Beyond Pacification: African Feminisms – A Constant Awakening
Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Feminism as a praxis always has been here with us; the belief and practice of resisting patriarchy and ever-growing other interlocking systems of oppression that have been on this continent for as long as those oppressions existed. Every system of oppression planted in all societal norms, laws and ways of life often looks ‘normal’, as if it were born out of a fair contest and consideration of everyone in society. Those who resist and seek to imagine a different path and future are ostracised. And this is true of African feminists’ resistance against colonial, imperial, patriarchal, capitalist, and heteronormative states and societies. The contesting of the very identity of African feminists is a manifestation of power. African feminisms have and still take the power to define themselves to assert their agency.
It was only a few decades ago when African states fought and won their independence, but the post-independence state and relentless white supremacist interference have left little room for our imaginations to be made reality.
‘The kind of gender ideologies that Europeans brought to Africa were patriarchal. By and large, colonialism was about the exclusion and marginalisation of women from the public arena and installing them in private households …. The masculinity of the imperial project shouldn’t be in any doubt,’ Amina Mama said.
It has taken defiance at every stage, during the colonial period, continued to the post-colonial, visible or invisible, named or obscure, for African women and gender-diverse people to make dents into, and sometimes victories over, these installed oppressive structures. African feminisms are concerned fundamentally with how Africans of diverse genders fight, circumvent, invent, and reinvent life against all odds determined by a racist, imperial, capitalist, heteronormative and patriarchal world. Confronting power structured according to social and historic unequal relations across race, gender, class, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and religion while actively implanting visions of a just present and future beyond oppressive systems is what African feminists work towards.
In Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, Sylvia Tamale situates the African feminist struggle against entrenched colonial Eurocentric ways of knowing that African states and communities still uphold; these ‘norms’ are rooted in violence and marginalization of whoever was made ‘other’ and who is still seen as that.
‘Bolstered by religion, law, education and reconstructed cultures, colonisation not only reinvented notions of “men” and “women” in Africa, but also the way that they related to each other …. Imperialism dealt a double blow to women. First of all, women suffered as Africans who had been robbed of their resources, freedoms and pride, but also as people whose status had sharply regressed with colonialism.’
Driving African feminisms are women and queer people who have paid heavily in these systems of oppression in diverse forms, including the denial of existence, lack of physical safety, subjection to poor material conditions and marginalization from participating in public life.
Oyeronke Oyewumi speaks of the fight against cultures of impunity, often touted as a unified ‘African culture’ used by those in social-political power to uphold the subjugation of the rest:
‘What I see is what I call cultures of impunity that colonisation represented because, if you remember colonisation, it is about taking away your sovereignty, and the colonisers did whatever they wanted, and so they did lay out these institutions that were not responsive to the colonised …. As a result, today we have all sorts of cultures of impunity from the top down. And men now have this notion that their families are their properties, and they can do however they want, whatever they will,and they want to do this and couch it in the name of culture. We must never accept.’
Oyewumi asserts this replicated colonial control from family to the state is still a problem:
‘As a result of colonisation of this continent, men have garnered all sorts of resources that were not even traditionally in the hands of men or women, these were collectively owned things. But now, one man will take it for himself.’
Today feminist politics and their analytical lenses are deployed to reclaim collective freedoms by challenging systems of exploitation and moulding alternative solutions, whether through art and song, poetry or street marches, in halls of power, classroom, workplaces or in everyday acts of resistance. From the call for greater women and queer rights and bodily autonomy; to addressing coloniality and racial injustice, challenging religious fundamentalism, the marginalization of African women in public discourse and knowledge creation; exclusion from the economy and resources; women’s unpaid, unrecognized and unrewarded labour; ecofeminists fighting for land and environmental justice; toppling dictators and standing firm against police brutality, African feminists are loud and clear on ending extractive relationships and structures on family, state and global stages and work to dismantle and reimagine systems for a more equal world for all.
Queer Africans’ lives remain under surveillance and free to violate as many states and societies deny LBGTQIA persons fundamental rights. Despite their lives being criminalized in many countries, queer Africans are leading the resistance for their humanity to be recognized, respected and not debated while they continue to be active at the heart of many other social movements. Feminisms on the continent cannot escape the scrutiny on how they uphold, embrace and defend the rights of all marginalized peoples beyond cis-gendered heterosexual women.
OluTimehin Kukoy emphasizes:
‘It is important to think about feminism as a struggle against any and all manifestations of patriarchy, which also include homophobia and queer-phobia, and to resist capitalist patriarchy in particular which enables ableism, transphobia and misogynoir, and all of these intersecting oppressions. So, feminism for me is definitely queer feminism.’
Each generation of Afro-feminists is making its mark, planting the seeds of change and forcing the various worlds that have long denied them rights and existence to see and deal with them on their own terms. African feminisms are born out of resisting all which has treated them or made us less than for generations. They continue to confront old and emerging forms of multiple oppressions as they are reproduced by a world that still holds Africa and its people in a certain light, ready for exploitation, and never accepting of historical injustices that have put us in this position or its subsequent complexities. African feminisms also are here to rewrite and reclaim Herstory and celebrate women’s contributions without glorifying the pain inflicted along the way.
‘There is an urgent need to write an African feminist historiography which is interested in the “silences” of history and not only in the history of the powerful men and women. The history of resistance and African advances is also that of ordinary women. It is this feminism from below that must be revealed and told. Just as it is urgent to decompartmentalize knowledge and learn from the practices and thoughts of feminists who are active today’, says Senegalese scholar-activist Rama Salla Dieng whose new book African Feminisms – a decolonial history covers some of the current struggles and triumphs on the continent.
‘In the 21st century, we are in trouble, it’s a challenging time. We have got yet another renewal of neoliberal capitalism, yet another scramble for Africa. A focus on extractivism devaluing things African. Extraction for other people’s profit. Whether it’s culture, Human Resources, natural resources.’
Here Amina Mama reiterates why African feminism is still very much needed today:
‘We have a lot left but we have to fight to retain that. It is a very poignant moment because the scales have been stripped from our eyes by the global pandemic, so we need to revisit, re-empower, remobilise ourselves to take a more revolutionary path beyond the rhetoric of (African) unity. To channel our diverse possibilities and dreams for the future.’
Annette Joseph-Gabriel reminds us that with feminism, power is always the target:
‘If we begin by putting power at the centre of our understanding of struggle, then we are no longer working on the terms of inclusion but rather what it means to disrupt and dismantle that power that enacts that exclusion in the first place.’
This African Arguments – Debating Ideas series on African feminism comes at such a critical time. We are barely recovering from a pandemic that has shaken systems and exposed the failures of the last decades of capitalism, proxy wars, and the expansionism of global empires on the continent through militarism and economic control. We are still witnessing the physical retreat but not the retreat of economic policy or political intervention of the once violent empires that colonized Africa and plunged its nations into political, economic, and cultural disarray, while playing against or collaborating with new, emerging imperialists, all in the pursuit of Africa’s wealth. The emergence of populism and the transnational organized anti-women, gender and sexual minorities rights groups have found mutual collaborators in the majority of men occupying several public offices with illegitimate power.
An Africa facing growing inequality and unemployment; forced migration and exploitation of African migrant labour, female migrant labour, in particular; the catastrophic impact of climate change brought on by the non-committal of rich countries to the green agenda and still warming the globe with disregard; and food insecurity threatening a continent with most of the remaining arable lands globally. Everyday misogyny and violent sexism meted onto the bodies and psyches of women and people of diverse genders remain a wound on our conscience.
As African states grapple with legitimacy – which requires a non-colonial approach to nationhood – they continue to fail to capture or reflect and respond effectively to the myriad of people’s needs, at times cherry-picking what serves best the continuity of a predominantly patriarchal, neo-colonial and capitalist exploitative system.
Yet, all these challenges find a history of consistent and unrelenting social movements, and their impact on socio-political consciousness is indisputable. From popular movements both on and offline like #FeesMustFall in South Africa, #EndSARS in Nigeria, Sudanese women’s resistance that brought down a dictator, the various #MeToo movements in Africa, #MyDressMyChoice, #AfricanQueerLivesMatter, Ghana’s #FixTheCountry, to notable multiple women’s marches against sexual violence, to different alternative political and social mobilizations, African feminisms have always been present in the most awakening moments that push societies to pause, reflect and change.
African feminisms are in a constant struggle to escape co-optation and pacification. From the hijacking of women’s liberation by dictatorial regimes camouflaged in revolutionary politics, to the deployment of the NGO model as a vehicle for organizing in countries trapped by world systems in debt, to the cementing of centralized power away from ordinary citizens, neoliberal development politics and approaches have brought NGOs ever closer to governments and international resource extractive systems. The intentional disappearance of workers’ unions and other collectives in many countries remain a difficult terrain for African feminist struggles. All these invite African feminism to question the narrow platforms that often represent classed voices.
This series ‘African Feminisms: A Constant Awakening’ will explore and examine shifts in social and feminist movements on the continent and the implications of internal and externally–driven factors in shaping the debate around the place and rights of women and gender-minoritized people. It will investigate some of the most pertinent intersecting issues on the women’s rights agenda and how they affect and are affected in the global debate: transnational organizing, the deployment of gender and sexuality at the heart of the state and as a foregrounded policy question, reclaiming ecofeminism in the fight against climate injustice, the confluence of both imagined and forbidden citizenships, and the complex struggle for racial justice. The series will also touch on theory, policy and practice and how they reinforce or pull away from each other. Looking ahead, the series spotlights some of the new leaders and movers. What grounds them amidst this turmoil, and in what unique ways are they bridging old and new consciousness?
Authors come from various backgrounds and diverse African regions and diaspora covering activist initiatives and academic debates from North to West Africa.
The series situates feminism and women’s issues in the more extensive continental and diaspora debates of politics and human development. Beyond decolonization being made into a buzzword, the series investigates how African feminisms as a politics and practice are pushing for new realities for the formerly colonized and how old and emerging forms of oppression consistently complicate this fight for freedom and liberation.