Feminism on the Black Continent
I have been reluctant to discuss Feminism in the African context. However, I found my resolve upon the realisation that there exists a wealth of information and resources on African Feminism which precedes this era of rapid ‘’information influx’’.
It is of dire importance to unveil some unsung African heroines of the 80s and 90s who are largely unknown to the millennial generation at a time where Caucasian character(s) have become centrepieces of post-modernism’s domination of certain discourses. It is within this context that I attempt to set an ontological basis for the discussion at hand, which will set the ball rolling for a succinct evolution between the topics outlined afterwards. Onwards, I will also attempt to gloss on some aspects of the ‘Higher Objectives’ behind it — similar to the form of “Shariah Intelligence” , in a bid to thwart the already absurdly stale paradigms of ignorance, which take the form of an ‘uncritical acceptance’ of modernity’s baggage’s by the loud pseudo-intellectuals, or the ‘wholesale rejection’ by neo-traditionalists and their auxiliary conservatives alike.
From the continent, our ‘constructed’ understanding of femininity (just as masculinity) necessitates mentioning the brilliant and powerful women of the past such as present day Angola’s ‘Queen Nzinga’ and the Maghreb’s ‘Kahina’. This is essential in stemming the intellectual laziness that conflates ‘instinctual response to societal injustices’ as an “embrace of a western woman’s disobedience”. There has hardly been a fixed idea of Femininity, but rather a preponderant one that has sustained our familial cultural fabric over the ages before European civilization and their “discovery” of the continent.
Our diverse cultures, settings, and environments have engaged women in preparing to assume responsibilities that involved venturing outside their “traditional roles” when the situation called for it — assuming “cultural evolution” is a myth. Even from a distant reading of History, one can clearly deduce that ‘Femininity’ in an African context existed in a multi-dimension which is evident in the nature of the tasks and strategies — offense and defense modes — employed by our heroines. A more befitting counter-response to the hubris of ignorance however, will be that of the horse’s mouth; engaging the dialectics of our uncelebrated African women intellectuals who sadly are not appreciated (if at all known) at home.
So what exactly is an African perspective of Feminism? The unsung erudite, intellectual, and expert on post-colonial and militarist issues, Amina Mama describes:
“Feminist movements — in Africa as elsewhere — arise out of the rich array of political and ideological histories, cultures, languages, creeds, and classes… The (African)continent has seen many civilizations, and long histories of trade and exchange with the rest of the world, including the recent stories of imperialism and colonialism, feminism takes multiple forms, rooted in struggles that predate and can therefore transcend the structures of modern states, to address the patriarchal legacies of capitalism at multiple locations”
“I prefer to refer to “feminism in Africa” or “African feminisms” rather than to use the singular term “African feminism…” she adds, expanding on the heterogeneous nature of the continent and the needless obsession of having a single/rigid definition of the ideology. “… Because the theories and practices that comprise the struggle for women’s liberation vary widely according to context.”
It is clear from the information above that the only thing new about “African Feminism” is probably the import tag “Feminism” itself. Its praxis has never been ahistorical as it has been part and parcel of women’s lives as they experience different facets, be it from within the community as well as in the cause of their routine roles, or in the face of external invasion and influence. She thus adds, “Because there are so many nations and nationalities on the African continent, ‘feminism in Africa’ is inherently transnational.”
Feminism within ‘Artificial Boundary lines’
As I have noted above, the praxis of “African Feminism” predates the popular Universalist (white) Feminism saturating the waves and media platforms today. Before Ms Adichie’s ‘International declaration’, post-1914 Nigeria already had those such as Funmilayo Kuti slugging it out with colonial puppets (the submissive traditional rulers); resulting in their ouster in what became popularly known as the Abeokuta revolts. African Feminism in general took the initiative of battling its own problems by identifying colonialism as the root problem — the subjugator and ‘stripper’ of women’s political rights — which turned their husbands, siblings, and sons into perpetual ‘colonial privilege jostlers’. It became a ‘survival of the fittest’ contest, creating unfair advantages to the toughest of men while relegating women to irrelevance outside their houses — except if they chose to pay taxes. This is certainly true for many societies like the post-Sokoto caliphate that could brag about educated and enlightened women (in both Arabic literacy) and even erudite scholars with political influence like Nana Asmau. Less than a 100 years after her passing, the society denigrated to a level where even a woman’s right to vote was put on hold by the dominant ‘elite’ party questioning their sense of decision making.
Prior to the Abeokuta revolt was the Aba women’s riot whose women were also committed to a rejection of post-census tax impositions — similar to the ones imposed on their men earlier . The women in many Igbo communities prior to British rule were very much active and had sustained their existing network. After a couple of secret meetings, they pounced on an opportunity and kick started the Aba revolt which they sustained for a year. They emerged victorious after paying with an unfortunate price of 50 (women) lives but were “compensated” with the district head position for women. The women of the southwest weren’t alone in the liberation struggle as Mrs Kuti’s heroics was deeply influential to the rise of those like Margaret Ekpo and Gambo Sawaba, who also allied with their male colleagues under political groups in the struggle for independence, while simultaneously trying to empower local women. From this, we learn that every region produced women advocates that not only resisted colonialism, but also contributed in the birthing of the modern nation state.
Some of these heroines passed away barely over a decade ago, yet it is unfortunate that today’s young advocates can barely acquaint themselves with these personalities in our history. Hence, ignorant ‘younglings’ seen in forums/social media are limited by their inability to connect with these women and often confront the passionate and especially the enthusiastic ladies amongst them with little or no knowledge about those they could identify with as role models. Sawaba (aka redeemer) models a feminist example that is rarely credited even in non-Nigerian “African feminists” works probably due to what I think is a result of prejudicing the ‘African Muslim Woman’ as a passive and submissive entity.
We clearly see here that the coming of colonialism played a significant role in the reshaping of the Feminism praxis after pushing women in West African societies to the brink. From Asante women to their Dahomey and Yoruba counterpart respectively, this alone necessitated acts of defiance that caused the projection of a different form of resistance with and without the allyship of their men who may have succumbed and become stooges of the intruder; as was the case before the Aba women riots, with the exception of the Dahomey resistance. Mama attempts to define this 20th century feminist and her post-colonial duties:
“Identifying as both feminist and African is an act of resistance that provokes both patriarchal and imperialist reflexes in most of the systems and institutions we encounter in the course of our lives and careers. Because no institutions exist outside of societies, all are imbued with patriarchal power relations, so all are also justifiable sites for struggle.”
We clearly see here that this is a continuation of a consistent spirit imbued by our matriarchs which may have been commenced by the continent’s Queens in modern day Angola, yet it transcended down with time and in defiance of class stratification to the level of the common woman in society. This happened in the centuries of darkness the continent experienced at the hands of Europe’s savage elite. Mama also highlights the culpability of the modern states which have maintained the institutions of our former masters, despite decades of gaining independence, which reflects the fact that modern states are mere images and constructs designed to maintain a parasitic relationship between former masters and their subjects as it manifests in the world order of the day. Thus, modern day ‘women resistance’ is to square up with its very own kith and kin that it has nurtured, who have gone on as de facto purveyors and agents of oppression through the extended usage of their patriarchal width or “reflexes” as we’ve seen carried out by military regimes across the continent. In fact, another Nigerian scholar by the name Oyeronke Oyewunmi would argue that new societal roles stratified around male gendered privilege wasn’t just antithetical to many cultures, but was inherently based on Eurocentric foundations in the alteration of traditional systems to be in tune with modernity. The discussion on the nature of oppression will be continued when comparing and contrasting discourses on the word “patriarchy”.
Back to Gambo’s pedigree and her acclaim of being a Ph.D. in Political Rebellion with a literacy in Aminu Kano’s NEPU (National Empowerment Progressive Union) Adult education, her hectic activities from door-to-door campaigns to involving women in Purdah (seclusion) heralded her in an era of political victimization from the elites. Such moves came with severe consequences such as banishment by a chieftain. Like several other names in history, the struggles of the women mentioned above didn’t succeed without intimidation and trials, ranging from detentions to tragic deaths in the course of resisting and working for change.
African feminism may arguably be one of the oldest forms of ‘colored women’ resistance definitely predating post-modern feminism which comprises of the third wave of feminism that split from the mainstream white bourgeoisie or western feminism. Contrary to popular rabble rousing, African women have always hammered on ‘equity’ and Africa may probably be the continent most deserving of a Feminism moment whether the clergy/elder acquiesce to it or not. It desires as much grass root sacrificial women leaders, workers, or activists. It also refused to adopt the idea of “sameness” which is the burgeoning definition of equality in modern times. The ‘rapscallions’ nevertheless have exploited the weakness of the liberal argument to overshadow the central topics revolving round Feminists discourses, regarding contemporary definitions of inequality or double societal standards between both genders.
What certainly differentiates it from the latter is that it’s not entirely after pursuing a coup d’état on men’s leadership positions i.e. dethroning patriarchy, but in achieving and safeguarding the basic needs that require women to perform their functions without conforming to unjust standards set by the by significant ‘other’ or the society. The perceived threat on patriarchal positions occur only when these leaders/elites insist on suppressing or delegitimizing grievances of oppressed women, in turn warranting ‘perceived’ hostile measures further leading to civil disobedience.
Even from non Abrahamic perspectives, the priorities of African feminism from the lenses of traditional west African cultures as found in the oral traditions such as the Yoruba’s lived in fostering and keeping the African home united. As another writer explains, this also “recognizes the inherent, multiple roles of women and men in reproduction, production, and the distribution of wealth, power, and responsibility for sustaining human life”. Understanding that nature begins from the womb of the mother, it centralizes the importance of the woman. Hence, it is no surprise to see the stark differences in priorities from a Nigerian Yoruba Muslim woman to that of her Northern sister, as the presence of tribal standards cater for her in situations where the Abrahamic institutions appear to be faulty.
“African feminism embraces femininity, beauty, power, serenity, inner harmony, and a complex matrix of power. It is always poised and centered in womanness. It demonstrates that power and femininity are intertwined rather than antithetical. African femininity complements African masculinity, and defends both with the ferocity of the lioness while simultaneously seeking male defense of both as critical, demonstrable, and mutually obligatory. African feminism is active and essential to the social, political, economic, cultural, and evolutionary aspects of human order.”
Theories and Frameworks: Between Rebranding and Indigeneity
University of Ibadan’s famed Marxist Scholar and intellectual Molara Ogundipe-leslie who coined the acronym “STIWANISM” as a form of African centred Feminism, was reported to have stated that her label wasn’t about warring or finding equality with men, but rather, an attempt at building a harmonious society. This is to be in congruence with the social transformation that the continent should be undergoing and it should be undertaken by both genders simultaneously. “Men are not the enemy”, Ogundipe-Leslie says. The social structure which is a mixture of neo-colonial and feudal attitudes is the enemy. However, she adds that “men become enemies when they seek to retard, even block, these necessary historical changes (in women’s lives) for selfish interest in power, claiming ‘culture and heritage’ as if human societies are not constructed by human beings.”
There is an even more cautious kind of Feminism called Africana Womanism — it denies being an outgrowth of Feminism but attempts to critique problems confronting gender dynamics and patriarchal oppression in various cultures. It’s so-called difference with any form of Feminism is in a bid to avoid recklessness and egocentric opinions that some cultures or strands within the diverse body of African Feminism houses. Its end goal appears to want to preserve a human essence through the complementary roles both genders play, thus the family system is the crux. Such differences are manifest in their approach to the tolerance of polygamy where the theorist chooses to exercise restraints unlike the free platform for critique African Feminism offers its diverse adherent.
“…neither an outgrowth nor an addendum to feminism, Africana womanism is not black feminism or Walker’s womanism that some Africana women have come to embrace. Africana womanism is an ideology created and designed for all women of African descent. It is grounded in African culture and therefore it necessarily focuses on the unique experiences, struggles, needs and desire of Africana women”
At the end, Hudson-Weems’s insistence to sticking with her definition boils down to keeping a pristine ideology from being contaminated as there does not seem to be much difference between hers and Modupe’s that goes beyond individual preference.
Even the term ‘women’s movement’ itself is controversial. Africa has never ‘lacked’ in terms of women’s mobilization, be it Maryam Babangida’s ‘Better Life For Rural Women’ (BLFRW), or even micro partisan movements. Feminism, or whatever semantic, must be an encompassing ideology that does not just focus on power, but must cut through different strata’s as Mama would say, ranging from the political economy to the subjectivity of individual levels. The woman activist of African origin should ideally be an African Feminist as it becomes a false dichotomy to separate the two in the context of “communal common sense” and common interests.
While this piece doesn’t intend to delve into perceptions of feminism and other organized advocacy groups by “non-partisan” women in general, it is worth noting that it is not a rarity to find women fraternizing or ‘House Feminizing’ around either the ‘Cons’ or ‘pseudo-Libs’ just like in every other struggle. This doesn’t translate to them suffering from either cognitive dissonance or Stockholm syndrome towards the unfavourable status quo they been subjected to. For most who are educated, one can blame it on their existing temporary privilege or bourgeois status e.g. Former First Lady, Maryam Babangida’s so called Better Life for Rural Women project(BLP) — which in turn has blinded them from oppression and several oppressed groups similar to mainstream ‘White Feminism’. For some, it may be a lack of exposure resulting to having a centric view of women’s world revolving around their ‘hundred centimetre radiuses’. But for many, it takes one assault on their personal space or an eye opening experience to get them to understand how the oppression is systematic and not isolated. Many are, however, compelled to remain silent to avoid being ostracized or to find quick suitors among many reasons. As the experts would say, these are consequences of “internalized patriarchy”, which is transferred and imbibed by tomorrow’s mothers from one generation to another as society’s “culture”.
However, there have been genuine non-academic criticisms of the western strands of Feminism from indigenous advocates. The likes of Eugenia Abu are unique because despite her distaste for the tag in her book — something she embraced later, she is basically echoing the same opinions with contemporaries. Even some 2nd wave Feminists like Gloria Steinem who also don’t believe western ‘academia feminism discourse’ and it’s ‘First World’ agendas, has anything to do with the real experiences of most (colored) women around the world. As she aptly worded it, “…I know my grandmother’s needs are not theories, but a borehole”. The fact of the matter however has been that the African Feminism academia theories rose as a reactionary and instinctual response to potential cultural hegemony right after independence. Several critiques similar to those of Eugenia were articulated by its pioneers. For example, Oyewunmi was at the heart of stemming feminist concepts emerging from a western nuclear family style that has inappropriately attempted to universalize its private issues as being that of every other woman in the globe.
Catherine Rose Acholonu went an extra mile in her crafting and distinguishing of her alternative with the label “Motherism”. Just like Hudson-weems, she out rightly rejects Alice walker’s dominant form of third wave womanism because as she says:
“black feminism has become synonymous with lesbianism. This is a negative development, especially for those for whom lesbianism is a taboo. A womanist “prefers women’s culture, loves individual men, sometimes” (not all men as members of the human family)…. Such an ideology can certainly not be “universalist’ …we realize that certain vital items which have formed the basis of feminist discourse are omitted: Vital concepts such as the family, the child, nature, mothering and nurture”
At the end, we’ve clearly seen there has been more distraction with semantics which has been a display of anti-intellectual verbose similar to western academia Feminism. There has been a failure even in researching facts indicating that our foremost radical women writers and activists such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Zaynab Alkali and Buchi Emecheta amongst others, were never on par with adopting the ‘feminist tag’ at the peak of their writing careers due to the antithetical demands, ranging from the sexual revolution to judgment of an individual’s agency in pursuing marriage servitude, and the universalist tendencies of White Feminism. This clearly indicates that the praxis of women’s resistance on the continent isn’t ahistorical. Hence, attempting to align ourselves or even changing the term to co-opt, for example, the African American style of “Womanism” or “Motherism” will hardly ever alter the rigid minds on ground. Moreover, we see clearly that African Feminism and its sprouts have been the foremost challengers of postmodernity. False universals that have attempted to be foisted upon others saturate the lives of third world women and their community — way before the pseudo-clerics and the internet came into existence.
As Amina Mama Stresses, “Women-focused gender politics would work for transformation at three levels, namely at the level of our subjectivity, at the level of our personal lives and relationships and thirdly at the level of political economy. Women’s liberation requires addressing gender injustice all the way from micro- to the macro-political level, and not shying away from any level of struggle.”