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Persons Unknown

Imagine not existing. Strange, right? Like something straight out of a dystopian universe.

For Kenyan women, this was their reality for the first 15 or so years of independence. Because they were not existent in the eyes of the state, some of them were even labelled Mau Mau when they were sceptical about IDs being issued to them.

Reading that account chronicling the issuance of IDs to women, I am struck by all the men speaking for women. In Parliament, male MPs speak about how their women being made to take off their headscarves when men aren’t made to remove turbans as their photographs are taken. In none of those accounts do I see a woman speak.

IDs started being issued to women in 1978 when Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, freshly installed as President, directed that women be issued with IDs. The Registration of Persons Act was amended in 1979 to retroactively reflect Moi’s edict. For a small window of time (till 1980 when the age of registration was raised from 16 to 18), Kenyan women over 15 finally had the chance to exist in the eyes of the state.

My grandmother was in her mid-30s when the law was changed and, not having a marriage certificate, took an ID in her husband’s name to signal something. Uniquely, women were working for governments and in the private sector yet because one couldn’t open a bank account without an ID card, their pay would be sent to their fathers’ or husbands’ bank accounts. It’s strange for today’s women to imagine such a situation but it was once par for the course.

Today, because of issues of history and discrimination, some women still can’t get ID cards easily. In a country where most people over 18   years don’t have birth certificates – this will change as they become a requirement for admission to primary school – to continue to be unacknowledged by the state into adulthood is unfathomable. Hard to imagine, but true, that there are women living in the 20th century on this regard.

Less than 40 years ago, anything women would have worked for would have belonged to men in the eyes of the state. I’m curious to know how women who travelled outside the country did it. If you have any idea, please let me know.

Before then, let us not lose sight of the places we have come from and how much more we still need to do to be recognised.

Note: This post is part of #CuminWrites366, my year-long attempt to write a post a day. Find the rest over at readability.com/cuminwrites/

Questions, comments, suggestions or stories about women and the state to share? Send them to cuminwrites@gmail.com

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