Discovering African feminism


Blackfeminism is not white feminism in blackface‘ – Audre Lorde

As a young girl I could not get my head round the society I lived in, where Nigerian men seemed to have many more privileges than women just for being men, a reality I later discovered applied in different ways to other societies as well. In a sense my feminist consciousness was developing then—in childhood—but it was first in my early 20s that I began to seriously engage with the work of feminists like Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong and Simone de Beavouir to name a few. By then I lived in Sweden and these writers were the most available. They taught me a lot about feminism and about liberating the mind from patriarchy, especially in the context of the west, a part of the world that I love, and that shapes me both genetically and culturally. I regard their work highly and dearly.

Yet while their works tackled patriarchy, I began to seek out work of black feminists and especially black African women, women whose thoughts about gender, race, culture, tradition and the continent of my roots resonated with mine. Reading women like Amina Mama, Filomina Chioma-Steady, bell hooks, Buchi Emecheta, Nawal el-Saadawi, Mercy Amba-Odudoye, Toni Cade-Bambara, Angela Davis etc. I felt less lonely in my thoughts, but admittedly also burdened. I knew that life would never be the same. I would become a woman who people falsely considered man-hating. Whom people would wrongly accuse of being influenced by western values. I’d have family members warn me,”No man will marry a woman who is this stubborn”, or a woman who is “too smart for her own good”, and it would indeed be challenging dating as a heterosexual woman in a world where we aren’t conditioned to foster equal loving relationships between men and women and where black men often feel reluctant to examine the one privilege they have of male advantage in an otherwise undermining political structure.

The resistance that I’ve encountered has, however, only strengthened the insight of how necessary it is for us to speak up. To declare that we are comitted to expressing and exposing the oppression of women in African societies. To refuse to live as the perpetual second sex.  To understand the urgency in challenging racial and gendered subjugation in our lives. And to seek the right words with which to express our individual and collective frustrations and to encourage progressive growth.

When I came to African feminist writing, I saw the extent to which our realities were neglected in the work of the white feminists I’d read. I saw that by claiming to speak for all women, many white feminists had rendered non-white women invisible, the worst colour to be politically. It was easy to recognize this making invisibile as I’d encountered it often in scholarly African writing that I’d been studying, writing by African men who unapologetically neglected women and their roles as teachers, fighters, revolutionaries and leaders as they (often otherwise brilliantly) problematized African society, psychology, history….

I began this post with the Audre Lorde quote because it succinctly answers the question, “What is black feminism?”
The same answer goes for African feminism, which indeed could also be called black feminism. The nuance in the terms has to do with an added commitment to gender in African contexts but the terms are often used interchangeably.
I’ll be posting seven of those contexts here tomorrow or the day after or after (pardon my fickleness). Check back in during the week or subscribe to my posts via email or RSS to get the upcoming post “7 key issues in African feminist thought” directly in your inbox/feed.

In the meantime I’d love to hear if you have questions about African feminism, or any particular angles of feminism you’d like m to cover here?





  • teachermrw

    Thank you for sharing your writings and perspectives re: African feminism. As a Black woman, born and raised in the United States, yours is a perspective I truly appreciate.

    I find that many Black women in the US are resistant/unwilling to embrace feminism, in any form. Womanism seems more easily digestible for Black women in the United States in general However, my core problem with womanism is that it ignores the sexism and misogyny of Black men. Black women seem unable or unwilling to accept the fact that Black men are sexist and misogynistic. After all, we need to be united with Black men. We cannot fully unite with Black men unless we point out their sexism and misogyny, and until they acknowledge, embrace and eradicate it.

    The issues raised with the recent Summer Olympics, and its representation of Black women in the media, is a prime example. Many Black women insist that the issues are not rooted in sexism and misogyny, and believe that if Black male athletes like LeBron James are subjected to racism, then why should not Black female athletes? After all, sports should be “equal opportunity” in the way Black male and female athletes are treated by the media. In fact, many Black females responded with their own brand of sexism and misogyny, which was not only shocking, but revealed an ignorance which, quite honestly, I found disgusting.

    • MsAfropolitan

      We really need to foster a culture of action and intellectual thinking that does not equate women’s (and men’s) struggles against sexism in black communities as an attack on black life. Thanks for raising that important point.

      I also find that womanist writing tends to see racism as a priority over sexism, which I don’t, and the revolutionary, direct approach in feminist thought always appealed more to me because for example through that lens it would be unlikely to make such damaging claims as you explain re sports since misogyny is up for scrutiny.
      Yet that said I think there is also affinity between black/African feminism and womanism. The aim should anyway always be about building solidarity across differences as Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, for instance, set a great example of.

  • Lesley Agams

    Great topic. Looking forward to the next piece.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Lesley

  • HOLAAfrica

    This is an amazing piece and speaks to the need for African women to stand up and define themselves and figure out who they are. There truly is a need for African women to be seen in their light and not the various counterparts they engage with, be they of a different sex or race. This is a truly inspirational piece.
    Can I ask how would one begin to describe black feminism or even African feminism as so many different contexts. Is it not dangerous to blanket bomb?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks HOLAAfrica for the comment and kind compliment.

      I think there might be some risk in blanket definitions, and in the subsequent post in this series “7 key issues in African feminism” I make it a point to say that we should speak of feminisms rather than feminism because of the multiple contexts.
      That said,… I’m somewhat weary of postmodern views that I think dominate the fields of ideas in the world…you know, where nothing can be defined because of its nuances. There are nuances even within African feminism, depends on what sees as “African”… And sometimes those definitions are crippling too, mostly enriching…I think the postmodern approach, whilst necessary for individual expression, also place too much emphasis on existentialist individualistic approach to feminism.
      Black feminism and African feminism are first cousins, if not sisters. And the danger in separating the two is in my opinion larger than that in illuminating the differences whilst still remaining intact. We are fighting the same struggle in so many ways, aren’t we?

  • Alfred

    Interesting read. What role (if any) do black feminist men play in the continent in advancing black feminism. Do you have recommended literature on this.

  • MsAfropolitan

    Hi Alfred,

    Thanks for asking, the black male feminist role is certainly important. I have a post with black male feminist links and here’s a few sites that may be of interest.

    Hope they are a good start?

  • Wonuola

    I love how you explained the invisibility of black feminism by white feminists… What books can you recommend by black African feminists that can teach me more about African feminism. Thank you!