Female Subjectivity and African Feminist Discourse

In The Nation Writ Small, Susan Andrade follows a Marxist path of interpretation of African women’s writing, and aims to revitalize Fredric Jameson’s allegorical reading of postcolonial African literature; she argues that the feminist impulses in works by female African writers in the twentieth century can best be understood within nationalist epistemologies. In such works, and contrary to the interpretive modality that privileged African female subjectivities, Andrade asserts that “nationalism or national politics takes precedence over or usurps women’s subjectivity.”74 Even where these writers’ narratives center on local spheres such as the family, they do so, in Andrade’s view, only when such scenes function as a “unit that looms over and plays out national dramas.”75

Though Andrade’s reading offers valuable insights into African women’s writing in the twentieth century, I am attracted to critical works that have interpreted the same writing as a quest for African female subjectivity per se. These scholars understand the female subject not as symbolic; rather it is an end in itself, one that is located in the body of living women. This is not to reduce the value of Andrade’s insights. However, it is worth mentioning that as colonized subjects, twentieth-century women writers such as Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, and Mariama Ba were definitely concerned with the destiny of the nations they inherited from their colonizers. But they were feminists with a small “f” and as such, more interested in the pain of a woman’s body than in national issues.76 Indeed, because the first and second generations of African women writers undertook to right the wrongs done to their bodies, many third-generation African women writers consider them as their foremothers.77

I pointed out in the previous section that conventional African feminism largely replaced Eurocentric abstractions with Afrocentric models. Any theoretical approach to women’s issues in Africa that fails to dislodge such constructs invariably fails to address how African women’s worlds are authored. The only way to negate ideologies is to focus on the individual. In this assertion, I echo Carole Boyce Davies, Salome C. Nnoromele,78 and Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi.

I have already commented on Boyce Davies’s idea that any true discussion of African feminist writing must “come to grips with issues such as the treatment of women characters.”79 Pursuing the same line of thinking, Nfah-Abbenyi traces the history of the absence and silencing of women’s voices in African literature, and argues that over time, “the African woman was ... spoken for; she herself was no speaking subject.”80 African women writers have “therefore posited the African woman as a speaking subject, making their ‘self-descriptions’ the nucleus to challenge the ‘uniform generalizations’ by many male authors.”81 These generalization represent patriarchal uses of abstraction in relation to African women. She suggests engaging “women’s subjectivity through the critical use of gender as a category of analysis in feminist research grounded in African women’s writing.”82 I understand Davies and Nfah-Abbenyi to mean that the experiences and feelings of individual African women, the ways they perceive the world, and their pains and pleasures are integral to an understanding of African women in general. The purposeful focusing on women’s subjectivities negates the effects of abstraction. Following in the footsteps of these scholars, I offer a new perspective that acknowledges the African woman for who she is: a person with unique dreams, desires, fears, aspirations, and a consciousness that deserve the total attention of society and those she lives with.83 If I speak of new perspectives or theories, I do not intend to add to the plethora of neologisms, some of which were mentioned above. Nor am I interested in discovering an undiscovered African essence that would provide answers to African discourses of feminism. My concept of theory follows the succinct definition given by Terry Eagleton in After Theory: a “reasonably systematic reflection on our assumptions.”84 In framing my idea of feminist empathy, I ask: what does an African woman mean when she calls on her society to be fair-minded in its thinking about her and about male-female relations? Being male and African, how should I respond to this call? To appreciate the moral impact of this question, I put myself in the position of a fifteen year-old girl about to be married off to a fifty year old man. I put myself in the position of a woman whose clitoris is excised in accordance with the demands of her culture.

My reading of contemporary African women writers via feminist empathy seeks to highlight female subjectivities to the degree that they flourish in the company of others. Whereas the African woman has been spoken for and narrated as a bearer of culture, and whereas she has been encouraged to speak for herself, it is time to turn our attention to how she seeks to speak with. By speaking with her friends, partners, brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces, the African woman draws attention not only to her individual self but also to other people who inhabit her world. She draws attention to her community as a space of ubuntu, a space where human life is allowed to flourish.

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