Talking back: African feminisms in dialogue

How young, African feminist scholars are using their life experiences as sources and resources for theorizing their feminism.

Girls walking together outside Yomelela Primary School, Khayalitsha, Cape Town, South Africa. Image credit Karin Schermbrucker for UN Women via Flickr CC.

In recent years, various forms of feminist organizing have emerged from the Cape to Cairo. We have seen South African students demonstrate on campuses around the country to resist gender-based violence, and to denounce structures of economic oppression (#FeesMustFall), as well as the coloniality of their curriculum and universities (#RhodesMustFall). We have witnessed Egyptian and Sudanese women and youth taking to the streets to reclaim a fairer and more equitable society, and denounce the violence with which their organizing has been met. In Uganda, scholars such as Stella Nyanzi faced imprisonment because of speaking truth to power (she was recently released). In Kenya and Botswana queer activists are pushing for the decriminalization of same-sex relations. On social media, Francophone African women have used the hashtags #VraieFemmeAfricaine, #Nopiwouma, #BalanceTonSaiSai, or #Doyna to challenge patriarchy, sexism, and gender-based violence.

In the coming weeks, a series of posts on this site called Talking Back: African feminisms in Dialogue will discuss issues that are the daughters of our times. It focuses on the connections and disruptions in African feminist thought and practice. It asks a simple question: How are young feminist scholars using their life experiences as sources and resources for theorizing their feminism? In attempting to answer this question, a deliberate effort is made to reflect on the politics of gender, “belonging,” and knowledge production, since delineating these concepts also requires a focus on the power dynamics at play.

Genealogies of African feminisms

African feminisms 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 who led in public life in pre-colonial times—including Njinga Bandi of 17th century Angola, Yennega of 14th century Burkina Faso, the Kahina of Algeria and Lingeer Ndate Yalla Mbooj of the Waalo Kingdom in Senegal—have been acknowledged. Yet, this focus on exceptional women and indeed, the shift from “woman-as-heroine” in the 1960s to “woman-as-victim” in the 1980s reveals the mainstream focus on the “status of women” (Andrea Cornwall 2005). Indeed, there are many other women who were not queens, but would today be qualified as feminists. Although there are claims that feminism is far from being elitist, there has been a deliberate erasure of voices of generations of women from Africa, the Caribbean, India, and Latin America.

African feminists have provided a vibrant counter-response and have actively contributed to transform these representations of African women, and indeed gender, in feminist scholarship and organizing internationally. A founding moment for the emergence of global south feminists was the conference held at Wellesley College in 1975. The conference was an opportunity for feminists from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to express their disagreement vis-à-vis some of the intellectual positions and social attitudes of certain American and European feminists, and to critique the homogenization of women and the universalism of questions relating to gender, race, and social classes. It was at Wellesley that African participants—such as Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Bolanle Awe, Marie Angelique Savane, Fatema Mernissi, Filomena Steady, Nawal El Sadaawi, Niara Sudarkasa, and Dina Osman, among others—met and decided to create what would become the Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD), an organization to support training, research, and advocacy by and for African women. Following meetings in Zambia and Senegal, AAWORD was finalized in 1977.

Seminal works by African feminists contributed to a shift in feminist scholarship internationally to acknowledge that difference and context matter, because the issues feminisms seek to address—structures of sexism, domination, patriarchies, oppression and inequalities—vary according to the social structures that engendered them. Some of these works sought to question the still colonial lens through which “southern” and African feminisms were being theorized. For instance, claiming the fluidity of gender (Amadiume 1987), or that age/seniority is more important in power relations than sex before colonialism/Christianity in subsaharan Africa (Oyewumi 1997), or even question the relevance of gender for understanding African societies (Nzegwu 2006). Other feminists have reclaimed that the Yorùbá did do gender, questioning the selective use of language in defense of a matriarchy that was, in fact, profoundly patriarchal (Nzegwu 1998, Bakare-Yusuf 2003).

Feminist African scholars also theorized gender in social sciences in Africa (Imam, Mama & Sow 1997), while reclaiming African sexualities (Tamale 2011), and queer Africa (Ekine and Habbas 2013, Mathebeni 2014). They were pivotal to infrastructuring African feminist scholarship with platforms to discuss feminism in Africa (the journal Feminist Africa at the Africa Gender Institute in Cape Town, the African Feminist Forum (AFF) and its Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists), while organizing to articulate the various forms and shapes of feminist engagement on the continent. This centrality of self-identifying and collectively organizing is illustrated in the most important work of women in CODESRIA (the Council of Social Science Research in Africa) founded in 1973, AAWORD, created in 1977, and the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), founded in 2001.

From the 2000s to today, diverse variants of feminisms have blossomed on the African continent and in the diaspora. Social media has also contributed to new platforms of creativity, dialogue and activism on feminist issues such as African Feminist Forum, MSafropolitan, HOLAA!, and AdventuresFrom, to name a few. Currently, the #MeToo movement, which was started a decade ago by 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/from spaces such as churches (#ChurchMeToo), mosques (#MosquesMeToo), and in the international development sector (#AidToo).

For Minna Salami, who is behind MSafropolitan and is author of the forthcoming book Sensuous Knowledge, three main strands have emerged since the 2000s to complement postcolonial feminisms (radical, Afrocentric and grassroots). These are: 1) liberal feminism, which focuses on individual choices and freedoms, such as sexual rights, equality in the workplace, gender gaps, and internal household dynamics, but fails to address the consequences of neoliberalism; 2) the millennial or 4th Wave African feminism, which is represented by young women organizing across the continent from marches to student protests, blogging and vlogging, and artivism; and 3) Afropolitan feminism and Afrofuturist feminism. These feminisms are forward-looking and propose a transnational approach to feminism that is inclusive of (if not sometimes led by) the African diaspora. Feminism has gained momentum globally. And more and more African feminists are being recognized for their work including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose TED talk: “We should all be feminists” and short book Dear Ijeawele have resonated worldwide.

This series

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 politicize 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.

Although there are as many (African) feminisms as there are African feminists, in this series we use the term feminisms to acknowledge pluralism and diversity, and seek to theorize it and reclaim it from our various standpoints. Not all of us are academic, yet we reclaim our various activities as sites from which we can conceptualize and embody our feminist activism. In addition, this series seeks to highlight how each of us defines our feminism on our own terms, and do not seek to establish an identity through resistance. 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 and polysemy of our struggles. The following interviews address topics ranging from digital activism, women organizing online and offline, and writer’s and academics perspectives.

This allows us to re-claim feminism away from the exclusive territories and vocabularies (and policing) of academia, to allow ourselves to color outside the lines, re-locate or just re-claim feminisms in the interstices of our daily realities and solidarities.

The Talking Back series will consist of conversations with: Annette Joseph Gabriel (Ghana, France) and Mame Fatou Niang (France, Senegal); award-winning writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (Senegal); Francoise Moudouthe (Cameroon/France) of the pan-African feminist blog Eyala; Rosebell Kagumire (Uganda) of the pan-African feminist digital platform Africanfeminism; Tiffany Mugo (South Africa) of the pan-African feminist digital platform HOLAA; Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (Ghana) of AdventuresFrom; Dr. Ruth Bush of the University of Bristol; and an interview with Ndeye Debo Seck (Senegal) of the Collège d’Education Moyen Waly Thiobane, Kaffrine.

Further Reading