It's 6 am when you scramble into the only available matatu on the stage and head for the window seat. You settle in and whip out your phone to catch up with Edgar Obare. A little gossip is a food to the soul, right? Maybe you found an older matatu today and the radio volume is low enough for you to read that book you have been carrying around in your bag for two weeks. Just as you are getting down to it, a man boards and makes for the seat right next to you. He plops on it, leans back, and spreads his legs wide apart like he is at a bonfire.
He is all but sitting on you but he doesn’t even acknowledge you. We call it man-sitting or manspreading. Whether on a cramped bus, in a waiting room, or even in those small seats they have in the banking hall, every woman has been on the receiving end of it.
Is It Boys Being Boys?
When it happens, we lump it up together with all those other annoying things that Kenyan men do like scratching their crotch in public, peeing on the roadside, or letting their index finger linger on your palm when you shake their hand, and say it’s what men do. It's boys being boys.
If you are the woman pushed to the corner, you will have one of two reactions. You may react annoyingly and push him back but more often than not, you will shrink back in your seat, and let him take up space. You will tell yourself that it’s just a seat, nothing to lose your cool over. You don’t want people thinking you are crazy that early in the morning.
If you are like most women, you think the world would be a much better place if only the men around you could behave a little more like women. You’re right. It would also be better if, in some ways, women behaved like men. Turns out that some of their annoying habits like manspreading can be a learning opportunity for you.
The Lessons You Can Learn
Manspreading isn’t just about posture or a man feeling more comfortable on the train. It’s a powerful language. It’s a power play. The fact that a man doesn’t think twice before he takes up space for two seats on the bus is something we can learn from. Well, I am not talking about sitting with your legs wide open, and feet pointing out but learning to take up more space, and assert your presence.
As a little girl, your mother yelled at you to cross your legs or to sit like a girl every time you sat with your legs apart. Now, as a woman, you subconsciously take up as little space as possible. When the man spreads and asserts his presence, you put your knees together and shrink back, giving in to the power play.
It Is Good For Your Career
The reason a man will occupy his space and yours in a public space is also the same one a man will apply for a job when his only qualification is that he is alive. His puffed-up sense of self-importance is why a man with only a form four certificate will apply for a job that clearly states that he should have a Master's degree. It is also why he often gets the job. If you thought so highly of yourself, then you would resist the urge to sit in the corner, in the departmental meeting.
When you are a woman, in whatever job position, in a society as patriarchal as ours, whichever room you walk in, there will be someone thinking that you do not belong there. If you are a good student, you will make a conscious effort to act as if you belong here, and own your space. Your body language is a big part of how successful you are at this. Hold back your shoulders, stand with your head held high, your elbows held out. Dare someone to walk up to you and say you don't belong. And ditch that limp, disinterested handshake. It’s doing little for your career.
Next, take up space with your voice. This doesn't mean becoming loud and obnoxious like some of our female politicians. It means having the conviction that your opinion is important, not hesitating to speak out at every chance, and speaking out when you are interrupted. Your opinions are just as important as, if not more than anyone else's in the room.
This is not something you will not be able to wake up one morning and do. It will take baby steps. You may even need to practice before certain situations.
Even if you don’t feel confident all the time, fake it till you feel it.
You may feel the fear of sounding obnoxious at the beginning. If you keep at it, if you keep holding your head up and speaking up, you will begin believing that you deserve every space you occupy.