The ideological discourse of feminist thought in Africa has been chronically misconstrued to the extent that often times it is viewed as redundant in mainstream political narratives. The dichotomy of feminisms in Africa vis-à-vis Western feminism remains a problematic phenomenon that leads to the undermining of contextual battles for the liberation of women from hegemonic male supremacy on the continent – thus furthering the misconceptions surrounding feminism in Africa.
Africa is replete with a rich history of the emancipatory role of women in public social life – and while no precolonial African society exuded Utopian-fired existence [and social hierarchies], women occupied indispensable positions the social cohesion of public social life in all its dimensions.
Quick examples include Queen Nzinga, Mbuya Nehanda, Yaa Asante Wa, including countless other matriarchal figureheads in African history, who promoted the complementary aspect of gender in patrilineal setups.
The Subjugation of African Women Via Imperialism
This was violently dismantled by the imperial subjugation of African peoples – slavery and colonialism – and this gave women an inferior position in society informed by rabid European capitalist and racist ideologies that morbidly commodified all aspects of gender and social relations.
Women were reduced to mere appendages of the colonial system of exploitation and extraction, and their maternal indispensability was crushed by the weight of alienating Western domination via education, religion, and the insatiable profit-motive of “commerce”. Nonetheless, the rich history of women’s struggles for equitable gender relations in Africa is manifested through organic organizing in the colonial period as they fought the patriarchal colonial state.
It is also reflected in post-colonial Africa where new tides of feminist intellectual narratives swept through the continent with an altruistic desire to liberate women from all forms of oppression. African women’s anti-colonial resistance is unique for not having women coalescing under the distinct name of “feminism” in their cultural and political fights.
The Birth of Feminism in Fighting White Male Supremacy
The overarching use of the term feminism – a distinct name derived from Global North societies – in women’s movements across Africa gained prominence after it was adopted by white women in the North. This gives African feminisms, in their contemporary structures and as shaped by history, undeniable relevance that should be accorded more nuance and context for tangible change.
What now predominantly obtains as the broader feminist agenda (which has capitulated to widespread misconceptions in African contexts) started in Europe and North America as led by white women. The European idea of human rights that rose from the Enlightenment era placed rationality on male domination, creating the exclusion of white women from political and economic spheres of life as they were considered “imperfect humans lacking rationality”.
Hence, feminism initially rose as a struggle for political and economic equality by white women in the industrialized nations of the North in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It became more complex and radical from the 1960s up to the 1980s as it addressed the hegemony of institutionalized male supremacy – patriarchy – and its attendant brutality. In its simplest terms per Western epistemological and practical implications, feminism is a broad but radically politicized struggle for the liberation of women from being subordinated and oppressed by men.
Although the modern understanding of feminism presupposes the “discontents of women in the West”, it has never been lost on African women, historically, to advocate for equitable sexual and gender relations in society. But even with this given historical truism, it has been an arduous exercise – intellectually and practically – to arrive at a common understanding and definition of what feminism implies in contemporary post-colonial African societies.
The Misunderstanding of Feminism in Africa
Feminism in Africa has always been viewed with perennial ambivalence bordering on contempt, scorn, apathy, and mistrust. This is as largely reflected by men, whose male privilege is the subject of feminist struggle, but even the generality of women have welcomed feminist agendas with some caution. Especially in the modern context where feminist thought in Africa was buoyed by Western feminism.
When feminist agendas garnered unprecedented revolutionary zeal at the height of nationalism in different African countries and their contexts (circa 1960s), the counter-narrative by many African intellects, political and social leaders asserted that feminism is inherently “un-African”.
The rationale for this was predicated on the assumption that African feminist ideologies were overtly molded by Western strands of feminism to the extent that African feminists were pejoratively perceived as “sexually unattractive, humorless manhaters, troublemakers, Westernized, and sexually disreputable”.
This “anti-men” perception ostensibly posed an existential threat to the conventional cultural norms and mores of “marriage, child-bearing, and the preservation of the family”. Such skepticism remains dominant in today’s post-colonial African contexts. The stigma that feminism in Africa carried back in the day is what currently obtains, despite tremendous efforts by feminist intellects and activists in demystifying feminism as it applies to African societies.
Despite starting as an altruistic women’s movement to proliferate universal feminine individuality and agency that would challenge the twofold struggle of male domination and the concomitant female subordination, Western feminism failed to create an organic and emancipatory solidarity with patterns of feminism in Africa.
Deceptive and Disingenuous Western Liberal Feminism
This has resulted in the long-standing skepticism of Western feminism’s influence in Africa – such skepticism has largely contributed to the misunderstanding of what feminist agendas entail for the liberation of African women from all forms of oppression and discrimination.
There is a prevailing intellectual consensus that feminism [across the globe] is certainly not homogenous, even though at its base it challenges the hegemony of patriarchy. Western feminism has proved to be incompatible with the diverse and complex cultural specificities of African societies.
And this is because Western feminism exerted an authoritarian outlook regarding issues affecting women in Africa – reflecting a poor understanding of how the history of slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism subjugates African women. It is clear that Western feminism and African strands of feminism do not share similar realities. Such dearth of solidarity in the overall discourse of women’s movements globally has perpetuated the stigma that feminism in Africa suffers from.
Modern Misconceptions of African Feminism
The understanding of feminism in Africa today is tainted by individualistic and narcissistic interpretations of what feminism means, particularly as espoused by certain sections of [young] educated urban women with notions of ‘arrival’ at personal material success – a result of consumerist envy/desire driven by capitalist globalisation and aspirations of wealth permeating from the North.
Such feminists, a portion of them confined to “clicktivism”, (decontextualized online activism) convey the anti-men agenda [misandry] and restrict legitimate struggles by other feminist thinkers and activists to sexual liberation and domestic issues.
While such activism is not inherently misplaced (these feminists fail to appreciate the contradictions occasioned by globalized neocolonial domination), it paints modern feminism in Africa as a “reproach and demonization of men” by women who are “bitter”.
This is what the late feminist thinker bell hooks identified as “toxic feminism” – a deviation from the principle that feminism embodies the movement to “end sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression”.
Feminism in Africa Is Humane, Caring, Empathetic, and Radical
It is remiss not to acknowledge the important strides made by new waves of feminist thinking that sought to redefine feminism for African contexts under the broader discourse of gender and women’s studies.
Such renewed efforts for the inclusion of women in previously male-stream institutions and developmental frameworks have gained more traction since the 1970s and 1980s, giving rise to a plethora of multifarious schools of thought espousing “contemporary articulations of feminism and gender theory”.
These can be dissected via the lens of ‘African feminism’ – a strand of feminism birthed by African women that is sensitive to the needs and concerns of African women residing on the African continent. Despite this vigor, women’s movements as informed by feminist agendas have largely failed to bring substantive transformation in the lives of millions of African women on the continent.
Nonetheless, being a feminist in Africa today – regardless of which brand of feminism one subscribes to – entails the fight against patriarchy and state powers inflicting political violence “inherited from colonialism”.
Feminism today, notwithstanding the impediments it faces in effecting revolutionary change, aspires the realization of “art, solidarity, revolutionary love, and the right to pleasure” in giving African women the agency that has historically belonged to them, where mental health is increasingly becoming a key feature of politicized feminist struggles.
Much of the success that has been registered by feminist movements across is owed to feminist academics, leaders, and activists (from colonial history up to contemporary times) who include: Catherine Acholunu, Chioma Opara, Obioma Nnaemeka, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Nawal El Saadawi, Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Mona Eltahawy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Rama Salla Dieng, Nana Darkoa, Aminata Diaw, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Alli Mari Tripp, Joy Kwesiga, among many countless others.
For decades, women’s movements in Africa have been strangulated by inefficient state bureaucracies which do not treat such struggles with the urgency they deserve.
Why Feminism in Africa Is Progressing Slowly
Although the above mentioned luminaries laid a solid basis for feminist struggles towards gender equitability, women’s organizations rooted in feminist agendas have suffered acute shortages of funds to carry out their work – either they have to work within the ambit of the state to get access to funds, and where they stay in abeyance of the state to retain their autonomy and radical vigor, they become incapacitated.
The state in post-colonial times has often co-opted women’s struggles thus undermining their feminist radical nature so that male supremacy is not threatened. Women’s ministries have proved to be inefficient as they cannot accommodate the radicalism of feminism in their different strands – be it womanism, stiwanism, motherism, or femalism.
These ministries weaken the feminist struggle by submerging it in the technical jargon of gender policy and development – where feminism is considered a career for some instead of an organic desire to improve the lives of women from male domination.
Feminist movements have also capitulated to the rise of Non-Governmental Organizations [NGOs] who rely on private donors, thus confining legitimate causes to small-scale developmental issues.
The feminist agenda in Africa is not a lost cause. In all its different strands, feminism in Africa recognizes the influence of colonial history, neoliberal globalization, cultural patterns of patriarchal domination, hostile laws, race and class, and the social and economic differences among African countries in how this perpetuates the “feminization of poverty”.
Optimism for African Feminisms – Return to the Source
African feminisms must continually challenge the “silences of history” where African women revolutionaries who led social movements are excluded, such as the Nigerian matriarchal figureheads Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Lady Oyinkan Morenike Abayomi. Or the ANC Women’s League in South Africa.
This history must always be revisited, where women asserted their agency despite the brutality of colonially-induced subservience, including the post-colonial history of new waves of feminist thoughts and agendas.
The vitality and validity of African feminisms – sustainability and practical importance in inspiring substantive transformation of women’s daily lives from patriarchal hegemony – is dependent on returning to the source.
And this means returning to organic, contextual, and revolutionary interpretations of what it means to altruistically advocate for gender equitability to achieve a healthy society where men and women work together to achieve decent conditions of existence.