I have had exchanges with my friends on topics and issues within feminism—some educating and some downright emotional with little to gain from the discussion. The debate about whether Feminism is even African has also raged on in different fora, a good one is what you will find here. Some authors, mostly western-educated, have taken on the whole concept of feminism as defined in the western world and applied it to Africa, eliciting powerful responses from other writers. However, lost within this debate of whether feminism is African or a western sociological concept, is the question of whether we as Africans actually need to define our own ‘package’ of feminism or not.
It is difficult to fully reconcile the high-street western definition of feminism with African experiences of patriarchy. One of the contentious points is what many have called the myth of the gender wage gap. In Africa and world over this does not exist as it is legally and economically, as science has shown, not possible. The western feminism ideas have taken on new and interesting issues in their stride to fight perceived patriarchy. The premise of this is that we live in a world dominated by men who are oppressing women and not allowing them to have the same opportunities in the work and social life. In Africa feminism needs a new definition to allow African women express their own experiences of feminism or patriarchy, rather than have ‘western women’ define it for them. However, this has not happened and instead we have seen a barrage of campaigns mostly by western-African feminists.
When the most vocal people of an African cause are those that are domiciled in the western world, then you begin to question the authenticity of the cause itself and the genuineness of their commitment to the cause. The problem with western-educated and domiciled African feminists is that they use the western definitions of feminism and blanketly apply it on Africa without proper context. They deliberately exaggerate the problem and contemptuously misinterpret any behavior that, for example, doesn’t even fall under feminism to suit an inflated western narrative. They do this without much questioning from their primary audience —who are mostly western academicians, activists, and philanthropists— because they do not understand the context within which some of these acts that are smeared to be anti-feminist happen. In one episode, some popular western African feminist talks about how ladies are not greeted by waitresses as ignoring females. Just this one experience could have several interpretations behind it. Firstly, there could be cultural issues surrounding greeting someone’s wife. Secondly, if men greeted a lady and ignored the man, they could be accused of making a move and objectifying the woman. Thirdly, what she forgets to mention is equally that more terrible stereotypes exist against men.
Recently, I read about another western- domiciled and educated African who has a beautiful agenda to fight Female Genital Alteration (I deliberately do not use mutilation). This was after I enlightened my friend from Eurasia that labia elongation among women in Africa is common and is not part of FGA despite some western journalist’s patronizing attempt to label it thus. Later, I assume my friend gained so much interest and went to google to know what exactly FGM is and landed on an article written by an African domiciled in the US. In the article, the author paints a horrible picture of all forms of FGA and rubbishes even scientific attempts to address the problem by allowing the communities to practice a milder form that does not carry long-term medical effects seeing the efforts to end the practice in the past 30 years have yielded nothing much. The authors of the scientific article classify FGA into the harmful and non-harmful FGA practices, and argue that for these communities where FGA is a strong cultural belief, encouraging them to practice the non-harmful FGA by negotiating with them from a point that respects their culture and in a non-condemning manner, is a viable alternative. However, the western African feminist lady rubbishes this attempt and labels the researchers ignorant. Before I could even finish reading the article, I suspected this was being done to win funds from western philanthropists. At the end of her piece, there was my suspicion. This exaggeration meant to fit a western narrative for purposes of gaining audience, is what distorts the good efforts. It is not all African women who find all forms of FGA horrible. For example, some people find the practice enjoyable and embrace it willingly. As one youth writes “For me, my circumcision ceremony remains one of my most cherished memories from life in Guinea. As such, I had great difficulties growing up in The Netherlands, where I was labeled mutilated.”
Another classic case is the highly innovative idea by a Nigerian who is equally residing in the US who founded a women’s page which has grown so much that she met Mark Zuckerberg. The page allows women to air their stories as a form of safe space without prejudice from others. However, in the piece done for the BBC, she takes some incidents that are common or were common among African parents to both genders of children: shushing or pinching children when they want to involve themselves in the discussions by adults or they say things considered too advanced for their age as something that was exclusively done to girls only and it was meant to invalidate their opinion based on their gender. These are the things I find exaggerated to suit western defined narrative of how Africa is. All children, boys and girls, were shushed and pinched if they appeared to involve themselves in inappropriate conversations with adults. Mostly this happened because parents thought children were involving themselves in underage thinking or talking, hence the age range in which you are pinched or shushed. I cannot remember from my upbringing where any of my friends as a child was shushed because of their gender. But because she is looking for donors to take this wonderful initiative into a brick and mortar office, she deliberately magnifies the problem and makes it about one sex.
An African once introduced himself in Europe as “an African educated expert on Europe” and drew laughters. By having people who reside and have done almost all of their research, if any, in the west be leaders on an African topic, it is no different from being a western expert on Africa. Africa needs its home-soil researchers to lead the debate on the challenges it faces and allow the people who experience these problems voice out. Without home-grown cause and definitions of feminism, when Africans based in the western world use western definitions to push an African agenda, it carries with it contempt and cultural imperialism undertones.
For as long as the most vocal feminists will be western-educated and domiciled people, telling us who are in Africa what it is about Africa, then the debate on whether feminism is un-African or not will only grow in part as those in Africa defend what they see as a deliberate attack by these western educated and domiciled experts on Africa. When you are the only regional expert on a topic, you can easily “get away with murder”. Western African feminists are seeking for topics that they can be experts at in the west and by using their experiences, which no one has the right to dispute, they can and they are deliberately manipulating the stories to suit a negative picture of women in Africa and by so doing they remain relevant and secure funding to address the issues or at least TV interviews to discuss the problem. And given the bias found in academia, it means that western scholars are more likely to listen to those they wine and dine with even when all they offer as the only input from Africa are their opinions and childhood experiences, which they manipulate.
If only they could paint a true picture that reflects the realities on the ground. They do not mention anywhere that African women have not been as oppressed as western women in the past. They are adopting a western definition of feminism and trying to find experiences, even out of context, to validate it. It is difficult to push away feminism as a totally western concept, but with its current definition and meaning, it does not aptly describe the African woman’s problems. While it may be difficult to rank experiences, it is obvious that the African experience is different. When western women were slaves, African women were ruling over kingdoms in the 15th century. When women in the US were not allowed to vote, African women were in the battlefronts of political liberations. Does it not surprise that Rwanda has better gender representation than the USA? As the distinguished African scholar, Prof Ali Mazrui noted, “By tradition, African man is the hunter, he confronts the storm and the shark. What is not traditional is restricting women to the kitchen. African woman is a miracle of versatility: mother, cultivator, market woman and negotiator. Women all over Africa are at least as central to the economy as men. And certainly more so than most western women. Who says nature intended women to just be homemakers? Certainly not in indigenous Africa.” To come to a fruitful discussion about feminism in Africa, we must define it within the African context without exaggerating the cherry-picked experiences to fit a western definition.
Kelvin, I salute you!?
Mr. Mulungu is a Zambian writer and brings his views to bear on the new wave of feminist incantations in Africa. Mulungu pulls varied views, such as those from Amara Jali (in defence of African Cultural Ideals); from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a strong voice for western feminists on African issues) and many other vibrant voices, in order to shed light on what he views as misunderstandings about “gendered” roles in African cultures.
What we are left with is a clear understanding of what is at stake, what must be done and what needs to be said and above all, written about. But the more I write, I spoil an entertaining essay on feminism in Africa.
He’s Kenyan. Please don’t give him away to the Zambians
A Very Great piece. It applies to every spectrum of the African story. We can’t allow some white washed african academia domiciled in the west to be at the forefront of sensitive issues. That would further entrench the millennia issue we are still battling with – Western hegemony. We need our own home brewed academia!
Great piece work Kelvin! The debate on African femininism has been one sided and it is usually viewed in the context of the western word. It’s great that your article brought things that this world has never bothered to question.
This is a good read Kelvin!!!!! And I must say, am with you on many key points. I also get confused about aspects of the feminism story that label some values I grew up with as bad.
I completely agree with the writer. We need to understand the unique African feminism and separate that from the western styled feminism that caters to western audience
Interesting to be told that some women enjoyed genital alteration. I don’t remember my circumcision, but as a little boy, I hated being threatened by a neighbour to have it repeated.
African women might not have been as restricted in rights in the past as their Western counterparts, but the great drudgery common on a continent which has been slower in implementing labour-saving devices made life scarcely easier for our women.
New perspectives are really needed… especially in light the hype that lady Chimanada and the ability of such hypes to blur lines and push authentic African narratives to oblivion.
Kelvin! Very few writers are able to hold my focus throughout their text and teach me through and through. I am enlightened. Thanks for this. Keep writing.
Great piece there!!!, I worked in rural Ghana and anytime I read about African Femininism, I get so sad because the reality not is presented. I have always argued that, let’s find within us, what Femininism means to a rural African Woman, then we can start the discussion from there, by identifying the powers of an African woman within the traditional settings . Until that is done, we will not get any where.
“By having people who reside and have done almost all of their research, if any, in the west be leaders on an African topic, it is no different from being a western expert on Africa”
Just on point, a “Social and Political Science University in London” Offers a Postgraduate degree; MSc. African Development Studies, Close to 100% if not a 100% are Non-Africans.
The question is why are they studying Africa?
Why is the Principal Stakeholder Under-represented; I’m trying very hard not to use “Absent” ?
And I will bring us back to one of Chimamanda’s story, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
Please don’t blame the trailblazers simply because you haven’t the same experiences/stories, only blame yourself for not trailblazing your story. And just because your experiences aren’t similar doesn’t mean they are wrong.
What you are saying is in a nutshell is that Africans should have a single story,yet we are all aware cultures the world over are different and that not everyone agrees to the letter with their cultures. Your writing may have traces of truth but it lacks the constructive criticism that comes with a better understanding of the situation.
African brothers and sisters: feminism was originally created by racists, and it has destroyed the Black communities in countries such as Brazil and the USA. Even Black Brazilian and Black American women who are feminists don’t talk about the real problems of their people, and also give their share of contribution to the maintainance of Black people’s oppression. It is fair to say that a Black feminist was brainwashed by Western society, and History shows us how the West has been treating Africa, African people and their culture. Black feminists are traitors of Blackness and are ashamed of their African roots!
If feminism isn’t helpful to the Black community in Western countries, can anyone truly believe it can give Africans a hand?
Congratulations on your great article, Kelvin Mulungu! I wish more Black people from the Americas could read it.
Greetings from São Paulo
The same way your freedom cannot be defined by your colonizer is the same way feminism cannot be defined by a man. This support of FGM(it’s being called something else but still) reveals that this article is more about preserving traditions that undermine the African woman. The days of being slapped back in line by traditions and culture are gone. If a culture does not benefit women and is actively harmful to them, let It be abandoned.
Saying the African woman has not been oppressed is wilfully being blind to other people’s situations. This is why I say African women are the only ones who can define feminism. There are many African feminists( born and bred) from all parts of the continent to study who have opposite views from this.
I would advice you to read more on this.
The same way, freedom cannot be determined by the colonizer is the same way feminism can only be defined by women. This is a pro-FGM article which glosses over the pain and dissatisfaction the survivors face after it. You call wage gap a myth when it was proven recently by the BBC. You talk of traditions and culture but what use is tradition If it undermines part of the population? The days of being slapped back in position by culture are over, culture is there to serve all of us not the few who benefit.
This reeks of poor research,feminism in Africa is not only in West Africa, research and read other 21st century feminists from all over Africa.
This article reeks of preserving the status quo and I personally am not here for it.
Valia, I appreciate your point. But I think you miss the gist of the article. The article is in no way applauding harmful cultural practices. The argument is that the African woman must be allowed to speak for herself. Right now it is presumed we are not able to distinguish what is good for us, and the westerners who are our unsolicited ambassadors are being influenced by western culture and are using western definitions to tell us what is right. “feminism can only be defined by women” yes, and these have to be African women affected by the issues. You are misconstruing this article to suit a victim narrative. The article is not pro FGA. But it is the bullying attitude that comes from people in the west that does not allow communities to express themselves why there has been little progress. I cite a scientific article that I agree with: that we need to approach the issue with respect and not bulldozing our ideas and utter condemnation. You cannot condemn your way to change. The west coined the word mutilation, which is a strong condemning word. Wish they called some of their practices the same.
The BBC has no capacity to prove gender pay gap. You need to read more rigorous research. All big and most rigorous researches done on this issue show that it is life choices that make us have different earnings. Show me any female and male worker with the same experience in the same position and one being paid less because they are female? In almost all countries, you cannot discriminate against gender, tribe, race etc. And if women were cheaper to pay for the same position, the organization would reduce their costs by hiring more women and fewer men. We must acknowledge our achievements as a continent and we are trying. For example, Zambia has a “mothers’ day” for women where they are allowed one day off from work every month, something no Western country has.
I’m baffled by the level of ignorance exhibited by the writer. I’m even more baffled, nay, saddened by the praise singers who find this article enlightening. It is not. I’ll come back to give a pound by pound response when I have the time, but I want to state quickly that feminism is NOT a western ideology. It’s an ideology born of the evolution of the human mind, and that evolution is not exclusively Western. You can try as much as possible to put up a spirited defense of outdated practices that have subjugated women and made them to exist at the pleasure of men, but be prepared for the holes that will be punched into your so-called well-reasoned arguments.
I notice that the go to article/means of debunking a view from an African we don’t like is to point out that they either live/born in the west or are western educated. There is a writer on this blog what loved Adichie’s books on Igbo life and trusted her as a valid source on the matter but the minute she voiced an opinion the writer didn’t like ie African women need feminism, she was quick to dismiss her as a ‘westerner’. Funnily enough the writer of this article above studies in the US now, and I believe the writer of the other article about Adichie also lives in the US.
As someone has pointed out above perfectly, there is no single story of the African woman. ‘Western African women’ as you call them speak of their own experiences and on behalf of the African women that face the same. The issue is that the rural African woman is not given a platform to contribute her own voice. I have spoken to women that work with rural women and many of them have said that violence and economic opportunities are concerns of theirs. They have issues that pertains to them as WOMEN. I know the Facebook group you are talking about because I belong to it and you are twisting things. I read these stories regularly and the women themselves talk specifically about how they were treated as girls in comparison to their brothers or male cousins. Most of the women in this group are Nigerian women LIVING in Nigeria, yet you dismiss this as westernised thinking. And even if an African woman IS born and living in the west, so what? You will claim them when they excel in sports or say things that you like the sound of. Many of us are raised with the cultural values of our ethnic communities and these ideologies therefore still impact our lives directly and indirectly through family and friends back home. Most African women in the west are not stupid; they are aware that they may speak of a trajectory that is specific to our location. So we can’t speak about our own issues?
Very good piece.. There’s definitely certain things we enjoy doing as African women out of our own free will which others for whatever reason term as inferior..