NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In March 2013, Sophia Abdi Noor was the only woman to stand for parliament in northern Kenya, a marginalised region where Islam has a lot of sway.
She spoke about the obstacles she has faced as a female politician at the launch of a report about women’s participation in the March 2013 elections. Female candidates in Kenya face many barriers, including violence, cultural and social stereotypes, lack of money and lack of political connections.
Noor first stood for parliament in 1997 and lost. In 2007, she was nominated to take one of 12 seats in Kenya's parliament set aside for special interest groups that do not require being elected. In 2013, she ran for election and lost again.
“In 1997, I won the nomination at the party level for KANU [the Kenya African National Union political party]. When I won, it was a shock to the whole leadership of my region: political leaders, religious leaders and opinion leaders.
They all went to President Moi and they told him: ‘It is against our religion. It is against our tradition, and we will not accept Sophia going for that seat with KANU. Deny her.’
And the president himself announced my cancellation [from the KANU candidacy] at the eleventh hour.
I went to many political parties in the evening [looking for another party ticket to run on]. Luckily enough, Martin Shikuku [of Ford Asili party – the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy] was in his office at midnight. He told me: ‘I saw the news. I knew you would come to my office. I was waiting for you. I have nominated you. Go for the elections.’
There was El Nino. It was raining all over. I travelled from here [Nairobi], walked the whole night. I went on a canoe to cross over to [my constituency] Ijara. I was only able to reach 18 polling stations out of 65 polling stations. They defeated me with 100 votes.
In 2013, I went back [to stand] for election. There were six men [standing as candidates] against myself. They now started working with the mosques. They started working with the traditional governance structures, which only had men and no women.
They came out with the propaganda that in the Islamic religion women cannot contest leadership positions. They told people they cannot even vote for the women’s representative [position].
The sheikhs went on the tops of the Land Rovers of my opponents and talked negatively about the leadership of a woman, what it will do, how it is a curse.
The last Friday before the elections, all the 65 constituency mosques talked about Sophia Abdi Noor. My father was weak, sick, and he heard that all the mosques in Ijara talked about Sophia.
He went into coma immediately and he died. I feel very painful that I lost my own father because of politics.
My greatest challenge is the misinterpretation of religion. If you look at the Koran, there is a whole chapter talking about the place the Koran has put a woman in society.
The other challenge was we did not have any observers … in the whole region.
On the D Day of the election, the women [voters] were in the lines early in the morning. The men organised young men to come and beat them. The women were beaten in the queues. There was confusion all over.
The police were watching women being beaten. I would go to a policeman and tell him: ‘Why can’t you save these women?’
And the policeman says: ‘I am fearing, I hear the al Shabaab [militant group from Somalia] are here. I am scared. I don’t know if these guys are al Shabaab.’
I had nobody. The security was not helping. We did not have media to cover what was going on. We did not have observers.
After the election, they counted the votes and I was not satisfied. I told them to recount the votes. I knew they were misbehaving. They refused to count for me.
I went to the High Court. Women came and they showed the judge all their wounds. And the judge asked them: ‘Did you go to hospital and get P3s [legal documents produced in court to prove bodily harm, obtained from the police and completed by a government medical officer]?’
We don’t have hospitals. There were no P3s there. It’s a village.
So the judge then said: ‘I cannot do anything because you do not have P3s.’
I have gone to the Court of Appeal. I am waiting to hear from them.”