The real reason African patriarchs have a problem with African feminism

PossessionsUpon hearing the term African feminist, many African men and women will say, we as Africans don’t need feminism, we just need to return to our roots to see that there was harmony between the genders.

The first problem with such a statement is that Africa is not that simple. African pasts are complex and not necessarily the utopias that Afro-romanticists would like to (re)produce. African philosophy, like others, was at times to the benefit and at times to the detriment of community. For example, whilst the kingdom of Ife produced art that Europe would not be able to match until a century later and that was so sophisticated the Guardian now calls it a “place richer than Atlantis”, its art also reveals customs that most of us would disapprove of today, like slavery.
Secondly, and more importantly, modern African nations have no intention whatsoever of reinstalling this glorified African gender equilibrium. It’s like expecting white people to be at the forefront of confronting institutional and everyday racism that negatively affects non-whites; it just not realistic, as we have seen in recent tragedies like the murder of Trayvon Martin, the cringing Kony2012 campaign and Europe’s continued underdeveloping of Africa.
Therefore, although the past is a necessary point of reference, the question that matters is how can we develop out of the present, not the past.

Looking for example at how, during pre-independence struggles, African women were out on the streets side by side with men, and also without them, demanding autonomy from the colonial occupiers. Why is it, then, that women’s role in post-independent nation-building has no symmetry with their past role in actually creating the nations? Instead, and quite bizarrely considering the damages of colonial dictatorship, women’s roles mirror certain 18th century white western philosophical ways (Roussaeu, anyone?) of thinking about gender, where women are to biologically, culturally and symbolically reproduce nationalist ideas without having a hand in shaping policy and democratic processes.

Nationalism and patriarchy go hand in hand, that’s why. If the nation, as we know it, doesn’t control women, it runs the risk of collapsing and African feminist critique exposes this fragility. This is a thorn in the African patriarch’s backside.

Actually, for African politics to give gender equality significance, it is crucial that African feminist ideas are merged with Gender and Development (GAD) because otherwise GAD can more easily fit into the patriarchal definition of progress where it unthreateningly poses a mere micro-political concern.

As the latest UN report on Development shows, “increased prosperity for a nation as a whole won’t necessarily make it any easier for a woman to get an education, start a business, or have access to birth control”. Whilst I’m by no means wishing to devalue development work, the truth is that equality can’t be achieved as a side effect of it, rather equality needs to be part of social and political culture which fully examines, and opposes, the machinery that subordinates African women.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zeal Harris

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  • MbA

    Absolutely agree. Even in the developed world, is is clear that women don’t have any more rights just because their economies are stable and their politics are more democratic. We need to make a concerted effort to ensure the same does not happen to us and to be sensitive to the differences in situation across the continent when searching for and applying solutions.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the comment. Absolutely, the same situation everywhere pretty much. By the way, do you read Feminist Africa? The current issue has, amongst others, a brilliant piece by Zambian feminist Sara Hlupekile Longwe about her legal action against discrimination she experienced in a hotel, you can download the issue here

  • yebo

    You raise a very pertinent issue, about the overly patriarchal and autocratic nature of African nationalism. It subordinates not only women, but even powerless men, although women are more visible as occupying the lowest rung. I think the complex and contentious thing is how to own feminism in a way that African women find avenues for their own self-expression. Some of the resistance towards certain forms of feminism is that they remain elitist, and expropriatory, perpetuating the same colonial gaze that has characterised other disciplines, theories, and practices, besides feminism. For me, its a question of trying to not revert to an overromanticised past, whilst also claiming ownership, as Africa, to the modes of expressing, as well as dealing with, numerous forms of female marginalisation that we encounter. And that is a cause we all have to take up, male, female, and whatever else exists in-between!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the great comment. Although African feminist ideas don’t reach a wide enough audience, they are out there and the are owned by us. or are great places to hear these voices and here of course :)

  • Poto lo

    I’m sorry but the Africa I know has not been romanticised by any stretch of the imagination. And in fact, has been played down to the point that so many find it difficult visualizing the greatness that Africa was and still is able to achieve. When the word slavery comes mind the vision of American slavery is applied to the past. If we take an event and use it to define something that was not the same event we will always be confused. Like if we decided that Dancing with the Stars is what stars were, aka celebrities instead of constellations in the sky, we will get confused.

    I mean, I could use the word slavery to describe what’s taking place at modern banking institutions. Of course I disaprove if this. But just because I am using that word it does not mean the event is the same. Most patriarch have redefined words so that when you think of them instead of seeing the actual you are diverted to something that was not the same thing. Modern African feminism in my opinion is an attempt for African women to get back to Queenship. Or can you visualize you never left that post. You only forgot what your responsibilities were?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for sharing thoughts on this. Although there’s no disputing that African civilization is constantly undervalued and played down historically, I don’t believe any history should be romanticised for intellectual purposes. It’s especially important that when dealing with current challenges that we critically and diligently look to understand our his- and herstories without modifying up or down to compensate. This does not take away from the greatness, rather it solidifies it even further

      So for example, speaking of queenship (although like slavery that word too must be applied in its non-imperialist context) I’d say that the idea is to go back but to also look at how queenship in precolonial times wasn’t granted all women. How can we demand it for all women and dismantle patriarchy whether ancient or modern, that’s too in African feminism

  • joe

    Wish as we might, there is no “going back” to whatever came before. And, frankly, it’s not to be wished for anyhow. There was never any “harmony between the genders” – if there was, please provide evidence of it. Harmony is not really possible nor to be sought for. Harmony is a political idea. Equality is a right and as a right, a tool to be used to ensure women are not exploited. The problem here is power – who has it and who doesn’t. Harmony might come if people gave up their quests for power (in all forms) but that is as unlikely as it is unrealistic. Men seek to control women. They use public policy to achieve it. It’s not that complicated, it happens everywhere across the world. My own take is that this began with human biology – in sustaining our species, women were for roughly 9 months beholden to men, necessitating their protection. Then, with religion, women were pegged with being the source of all evil for “tempting” men into sin. This created more impetus to control women. Even today, across Africa, and around the world, men try to control women. Sure, women try to control men but the way it plays out is that women have not succeeded generally in doing so; men have. They control the discourse, the public policy, the tools of the state, the commercial resources. To imagine that there was at some point in the past a harmony is absurd, not just romantic. The way forward is to continue to break in to the power suites where men continue to dominate: the offices of big companies, the presidential offices, etc. Harmony will not be the end result; an end to exploitation will.

    • MsAfropolitan

      You’ve elaborated on the same argument I made engagingly. Thanks for that and for stopping by. Patriarchy goes far back indeed, too far back :/

  • Patricia Amira

    Thanks for this piece, comments included. Feminist semantics aside, continuing under this system of patriarchy is of no benefit to the human race (the planet). Nothing ‘exists’ to the detriment of the other. Re-dressing this oftentimes slippery balance must, as you rightly state, ‘be part of social and political culture’, whether in Africa or otherwise.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your thoughts. Agree that tis’ a human problem and not only a feminist or an African problem. However, we need to find the tools that will continue to resist patriarchy. How do you think we can make it a part of our social and political culture?

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