02 July 2013 ~ 42 Comments

A brief history of African feminism

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Adelaide Casely Hayford 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”.

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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.

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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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317 Flares Facebook 227 Twitter 46 LinkedIn 23 Pin It Share 10 Google+ 6 Email -- Reddit 4 StumbleUpon 1 Buffer 0 317 Flares ×