The Weaknesses of African Feminist Theory

The theoretical approaches to African feminism as articulated by the African women authors thus far discussed are insufficient to explain the place of the African woman in traditional African cosmology. Nor can they explain the contemporary African woman’s experience. They are largely Afrocentric abstractions designed to subvert and replace Eurocentric models.62 The gesture towards abstraction has its own problems. The individual is shortchanged. As Elleke Boehmer rightly argues, “women-as-sign buttresses national imagining,” and “gender has been, to date, habitual and apparently intrinsic to national imagining.”63 Women-as-sign is, however, a project in which female subjectivity is ignored. Secondly, in the project of nationbuilding, the African woman is used as a symbol of virtue in the African world, which, as Florence Stratton argues, is not necessarily positive. She contends that the Negritude construct, of Africa as a woman, created and worshipped a mythology that does not further any understanding of the African woman.64 Meg Samuelson extends Boehmer’s arguments and examines how women’s subjectivities were authored and performed, especially during the South African transition to post-apartheid democracy. Samuelson is particularly “concerned with questions of who gets to speak and be heard, under what conditions they speak and where their authority of authorship begins and ends.”65

Of course, I do not wish to diminish the importance of these African feminist conceptions. To the contrary, they form important historical accounts of African women’s efforts to interpret their colonized world, and therefore must be read sympathetically, given the urgency at that time to respond to colonialist/Westerners’ narratives about Africa. Their ideas, in my reading, should be understood as part of the postcolonial project of identity- and nation-building. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the African woman has fallen victim to these meta-projects of nation-building. Pinkie Mekgwe recognizes the importance of African women positing their own understanding of feminism and femininity because “women do not easily fall into neat categories.” She insists that “as long as theories of African feminism remain ‘reactionary’ and definable ‘against’ Western feminism, they are not likely to go beyond ‘hinting the vision of a more liberated future’ because they are primarily tied to an elusive notion of a common history of colonialism for definition.”66 She argues further that if Africa continues to define herself against the West, she will remain entangled in “a colonial trap,” and will likely never reach “self-definition and total independence.”67 By colonial trap, Mekgwe refers to the need to talk back to the West especially in the same binary language adopted by the West in its othering of Africa.68 Part of the colonial trap is the inflation of difference as a tool of resistance.69 Given their attention to nation-building, and their reliance on autochthonous grand narratives, African feminist theories discussed thus far have done very little to highlight the specific issues about women in different African cultures: the being of women as women. The image of the woman as a peace-loving, compromise-seeking person who would sacrifice her own needs for the greater good or for the needs of her children is undercurrent in this thinking. The mother bears her pain in silence for some imagined (and imaginary) greater good.70 Mekgwe’s idea finds support in Sylvia Tamale’s advocacy of radical feminism. Rejecting the pretensions of the first-generation African feminists, Tamale argues:

We must reject the arguments that Africa is not ready for radical feminism. What such arguments are saying in essence is that we are not ready for transformation. In fact, the majority of people who espouse the “women- should-take-it-nice-and-slow” line are those that have never directly experienced gender discrimination.71

Tamale identifies radical feminism as a means to reject “all forms of fundamentalisms,” such as the idea of virginity tests or the crippling of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, all of which “pose a serious threat to the feminist agenda.”72 I agree with Tamale, especially in her observation that those who reject feminism, men in particular, have probably never experienced gender discrimination; they have never been disabled by systems designed to exploit women. These women writers make the same argument through their stories.

Besides the exploitation of the trope of African femininity, what these various theories have in common is that they fall back on abstract group identities. Florence Stratton captures the fate of the African woman in the face of anti-colonial narratives, symbolized by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

She asks: “how could things fall apart for whom they were not together?”73 Of what use is the idea of African liberation for a woman who has just been divorced and left without means because she did not give birth to a son? How do we assess the condition of a woman who realizes that her brothers have all inherited her father’s estates because they are males, and she must be a guest to one of them?

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