because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Wangari Muta Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai was a wife, mother, and respected professor of biology at the University of Nairobi (Kenya) in the 1970's when her husband walked into court, claiming that she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that, for this reason, "he was unable to control her." The judge granted him a divorce and she called the judge something that got her locked up in jail.

Unrepentant, Maathai sent her children to live with their father and ran for and ultimately won the position of Chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Not busy enough pushing one envelope, however, Maathai simultaneously worked to establish what came to be called the Green Belt Movement to combat desertification, deforestation, water crisis, and rural hunger throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

For whatever reason (because they were unable to control her?), the men in power in Kenya fought Maathai at every level, undercutting her funding, manipulating the courts, calling her "a crazy woman" in the media, and even threatening her life.  But Maathai was an in-your-face woman.  At one point, the police had to besiege her house for three days before they finally cut through the bars in her windows to arrest her and take her to jail. It was only after a whole group of international organizations and eight U.S. Senators called for her release that the government let her go.

Instead of making her act more like a "proper" woman in the African tradition, however, her incarceration resulted in her going on a public hunger strike at a place she called "Freedom Corner" to demand the release of other political prisoners. Four days after the hunger strike began, she was knocked unconscious and hospitalized, while the President of Kenya himself went to the press, calling her a "mad woman" who was a "threat to the order and security of the country."

Ultimately deciding that what was really needed in her homeland was a revolution, Maathai committed to no less than a complete democratization of her nation's governmental system.  Eventually, needless to say, the Powers-That-Be in Kenya lost and Wangari Muta Maathai won. The Nobel Peace Prize, to be exact.

Most folks don't believe that one person can accomplish much, but in-your-face women do. All the time. Whether they're known for it or not.

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