The multiple jeopardy of being an African woman

This is the last in a series of posts discussing intersectionality. Read the previous two here and here.

In this clip of The Actors, Denzel Washington speaks about the advice he has given to his daughter. He explains that as a black person, a woman — and a dark-skinned one at that – she is likely to face multiple obstacles as an aspiring actress. It’s not the type of advice a father may want to give his daughter but I respect that he does because unfortunately it reflects our world.

It especially resonated with me as in my personal journey it was first when I realised the restrictions that our world has on me as a woman in a man’s world, a mixed-race person in a racially divisive world, an African in a world that exploits Africa no end, that I was able to relax into my being. I am aware of the oppressive nature of society’s norms and therefore I am able to completely ignore them on a fundamental level and go about being the person that I am.

I chose the painting depicted above, ‘Be Girlz’ by Zeal Harris, for this post because it makes me think of the intense sense of freedom we can have when we learn to define ourselves by ourselves for ourselves. In the face of discrimination, never remain still. We have got to move (dance, jump, stretch, climb) our way under or above or through or around whatever prevents us from flowing.

As discussed in the last post, the idea behind intersectionality is this process of identifying obstacles and it was already a point of conversation for black feminists in the US before the term itself was coined. African feminists were also discussing the multiple jeopardy of being an African woman before then. In 1978, the Senegalese writer Awa Thiam suggested an intersectional view to understanding African womanhood.

The Black woman of Africa suffers a threefold oppression: by virtue of her sex, she is dominated by man in a patriarchal society; by virtue of her class she is at the mercy of capitalist exploitation; by virtue of her race she suffers from the appropriation of her country by colonial or neo-colonial powers. Sexism, racism, class division; three plagues…

Molara Ogundipe-Leslie had also said that African women metaphorically speaking carry “six mountains” on their back; tradition, backwardness to do with colonization, race, patriarchy, the global order and lastly and most importantly, herself.

I think that many of our traditions are killing us. Literally. African women are dying from persecution, sexual violence, genital cutting, witch hunting, widow punishment, the act of giving birth. Traditions are also preventing us from psychologically fulfilling ourselves. Marriage for example is especially a pressure for many African women. The traditional belief that a woman’s destiny is only of value if she attains a husband continues to jeopardise freedom in modern life. I can’t tell you all how many times I’ve been “warned” (however subtly) that I  should not do this or that lest it will be difficult for me to get married. In fact the first question many of my relatives ask me when they haven’t spoken to me in a while  is, “So, when are you getting married?” Women, straight or not, feel obliged to marry men. Once married, all too many women depend on their husbands, legally and financially and psychologically.

When will this end? How will we challenge age-old conservative ideas that are interwoven into tradition? Africa and its citizens – those who inhabit the continent – and those whom life circumstances have either reluctantly or willingly pushed to migrations – find ourselves at an exciting if delicate time of transformation. As new questions about gender emerge, and as traditional values clash with modernity, how will we reinterpret them so that Africa’s nations will cease to rank the lowest on the gender equality index?



This is part III of three blogs about intersectionality.  Read the first post here and the second here



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  • ghanaianemprezz

    This struggle for emancipation has been echoed in Ama Atta Aidoo’s “changes”. In the era of modernity, we still have to contend with myopic mentalities. When I tell friends that being married is not a guarantee of happiness, they don’t understand and assume am not happy in my marriage. Am completely for marriage but it shouldn’t be the basis for judging my womanhood. You get married and they ask you when you are going to have a kid. You have a kid and they ask if it’s only one kid you want. I also think the media is not contributing in any way to the change we need; they are rather reinforcing existing societal norms and perceptions.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you for this important message. It should be heard loud and wide from continent and across the Atlantic.

  • NubianSister

    Great topic and article. This problem is not going away anytime soon. Darker skin women will always be on the back foot- not only being put their by other races, but by our own culture and surroundings. I guess it is for the message to reach the ears of the younger generation to break this cycle. It is these young people who will go on to be leaders and major influences of the up and coming generations. Maybe then, change will come.

    • Carolyn Moon

      That is my hope as well, however, it’s deep and pervasive. As I read Denzel Washington’s advice to his “dark-skinned” daughter re: her desire to become an actress; there are some who state that he’s being pragmatic with her. We as women initially get our affirmations from our fathers or male members of our families as to how we look and how valued we are as human beings.
      For him tell her to forget about competing with the other “pretty” girls and model herself after Viola Davis and hone her talents as a singer, dancer, musician, or actress because of the 3 strikes against her; leaves many of us disheartened. Beauty encompasses so many characteristics and he should take a cue from the President when he expressed his appreciation for his daughters. He’s gotten some flak about that from a white feminist. What the latter didn’t acknowledge is that he described them as strong, SMART and beautiful. In this society, that is rarely stated about young black women especially in a public forum.

      Validating her beauty with the caveat that although mainstream society and its beauty standards may not appreciate that fact; becoming versatile with her talents will make her a formidable force as she pursues her goals. It’s all in how we frame and express our attitudes and advice when we try to prepare our daughters and sons for the world stage.

      • MsAfropolitan

        DW doesn’t encourage his daughter to model herself after Viola Davis because she isn’t pretty, but because she is much *more* than just pretty and/or young, she is a great actress.
        It’s refreshing that he is urging her never to rely on her beauty alone and to especially not to pay notice to rigid, racist, sexist, ageist definitions of beauty and talent.

        • Carolyn Moon

          I think we’re on a similar path, however, it’s also how people frame their remarks and how it is interpreted by others based on their experiences.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks NubianSister, I hope and believe there is some energy of change and revolution around.

  • Neli Tau

    “I am aware of the oppressive nature of society’s norms and therefore I am able to completely ignore them on a fundamental level and go about being the person that I am.” This resonates with me so much because my own emancipation began when I could perceive the threads which hold up the seemingly natural structures that are responsible for mine and other women’s oppression. I began to see these social structures for what they truly are and how their “naturalness “is a fallacy. Thank you for the beautiful site and insights that you provide

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the blog love and your comment.
      The fallacy of ‘naturalness’ is a wonderfully liberating, if sobering, insight to arrive at isn’t it

  • Donata

    You are equally European as you are African. Why do you speak about obstacles only from a black woman’s perspective: you could combine both those views. There are women’s issues also in Europe, why not raise your voice on those? There are mixed communities and families, immigrants who suffer a lot, refugees, students and workers, why not talk about them? You are not giving voice to all women in Africa, because you yourself live in Europe, in diaspora and you are so much more privileged in relation to most of your black African sisters.

    In Africa it is just a shame that women in general are not ready/wanting/interested to give up their cultural beliefs or superstition concerning some matters (witchcraft, religion, marriage, and they accept all kinds of bullshit from their spouses), I have encountered those so many times. So obviously those beliefs serve some purpose: control, gossip and jealously. They are unfortunately unlikely to change, because that is also a way for older women to control their younger female family members.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Donata. African women are diverse, you can read more on my views on generalising statements about African women here

      There are many blogs focusing on the white western woman’s rights, and I wholly support them but this is not one

      I believe I speak about being mixed race in this very post. It has been a regular topic on this blog.

      Also, don’t fool yourself that european women are not subject to superstition, “bullshit from their spouse” and the other stuff you listed.

  • Nana Darkoa

    @Minna – Thanks for this post. I loved what Denzel had to say to his daughter…but ummm what was Jamie Foxx on? :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Lol! Thanks sis

      • Keith

        Thanks for the reading. I want to learn so much more about this subject. I want to understand why some African women see things in this world that is so different from mine. This helped a little. I guess I need a little advice or another perspective. But thank you for your different views.

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  • Nick Nakorn

    A great blog by the way – I’ve just discovered it.

    As soon as I heard the term ‘intersectional’ in reference to race I immediately liked it without knowing anything about its roots in either feminism or academia. In the early 1990s I joined the Black Employees Support Group (BESG) at my (then) employer. One of the first big discussions in the group was about who was ‘black’ enough to join and there were a vociferous few who thought light-skinned people, including me, should not be allowed membership. It was only when I recounted my experiences of being chased and shot by white kids for being ‘yellow’ that they realised that marginalisation and racism comes in many forms.

    My progress with that employer was hampered hugely by my support of Feminism and LBGT rights too; though a cis hetero male, I immediately saw that prejudice (indeed, some from BESG members) can strike any identifiable group. So for me, intersectionality is simple, it’s the recognition that one’s own struggle is in many ways everyone’s struggle and that different sections of society that understand what it’s like to be constantly picked upon and bullied must support other victims and oppose oppression rather than attempt to gain status in the phony hierarchy.

    So ‘check your privilege’ is, for me, a reminder that there are many who require support and that the phony hierarchy does actually impact on other peoples’ lives. I rarely use the phrase myself unless I’m exasperated with a highly privileged person who thinks all claims of racism/sexism/homophobia etc are part of a left-wing plot ; I use it as an alternative to losing my temper or as a last resort. But I think it all the time in reference to myself because though I have been in life-threatening situations many times for being ‘other’, I’m still here while many are not.