What is conscientious feminism?

In July 1992, an international conference on Women in Africa and in the African Diaspora (WAAD) was held in Nigeria. WAAD was a rare incident: an interdisciplinary and international conference about African women in Africa.

The conference, which took place in the Eastern town of Nsukka during an unusually dry week in July (precipitation for this month is normally high in the region) kicked off jubilantly matching the expectations of the excited delegates.

The camaraderie was short lived. On day two of WAAD, July 14, all hell broke lose. Unexpectedly, the programme convenor, professor of women’s and African studies, Obioma Nnaemeka, found herself having to respond to the question of whether or not white women (about one fifth of the circa seven hundred participants) should be able to “present papers on black women’s experiences”. Some delegates felt that white women, guilty of discrimination against black women in their home countries, should not be allowed to take part. The sessions should be a safe space for black women, they argued.

Nnaemeka organised an open session to discuss the issue. A disaster ensued. People broke down: there was weeping, shouting, yelling. The black delegates who had raised the issue threatened that they would not participate if white women did. This in turn led to tension among black women because it was a group of African-American and Black-British women who demanded the exclusion while women from the hosting country vehemently opposed it. Pushing out visitors of whatever race was contrary to Nigerian, Igbo (to be precise), customs, they argued. When the exclusion of a Bulgarian woman married to a Nigerian man was announced, the Nigerian delegates shouted, “No one, black or white, has the right to insult our wife”.

Then suddenly like a rainstorm during a drought, a delegate (of African American heritage) spoke up. Why not have a dialogue between the oppressor and the oppressed, she suggested. Others agreed, the best approach would be to talk openly about racism. The chair of the local organising committee, Julie Okpala, shared in a personal account of the session that “the conflict was resolved by a decision to allow white participants to present their papers” while women of African heritage still got an opportunity to explore their own realities in a separate space. Peace was restored and the conference proceeded, if carefully.

Toxic feminism

NationPieceCompare the WAAD conference to “Feminism’s Online Toxic Wars“, a recent article at The Nation by Michelle Goldberg. In the piece, Goldberg argues, as the title implies, that online feminism has become so toxic it is hurting the movement. The toxicity is blamed on a form of intersectionality that Goldberg calls the “dogma that’s being enforced in online feminist spaces”. While the article is well-written and resonant in parts (I also have taken issue with Check Your Privilege type intersectionality before), it is nevertheless an example of hype. And as Public Enemy said, don’t believe the hype! The politics of feminist solidarity does not hold a black/white binary (as The Nation article disingenuously implies). Yes there is a tiresome trend of finger-pointing among some feminists on Twitter but if Goldberg had eschewed the stylish trickery to instead look equally into representation and visibility it would have become clear that what often seems to be “online trashing” is in fact an outcry similar to the one that occurred in Nsukka in 1992.

So, why do these outcries happen?

The simple answer is because the very device that patriarchy uses to dominate women – namely the dehumanising of them – is too frequently used by influential white women toward other women. We see this in caricature cakes of African women, for example, or in videos by white artists that use black women as tropes. Women of colour remain hurt by negligence to legacies that continue to affect black populations so widely. This is why the Nation piece is divisive, it is a four page article on a reaction with hardly any reference to the cause. It is not the rage and bitterness of racial exclusion that causes outcries but rather the lack of sympathy and outright ambivalence towards it.

Returning to Nsukka briefly, where there is perhaps no right or wrong to be found in the controversy. The conference was not for but about African heritage women so the white participants had every right to be there. On the other hand, the systemic exclusion of black women in the west causes deep, legitimate wounds. The ordeal simply demonstrates how important it is to communicate in order to find solutions.

Conscientious Feminism

And here is where we introduce conscientious feminism!

Conscientious feminism is approaching feminism with meticulous care. It is diligently seeking to understand the structures, attitudes and institutions that oppress women and subsequently finding them intolerable. Period. Not just the oppression of women of one’s race, one’s age, one’s tribe, one’s class. But of ALL women.

This is not the same as everyone getting along. God, no. In fact conscientious feminism is not about group thinking at all. We need fierce debate to move forward. But it is about moving forward rather than getting stuck. Oppression is not banal and we can not behave in banal ways to end it. Conscientious feminism is approaching uncomfortable truths in a complex and careful manner with the goal of empowering all women to be their full selves.

Thoughts? Would love to hear from you!

Update 15/07/2014:  To commemorate with International Women’s Day, this blogpost was expanded for a Media Diversified anthology titled “Complicit No More“. The expanded piece discussed ‘Conscientious Feminism’ in further detail: what it means in theory and practice. It is now available to read on The Huffington Post


  • Harriet

    I had to read the Nation article to get a clear idea of what was going on. In addition to what you have written I have three points to make:
    1. In my experience I find that women have a problem working with one another. I single the problem as the fact that most women find it very hard to accept other women can be different and have different values. This is true in the family setting, work environment or anywhere else. You are made wrong for being who you are, what you value and not being one of us. Yet diversity is life. Women need to find ways of honouring other women and know that this is where you stop this is where I begin
    2. I think that when black women set up meetings about or for women of heritage they need to be mindful of the fact that African women or women of African heritage have wounds. Black women are expected to be ALWAYS accommodating. No we need to be selfish. But first black women need to be honest, willing and take some responsibility to do some serious inner and outer work. There needs to be an effort to allow these women to be vulnerable and talk about their wounds and to also take steps to initiate and create their own articles, discussions, suggestions. Then and only then will something productive be achieved by inviting women of other nationalities and backgrounds to join in and offer their insights
    3. Finally regardless of whether you identify yourself as a feminist or any other label you so choose your wounds will not be healed by these labels or institutions. Going into a cause wounded will only create more wounded people, more drama and more chaos. Do your own inner work. A lot of women who join feminism are rooted in the past and want to stay there. Address the past and learn from it, be self-aware, accept what is going on now then choose to create something that will be worthwhile

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hey Harriet, thanks for sharing. I totally agree regards women having a problem working with one another in diverse groups be they racially diverse or simply of different views. Although I cherish the way that we are generally more democratic and collaborative, I find myself wishing for more women only scenarios where we can vigorously disagree with one another without that leading to hostility.

      Regarding your second point, the great storyteller, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, writes in “Women who dance with the wolves” about oppressed groups and she says that there are three stages to progress: (paraphrasing) struggling, existing and then thriving. To get to thriving we need to indeed do the inner work in particular and to not sacrifice that for anyone or anything. Anger has its benefits but it should be spent carefully.

      You wrote, “…regardless of whether you identify yourself as a feminist or any other label you so choose your wounds will not be healed by these labels or institutions. ” – Spot on! Often, women and men tell me about the reasons they hesitate to call themselves feminist and my reaction us usually that they shouldn’t unless it feels natural. Labels will not heal wounds, create community, mend a broken heart etc in themselves, they are merely tools that can be used. It’s the person behind the label that matters.

      That said, do you call yourself a feminist? Why or why not? 😉

      Enjoyed this comment, thanks!

      • Harriet

        I have never described or labeled myself as a feminist even though people have stuck the label on me more than enough times that I stopped caring. I do know that I enjoy feminist literature. I do know that I have strong objections with women who keep saying the man is the head or the man leads, IT FEELS WRONG to me. I believe a marriage should be a partnership where both can lead according to their strengths. I do know that I dont like working with women because of that hostility you mentioned which is rarely direct and based on personal bias and I am a direct woman and patience is not one of my great virtues.

        • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

          You sound like one to me! 😉
          Jokes aside, hope to see you here again, I appreciate the frankness and welcome discussion and/or debate.

  • Cherise

    Harriet has said it all. Time and time again, Black women prove to be too accommodating. Ironic, being that we are the most excluded. No one pushes to include our images, voices, etc. in any format whether it be fashion or news commentary. Those who have succeeded, like Oprah, have had to fight to overcome barriers, which often include white women.

    Just look at the movie, 12 Years A Slave. As sad a Solomon Northrup’s story was, the most heart wrenching story was that of Patsey, and who was her tormentor? Now, move forward to the 21st century, and ask many, many Black women….if they still do not see a similar face of the opressor.

    The notion that the Nigerian women would claim someone as “our wife”, and dismissed their actual “children” (descendants and distant cousins) is even more heart-breaking, and choose that their minds are still greatly colonized.

    Again…Black women will continue to be mules of the earth, if we do not start making ourselves, our stories, our health and well-being a priority. We need safe spaces to begin this process.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Your point about 12 Years is interesting as a metaphor here. It shows the cruelty of white supremacy and racism and also the gendered nature of oppression.

      I don’t agree that the Nigerian women’s minds were colonised at all. Their attitude was to do with them not being as bruised by living in white supremacy and they were the hosts who had invited everyone who was there. It would be awkward to throw out people that you yourself had invited. As mentioned, it was an African American woman who eventually brought fore the solution and whom I would argue approached the situation conscientiously.

  • Ebele

    Put the question crudely – does racism top feminism? Clearly the Black diaspora women in Nsukka largely felt so, ‘that the politics of feminist solidarity contains a black/white binary’.
    In keeping with this the opening discussion in Nsukka should have been about racism and its impact on feminist solidarity in the West.

    Ps: I have wonderful memories of Professor Nnaemeka. A stylish and charismatic lady.

    • MsAfropolitan

      That would indeed have been a suitable topic. Possibly it was approached later on at the conference or at subsequent ones.
      Lucky you to have studied (?) with prof Nnaemeka :) She is so prolific!

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

    Hello Minna:

    The problem is not the participation of White women at such events, but rather that they tend to occupy center-stage. Not only that, but they end up owning the narrative, charting the discourse and defining the mission. African women (and men too!) end up as props, as museum pieces in some kind of weird, White, anthropological set-piece that bears little resemblance to the lives lived by modern Africans. That’s the problem.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com MsAfropolitan

      Hi James,
      See, I’ve participated in feminist events where white women “occupied” the space and in events where they didn’t. I don’t like to make umbrella judgements about a whole race. That said, I think that a conscientious approach at a diverse event would be to ensure that the topic of diversity is included from the getgo: in the strategy, material, discussion etc. because of course there is a risk that otherwise participants do not become aware of their privileges and positions.

  • Mayowa

    I’m a NIgerian woman and I think Feminism is fundamentally flawed. I wrote about it here: http://weasternmaiden.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/feminism-is-a-mistake/

    Let me know what you think please.