African Feminism: A Short Historical Sketch

It belabors the obvious to assert that feminism is sometimes loaded with negative connotations, and not only in Africa. Indeed, for most Africans, it is a hot-button term. In Nigeria, for example, it is dismissed as “nonsense.” Many there believe that Nigerian women “are all right problem.”37 Femi Ojo-Ade is one of the most vocal male critics of the concept in Africa; he suggests that it is little more than a misguided attempt by certain women progressives to strive to be men.38 Chinweizu, the celebrated Afrocentric scholar and author of the groundbreaking The West and the Rest of Us, dismissed it in equally negative terms.39 Feminism in Africa is generally seen as a Western import and hence part of a colonial paradigm.40 However, I read the renewed interest in feminism by African women writers as a call for a moral reappraisal of society’s relation to the personhood of women who suffer gender discrimination.

Although twenty first-century African women writers are not the first to raise feminist or human-rights issues in Africa, the theory that had guided the interpretation of the works of their predecessors was, like much of African postcolonial discourse, largely driven by the need to respond to the West’s attempt to shape the African woman’s image. Western femin- ism,41 which has been studied and discussed in great detail, had been particularly concerned with the issues of white working-class women.

Thus in the late 1970s and early 1980s, women intellectuals belonging to minority cultures in the West, along with women in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, rightly pointed out the inadequacies of that form of feminism. Western feminism, for instance, ignored the role of racism, colonialism, and imperialism.42 African feminist theory is part of third-wave feminism, and it highlights, among other things, those same roles in the subjugation of African women.43 African feminism has therefore been shaped by the combined fear of a backlash in the traditional, patriarchal sectors of African societies and the need to challenge the Western domination of ideas about Africa. In what follows, I discuss some of the authors associated with African feminism.44 My focus is exclusively on Anglophone writers and scholars.45 My selection of authors is not exhaustive; it is based on my understanding of the extent to which they influenced the thinking of others.46

Carole Boyce Davies specifies ideas that make up a “genuine African feminism.” Among them is the recognition of African women’s common struggle with African men to remove the “yoke of foreign domination and European/American exploitation. ” She also urges a recognition of the fact that “certain inequities and limitations existed/exist in traditional societies and that colonialism reinforced them and introduced others. ” In what can be seen as her preferred feminist theoretical approach, she argues that any future work on African feminist writing must “come to grips with issues such as the treatment of women characters and the growing presence of African women writers.”47 Ifi Amadiume’s Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society did for African feminist discourse what Achebe’s Things Fall Apart did for African literature. It wrote back to the Western feminist canon by providing a prolonged and profound critique of the Western misrepresentation of the African woman’s personhood. As Amadiume argues, Western women, referencing their own history, believed in the “universal social and cultural inferiority of women.” For her, “this kind of global presupposition is itself ethnocentric,” because Western female scholars were concerned primarily with themselves. Therefore, they viewed all other women in their own image. These ethnocentric biases led them to condemn “other people’s customs such as arranged marriage and polygyny as exploitative to women.”48 Amadiume focuses on Igbo culture, and argues that contrary to Western assumptions, third-world women, and Igbo women in particular, have not been helpless; they have always had access to power. She contends that the: flexibility of Igbo gender construction meant that gender was separate from biological sex. Daughters could become sons and consequently male. Daughters and women in general could be husbands to wives and consequently males in relation to their wives, etc.49

Amadiume provides a counter-narrative rooted in culture, one that could be realized sociologically. However, her suggestion that Igbo daughters could become sons and consequently male, that is, that they are not limited by their gender, fails to interrogate the patriarchal epistemologies that undergird the practice of women marrying other women. Oyeronke Oyewumi reaffirms the basic contention of Amadiume’s book through examples from Oyo-Yoruba culture. She attacks the Western imposition of gender categories on Yoruba cosmology. For her, the “cultural logic of Western social categories is based on an ideology of biological determinism: the conception that biology provides the rationale for the organization of the social world. Thus the cultural logic is actually bio-logic.”50 For her, “African women and feminism are at odds because despite the adjectives used to qualify feminism, it is Western feminism that inevitably dominates even when it is not explicitly the subject under considera- tion.”51 Western feminism, she argues, is entangled with the history and practice of European and North American imperialism; those interested in feminism in Africa and other parts of the world outside the West almost always propagate Western interests even without being aware of it.52 Oyewumi’s notion of African feminism is premised on saving the African woman from the imperial gaze. But like Amadiume’s, it does not interrogate the African patriarchal gaze, which is equally devastating to the African woman’s body.

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi argues that gender questions in Africa are fundamentally different from those of the West and therefore would be better understood via the concept of womanism, which, for her and others such as Alice Walker, is an ideology designed for African women by African women to come to grips with issues that are specific to women both in Africa and the Diaspora.53 The life of the African woman is shaped by a “mother-centered ideology, with its focus on caring—familial, communal, national, and international” aspects of human relationships. The operative idea in the concept of womanism is that the African woman is by nature more disposed toward care and mediation than her Western (white) counterpart. She lists other issues that the African woman has to contend with and which define African womanism. Included among these are racism, imperialism, and capitalism.54 Okonjo Ogunyemi states that African women do not perceive themselves as existing independently of their menfolk. In that regard, any understanding of feminism as woman- ism must include the African tradition of palava (continual negotiation). She praises women who, in their accommodation to polygamy, exhibit true African womanism.55

For Mary Kolawole, feminism has always been rooted in African cultures. The idea of “group action by women, based on common welfare in social, cultural, economic, religious and political matter[s]” is nothing more than what feminism demands, and it “is indigenous and familiar to a majority of these women.”56 Catherine Obianuju Acholonu believes that motherism, rather than feminism, should be the central idea guiding African women’s lives. For her, motherism is boldly Afrocentric and should “be anchored on the matrix of motherhood which is central to African metaphysics and has been the basis of the survival and unity of the black race through the ages.”57 Molara Ogundipe-Leslie’s concept is more social than racial. She believes that the African alternative to Western feminism should be Stiwanism. Stiwanism is an acronym for Social Transformation Including Women of Africa.58 Obioma Nnaemeka pleads for the recovery of what is indigenous to Africa. For her, “African worldviews and thought are capable of providing the theoretical rack on which to hang African literature.”59 She proposes a term for this recovery: nego- feminism, which is grounded in negotiation. For her, “negotiation has the double meaning of ‘give and take/exchange’ and ‘cope with successfully/ go around.’” Specifically, African feminism “challenges through negotiations and compromise, knows when, where, and how to detonate patriarchal landmines; it also knows when, where, and how to go around patriarchal land mines.”60

In her compelling analysis of the Igbo society, Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu argues that contemporary appeals to culture as a means to justify men’s position and to curtail women’s rights are erroneous. She states that “most of this curtailment occurs within the context of the family, specifically under the provisions of family law that rest on customs and traditions as well as on cultural conceptions of the family.”61 Ironically, these customs and traditions, Nzegwu argues, are the inventions of the European colonial policies. Thus the African family that had hitherto made specific provisions for women has now been remodeled on the European Christian nuclear and patriarchal structure in which the man is the center of the family.

If it is true that African women had rights before colonialism, how might those rights be reclaimed and enhanced? What should the contemporary African woman undertake in order to salvage her own body? The important issue raised by African women is: “How do you deal with this pain I am experiencing?”

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