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Women’s History Month: An Interpretation of Feminism in Africa

Today we decided to open our eyes a little wider. Sure, women have done well in the United States but what about in the rest of the world? Have the rights of women in Africa mirrored the American liberation? We turned to the Oxford African American Studies Center to learn more and found a great article by Gwendolyn Mikell. Check it out below. If you haven’t read the other articles this month, Feminism and Art, On Female Body Experience and Feminism be sure to go back and read them!

Female activism and feminist movements in Africa.

In contrast to much of the twentieth century, today we can talk about African feminism because African women themselves do so, and because they have quite clear ideas about what they mean when they use the term. Albertina Sisulu, the respected senior woman in the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, and the wife of Walter Sisulu, symbolized this new wave of female activism when she joined the women’s walkout at the ANC Party Conference in Durban in 1992.

The walkout demanded that the ANC commit itself to 33 percent female representation in Parliament and other government positions in the new South Africa to come. This form of feminism in South Africa is but one of many feminisms in Africa. Feminism varies both among the various nations as well as among different cultural subgroups on the continent. Nevertheless, African women’s recognition of something they call “feminism” marks a new political sophistication borne of their deep engagement with the difficulties and challenges now facing their societies. The emergence of African feminism signals women’s desire to play a role in determining the direction of development.

Thus, African feminism is Janus-faced: it looks forward to women’s new goals, as well as backward to statuses and roles that women leaders have played in the past. African women are voicing their opinions about the failed elections, military coups, political upheavals, refugee movements, economic recessions, structural adjustment, and other crises that severely affected their lives since the 1980s. They are affirming their own identities while transforming societal notions of gender and familial roles.

African feminism is highly political, and it is a response to African social and political developments rather than an outgrowth of Western feminism. African women know that women and children have borne the brunt of the recent crises, as measured in high child mortality rates, lowered female literacy rates, the continuing confinement of women to agricultural work, and their exclusion from modern, technical, and scientific fields. Many African women (and some African men as well) are committed to correcting these disparities and forging new relationships between state and society, even though Western powers and global institutions still exercise tremendous influence over the economic and political conditions of African states.

Since the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, China (September 1995), Western governments and development agencies have urged respect for women’s human rights and initiatives for “women’s empowerment” in African state policies. This Western pressure has provided some support for women’s activism. On the other hand, many African politicians viewed Western efforts with suspicion, and have questioned the autonomy and legitimacy of women’s actions. This controversy has not deterred African women activists. They know this may be their best opportunity to create a place for themselves in national life. Therefore, they are determined that “we will not miss the boat this time around.”

Distinctive Features of African Feminism

African feminism differs from Western feminism because it has developed in a different cultural context. Today, African women are seeking to redefine their roles in ways that allow them a new, culturally attuned activism. This is not a totally novel challenge, since there is evidence of gender hierarchy, female subordination, and women’s struggles to reshape their statuses and roles within traditional African cultures in earlier historical periods. Gender asymmetry and inequality, particularly the distinction between public (political) and private (household) spheres, certainly existed in indigenous African social life. Gender inequality solidified during and following the phases of Islamic expansion and as European conquerors attempted to subdue or ignore female leaders. However, in Africa, female subordination takes intricate forms grounded in traditional African cultures, particularly because it is partially shaped by the “corporate” and “dual-sex” patterns that Africans have maintained through their history. Since culture is not static, new forms of asymmetry and inequality have arisen. Politicians and laypersons alike sometimes present this inequality as customary, but this is a distortion of African history. Women’s contemporary activism and their attempts to fashion an African feminist approach to public and private life have emerged in response to these inequities.

The forms of African feminism emerging in various parts of the continent do not grow out of individualism within the context of industrial societies, as did Western feminism. In the West, economic and social trends historically pushed women into more active roles in the economy, and Western feminism has focused on women’s struggle for control over reproduction and sexuality. However, African women have had a different experience. African feminist debates do not focus on theoretical questions, the female body, or sexual identity. Rather, like many of its Third World counterparts, African feminism is distinctly heterosexual, supportive of motherhood, and focused on issues of “bread, butter, culture, and power.” The average fertility rate in Africa has stayed around six children per woman, and this reality shapes African women’s lives. The practical orientation of African feminism grows out of a cultural heritage of female integration within corporate, agrarian, and family-based societies, and a more recent history of political domination and economic exploitation by the West.
In contrast to Western feminism, which emphasizes individual female autonomy, African feminism emphasizes authentic public participation and decision making by women. The issue of African clitoridectomy is one that African women say they themselves should be and are working to resolve—not Western women. African women are now exploring ways to incorporate their own views of women’s development into African development policies and the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Since the 1990s women leaders both inside and outside of government have criticized the effects of national policies on women. Political leaders and the military victimized some women for their criticism of social policies: women’s demonstrations were disrupted, they were jailed, their markets were burned, and they were forced out of public positions. Nevertheless, African women’s experiences of the hardship of economic restructuring and the growing democratization of their societies have pushed them toward greater boldness in voicing their grievances and focusing attention on women’s status within their societies.

Cultural Roots of African Feminism

Africans, perhaps more than the peoples of other regions, tend to fuse nature and culture in their traditional conceptions of women’s roles. Ali Mazrui has said that African women have controlled earth, fire, and water—three of the four elements in traditional culture. They have thus held responsibility for preparing food, acquiring fuel for cooking, and tilling the soil, in addition to other productive and reproductive tasks. Although Western observers stereotypically equate women’s roles with “nature” and the domestic sphere of family, reproduction, household, and marriage (the private realm), and associate men’s roles with “culture” and human complexity in political and economic roles (the public realm), this dichotomy does not hold true in Africa. Most African women combine roles as mothers and as economic contributors. The African feminists of today are—equally—mothers of several children, community participants, and public persons. African women have always sought to take on politically and economically responsible roles.

Thus, African feminism builds upon a solid tradition of female inclusion in a wide variety of social roles in African cultures. The prevalent Western myth of an African “matriarchy” has no validity here, since women typically do not seek to dominate. Although African women are frequently assertive and strong, the norms of their own societies have usually shaped their roles. These norms situate gender relations within the context of social groupings, such as extended families and secret societies, or encourage what is called dual-sex organization, in which women form their own associations separate from male associations to accomplish their tasks. In some areas, such as West Africa, women’s ability to form dual-sex groups in their own interest is highly developed, creating a facade of egalitarianism, while the tradition of separate women’s groups is weaker in East and southern Africa. Dual-sex organization was also more firmly rooted in matrilineal areas of West and Central Africa, where descent was traced through women, than in patrilineal areas of East, West, and southern Africa, where men form the core of the family.

Although men generally dominated traditional African societies, women led wars of resistance against foreign powers. The Berber prophetess Kachina held back the Arab invasion in the eighth century; and the female prophetess Nehanda of Zimbabwe led her people in resistance to the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes during the late nineteenth century. Queen Mother Yaa Asantewa fought against British colonial conquest in the Asante kingdom (present-day Ghana). Women who were organized as sisters, wives, market women, and artisans could alter decisions they considered harmful to other women. The early twentieth-century example of the Aba Riots, or Women’s War, among the Igbo of Nigeria demonstrated women’s ability to use their associations to protest colonial or community decisions that clashed with women’s interests. However, as centralization and statehood emerged, rulers attempted to limit women and control the political process. This type of state bias against women increased during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when colonial regimes attempted to conquer and reshape African societies.

Women have enjoyed representation in social groupings, for example through dual-sex organization, throughout most of African cultural history. This has been advantageous for African women, since they have been able to assume positions allotted to their kin groups within the community. Women could rise to positions of political, religious, or economic prominence if they belonged to prestigious families. Perhaps more consistently than in any other region of the world, there have been high-status female leaders all across Africa, from ancient Egypt to South Africa, including queens, queen mothers, chiefs, and priestesses. In matrilineal societies, the queen mothers, women chiefs, and priestesses were not feminists, but simply leaders and decision makers. Nevertheless, their leadership did inspire some female activism. Likewise, the dual-sex model is widely scattered across the continent, and often power is balanced between male and female leaders. The dual-sex model assumes its ultimate form in the dual-monarchy of king and queen mother, which exists in many Akan societies, as well as in Swaziland. Women helped to shape the political traditions, charters, and constitutions of traditional African societies that were enshrined in proverbs, oral traditions, and myths of state.

Islamization, colonial conquest, Christianization, economic crisis, and other changes over time have resulted in renegotiation of the traditional social contract. Often this has given rise to gender-biased relations and an attempt to exclude women from political life. Queen Njinga of Angola opposed Portuguese conquest by mobilizing those who supported her right to rule against those who opposed the notion of female leadership. However, in nearly every part of the continent, even in Islamic areas, the preexisting base of female involvement and activism escaped complete destruction, and often unique forms of female resistance emerged. In many countries, African women found ways of linking new practices with older principles of women’s participation and activism.

Contemporary African Feminism

The crises in African economic and political life have caused serious hardship for women since the 1980s, but this has also generated a new burst of African feminism. Previously, African states were hesitant to discuss women’s issues and grievances publicly. However, they were not hesitant to accuse women of subversion or a lack of patriotism when their organizations demonstrated against state policies or when they lobbied international organizations to improve conditions for women. Often, African leaders targeted women when they acted collectively to protest wage cuts or artificially high food prices. Sometimes, governments victimized female merchants and entrepreneurs by charging that these women were hoarding commodities or illegally producing products, and states defamed female aristocrats who offered political opposition.

It is not surprising that the economic arena has generated many defiant responses from African women and feminist organizations. Women are responsible for much of the farm work in Africa, but Colonial Rule and the market economy have often isolated women from sources of finance and sometimes damaged their traditional rights to own land. A result has been the concentration of resources in male hands. Women have noted that increasingly, under the pressures of the market economy, their families and lineages have fragmented. Men have divorced or delayed marriages, and men have migrated across borders seeking work in response to resource scarcity at home. During the 1980s and 1990s the International Monetary Fund and World Bank pressured African countries to implement structural adjustment programs that required cuts in health care, social services, and education. These programs harmed women and children disproportionately. But now, African women are refusing to suffer “down on the farm.” Much of women’s feminist activism in the 2000s is designed to focus state and public attention on the welfare of women and children, and to create new economic policies that are beneficial to the entire populace.

Likewise, although African women played important roles in nationalist politics or liberation struggles that brought their countries to independence, very few were chosen as government ministers or diplomats, and most were excluded from leadership positions in political parties. Nevertheless, women in such countries as Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya used their astute knowledge to build women’s political organizations that could apply pressure on political parties and begin to hold state politicians accountable to the community. The experiences of women in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa provide us with examples of effective feminist action in the current period of democratization and the struggle against military rule.

African women today have taken a leadership role in setting new economic and political agendas. One of the legacies of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women is that African women are determined to shape the policies of their countries. They have pushed for additional support for girls’ education, including training for careers in industrial fields, the sciences, agriculture, or the professions, and for greater gender sensitivity in government and private-sector hiring policies.

Increasingly, African women have led national dialogues about women’s human rights. In West and East Africa, and also in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, women are stepping up their campaign against sexism and exploitation. African feminists have opposed such practices as early marriage, female genital mutilation, women’s exposure to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) through unsafe sex practices, and various forms of medical neglect. In northern Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as in South Africa and Kenya, Muslim women have argued that they can be good Muslim wives and mothers even as they pursue professional training, a role in community and regional dialogues, or public office.
African feminists today have fostered a greater awareness of the connections between gender and the political economy of the state by openly discussing the links between the public and private experiences of African women. They have challenged the reluctance to talk about gender conflicts, and they have prompted women to collectively address political actions that affect their lives. African feminists have generated a new model of what feminism is about and new feminist views of civil society, the family, and the state. They have stepped forward to defend their views in international gatherings of policy makers and feminists in the conviction that their approaches will yield more positive results for African local, regional, and national development than will feminist approaches that are imported from Western societies.

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Recent Comments

  1. Alpha M. Chintem

    It so interesting to read on feminism in Africa and the world at large, but I need feminism writing in Nigeria history. Likely before independent and upto the millennium century. Hank you.

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