Is feminism really un-African?

As my feminist consciousness has developed the more I’ve become aware, both explicitly and implicitly, that there is a popular notion that feminism is un-African. Every time I write a post about feminism in an African context, I get at least one response about how feminism is this flawed, white supremacist ideology.
The internet is rife with articles about this so I’m  not going to pull up too many examples. Most argue along the lines that feminism is “diabolically anti-African anti-human neologism emerging out of the Eurocentric reactionary women’s movement in the 50’s”

What’s problematic about these arguments is not that people have a different opinion, as is their right, but that these critics don’t even bother to understand what African feminism is about before attacking it.
Yes, there is global feminist consensus, but it is also important for African feminists to shape our own ideological home for African feminism through which we can view African women’s issues. In fact, this is very much an ongoing process and like all political work, it is nuanced. To very briefly summarize, some African feminists thinkers and activists are liberal, post-modern, eco, socialist feminists etc and some adopt a more radical approach to challenge the legitimacy of patriarchy. African feminists are concerned with the domestic imbalance and gender roles, but also about so called ‘bread and butter’ issues like poverty reduction, violence prevention and health and reproductive rights which affets African women worse than men. African feminism is just as much about the inter-connectedness of slavery, colonialism, racism and so on and how these historic realities have caused women’s oppression.

Yes, the term ‘feminism’ does not have African roots, rather, it came to the continent largely due to the African-American feminist movement. However, the concept itself is not one that western feminists exported to African women. Africa has some of the oldest civilizations and so it also has some of the oldest patriarchies. And African women have always found ways of resisting patriarchy through manipulating popular ideas of motherhood, or religion, or labour.
The argument that feminism is un-African is also flawed in its romantic view of pre-colonial Africa. Even if African societies were egalitarian, which wasn’t always the case at all, most African societies, have now imported a largely western gender order, one that is patriarchal.

It’s weird that an African woman can debate Greek democracy or Freudian psychoanalysis or US-style capitalism and be qualified as politically aware, conscious, intelligent, not western. But as soon as women’s issues are mentioned someone will be quick to accuse you of neglecting African traditions and being brainwashed by western values.
The reality is African politics is not gender neutral and pretending that it is despite all the suffering that gender inequality causes is much more ‘un-African’ than what any one person chooses to affiliate with

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  • D’Lambert

    I like that you have given your feminism a name ‘African Feminism’ as earlier today I was discussing (online) saying that the problem with just the term feminism, is that from the time that 1 counter group came about, feminism could no longer be understood as one cohesive ideology. As it stands there are so many differing feminist groups, that the simple question of; What is feminism could get problematic, as the obvious answer might be – to advance all movement culturally, socially and professionally for womankind and this means different things to different groups and depending what country you are in, you have very specific cultural issues to deal with. In no way could feminism be un-African, that’s the type of response I expect from a man who doesn’t want anything to progress from his comfortable throne or from a woman who has been brain-washed or just lived that tradition for most of her life.

    As it is in the west you have groups who embrace the very roles that women were trying to break out of or at least have the option of being there by their OWN choice, you have groups that want to be just like men, groups that want to take men out of the equation and everything around and in between.

    Its complex, but in the end all one has to do is ask which options are benevolent to all?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment! Very true. And indeed the most important question is how do we move forward? One thing that immediately comes to mind is that we need more African men to join in seeing this problem. What they call their ideology doesn’t matter that much, we just need many more men to come forward and educate the younger male generations that women are not to be seen as second class citizens because it doesn’t just harm women but all of our society and progress. Did you ever see this?

    • Edwin Eriata Oribhabor

      The tag African Feminism is apt. Even though feminism receives the strongest attack in Africa when compared with places like the US, we cannot pretend its absence in Africa.
      A headway for feminism in Africa, is to discuss it along the line of the prevailing peculiarities in Africa.

  • Ankhesen

    “I will not pretend
    to see the light
    in the rhythm of your paragraphs:
    illuminated pages
    need not contain
    and copy-right
    on history
    My world has been raped
    and squeezed
    by Europe and America
    and I have been scattered
    over three continents
    to please Europe and America
    the women of Europe and America
    after drinking and carousing
    on my sweat
    rise up to castigate
    and castrate
    their menfolk
    from the cushions of a world
    I have built!
    Why should they be allowed
    to come between us?
    You and I were slaves together
    uprooted and humiliated together
    Rapes and lynchings –
    the lash of the overseer
    and the lust of the slave-owner
    do your friends ‘in the movement’
    understand these things?

    No, no, my sister,
    My love,
    first things first!
    Too many gangsters
    still stalk this continent
    too many pirates
    too many looters
    far too many
    still stalk this land –

    When Africa
    at home and across the seas
    is truly free
    there will be time for me
    and time for you
    to share the cooking
    and change the nappies –
    till then,
    first things first!”

    ~ Felix Mnthali

    “No cultural liberation without women’s liberation.”

    ~ Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

    I like that you have given your feminism a name ‘African Feminism’

    I concur. African feminism is what this is all about, and when people leap to criticize the word “feminism” in these particular discussions, and brand it a dangerous Western invention, it’s a simple derailing tactic to avoid discussing the sociopolitical issues of African women.

    So the first step is to specifically call it African feminism (or womanism, if you so choose) and then establish that all those discussing the issue must discuss it within that context.

    The next step is for African feminists to not think for one second that without Western intervention, women would never achieve liberation in Africa. That is giving credit where it most assuredly is not due. Some will argue that the white presence in African “at least” jumpstarted African women’s liberation ahead of schedule. Um…the white presence in Africa involved chattel slavery and imperialism. White women themselves barely had any liberty during those extremely dark times. So um…no.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Mnthali wrote this poem ‘A letter to a feminist friend’ to Molara Ogundipe, a Nigerian feminist, who responded with a poem which unfortunately I can’t find. But she also responded in one of her books saying:

      “Notice the use of the first person. It is his world that has been raped. The Promethean person who endure slavery and the slave trade, colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism does not have time for women’s rights yet. The world has been built by him and he must attend to those pressing issues…”
      “My friend’s poem ends on a final note of irritatingly typical of male supremacist everywhere: to wit, that other issues abound which are more urgent than the liberation of women. Somehow, miraculously, you can liberate a country and later turn your attention to the women of that country-first things first!”
      “Note also that in the poem the liberation of women is conceived as women’s desire to “feminize” men-that is degrade them…. ”
      “No women’s liberation is not only about cooking and nappies. Women’s liberation is about the fundamental human rights of women in all areas of life, public and private”

      Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is however, very egalitarian minded as is his son, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, whose article I highly recommend

      I don’t know of a single African feminist who thinks that western feminist intervention is necessary. However, many agree that cross-cultural alliance is desirable as long as it understands that there also are cultural differences and a history of racial oppression

      • Ankhesen

        How I wish I could read Molara’s poem. Mnthali’s annoyed me to no end.

        I don’t know of a single African feminist who thinks that western feminist intervention is necessary.

        I’m more concerned with white feminists looking for credit where it’s not due. We can do the alliance thing, but as you say, some understanding is necessary, and some strict boundaries need to be established.

  • Tricia

    I think that traditionally western feminism takes it starting point from the role of women in the home – a non-working/non-public role. For most women of colour where ever they are in the world this is alienating, since they will often have some kind of role outside the home. Its pretty unusual for women of colour even pre-femininsm not to have worked as well as raising their families, often on their own, and this remains a feature of many today. Also of course, feminism sets itself apart from men/maleness and I think that for most women of colour, particularly for those of us here in the west our race comes first, and so we can never see our feminism as excluding men.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Tricia. Just to clarify, feminism doesn’t set itself apart from, nor exclude men. It’s ideological home is that men and women can live in harmony but patriarchy oppresses the feminine energy in society, most evident in the shape of a woman. But even such things as nature, which is considered feminine gets neglected in patriarchy. There are many black male feminist so definitely doesn’t exclude
      Also, there is a vibrant conversation about whether race or gender affects us more. There isn’t a consensus that in the west it is racial oppression that is worse, guess it’s quite individual but either way both factors play a role

  • dantresomi

    I am so down.

    It bothers me that instead of the detractors debating the argument away, they resort to name calling or dismissing African Feminism. Many of these detractors do so without studying ANY feminist theory whatsoever.

  • Waiki

    I love how you always have a balanced viewpoint.

    “Yes, there is global feminist consensus, but it is also important for African feminists to shape our own ideological home for African feminism through which we can view African women’s issues.”

    ^ This is what i was going to comment but you put it in much better words than I would have done. To me feminism is adaptable & can be made relevant to any society, provided that you focus on the issues that the women in that society are facing. And when you look at it closely, a lot of these issues are universal struggles, experienced by all women, just at different levels & in different contexts. Lack of equality, sexual, domestic violence, etc….

  • kwame

    Peace Afropolitan,

    Asante sana for the post. Two thoughts come to mind: First is there truly a “global feminist consensus”? What could that possibly mean when, for example, white women were and are agents of white supremacy? they had power over enslaved women and men on plantations in the so-called “new world.” And today most white women, i believe, promote white supremacy either consciously or unconsciously.

    Second, I agree pre-colonial African society was patriarchal but I disagree that the way out was simply a matter of “manipulating popular ideas.” This misses the point that some pre-colonial african institutions were matriarchal or, at least non-patriarchal. Examples include female secret societies, market women, priestesses, queen mothers, matri-focal residence, and so on. The women had real power and influence; it was not derived from “manipulation.”these institutions did not need to “manipulate” patriarchy (although I would agree that manipulation took place in individual cases) because these institutions were controlled by women and empowered its members. GI

    • MsAfropolitan

      Greetings Kwame. Thanks for contributing.

      You’re right that white feminists have overwhelmingly focused on the negative factors of life for African women like poverty, FGM, prostitution, political disempowerment etc. and that the academic and activist world (where most known feminists reside) has a residue, if not a permanent layer, of racism.
      However, this is true for most dialogue: trade, international relations, aid, migration studies etc
      But we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to have a dialogue with our white sisters, adopting a holistic view on feminism whilst making sure that we are part of the movement so that we can tell our own stories.
      Feminism is one of the major events of the past century, changing societies remarkably. African women (and men) should rightly claim their place here and in fact the movement has changed a lot as non-white women globally have influenced.
      The ‘global consensus’ is that we all believe that patriarchy is an illegitimate and harmful system

      There were many matrilineal societies in Africa precolonial times. Matriarchal seems more problematic to find. These examples you mention are precisely the kind of resistance towards patriarchy that I refer to.
      Female secret societies like the Nyigbla clan in Ghana for example are the type of feminist activism that women manipulated power through. Joining meant that husbands could not beat their wives.
      Religious power was also often a reaction to not being able to gain real political power. So women groups like the Kubandwa in East Africa and Nguni in SA I believe, used the lack of motherhood to become spiritual leaders. So infertile women would become mediums and help other infertile women but they became more powerful in society than actual mothers.

      Either way, these beautiful his/herstories of ours far from match the reality we have today. We have (vigorously) adopted the western gender order at the cost of female equality and all of our mutual progress.

      Actually more and more I think about it, equality might not be the best word, because it seems to suggest to people ‘similarity’.
      It’s more so the idea of completing the circle, of becoming whole, and ending the violent oppression of the feminine which even men have conceptually and spiritually. Feminism is for myself and many others whose work I’ve read a tool to doing so and there are many men who see this too. We need to be a circle before we can roll forward

      Thank you for this engaging conversation

    • Olivier

      Never!It rdnmies me of those people who leave “who cares?” comments on celebrities stories on news sites. Well, clearly you cared enough to click on the story, read it, and leave a comment.

  • kwame

    Peace, my sister. Yes, if, for example, white American women are mostly aligned with white supremacy, I can’t see how they constitute part of a “consensus.” There loyalty is more to white power than women power, so I guess we will have to agree to disagree on that one.

    Re: matrilineal- Actually, the majority of pre-colonial African societies were patrilineal. But the problem, analytically, is the neat dichotomy that Euro social scientists drew between patrilineal/matrilineal. The reality is that many of the societies had duel systems (bi-lineal, if thats a word).

    Re: matriarchal- I was actually highlighted matriarchal institutions, not matriarchal societies.

    Re: equality- Another option, advocated within the Afrocentric community, is the term “complimentary duality.” kzs

    • MsAfropolitan

      Well, that’s the dilemma for the black feminist- white women mostly aligned with white supremacy, black men mostly aligned with male supremacy
      hey, for me, coming from a humanist perspective we mustn’t cease dialogue with either group

      I’d love to hear more about “complimentary duality”. How it works in practice/theory and how can help solve the oppression of women problem that currently plagues our lands

      Thanks again, one

  • kwame

    Peace my sister. I think it is a grave error to equate white women’s affiliation with white power with black men’s affiliation with patriarchy. They are hardly analogues. White American men routinely brutalize and incarcerate their black American “brothers.” African Americans make of a majority of the US prison population even though blacks only make up about 12% of the US population. Black American men suffer from obscene suicide rates. Black on black violence is still plaguing our communities. Black men are disappearing from university. These are all functions of ongoing white supremacy. Which, again, makes a generalized “consensus” that includes white women very dubious in my view. The dynamics of “patriarchy” in Nigeria or Ghana can vary quite a lot from patriarchy in America or Austrialia where there are a white ruling classes.

    Re: complementary duality. the basic point is moving away from the white feminist view that women are in competition with men or that men are the enemy or that men and women should be equal in every respect. there is lots of stuff online about it. theories, as i see it, don’t “solve” things; they just provide a framework for doing things. solving problems happens on the ground with people taking action. kzs

    • MsAfropolitan

      Trust me, I am equally frustrated with the stats you mention but what on earth do they have to do with African feminism?
      It’s a tired argument, but worth repeating, feminism is not to blame for the black man’s plight and nor is this “white feminism” you so condemn really the entire picture, are you aware of the many nuances within?

      On the other hand, the facts that 70% of the world’s illiterate are women, that women earn 10% of the world’s income, that one in three women has been subject to sexual assault, that in some places like in Congo 40 rapes occur daily!!! that women own 1% of the world’s property etc have very much to do with patriarchy.
      It seems in fact that white female supremacy and black male supremacy are perfect analogues for the African feminist actually.

      So far, through feminist activism women have the right to vote, to decide over our own bodies, to work, study, to demand justice for sexual crimes and so on. I’m not so sure that a concept whose basic point is “moving away from white feminist view that women are in competition with men or that men are the enemy” could lead to similar results although I’m all ears for the practical use of “complimentary duality” because with all due respect, the ‘men are the enemy’ point is by now trite.

      I’m curious about your insinuation that men and women aren’t equal in every respect.
      We may not always be similar but, my brother, would you like to enlighten me of the way in which we are not equal?

      As always, thank you

  • kwame

    I was adding some nuance to patriarchy.

    The stats we are now tossing back and forth underscores my belief that feminism and what it purports to address is not a “global consensus.”

    Re equality: Men don’t carry a fetus to term nor do the breast feed infants. That strikes me as an important difference. That difference has led to distinctive roles in child rearing in most societies. Or take the notion of governance. The Akan have Kings and Queen Mothers. Advocates of Euro-notions of might say the dearth of Akan female rulers is evidence of inequality. The Akan might say the role of the King and the Queen are complementary. kzs

    • MsAfropolitan

      You explain how we aren’t biologically the same as we all know, but I don’t see how that explains what you mean by we aren’t “equal in every respect”

      Anyway, as was the point in the blog article, you have performed the duty of reminding us how “un-African” feminism is.
      and I am reminded of what I wrote:

      “What’s problematic about these arguments is not that people have a different opinion, as is their right, but that these critics don’t even bother to understand what African feminism is about before attacking it.”

  • kwame

    Please note that I am not “attacking” African feminism. Personally, I think African feminism is important. I am questioning some of your premises. My questions were 1) if white women were a part of what you called a “consensus” and 2) your belief that African women have only “manipulated” a patriarchal order whereas I believe that in pre-colonial Africa there were matriarchal institutions that were powerful in their own right. I thinks that is an important distinction.

    Ok, my sister. I have to move on to other things. Peace to you. kzs

  • James Chikonamombe

    Totally untrue. Feminism — practised by Africa women on the Continent — runs parallel with African culture. What’s incompatible with African culture is WESTERN feminism, the key tenets of which are unacceptable to most Africans.

  • Tricia

    I think that your comments about feminism are very generous, idealistic reading of it. As subsequent commenters have gone on to point out, and as was my own point, – the starting for feminism for black women will always be different from that of white women. Not sure consensus is necessary, since dealing with the actual place that they are in is probably the most immediate issue. Does it really matter whether its called feminism or African feminism.

    Thoughtful post as always Ms A; been fascinated by the discussion that has followed too.
    best, t

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Tricia, I’ve enjoyed and learnt from the comments on this post, thanks for contributing.
      In response to ‘dealing with the actual place that they are in’ I don’t see African feminism as confined to africa but also to diaspora and the merged experiences we have of patriarchy and racism. And so in that sense there can be a wider realm to understand by identifying with the term and vast theoretical and empirical work that has been done under the concept of African feminism, similar to black feminism and womanism. But ideologically, they of course all tie into the other

  • kwame

    “The Africa woman in world history.”

    Master Teacher John Henrik Clarke offers some insights on complementarity. kzs

  • Asabagna

    Very interesting post and conversation. If you don’t mind, I will share it at AfroSpear with a link back here.


  • Carolyn

    The cyclic nature of movements that are geared to empower women with all the various nuances and ethnic considerations in tow still begs the notion of failed or incomplete solutions of the past.

    In the late 60’s and early 70’s many black women, myself included, shunned the word feminism. Womanist viewpoints framed by Alice Walker expressed some of the unique characteristics that black women faced within their communities and mainstream America. Burning bras and wanting to work outside the home just wasn’t meeting our needs or addressing what we were up against. Traditionalists and the mantra that black women continue to usurp the role of black men in our society circumvented the endeavors and accomplishments by many black female leaders of that time to be formally acknowledged. We are again getting a backlash today from some black male leaders when women simply refuse to be “doormats” for anyone. My mantra is that women should walk beside their men–not behind or ahead.

    Your blog is wonderful and informative with a global perspective and reflects how similar the issues are for many of us in the black diaspora. Your site is also featured on my “blog of the week”. I’ve subscribed to it and will spread the word.

    It is very uplifting to this baby boomer that the younger generations are not only “picking up the mantle” but critically thinking and expanding the dialogue pertinent to not only women of African descent but women in general.

    • MsAfropolitan

      heartfelt thanks for your kindness Carolyn. I truly also appreciate hearing the voice of older sisters, and I am disheartened that we don’t do more cross-generational work. I feel like I have so much to learn from women like yourself and so I hope you’ll stop by again.

  • POTO

    I will keep my comment short and sweet because I don’t think any more words can fit on one pages as it’s starting to load a bit slower now. But it is a truly awesome topics and great points of views. In the nutshell, it is my belief that white women may have a little more political clout in Africa (seemingly) and can possibly help African women get some political agendas executed there? While African women have the political will (experience) and can help actualize white women feminine agenda in Europe to the extend that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Line at the bottom underscore is still all in it together just that different parts of the group have some more clout in certain arenas/places. It’s kind of like a weird vice-versa relationship but can this become some kind of advantageous exploit? I don’t know if this point I am making sounds feasible but thanks still for that great debate!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Poto, again you have a new interesting angle for me to consider, or should I say you have sensed part of what I’m saying in between the lines and articulated. Cooperation is necessary and happening to an extent but as African feminists it can be hard to work with white fems who don’t recognize privilege and the harm that has done. Hey, god never said it would be easy na?

  • Makafui

    I totally agree with you, Minna. Feminism in Africa from the beginning might not have been called “Feminism”, but the concept has always existed. When I think about Feminism in Africa, I think of Mariama Ba and Ya Asantewa. Obvious choices of course, but when I think about matriarchal societies co-existing alongside patriarchal societies in Africa, it’s hard to believe that Feminism is reserved to the West.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comment Makafui, what inspiring feminists they were! 😉

  • Danny

    Thank you for this powerful blog article! In the US and especially around the discipline of theology, African Americans have developed the Womanist movement which comes with it’s own set of suspicions about the world we live in. It is not African American Feminism but stands upon it’s own merits. Have you done any work in this area?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Danny, better late than never I hope! Thanks for your comment, I have studied Alice Walker’s womanism, which is really to my understanding (and Walker’s explanation) is quite synonymous. We focus too much on the labels, there are wombanists, stiwanists, mujeristas etc etc and we all opposed to patriarchy but for me anyway, identifying as African feminist helps locate that space to explore being African and female simultaneously. But once we put the cause first the name becomes quite irrelevant somehow
      Thanks, Minna

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