A brief history of African feminism

Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Wikipedia commons

Can I start this post with saying, “SIGH”. Reason for my exasperation is the continued suggestion that feminism is “unAfrican” – whatever “unAfrican” means. Personally, I missed the how-to-be-an-African memo!

The truth is that feminism is an absolute necessity for African societies. We rank lowest in the global gender equality index, have some of the highest numbers of domestic violence, the highest number of female circumcision and other harmful traditions (need I go on). Yet I keep landing on articles like this and this which both start promisingly then go on to make claims such as “…the first objective for the Nigerian woman is the imperative of family building as the first step in nation building”  and “African women do not feel the same urgency or need to be liberated from their traditional gender roles” respectively. Really? Or this fella, who earnestly wonders, “What is wrong with a woman being successful, and still bowing to her man?”


I’ve argued oftentimes that feminism is not “unAfrican”, that it has always existed in Africa, that so many of the African women we all love to love are/were feminists. But what exactly is the history of African feminism, you might be wondering.

While the term ‘feminism’ is an import to Africa (as all English words are), the concept of opposing patriarchy, the raison d’être of feminism if you like, is not foreign. Africa has some of the oldest civilizations in the world so while they didn’t always call it feminism (the noun) as far back as we can trace we know that there were women who were feminist (the adjective) and who found ways of opposing patriarchy. Feminism is an important part of African women’s “herstory”.

Mamphela Ramphele, founder Agang

As an interest group, African feminism set off in the early twentieth century with women like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonian women’s rights activist referred to as the “African Victorian Feminist” who contributed widely to both pan-African and feminist goals, Charlotte Maxeke who in 1918 founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa and Huda Sharaawi who in 1923 established the Egyptian Feminist Union. African feminism as a movement stems also from the liberation struggles especially those in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola and Kenya where women fighters fought alongside their male counterparts for state autonomy and women’s rights. African feminist icons from this period are women like the Mau-Mau rebel, Wambui Otieno, the freedom-fighters Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Margaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others who fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy (often through protest). Modern African feminism was solidified during the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which resulted in feminist activism and scholarship spreading widely across the continent and diaspora. Since then the African feminist movement has expanded in policy, legislation, scholarship and also in the cultural realm. It has to do with grassroots activism as well as intellectual activism, ‘bread and butter’ issues such as poverty reduction, violence prevention and reproductive rights as well as with lifestyle, popular culture, media, art and culture. It’s about confronting patriarchal mythmaking on one hand, and with the other we are equally challenged with tackling racist stereotypes. It has to do with these seven key issues in African feminist thought.

Ndate Yalla Mbodj (1810–1860) P. David Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises (1853). The New York Public Library.

Today, African feminists scholars, activists, artists and politicians such as Leymah Gbowee, Joyce Banda, Simphiwe Dana and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as well as feminist organisations such as the African Feminist Forum and the African Gender Institute are at the forefront of using activism, knowledge and creativity to change situations that affect women negatively.

No one but African women ourselves can bear the responsibility to protect the histories of African women and to connect them to the situations of today. We have many glass ceilings to shatter. To begin to do so, we must realise that the current situation disadvantages women tremendously. Women are being systemically marginalised within both our local and global societies. As our eyes increasingly open to this truth, we must continue to liberate and defend ourselves from limited notions of womanhood. It cannot be stressed enough how pressing that is. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel; we can and should take inspiration from those who are already reshaping the narrative of African womanhood and the truth is that feminism continues to be the tool of choice for many  of us.

What do you think of this? Please share your thoughts and add significant moments in African feminist history to the comments!

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  • MsAfropolitan

    Thanks Toja!

  • http://zichivhu.blogspot.com/ James Chikonamombe

    This is an issue of wording, definitions and semantics. We Africans just don’t want to be lectured to by Westerners on “their” feminism. We Africans have our own strand of Feminism which reflects our own historic struggles and daily realities. Like all modern African men I’m all for this “African” Feminism, and at the same time, I reject totally the notion of Western women trying to force-feed their own version of Feminism on African women, and African societies in general.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for posting @James.

      Who is “We Africans” – African men, women, transgender, adults, elderly, all of the above?
      I can only speak for myself, and to me it is not about “their” feminism versus “our” feminism. Within feminism there are tensions but also agreement ..
      It’s not for African men to keep telling African women what “this African feminism” should or should not be about. It is great if African men engage with the topic, but there has to be the understanding that it is women who can express the sentiment of being discriminated against
      Furthermore, if I may say, it is insulting to suggest that African women don’t have minds of our own, that we are in a position to be force-fed views on our own existence.

      • http://www.adventuresfrom.com Nana Darkoa

        Yes o, I find nothing more infuriating than being told by an African man, that as an African woman I have imbibed a form of Western feminism. EH? What do you think I am? An idiot? If my thoughts on African feminism do not agree with yours you want to shut me up by telling me I have drunk western feminism kool aid? Mtcheww

        • MsAfropolitan

          Honestly… As if African women must either be told what to believe by African men or western women.

      • KevMbabazi

        Peace and blessings to all of the African warrior queens on this webpage. Before you chew me up sistuh and proceed to say how I may insult you with what I am about to say, please understand that it is all out of love with my desire to understand, yet be critical of feminism.
        I must say that I agree with Brother James, whose comment you responded to. Queens in Africa, such as Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Queen warrior Wambui Otieno, Margaret Ekpo and others have always been in the struggle for Women’s rights and battling oppresive male domination. (I do not use the term patriarchy because that term denotes a male being the head of a particular clan, tribe, etc, which isn’t the major problem in this sense, although I do advocate for the co-governance of such things between man and woman, the natural balance between man and woman, as technically, matriarchy would just be the female form of matriarchy, if we look at it strictly by definition.) However, the term “feminism” as stated earlier, was not in existence, and is a term created by Western White powers to break up the family dynamic in America. Research can be found on this subject and the Rockefeller’s creation and funding of feminist organizations and woman’s studies (Western mind you) for that purpose. So I agree with the brother when he said that the traditional African Woman’s Rights struggles and the Queens that took part in it were not feminists by Western standards, which is where the term arose. I think that Western feminism was and is dangerous, which is why African-American Women’s Suffrage Movements were created, to combat the racist intent of feminism. Of course, these principles were already being practiced by our Queens in Africa, but free from the term feminism, as it did not exist. As far as the implementation of the term now in African feminist thought, I am not here to debate that, and I support African women’s struggle for Woman’s Rights, and I also support unity and love between African Women and Men. As far as Western feminist ideologies and African feminist though are concerned, I can see differences. But the sistuhs in Africa have been engaging in this struggle long before there was a feminism, back when it was just Woman’s Rights being advocated for through the thought of African Woman liberation, which I support. Again, I just want to say that I greatly appreciate this post, and I am not trying to start a debate, only to share what I know and learn as well. I just wanted to bring some clarification to what James meant. I hope that I will hear from you soon MsAfropolitan. Peace

  • http://www.adventuresfrom.com Nana Darkoa

    Minna, I share your exasperation with those people who want to claim that feminism is unAfrican. Argh. I don’t even want to engage with them.
    Thank you for this post and the historial references you have shared. As a feminist, I think its important for us to learn about our African Feminist Ancestors even whilst we still engage in our day to day activism. I appreciate how you make such learning fun.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the precious comment Nana :)

  • http://none Vivian Nkongmenec Moutchia

    Feminism, make me an instrument of change.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Love this mini-feminist-prayer of sorts.

  • http://none Vivian Nkongmenec Moutchia

    Women are women because they are women. Men can never take the place of a women and vice versa. The question of feminism in Africa is becoming so controversial because African women seem not to speak about their individual experiences and achievements in spite of the barriers that hamper their way. The truth is that women in Africa, whether in the rural or urban milieu have actually made some progress and all they need to continue to do is to let stumbling blocks become stepping stones. Feminism is a visitor that has come to stay and African women should be ready to accommodate him within the context of what is truly Africa.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Vivian, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s very true that individual successes need to not only take up more narrative space but also name the barriers so that people can’t pretend that they are not there. Women are succeeding in spite of rather than because of our societies.
      “Feminism is a visitor that has come to stay and African women should be ready to accommodate him within the context of what is truly Africa.” – nicely put!

  • http://ibrahcadabrah.wordpress.com/ Ibrahim

    Interesting post. I will also share this with my sisters out there.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Ibrahim, that’s kind of you.

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  • http://none Vivian Nkongmenec Moutchia

    Is Feminism really unAfrican? I will also ask ,” is women’s right not human rights?”. No body is an island. Push the child right up to the wall and you will understand the force that lies behind the wall. Obviously, the child will retaliate with a force that is no longer his. Indeed, feminism is not really unAfrican. Women all over the globe continue to experience the same pangs of child bearing which is a common feature that distinguishes women from men. As women, Our racial, ethnic and social differences has nothing to do with our biological sameness; therefore, feminism in not unAfrican, rather it is spark of light that seeks to reawaken the subverted strength of the African Woman. A woman is a woman no matter the race. She can do and undo. Women should give other women the chance. Why do women keep being one another’s enemy? Let all women become friends at least, by virtue of their biological sameness then like Okoh said, our own power will lead to necessary changes in our societies. This may not be very evident but not impossible. Men do not hate us, they need us more and more. In My opinion, what make feminism in Africa unAfrican is the yearning of the ignorant African woman who spends her time trying to become a man instead of asserting her individuality as a woman so as to contribute to positive changes in her society. The prefix “wo” before “man” is a clear indication that the man is who the woman makes him to be. African men are surely listening.

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  • Iola

    This is brilliant, Minna. I feel totally liberated reading about African feminists, who are more often than not, over shadowed by the Western approach to feminism. I agree with you that the existence and recognition of African feminism isn’t to further divide “us” and “them” (there’s enough of that already!)- it’s a necessity to redressing the subordination of African women, from an African perspective….Keep ’em coming, sis! Always love the references too – I can spend hours reading just one article. :-)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks a lot for the encouraging comment sis!

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it!

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  • http://msafropolitan.com Anonymous

    Feminism is supposed to be about “equality at anything”, whether social, political or economical… Now I went to the salon to retouch my hair like a woman (even though I am not), and some so called “feminist” told me it is wrong for men to do hairstyles at salons; that men only keep buzz cut. When I reminded them that feminism is also about social equality, they were speechless. My conclusion is that, feminism isn’t really about “equality”. It is all about getting rid of traditional gender roles, which may not suit an individual whether it be convenient for their spouse (lets assumed the person in question is married) or not.

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  • https://facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002799232583 Xavier Moore

    Perhaps I missed something, but the article informs us that ancient African women practiced a form of feminism – a “fight” against patriarchy – which is strange, given the fact that many African societies, before the coming of foreigners – Arabs, in particular – were matriarchal in character. Then the article goes on to give examples of women fighting against patriarchal oppression, but can only give examples from the time of European colonialism. It completely omits the fact that the oppression of women in African cultures cannot be traced back to Africa before the coming of foreigners. Ancient African women stepping up to take roles commonly reserved for men (warrior, king) are no more examples of feminism than Al Jolsen performing “Mammy” in blackface is an example of a white man crooning, “We Shall Overcome.” Contrary to what the writer of this article states, feminism is not as old as civilization itself; because in a land where Goddesses walked side by side with Gods – where the concept of this inseparable pair was first forged in the human psyche in the first place – there was no need for it.

    • KevMbabazi

      Well put brother

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Xavier, yes you did miss something I’m afraid – the facts. Whether or not African societies were matriarchal pre Arabisation or westernisation is difficult to ascertain factually since the documentation on this oscillates between myth and fact.

      As I’ve written previously, patriarchy was not imported from Europeans. Patriarchy as we know it, perhaps. But not as the norm. There’s so much historical evidence of male-dominant systems in precolonial Africa to even go near such a claim. Furthermore, we shouldn’t frame history as though Africans stopped thinking for themselves during colonialism. How frankly, belittling.
      For example, my family is from a town in Nigeria – Abeokuta, which resisted colonial dictatorship even whilst the majority of Yorubaland had been incorporated into the southern protectorate. However, in 1914, following violent trials and tribulations, Abeokuta was forced to be part of colonial Nigeria. During this period, there was a necessary relationship between colonial officials and some of our leaders. The chiefs of Abeokuta negotiated with the colonial administrators, sometimes vehemently opposing their demands and sometimes collaborating. And the women of Abeokuta (and less privileged men too, I’d say) often bore the brunt of this new relationship between British and Yoruba patriarchs.

      I am disturbed by this idea that the white/Arab came and wiped out the way of life for Africans. This implies that all Africans were passive bystanders of their fate and is not true. As is evident in African societies today where people still live according to their customs even if they have also integrated western/Arab ways.

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

    Dear Ida, I’ve been searching and searching for this comment. I read it when you posted it and then could not remember which of my African feminism post it was on. Selah, I have found it!

    “This is not a war. It is not Western society versus Africa. It is not women against men, or vica versa, it is about building a society where people respect each other, and treat each other with dignity and love.”

    This especially, (but your entire comment), is so simply put yet deeply meaningful. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  • frances

    I love this article, both because it confirms my view that feminism by any name is global and because it shatters the myths that so-called “conscious” Afrocentrists like to entertain about African women, one of which is that African women are monolithic folks who don’t want or need feminism.

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

      Thank you, Frances. Exactly.

  • truthseeker2436577@yahoo.com

    This is an excellent article. Many people in the world don’t know about the facts found in this article. We have to discus about this issue and true equality among all genders is a legitimate concept that we should always embrace.

  • Ines Giramata

    This is the most eloquently put comment I have ever read in my life. I hope you don’t mind me quoting you in one my Women Studies research papers because I think this was just well put.

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  • viv

    okay, its unafrican. that could be true in the 14th century, before these Europeans stepped their foot on our soil. from research, I discovered that gender was recognized not sexism in early African history. some places were matriarchal and some have a case of reversed gender, like my place. Men respected women’s role and they were not seen as weak sex. Then, the Europeans came and brought that culture and things started changing with time but feminism is one of the little ways to right our wrong. sexism is here so feminism has to be here too

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