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The African Feminism Debate: A Brief Overview
Written by Tawanda Sachikonye (1)

The issue of African feminism is of great importance to African women, not only with regards to their identities, but also as it relates to the issues that affect them and their role in the feminist movement. The assumption, however, that there is one simple African feminism is problematic and necessitates a precise definition, but African feminism is not a clear cut concept that can be precisely defined and delineated. This problem of definition does not deny the existence of African feminism, but acknowledges the complexities denoted by being an African and a feminist at once. This brief aims to engage the concept of African feminism and the two main forms it takes on the African continent.

The need for African Feminism

Feminism is essentially two things. Firstly, it is a theoretical paradigm in social theory that seeks to advocate and enhance women’s emancipation in a predominantly patriarchal world. It is also a movement that mobilises for women’s emancipation and equality with regards to gender. Hence, feminism encompasses many varied activities and contexts. Korany et al. (2) state that those who subscribe to feminism have a number of things in common. These are “a firm commitment to gender equality, a painful awareness that such equality is far from achieved, and a continuing desire to work toward such equality.” (3)

As a movement, feminism has mobilised for reproductive rights, affordable health care and improved working conditions amongst many other causes (4). Hence, one can assume that African feminism as paradigm and movement is shaped by African contexts and experiences. Is feminism tweaked and fitted to African women’s concerns and desires? Although this assumption sounds reasonable, reality seems to contradict it. It appears as though feminism is failing to effectively represent and cater for African women. African feminist Nnaemeka (5) states, “The issue of balance is neglected in the one dimensional Western constructions of African women - usually poor and powerless. We African women have witnessed repeatedly the activities of our overzealous foreign sisters, mostly feminists who appropriate our wars in the name of fighting the oppression of women in the so-called third world. We watch with chagrin and in painful sisterhood these avatars of the proverbial mourner who wails more than the owners of the corpse. In their enthusiasm, our sisters usurp our wars and fight them badly - very badly.”

Nnaemeka suggests that feminism does not acknowledge the agency and potential of African women. Would a credible African feminism portray African women as ‘powerless’? Okome (6) notes that in most feminist writings, African women are portrayed as “confused, powerless and unable to determine for themselves both the changes in their lives and the means to construct these changes.” Okome notes that Western feminists usually act as superiors who seek to help and enlighten African women. This attitude of Western women and feminists can often be observed in the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the academic field and even the political arena. Western feminists have dominated the discourse on feminism and women’s agenda, at the expense of African women. Nnaemeka defiantly proclaims, “The arrogance that declares African women ‘problems’ objectifies us and undercuts the agency necessary for forging true global sisterhood. African women are not problems to be solved. Like women everywhere, African women have problems. More important, they have provided solutions to these problems. We are the only ones who can set our priorities and agenda. Anyone who wishes to participate in our struggles must do so in the context of our agenda.” (7)

In light of this heartfelt statement by Nnaemeka, it becomes clear that African feminism is necessary, if not vital, for the empowerment of African women. There is great need for a feminism that is distinctly ‘African’ and that caters for the needs and desires of African women. Perceptions of African women have to change completely. African women are not “children, powerless and helpless”. As Okome writes, “African women, like any other group, are able to articulate their needs, evaluate the alternative courses of action, and mobilise for collective action where necessary.” (8) A distinctively African feminism will therefore portray women as strong, innovative agents and decision-makers in their specific contexts. It will empower African women and work for them in ways that they want it to.

African Feminism: A united movement?

Given that a uniquely African feminism is lacking and so necessary, it is important to observe how the idea of feminism operates in the African context and to what extent it is effective. Feminism in Africa needs to be reinvented as it is still a ‘movement without cohesion.’ (9) On the one hand, African feminism has failed to achieve a gender consensus, that is, between African men and women about its agenda and causes (10). There is also a division amongst African women themselves with regards to the issue of feminism. Toure et al explain that, as it stands, there are two separate forms of African feminism, namely intellectual feminism and popular feminism (11).

The differences between these strands of feminism manifest in clear tensions. Intellectual feminism is usually promoted by urban and educated African women (12). These intellectual feminists have often acquired their knowledge from abroad (13). As a result, they have a “tendency to export the debate on women’s rights outside Africa” (14) due to their access to the “easy option for ideological borrowing.” (15) The result of this is that African intellectual feminism seems to condemn aspects of African culture such as polygamy, excision and forced or early marriages (16), an attitude that echoes the paternalistic attitude and tone of Western women towards African women.

When so-called African feminism reflects condescending Western attitudes, it alienates the bulk of African women who are rooted in the cultures that form part of their lived experience. “Many feminist arguments on female circumcision automatically assume that women subject themselves to this procedure only at the insistence of males, thus ignoring the likelihood that for some women, this is a choice regarding the manner in which they want to treat their bodies.” (17) Toure et al point out that African intellectual feminism has limitations in that “The discourses upheld by the champions of this movement only portray a brief glimpse of the reality and that they do not allow for a serious reflection on African women’s condition, and on the appropriate solutions to the related problems.” (18)

Popular feminism is the second observable feminist movement within Africa. It seems an antithesis to African intellectual feminism, as it is rooted in the culture and lived experience of African women. Thus, popular feminism (as its name suggests) caters for the majority of African women, some of whom are not necessarily literate. These women’s inspiration and basis for their feminism lie in the importance of women in traditional African society in terms of food production as well women’s role in the liberation movements against colonialism. Popular feminism thus often rallies for gender equality based on the notion of African women’s historically important and influential role in food production and the day to day running of pre-colonial society (19). Women also emphasise how they ‘fought in the trenches’ right beside the men during the liberation movements; yet the post-colonial state has relegated them to the role of nurturers and limited their role in governance (20). Popular feminism therefore appeals to African women who consider their culture vital to their identity. It also tries to find practical solutions rooted in the lived experience of African women, many of whom have skills that can economically empower them. It would be reasonable to assume that the huge majority of African women subscribe to this type of feminism as it captures their beliefs and lived experience. However, popular feminism is not without limitations. Dolphyne (21) notes that “This movement is not altogether irreproachable…obviously, the complacency or timidness with which popular feminism is defined with regard to certain decadent cultural and political practices has adequately shown that it cannot guarantee the emergence of feminine role models in Africa that could meet the current challenges facing the continent.”

One African Feminism

Both camps in African feminism target African women, yet they embrace different inspirations and beliefs. African intellectual feminism is viewed as being somewhat elitist and pro-Western. African intellectual feminists have been accused of a paternalistic attitude towards African women, reminiscent of Western feminism. Popular feminism, on the other hand, is rooted in the lived experiences and cultural beliefs of African women; however there are instances where it fails to mobilise against cultural practices that can be oppressive.

Both strands of feminism are important and relevant. It would be difficult to reduce both strands of feminism into a single theoretical context because of their inherent differences. Despite differences, however, movements can unite, as long as there is due respect for these differences and a genuine effort to understand the other. African intellectual feminists must listen to the women they try to advise and talk about, because they do not experience the women’s realities first-hand. Ultimately, solutions or any agenda must come from those within the specific context. These two feminisms should align under the united banner of African feminism, for they have much to learn from each other.

African feminism will be an effective force against patriarchal dominance and beliefs as a united movement. In this regard, the adage ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ rings true. Amina Mama, former Director of the African Gender Institute, says that women’s movements must remain united in the face of a “global grid of patriarchal power, and all the social, political and economic injustices that delivers to women.” (22) This is most true in Africa, where women are adversely affected by the ‘grid of patriarchal power.’ Most importantly, these two feminisms are united in their basic cause: the ending of oppression against women in whatever manner. Thus, despite their differences, African intellectual feminism and popular feminism have the same basic goal, explains Zizeck: “Within every particular culture, individuals do suffer, women do protest when forced to undergo clitoridectomy, and these protests against the parochial constraints of one’s culture are formulated from the standpoint of universality.” (23)

For Zizeck, ‘universality’ is the acknowledgment that in every culture or identity lays the potential for oppression. African feminists should try and appropriate Zizeck’s sentiment of, “in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle in which we are both caught; so let us share our intolerance, and join forces in the same struggle.” (24)

NOTES:

(1) Tawanda Sachikonye is an External Consultant for Consultancy Africa Intelligence
( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Korany, J. A. Sterba, J.P. & Tang, R. 1993. Feminist Philosophies. Herfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5) Nnaemeka, O. 2005. “Bringing African Women into the Classroom: Rethinking Pedagogy and Epistemology” in African Gender Studies. Palgrave. (p.57)
(6) Okome, M. O. 1999. Listening to Africa, Misunderstanding and Misinterpreting Africa: Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African Women. Paper presented the 42nd Annual Meeting of African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 11-14
(7) Nnemeka, O. 2005. “Bringing African Women into the Classroom: Rethinking Pedagogy and Epistemology” in African Gender Studies. Palgrave. (p.57)
(8) Okome, M.O. 1999. Listening to Africa, Misunderstanding and Misinterpreting Africa: Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African Women. Paper presented the 42nd Annual Meeting of African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 11-14.
(9) http://www.codesria.org/Links/Publications/bulletin/Toure_etal.pdf
(10) Ibid
(11) Ibid
(12) Ibid
(13) Ibid
(14) Ibid
(15) Ibid
(16) Ibid
(17) Okome, M.O. 1999. Listening to Africa
(18) Ibid
(19) Snyder, M & Tadesse, M. 1997. “The African Context: Women in the Political Economy” in The Women, Gender and Development Reader. N.Visvanathan, L. Duggan (Eds.). Zed Books.
(20) Ibid
(21) http://www.codesria.org/Links/Publications/bulletin/Toure_etal.pdf
(22) http://www.wworld.org/programs/regions/africa/amina_mama.htm
(23) Zizeck, S. 2009. Violence. London: Profile. (p.133)
(24) Ibid