Interrogating culture: Was kneeling always gendered?

Women’s bodies are politicised, in war and in peaceful times. There are some methods that are familiar to us: like the rape of women during war, political discussions surrounding women’s dress, etc. But there are also other ways that are coded and have been designed by generations before to dictate what a woman should be.

Take the example of Mt. St. Mary’s Namagunga where we were taught “social graces”. The first and probably most important thing for the incoming Senior One girls was to learn how to be a lady. “Ladies don’t run, ladies don’t jump over benches, ladies don’t cross lawns.” Of course the white nuns had started these rules, and someone else had taught the same rules to them. We were just continuing a cycle where the movement of a woman’s body was dictated and particular postures signaled a lady (i.e good behaviour). If you did not master these, you were going to go out into the world as uncouth.

Education is a huge part of genderisation because we are taught how to be female and how to be male. And body postures are a big part of that. If my brother slouched, he will get comments about being a tall man. But should I dare the same, I will be told to sit up straight. It is a performance, really. Gender performativity, to use Judith Butler’s term.

But this might all be too contemporary and my issue today is this kneeling business.

I was not brought up to kneel. I was taught to hug. That’s how my people greet. When I learned to kneel, however, it was taught to me in a gendered lens. Women knelt, they said. Men sat and stood.

But was it always gendered?

Evelyn Anite presenting petition to Pres Museveni [Photo credit: NRM Secretariat]

Evelyn Anite presenting petition to Pres Museveni [Photo credit: NRM Secretariat]

When we saw this picture of Evelyn Anite kneeling, we were horrified. And the conversation has been around “the status of women” and how the kneeling posture is one that keeps the women at a lower level. It is a good analysis especially since it is required of just the women and the kneeling woman is physically lower than the standing/sitting male. It is submissive even outside of this cultured space. When we pray, we assume the same posture and in that moment, we are not just submitting to the power of God but we –most often- are also begging for His favor.

While the gesture is submissive, we should investigate the entire practice because extending this kneeling to “status of women” has made it a woman thing. And I see a lot of kwanjula pictures where men and boys kneel. I insist that it was a respect thing. That it was a “status of people”.  As a former British protectorate, our history is complicated and part of those complications was the two-level hierarchy, a term anthropologist scholar Niara Sudarkasa uses to describe the binary system we inherited which defined women as below men.

This should be answered by asking who gets to kneel. Do I kneel because I am a woman? Or do I kneel because I am younger? Because age trumps gender in status, and lineage is above it all. My sister-in-law attempted to kneel to me once. We are both female, and I am younger than her. Her reasons were that as her husband’s sister, I was technically her husband as well. “Husband” in most of our languages is not gendered and anyone in that lineage or in that role can fit the label.

Seeing this picture of Youth MP for Northern region Evelyn Anite kneel raises a lot of questions on our identity and the evolution of practices. Because even when we think in terms of “status of women”, Hon. Anite as an MP should have enough status in that room to not kneel. She deserves to be in that room as much as the other people do. But if we are going to start kneeling- MP to President, should we now expect Hon. Kibuule to kneel to his senior minister Hon. Karooro Okurut? Or maybe even Prime Minister to President? These are all impossible scenarios for you- and me- to visualise because we have filtered what we want of our history, taken it without question, taught it to each other as “culture” and run with it.

P.S Because a community member said that there are plenty of women in positions of power kneeling, we are going to create a Registry that we are calling “Criminal Knees”. For every woman in power that kneels before the authority she has been chosen to be a part of.

2 thoughts on “Interrogating culture: Was kneeling always gendered?

  1. I agree with the spirit behind your post but I at the same time find myself uncomfortable with it. I can’t miss feeling the bits of feminism that have flowed into the post. I have had my questions with feminism because I felt it created a feeling of war, where the women have to fight against the men that try to keep them down.

    That feeling of war is similar to what goes on in the life of a person with a low self-esteem. A person with a low self-esteem will feel attacked even when people make innocent reactions. A person with that war mindset could easily interpret my statement as a comparison of feminism to low self-esteem.

    The spirit in your post is aimed at feminism, but the same can be applied to racism, tribalism, nationalism etc. Let us not start wars that are unnecessary, we have so much to fix in our country for us to fight internal wars of feminism and tribalism.

    Before we fight ideas, its always good to think about the reward and the cost. I personally believe, the ideas worth fighting are those with a low cost and a high reward.

    Thank you for the post.


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