles on her own to achieve all of this. Once in a while, she organizes walks and football tournaments to raise funds and promote peace through social activities.
Her other achievements include raising funds for cancer patients and lobbying for donations to renovate the Kongowea Market, an initiative to encourage economic development and curb drug abuse, sex tourism, and the spread of HIV/AIDS, all of which are significant issues affecting the people of Mombasa.
Nevertheless, Maimuna’s active participation in society has not come without challenges. She has been insulted by politicians and strangers online, discouraged by friends and foe alike, and her family has been anonymously threatened with “reminders” that Maimuna’s role as a woman in society is to be seen and not heard.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, we ought to focus on the role of women in shaping the development agenda in Africa and the expansion of political space for women’s participation in peacebuilding. Maimuna Siraj serves as an excellent reminder of women’s struggle to be involved in these processes and an inspirational figure for all. She should not be the ignored heroine of Mombasa, but rather, her peacebuilding activities ought to be acknowledged, emulated, and supported by society at large for progress to be made. Indeed, peace is costly, but it’s worth the expense.