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Traders and Urban Struggle: Ideology and the Creation of a Militant Female Underclass in Nairobi, 1960-1990 Claire Robertson The "struggle for the city" is determined at base by economics, but it is also gendered, which has real economic consequences for the participants . The conditions under which the struggle takes place determine its gendered aspects and the priority placed upon gender within it. As Johanna Lessinger has pointed out, markets are often contested terrain— not only between private and public developers and traders, but also between men and women traders and the police and/or the government in its various guises.1 If class conflict is embodied in this struggle, so also is the effort of men to control women.2 These efforts occur both across and within class and ethnic boundaries. One of the conditions which helps to gender the struggle for the city is the dominant role of women in urban trade, which is common in Africa and Latin America. This essay will chronicle a gender struggle that took place beginning in the 1920s in the Nairobi area when Kikuyu men tried to exert control over Kikuyu women's expanding trade activities, which took them to Nairobi. In this respect the case of Nairobi area traders is an interesting one which illustrates how, when economic and social interests coincide, colonialist and colonized men may cooperate in the attempt to control women. More often, however, their class interests did not coincide and African men found their efforts to control women unsupported by the British. But the chief focus of the essay is the period between 1960 and 1990, when women traders became a growing part of an increasingly militant underclass in Nairobi. While the primary focus here is on women traders in Nairobi, it would be a mistake to view them as isolated from the surrounding area. Most of the traders came from Kiambu, the dominantly Kikuyu area north and northwest of Nairobi, and Murang'a, north of Kiambu.3 Kikuyu women's trading activities stretch well back into the nineteenth century but were transformed by colonialism as new opportunities and imperatives encouraging trade presented themselves. Here I will concentrate on the latter part of the twentieth century, during which women traders became an important part of the urban scene as the scope and intensity of their involvement in trade increased. Some women were becoming permanent urban dwellers with a full-time commitment to trade, rather than the older pattern of part-time farmers and traders. The essay concentrates on the efforts by © 1993 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 4 No. 3 (Winter)__________________ 10 Journal of Women's History Winter various Kenyan governments to control a rambunctious growing trading population dominated by women. Efforts to control the activities of women traders in the Nairobi area began well before 1960, when such attempts were more particularistic and ethnically based. In the 1920s, following World War I, there was a large increase in the number of women going to Nairobi to trade and/or to practice prostitution. Women's trade to Nairobi became enmeshed in a complex controversy involving missionary attempts to stop clitoridectomy and provide girls with Western-style education. In Kiambu male elders and younger male militants protested and tried to stop this trade, which was associated with loss of control over women's sexuality, but these efforts failed because of British colonial opposition. A shift from rural to urban concentration in control efforts took place in the 1940s with the emergency measures undertaken to control the African population during World War 11 and even more strongly during the MauMau Emergency of the 1950s. It was only around the time of independence in 1963 that the goal changed from eradicating hawking (itinerant trading) to controlling it, when the huge press of people into Nairobi accompanying the removal of the Emergency restrictions made it evident that some accommodation was required. The mid-1960s to the 1970s represent the only period so far in which the attitudes of the authorities softened somewhat and some true compromises were attempted. However, the growing struggle for urban space is evident in this period as is discrimination against women in the compromises and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 9-42
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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