Second class citizen: African women and nationalism

When I think of nationalism, I think of Virginia Woolf’s words – “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” I too find that there is a tension between the terms ‘nation’ and ‘woman’.

Nevertheless, having contributed to the New York Forum Africa last weekend, as I later sat on the beach in Libreville looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, the first thought that came to mind was that the Nigerian coast is North-West of my view and so I became nostalgic and missed my hometown.

What does it mean to be a Nigerian and a woman? I thought. I compared myself to Nigerian men; to my father, my boyfriend, wondering if they feel Nigerian in a different way? Unlike theirs, my heritage is also Finnish, but is my Nigerianness also changed by my gender? Or do Virginia Woolf’s words only apply to European women and/or to a bygone era? After all while European nations were largely formed by men for men, nation-building in Africa is marked by the struggle for independence, which African women – and particularly those in Mozambique, Angola, Kenya, Guinea-Bissau and Algeria – joined alongside men.
Is nationalism then not quite different for African women?

Unfortunately not. African women may have countries insofar that we are entitled to citizenship status and via our ethnic origins and cultural belongings such as language, religion and traditions. However, when it comes to a fundamental pillar of citizenship, the legal rights or the constitution, women’s roles in the independence struggle did not guarantee our place within the nation. We are second class citizens. We have distinct laws when it comes to land entitlement, divorce, military participation and so on. Also, if you conduct yourself differently from the collective imagination of shared national culture your citizenship is questioned. (And who wants that?) Our female cultural “contracts” are ascertained by statements such as;

“Why don’t you cook? Don’t you know that a Nigerian woman must know how to feed her husband?”

“A Nigerian woman must not be too outspoken!”

“Nigerian women are feminist in a different way o!”

“As a Nigerian woman, I believe that my husband is the head and I am the neck of the family.”

Etc. Etc.

Men also have cultural codes to adhere to but unlike women, they are not to do with any biological condition. Male citizenship is not linked to what the male body does or does not do. A man is equally Nigerian, for instance, if he has children out of wedlock, or, if lo and behold, he does not pound yams in the spirit of conjugality.

womanBOn the other hand, our nations also protect women from the inequalities that they in the first place create. By weaving women’s rights into the agenda, in a hypocritical way, African nation states are pretending to be progressive modern projects that respect women.
Here’s a letter from the Nigerian Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria to David Mark, the Senate President, requesting that the state does not adopt the Maputo Protocol, the legal document for women’s rights in Africa, because although it otherwise is a “very good document, meant to protect the rights of women in Africa”, it also lures Nigerians into “making laws that are not good for our people.”
The laws in question have in fact not been subject to a national debate where Nigerian women are given a chance to determine whether they are good for them or not. Nevertheless, the bishop stakeholders are requesting, no, “demanding”, a complete rejection of what they refer to as the “obnoxious” 14th paragraph, “Health and Reproductive Rights”.

Whether or not abortion or the contraceptive pill should be legal is not the point here, but rather I’m using the example to observe how women’s rights and the nation can be in conflict.

Nevertheless, despite the tense relationship between African women and the nation, I felt at peace on the beach in Libreville not only because of the surrounding beauty but also because I was nearer to the country that I call mine, first or second class citizenship notwithstanding.


Question: Why do you think so many of our Africanist political scientists, historians, writers etc. have declined to analyse the nation state from a gendered angle?

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  • Doreen

    I’d be inclined to disagree that African independence was inclusive of women. Sure, in a few select cases it was, but it was a movement led and fought largely by men, and not just men, but the urban elite. Rural people were included in their rhetoric, but when it came to the actual decision-making and the handing over of power, the “political kingdom” was inherited by those who are still lapdogs of the international regime today (the male urban elite).

    All of the declarations, conventions, and protocols are useless if actual cultural attitudes are unchanging. The Ghanaian constitution explicitly states that gender discrimination is unlawful, and yet public officials and private citizens alike scoff at the idea of a woman with the audacity to not be submissive to her husband.

    I think a gendered analysis of the nation, of the state, and of citizenship is crucial; but at the same time, I wonder what it would achieve. I know what it needs to achieve, I just wonder how many people would be receptive to it.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Doreen, thanks for leaving a comment, which I only have recovered today as all comments were being deleted for some technical reason.
      Your observation is spot on, whether the independence struggles were inclusive of women indeed needs teasing out. It was not the case in all African nations but in those countries I listed women played crucial, if still gendered, roles.
      Regarding gendered analyses of nation and citizenship, I might be too hopeful in saying this but I think that if more African women advocates start to question the very parameters of the state, it will usher in some change if only because of the oppression it reveals. There will come a point when we just have to say enough is enough and while it is that internal and cultural attitude that will have the power to achieve real progress, it will be aided if there is readily available discussion, insight and policy.
      I agree with you though, change in cultural attitudes is crucial but I think they go hand in hand, as we see in countries where gender equality has better prospects.
      Have you come across any good resources on these topics?

      • Doreen

        Thanks for the response, Minna.

        Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a really good TEDtalk, not specifically about the state, but about how culture is shaped by us, we don’t shape culture, and if the culture is antithetical to gender equality, then the culture needs to change. It seems “culture” is always a free pass to anything oppressive.

        • MsAfropolitan

          Hi Doreen, I think I know which talk you mean. Great mind-opening stuff! Thanks.

  • Maria

    The point about women actively involved in nationalism in some African countries (women who marched to tend the Liberian civil war popped in my mind first) is one that I have not quite considered before. I too am curious about the lasting effect of women’s involvement in such events. My simplistic analysis leads me to believe that it actually does not make that much of a difference in the political sphere but matters more in civic society.

    There have only been 2 African presidents (only one who was elected, since Banda became president of Malawi as a result of her predecessor’s death) and women are generally less likely to vote in moat African countries due to lower literacy rates than men. But in Nigeria for example, most non-profit and civic groups are led by women. The grass roots mobilization that fueled some African nationalistic (Ghana’s movement being the best example) movements seems to have lasted long past independence with women at the fore front.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Maria,
      Thanks for your comment. I think there was no lasting effect of women’s involvement in the independence struggles partly because the women’s movement itself was disjointed at the time. Understandably perhaps. And also because women who got involved did so often on patriarchal terms. Grass roots women’s movements have indeed remained influential, one wonders how those efforts could strengthen women’s position in nation-building. The aim should be to link civic society with the political sphere, right?

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