01 Nov Talking Back: African Feminisms in Dialogue
Rama Salla Dieng introduces a series of interviews with African feminists that roape.net will be posting in the coming weeks. In recent months across Africa we have witnessed women taking to the street to reclaim a fairer and more just world. In these protests and movements woman have often played a leading role. In interviews conducted by Rama, young African feminists will discuss how they are theorising their practice and philosophies.
By Rama Salla Dieng
In recent years, various forms of feminist organising have emerged from ‘Cape to Cairo’. We have seen South African students demonstrate to resist gender-based violence and denounce structures of economic oppression (#feesmustfall) and coloniality which survived colonialism (#Rhodesmustfall) on campus. We have witnessed Egyptian and Sudanese women taking to the street to reclaim a fairer and more equitable society, and denounce the violence with which their organising has been meet. The same stories have happened in Uganda where scholars such as Stella Nyanzi are facing imprisonment because of speaking truth to power, Kenya and Botswana where queer activists are pushing for the decriminalisation of same-sex relations in their countries.
This series discusses such issues with young African feminists who are theorising their feminist practice. The series focuses on the connections and disruptions in African feminist thought and practice. It asks a simple question: How are young feminist scholars using their experiences and lives as a source and resource for theorising their feminism? In attempting to answer this question, a deliberate effort will be made to reflect on the politics of gender, ‘belonging’, and knowledge production since delineating these concepts also require a focus on the power dynamics at play.
Genealogies of ‘African feminisms’
African feminism(s) do not start with colonialism, yet, similar to the history of African societies, they are still conflated with the encounter with ‘others.’ The rich legacies of feminist ancestors such as Njinga Bandi of seventeenth century Angola, Yennega of 14th Century Burkina Faso, The Kahina of Algeria and Lingeer Ndate Yalla Mbooj of the Waalo Kingdom in Senegal, who led in public life in pre-colonial times have been acknowledged. Yet, this focus on exceptional women have led to feminist fables and gender myths and many other herstories that have been erased if not omitted deliberately and there are many other women who are not of royal blood who would today qualify as feminists. There has been a deliberate erasure of generations of women from Africa, The Caribbean, India and Latin America because they contest mainstream feminism so their voices should also be heard, the specificities and nuances of their diverse struggles acknowledged.
Feminist African scholars also theorised gender in social sciences in Africa (Imam, Mama & Sow 1997), while reclaiming African sexualities (Tamale 2011) and queer Africa (Ekine and Habbas 2013, Matebeni 2014). This was a pivotal moment consisting in infrastructuring African feminist organising and scholarship with platforms to discuss feminism on the continent (for peer-reviewed journals see, for example, Agenda founded in 1987, also in South Africa, JEnDA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies and Feminist Africa Journal founded in 2002 at the Africa Gender Institute in Cape Town. As for funding and developing the capacities of women’s organising we have the AWDF (The African Women’s Development Fund) founded in 2001, Akina Mama wa Africa established in 1985, to name a few. Platforms such as the African Feminist Forum (AFF) and its Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists helped define and articulate the many shades and shapes of feminist engagement on the continent.
The centrality of women’s groups self-identifying as feminists is illustrated in the pioneer work of PAWO (Pan-African Women’s Organisation) created in 1962 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and which might have constituted the ‘building block’ for women’s political activism at a continental level shaping Pan-African consciousness which led to the creation of the Organisation of African Unity the following year. In addition, there was also significant contributions of female scholars such as Zenebework Tadessa, Teresa Cruz e Silva, Dzodzi Tsikata, Shhida el Baz, Fatou Sow, Amina Mama and Ayesha Imam to the development of CODESRIA (The Council of Social Science Research in Africa) founded in 1973 by Samir Amin, most of them also took part in the founding of AAWORD (The Association of African Women for Research and Development) created in 1977.
Seminal works by African feminists contributed to a shift in feminist scholarship internationally to acknowledge difference and context. These issues include the structures of sexism, domination, patriarchies, oppression and inequalities, which vary according to the social structures which engender them. Some of these works sought to question the very colonial lens through which ‘Southern’ and African feminisms were being theorised, claiming for instance the fluidity of gender (Amadiume 1987) or that age/seniority is more important in power relations than sex before colonialism/Christianity in Africa (Oyèwùmí 1997) or even questioning the relevance of gender for understanding African societies (Nzegwu 2006). Other feminists have claimed that Yorùbás did do gender, questioning the selective use of language in defence of a matriarchy which was in fact profoundly patriarchal (Nzegwu 1998, Bakare-Yusuf 2003).
Attempts to promote and celebrate feminisms rooted in African cultural realities echoed similar transatlantic efforts: these can be labelled afro-centric feminism(s). Womanism (Walker 1983) was a response to second wave feminism to give visibility to the experience of black women and other women of colour whose work and contribution to feminism was rendered invisible in mainstream media and historical texts. Womanist theories have been further theorised in Africa by writers such as Ogunyemi (1985) and Kolawole (1997) who rejected ‘Black feminism’ and ‘lesbianism’ for more ‘representative’ views of African women’s experience.
However, not all African feminists embraced womanism. For instance, Oqundipe-Leslie and Acholonu promoted different variants of feminism. The former coined Stiwanism (social transformation including women of Africa) in her 1994 book Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations based on indigenous African cultures. The latter developed an ‘Afrocentric alternative to feminism’ (1995) based on motherhood – ‘motherism’ put African women centre stage as the basis of families, communities and nations. Nnaemeka’s (2004) expression of ‘nego-feminism’ seems particularly accurate as the focus is on proactivity not on reactiveness, on building and ‘negotiating’ to advance on crucial social issues while acting collectively. This line of thought is close to Pumla Dineo Gqola’s (2001) suggestion that postcolonial black and African theories on feminism are seeking to define innovative ways to address their own issues rather than just defining themselves as what they are not.
From the 2000s, diverse variants of feminisms have blossomed on the African continent and in the diaspora. For Mina Salami, three main strands have emerged since the 2000s to complement postcolonial feminisms (radical, Afrocentric and grassroots). These are liberal feminisms which focuses on individual choices and freedoms, on issues such as sexual rights, equality in the workplace and gender gaps, and internal household dynamics but have failed to address the consequences of neoliberalism.
Then there is the millennial or fourth wave African Feminism which is represented by young women organising across the continent from marches to student protests, blogging, vlogging and artivism etc. A further strand is listed by Salami as Afropolitan Feminism and Afrofuturist Feminism. Afropolitan is a fusion of the words ‘African’ and ‘cosmopolitan’, it was coined in Taiye Selasi’s 2005 ‘Bye-bye Babar’ to refer to the Africans of the diaspora (born and living outside of Africa more generally), and further developed by Mbembe (in Njami 2005) as a ‘poetic of the world, of being in the world …but also a cultural and political stance.’ In the feminist literature, it gained popularity with Minna Salami’s pan-African feminist blog MsAfropolitan, ‘which connects feminism with contemporary culture from an Africa-centred perspective.’ These feminisms are forward-looking and propose a transnational approach to feminism that is inclusive of the African diaspora. The use of the term has however been criticised here and there.
Feminism has gained momentum globally and increasingly African feminists are being recognised for their work including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose TED talk, ‘We should all be feminists’ (2014) and short book Dear Ijeawele (2017) have had a worldwide resonance. Social media has also contributed to new platforms of creativity, dialogue and activism on feminist issues such as africanfeministforum.com, msafropolitan.com, holaafrica.org, africanfeminism.com, adventuresfrom.com to name a few.
Currently, the #MeToo movement, which started a decade ago with Tarana Burke, an American civil rights activist (and a victim of sexual violence herself), has sparked a worldwide movement to break the silence around sexual violence and harassment. Feminists in Africa and the Global South have asked whether #MeToo was a West-only Movement and have engaged in and from spaces such as churches (#ChurchMeToo), mosques (#MosquesMeToo), and in the international development sector.
The African Feminist Charter has beautifully highlighted the centrality of creating an inclusive, plural and political definition of what it means to embrace feminism as African women:
By naming ourselves as Feminists we politicise the struggle for women’s rights, we question the legitimacy of the structures that keep women subjugated, and we develop tools for transformatory analysis and action. We have multiple and varied identities as African Feminists. We are African women, we live here in Africa and even when we live elsewhere, our focus is on the lives of African women on the continent. Our feminist identity is not qualified with `Ifs`, `Buts’, or `Howevers’. We are Feminists. Full stop (Charter: 4)
While there are as many (African) feminisms as there are African feminists, in this series, we use the term ‘feminisms’ to acknowledge this pluralism and diversity and seek to theorise it and reclaim it from our various standpoints. Not all of us, who took part in the European Conference of African studies (ECAS 2019) panel – from which the initiative on roape.net derives – in June 2019 in Edinburgh, are academic, yet we reclaim our various activities as sites from which we conceptualise and embody our feminist activism. In addition, this series seeks to highlight how each of us seeks to define our feminism on our own terms and talk back to patriarchies, oppression and capitalist domination. In doing so, we take a political as well as an ideological stance – identifying as such is a way of acknowledging, showing solidarity with, and placing ourselves in the continuity of previous generations of women fighting back against the sexism and patriarchy forcefully imposed on them. This series is a way for us, as African feminists, to reclaim the intersectionality of our struggles. The interviews address a wide range of topics.
This allows us to (re-)claim feminism awayafrom the exclusive territories and vocabularies (and policing) of academia, to allow ourselves to colour outside the lines, re-locate or just re-claim feminisms in the interstices of our daily realities and solidarities, feminisms that are inclusive. This series focuses on the very connections and disruptions of African feminisms today, in particular on the various contemporary issues that are at the heart of young/emerging feminist scholars and activists. More specifically, some of the questions explored in this series include, how African feminists are using their own lives as a source and a resource for their feminist theorising? What are the contemporary issues of young and emerging African scholars and activists? How do feminists organise and connect online and offline to resist patriarchies, sexism, and capitalism? Finally, and more specifically, to what extent are they organising differently and what is the place of digital platforms for African feminism?
In the coming weeks roape.net will be hosting different interviews in the series. These will be ranging from:
- Land and political violence in Kenya and decolonising the curricula (with Lyn Ossome Makarere and Francoise Moudouthe);
- Young women feminists organising at Addis Ababa University who speak about why they became activists (with Hilina Berhanu and Aklile Solomon);
- Youth, masculinities and belonging in Cameroon (with Divine Fuh)
Upcoming interviews will involve reactions to rape and violence in South African Universities, teaching women and gender studies in Africa today, digital activism and analysing dominant feminist themes in selected fiction and non-fiction, in novels and movies and digital performance.
Rama Salla Dieng, is a Senegalese writer, academic and activist. She is currently a Lecturer in African and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. Rama is also a feminist activist who has collaborated with several feminist organisations on agrarian change, gender and development, and social reproduction. She is the Lead Editor of a collective anthology on Re-thinking Feminist Parenting: Perspectives from Africa and Beyond, Demeter Press, forthcoming 2020. Rama is a member of the editorial working group of ROAPE.
Featured Photograph: Rama S. Dieng with her daughter during a recent protest in Dakar, Senegal.
This series is dedicated to Ndeye Anta Dieng (1985-2019)
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Bakare-Yusuf, Bibi, “Beyond Determinism: the Phenomenology of African Female Existence” in Feminist Africa, Issue 2, 2003
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