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.