7 key issues in African feminist thought


Firstly, it is important to say that when it comes to theory, it’s more accurate to speak of African feminisms than of one almighty African feminism. Not all African feminists agree with each other–luckily, I’d add, as this would hinder deep reflection of issues such as those listed below–yet respecting differences whilst recognizing a common ground is a priority. As I mentioned in the previous post, many women might refer to themselves as both African feminists and Black feminists. (This is especially evident in bibliographies of both African- and Black feminist writing.) However, African feminist thought has an added commitment to analyses in African contexts.

I should also clarify that African feminists here, as mostly elsewhere, refers to feminists of African heritage both in Africa and in the Diaspora, and that with ‘African women’ I’m referring to women of African heritage who are rural, urban and of all social classes who live in Africa and across the globe. Lastly, the views expressed below are mine and my choice to highlight seven key issues is not to suggest that there aren’t other equally pressing and important issues or that these seven are comprehensively covered in this one post.

Al-righty, on that note, let’s start with the Big, Bad Guy.

Africa is no different to other continents in the world, where whatever autonomic space the society offers the individual, it is less if one is female. Unfortunately we don’t know of a time in modern history when women of a racial/ethnic/class group were not disadvantaged in comparison to men of the same racial/ethnic/class group. We know of times (including this current one) when women of one race, ethnicity and/or class may have social advantages over men of another race, ethnicity and/or class. African feminists pay attention to the ways that patriarchy–a psychological and political system that values the male higher than the female–uses law, tradition, force, ritual, customs, education, language, labour (etc.) to keep women governed by men in both public and private life. African feminism sees that African men and women could have mutually beneficial, transformative and progressive relationships in the private and public spheres if our relationships were non-patriarchal and egalitarian. Nevertheless, African feminists assume responsibility for striving for such equal societies rather than hoping that men will someday redistribute privilege and power to create a better, more harmonious prospect for future generations.

African feminist thought does not solely deal with the “male-female”-imbalance because that would leave out other factors that affect African women’s lives, one of which is racial hierarchies and the socio-politics that come along with them. In fact, African feminists tend to be well-versed in how racial politics has undermined those practices in parts of historical Africa that had complementary elements and that nurtured a spirit of mutual intimacy. African feminist writing aims to ‘undo’ the roles and conditions that made Africans dependent on their colonizers, to ‘unwrite’ the burden of a history of imperialism that spans through centuries and to give a new language with which African women and men can progress from the racialized trauma that till this present day affects women and men, albeit in different ways.

It’s quite unpopular to criticize African traditions, or to point out that African history is marked by male dominance which African women have always resisted. Whether it is to do with the household, marriage customs, production methods or sexual freedoms, African patriarchal traditions for the most part make distinctions between male and female in ways that disadvantage the female. African women have been silenced for too long about the crimes of traditional patriarchy such as the abusive and dehumanising institution of patriarchal polygamy, widow abuse, genital cutting, witch-hunting and women’s lack of access to property and power in traditional society. That said, African feminist thought doesn’t seek to abandon tradition, as tradition also harbours a precious cultural memory and a rich legacy of knowledge and spirituality. Rather the goal is to enable tradition to adapt to its times so that rather than stagnate, it can enrich society, as customs and culture should do. Take for instance Sisonke Msimang, a well-known African feminist who here describes incorporating the lobola (bride price) in her wedding ceremony in a completely feminist way! That’s a great example of how to maintain cultural pride whilst simultaneously preserving a commitment to evolution and harmony.

Africa, according to statistical indices, is the poorest continent in terms of people’s access to basic amenities. African feminist thought honours that poverty in Africa and wealth in the west are structurally linked. The west’s continued injustice towards Africa through military intervention, resource exploitationNGO propaganda, unjustifiable debt and trade practices, and other neo/colonial practices of the power hungry has devastating effects on African states ability to cope with such factors as HIV/Aids, women’s sexual & maternal health and infrastructure development. Perhaps worst of all, is that the underdevelopment of Africa has impeded on the development of consciousness through adequate educational systems. As a result, African societies have been unable to naturally progress in ways where their jurisdiction, agriculture, intra-continental trade, indigenous healthcare and philosophical outlook has advanced to match the needs of citizens. In addition, this lack of consciousness development fuels unexamined claims like that the pursuit of gender equality is unAfrican or that homosexuality is sinful. Furthermore, poverty affects women worse than men in developing parts of the world because as Thomas Sankara said, “…women are dependant of the dependant.” African feminism seeks to enlighten that in order to develop African countries need to create social institutions that will resist foreign hegemony over African people, encourage engaged thinking and a workforce inclusive of all of its population on equally focused footing.

To point out the obvious, lesbians are women and homophobia and the persecution of African queer women by African states is a key issue in African feminist thought. The question of female sexuality in all its manifestations, and the control and suppression thereof, is in fact a central preoccupation for African feminists.  How do we challenge the state that pushes a rigid heterosexist idea as the norm? How do we unlink sexual dominance from sexual pleasure? How are women’s bodies made to bear the wounds of history; and of foreign intrusion and prolonged national struggles?  How do we address the psychological and physical suffering that women endure after violation? African feminist-centered thought and activism aims to query into and dismantle the mindset that doesn’t encourage the fundamental human right of ownership over ones body.

Global feminism
For feminism to be far reaching in impact, African feminists, like all others involved in the women’s movement need to collaborate with each other as we are also co-dependent in an increasingly inter-connected world. In the 20th century, African feminists were largely engaged in eliminating the arrogance and imperialism that had been imported through white-western feminism into African women’s narratives, but in the past decade or so the focus has been on ways to work together despite differences and especially to strengthen ties with Latin American and Asian feminist struggles. This pattern is in varying degrees the zeitgeist of all global feminisms, even though theory and practice are not always in unison.
African feminists need to curb (not neglect) their anger towards the negative images that many white feminists have perpetuated and focus on the resourceful work that many white feminists have produced, and white feminists need to be starkly aware and critical of their privileged position.Only then can we mutually seek to empower the strength at the heart of womanhood.

Love is something that all human beings desire in life yet it is an undervalued emotion in the worldview that shapes much of modern ideas. Using art in all its forms, for instance, to infuse theory with passion and emotion is for many African feminists a radically transformative act. Art is a realm where African feminist positions are not stated, but are symbolically represented. By creating new intellectual traditions aside of white/male academic history,  African feminists are in effect questioning the legitimacy of  knowledge production and decolonizing and depatriarchalizing minds.
African feminist thought is fuelled by the idea that love and justice are complementary to revolution and change. It is focused on healing, reconciliation, and on an insistence that the language of African womanhood, from its global position, is the language that can transform society into one where sexual, racial, spiritual, psychological and social equality are afforded. In such a society people can pursue lives with less daily micro- and macro-aggressions, less hostility and more space for self-realization. From Miriam Makeba’s music to Oumou Sy’s fashion to Nike Ogundaike’s art, African feminists are at the forefront of using creativity to express that progressive thought is not only cerebral but also visceral and expressive.

Thoughts? Questions?

More African feminist resources here.




3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Linda

    I’m so glad I came across your page. I’ve been struggling to get myself motivated to work on my PhD on self-representations of women in modern Uganda and this is just the kind of writing I needed to get me started. There are so many new fresh ways to womanhood in Africa today and it irks me when some writers still propagate a notion of a helpless African woman trapped by tradtionalism and patriarchy. Women in modern Africa are daily discovering new ways to up-turn male-dominated discourses and create their own spaces for fulfilled lives.Looking forward to the rest of your series!

    • Shari

      A year later but i would love to reach you as I am very interested in the modern Ugandan woman and her self perception. Thanks Linda and MsAfropolitan!

  • MsAfropolitan

    Thanks Linda, delighted that it’s motivated you and hope you’ll stop by again to share more as you go along.

  • http://thestir.squarespace.com Servaas

    Hi, informative article, showing various aspects at play and my thinking would suggest there is an interplay between the 7. On that point, you mentioned Africans viewing homosexuality as sinful and I understand that that can lead to problems but only given the other aspects mentioned? Surely there are many cultures also considering such behaviour as sinful yet have a higher view of women and allow people to partake in sinful activities in their private lives? Or is that what you suggested: homosexuality viewed as sin is not a problem or anti-women in itself but in the African context it often is?

    • MsAfropolitan

      I’m not sure I understand your question, but I don’t see homosexuality as sinful in any context.

      • http://thestir.squarespace.com Servaas

        Sorry, I meant to reply to this reply thread. Below is my reponse.

  • http://thestir.squarespace.com Servaas

    What I meant is that in some cultures and according to certain worldviews homosexuality is recognised as sinful/destructive behaviour yet tolerated. What we see in certain African subcultures though (and of course some non-African ones) is that there is a violent repsonse to such behaviour. And I was thinking that in a society thinking less of women even or where men expect sex from women on demand (or to a greater extent at least), lesbians in particular would be victims of abuse more often than gay men even. I don’t see the view of homosexuality as sinful as effecting women negatively in itself but only within a violent, intolerant society rather.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      I repeat – I don’t see homosexuality as sinful in ANY context.

      • http://thestir.squarespace.com Servaas

        Yes, I understand that. Fully. I deducted that from the beginning and was not questioning that. Maybe my question is still too vague. I was just wondering whether you implied that people,communities,etc. who does see it as sinful are necessarily ‘anti-women’ or only if that view goes along with a specific mix of other cultural phenomena/beliefs.

        • MsAfropolitan

          If someone says they love the ocean, then goes on to say but only when it is calm, then they do not love the ocean, they love a calm ocean.
          If you love women, you love all women. If you love humanity, you love all humanity. Otherwise, you make your selection clear and stop unintelligently stirring.

          • http://thestir.squarespace.com Servaas

            Ok, this is turning into an unnecessary long thread here from which I considered an honest, straight forward question. I’m not sure if you have attempted to answer me yet? but it seems you might not want to, rather than misunderstanding my question, as was initially the case. If this is so I will move on. Looking forward to read some of your other posts though: important topics.

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  • http://www.mak.ac.ug EDEU DANIEL

    This is so wonderful because i have been able to use the knowledge to understand African feminism.
    keep up the spirit.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Edeu, happy it was useful.

  • https://facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004316863881 Nicodemus Elakoloh Nyamekeh

    i believe in the Africa identity and for that matter feminism

  • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

    Sorry about the late reply. Check out my African Feminist Resources page http://www.msafropolitan.com/african-feminist-resources

  • Farai Morobane

    After going through the comments I’d like to add onto a reply that ms. Afropolitan posted two years back. I think Servaas was trying to ask something like is there a necessary link between patriarchal societies and institutionalized homophobia and the violence that follows.

    My understanding of this is that there is definitely a link. Patriarchy stipulates very rigid sexual and gender roles in society, it thrives on the sustenance and reiteration of these roles through social institutions. As such, deviant sexual and gender identities that do not conform to the ascribed roles, i.e homosexuality in this instance (for arguments sake we can include all factions of the LGBTI), are a direct resistant force to the equilibrium, which is the norm. So yes, there is a clear link between societies that oppress women and societies that are institutionally homophobic.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for this perceptive, Farai. You might be right and must apologise for misunderstanding Servaas’s contribution if so. Perhaps it seemed so obvious to me that there is a link between patriarchy and homophobia, but thanks for succinctly elaborating why this is.

  • Farai Morobane

    Oh, and I’m writing a thesis on the wave of gender conservative laws that have swept through African states over the past 5 years. This was very useful in giving an overview of African feminisms @MsAfropolitan:disqus

    • MsAfropolitan

      I’m glad to read that this was useful Farai :)

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

      I’m glad to read that this was useful Farai your thesis sounds incredibly interesting and would love to hear more about your findings.

  • Ian

    I really enjoyed this piece, you put into words what i have always thought about. When you speak of enabling ‘tradition to adapt to its times’ I guess that is written under the idea that tradition changes over time, of which is evidently accurate, and that it will remain the same. As an archaeology student I have realised that most if not all historical accounts based on African history are very eurocentric. One source however that tends to be less bias is our tradition. We retain and tell our history through cultural mediums such as myths, dances, songs and art, all of these make up a tradition. I am not opposed to the idea of allowing tradition to adapt to its times in order to feel and be accomodated as an African feminist, I just want to underline the importance of identity in an African context. So if we are going to encourage constant alterations to our traditions, constant because time moves rapidly these days, we might want to learn about who we are first.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Great comment. I completely agree. Traditions are often beautiful examples of collective exploration and we should not throw the bay out with the water but simultaneously oppose those traditions which oppress.

  • Njeri Maish

    am always strunded taking a degree in gender and everyone at home is like;where will you get a job?what kind of course is that?

  • Tonney Odhiambo

    I am so glad I got this page. May I ask what the basic tenets of African Feminist Theoretical Perspectives are, and who are the proponents, please?

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