Amina Mama. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
Feminism is broadly defined as the struggle for the liberation of women, and encompasses epistemologies, methodologies, theories, and modes of activism that seek to bring an end to the oppression and subordination of women by men. An individual person espousing feminism is referred to as a feminist, while collective mobilizations of women against the oppression of women are referred to as feminist movements wherever they occur. Feminist movements are defined by their relatively radical gender politics and located as a subgroup within the broader category of women’s movements. Analysts of African women’s movements have documented the mobilization of women by both military and civilian dictatorships (Abdullah; Mama) and by conservative and religious forces within civil society (Lazreg; Badran; Hale; Karam), thus contributing to the theorization of women’s movements by broadening it to include mobilizations of women that may not be liberatory in the sense of bringing an end to the oppression of women.
Even so, the term feminism covers a diverse array of politics centered around the pursuit of more equitable gender relations; this is true of feminism in Africa. However, proper documentation and analysis of the various manifestations of feminism, and the manner in which these have changed over time in different African contexts, is hampered by the lack of access to resources and the limited opportunities for debate, networking, and scholarship grounded in continental contexts. As a result the debate around African feminism and feminism in Africa remains highly contested and difficult to define. Even in the era of nationalism, many African thinkers have rejected the word outright, considering it as “un-African” and derogating “feminists” as sexually unattractive and humorless manhaters, troublemakers, Westernized, and sexually disreputable women who pose a threat to traditional culture and society. Others have displayed varying degrees of acceptance and tolerance, generally around the emancipation and enfranchisement of women, and supporting the inclusion of women in hitherto male-dominated institutions and development. African women have devoted much effort to the redefinition of feminism evident in the plethora of publications generated under the broad rubric of gender and women’s studies carried out in African contexts since the 1980s. Feminist thinkers have done much to excavate the histories of women’s movements in African societies, some even going so far as to argue that Western feminism has derived much of its inspiration from Africa. Since the 1970s, Western anthropological studies of African women have often been invoked (and at times appropriated) to provide evidence that the gender divisions of patriarchal Western societies were neither universal nor immutable, but culturally and socially constructed and therefore changeable.
African feminism draws much of its inspiration from historical, anthropological, and political evidence of African women’s leadership, of women’s mobilizations, and of dynamic and disparate gender relations. The diversity of contemporary African articulations of feminism can be found in a number of periodicals that have carried lengthy discussions on feminism and gender theory. Notable examples include the South African Agenda, “a feminist media project in Africa committed to giving women a forum, a voice and the skills to articulate their needs and interests towards transforming unequal gender relations,” and the continental gender studies journal Feminist Africa, which “seeks to provide a platform for cutting edge, informative and provocative gender work attuned to African agendas … a forum for the publication and dissemination of high-quality feminist scholarship in African contexts.”
These publications address the contemporary development of feminist thought in African contexts, locating it within the challenging economic, political, and cultural conditions that have given rise to a plethora of feminist struggles, ideas, and scholarship.
The conditions giving rise to feminism in Africa include the history of colonial rule and imperialism, women’s involvement in nationalist struggles, and other social movements. Contemporary manifestations of feminist consciousness owe much to the particular and persistent harshness of the conditions under which most African women still live, conditions that in the early twenty-first century are widely being attributed to contemporary economic and political regimes, and the fascination with cultural restoration that many societies display when it comes to gender relations. While there are many feminist thinkers who valorize and defend aspects of African cultures, the majority are critical of the many patriarchal and abusive practices that Africans often justify in defense of “culture.” Meanwhile, African cultures continue to be assailed by a complex combination of forces far more powerful than African feminist movements.
Feminist thinkers often draw inspiration from the history of women’s leadership roles in African societies, citing examples of women who ruled kingdoms and led wars of conquest since the earliest epochs of human civilization. Most often cited are the seventh-century Berber queen known as the Kahina of the Maghreb, the ninth-century Magajiyas of Daura, the legendary sixteenth-century Queen Amina of Zazzau, the nineteenth-century Nzinga of Angola, and Nehanda of Zimbabwe. These examples illustrate that African women leaders exercised their authority—often in the distinctly feminine styles of their times—in a manner that spanned spiritual, political, and military realms, and that has served to inspire feminist ideas all over the world.
The cultural complexity and dynamism of a region in which so many cultures coexisted and interacted with one another throughout the ages has given rise to quite disparate, at times idiosyncratic, gender relations and philosophies. There is little commonality between the complex and contradictory gender cultures expressed in Yoruba, Somali, Hausa, or Egyptian oral poetry, yet all of them are African, and all are rooted in conditions and contexts that are African in the sense of having been generated and inspired on the continent.
Women’s movements on the African continent reflect the gendered cultural, social, and political organization of the numerous African societies in which they are located. There is enough evidence to suggest that African history is replete with diverse examples of mobilization against women’s oppression, even though these have often been omitted by historians (Zeleza). Many of these at times phenomenal movements defy a simple definition of feminism. The available evidence suggests that women’s movements in Africa reflect the traditions of organization that have characterized spiritual and material life in Africa as far back as recorded history goes. Few would seriously challenge the idea that gender differentiation has been a key feature of social, cultural, and political life all over the continent as far back as records can be found. Accordingly, African women have long been organized around lineage and kinship groupings, and around women’s religious, cultural, and political duties and their productive and reproductive roles. The record also shows that these existing organizations were sporadically activated to defend women’s interests.
Kenyan women were organized in mumikanda (work parties) and in various social and welfare groups—ngwatio among the Kikuyu-speaking communities, and mwethya among the Kamba-speaking communities. In Nigeria, Igbo women were organized as in various patrilineage wives and daughters associations, and governed through women’s councils. Such networks of women collectively imposed sanctions on husbands who erred (the practice of “sitting on a man”), and proved capable of instigating widespread civil disturbances when they found their interests being compromised. The early-twentieth-century example of the Nwabiola Dancing Women’s Movement in colonial Igboland (Eastern Nigeria) illustrates the manner in which apparently conservative organizational forms could become militantly activist when women saw their interests being threatened (Mba). All across West Africa business has long been conducted through market women’s associations and trading networks that were periodically activated in defense of women’s economic interests, and at times their political interests.
As colonialism gained ground, some of the earlier women’s associations and groups were redirected by missionary groups and colonial governments, often through volunteers with a degree of Western education. These modern “women’s clubs” were often designed to “civilize” and “uplift” African women, usually by instilling western European ideologies of domesticity and offering training in related skills (Tranberg Hansen). Domestication notwithstanding, it is clear that African women exercised enough agency to deploy whatever skills they acquired in innovative ways that empowered them and laid the ground for future involvement in national public life. Examples of women’s groups coming together as larger bodies include the Mother’s Union and the Catholic Women’s Clubs of Uganda, the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies, the National Council of Women of Kenya, and the Association of Women’s Clubs in Zimbabwe. When nationalist movements gained momentum, seemingly conventional women’s groups and associations—charitable and welfare groups, mother’s groups, and market women’s associations—often directed their energies in support of nationalist goals. The Convention People’s Party led by Kwame Nkrumah was among those nationalist movements that benefited substantially from the support of women—in this case the market women of Ghana.
Many of the women who later became leading educators, activists, and politicians were initially involved in the women’s clubs of the colonial era, among them Margaret Ekpo of Nigeria, Agatha Constance Cummings-John of Sierra Leone, Mable Dove-Danquah of Ghana, and Gertrude Kabwasingo of Uganda. The more radical among these women—most of whom were elite and educated women—mobilized across the class lines too, as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti did with such success. Ransome-Kuti was a key player in the Abeokuta Women’s Union, which mobilized to oust an oppressive alake(chief) in 1948. In the ensuing decades she became a leading national political figure identified with nationalist, socialist, and feminist causes (Johnson-Odim and Mba). Ransome-Kuti’s life is illustrative of African women’s vibrant and militant history of resistance to colonial rule and imperialism and highlights the key roles that women activists played in nationalist movements all over the region, long before the second wave of feminism emerged in the Western world. Well-documented examples of more overtly political women’s movements include those of Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Algeria, Mozambique, and the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa.
Some were chapters for women in the existing nationalist structures (for example, SWAPO Women’s League, ZANU Women’s League) or women’s battalions in the nationalist militia (for example, the Algerian women in the FLN, the Frelimo Women’s Brigade convened by Josina Machel, the short-lived women’s detachment in the National Resistance Movement [NRM], or the women fighters said to make up 30 percent of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front). Other political women’s organizations derived from party organs but broke away out of frustration, at times to pursue feminist agendas more overtly, as was the case with the Egyptian Feminist Union that broke away from the Egyptian Wafdist Party under the leadership of Huda Sharaawi. In an unspecifiable number of cases, women established new kinds of organizations with varying degrees of autonomy.
The relationships between women’s organizations and patriarchal states has continued to present ongoing challenges for feminist thinkers. The attainment of national independence during the 1960s saw the earlier traditions of organizing continue alongside the establishment of new and more modern manifestations of feminism, both within and outside government. At critical moments in the history of feminism in Africa, these different levels of mobilization have coalesced broader movements to pursue shared goals or platforms.
Overall, post-independence feminism in Africa has been characterized by an emphasis on the state, as women have directed their demands for legal and policy reforms at their governments. While this has resulted in substantial legal and policy reforms in a great many countries, to the extent that formal exclusions have largely been removed from the statute books, feminist policy analysts have found cause to be critical of a lack of serious or concerted efforts to implement and sustain these reforms.
The state has often responded to feminist demands by creating a designated bureaucratic structure, in keeping with the United Nations call on member states to set up a government machinery for women and to include gender considerations in policies and projects.
Feminist analysts have found cause to remain critical of such government initiatives, especially where governments themselves have not been legitimate or democratic. In the context of the Nigerian military dictatorship, the high-profile gender activism on behalf of the regime has been characterized as “state feminism” (Mama, 1995), or “state pseudo-feminism” (Abdullah). More broadly, the deployment of women as functionaries in untransformed state bureaucracies has been characterized as “femocratic.” While this has meant a significant increase in the number of women within government in South Africa, in less-than-democratic African contexts state-driven initiatives on women have often involved the wives of the ruling elite in a manner that lacks public legitimacy, a phenomenon referred to as “first-ladyism” (Mama, 1995). First ladies who are well known for their role in mobilizing women to support and legitimize despotic regimes include Mama Ngina of Kenya, Maryam Babangida and Mariam Abacha of Nigeria, and Nana Konadu-Rawlings of Ghana.
The national machinery has taken various institutional forms, ranging from small desks within mainstream organs to whole ministries or commissions with intersectoral mandates. However, there is evidence to suggest that while state structures may have sought to co-opt women into the task of nation-statehood, they have not been as effective in pursing feminist agendas and interests even when these have been clearly and, at times assertively, articulated.
The most elaborate of these is in South Africa, where there is a complex set of structures comprising an Office on the Status of Women within the president’s office, a Commission for Gender Equality, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Quality of Life, and Status of Women and gender desks in all major national and provincial structures. The efficacy of these has been constrained by both resource and capacity limitations. These appear to have led to a persistent gap between gender policy commitments and their realization in practice, leaving most women marginalized and subordinated. Many of the gains that might have accrued to women as a result of policy commitments to more equitable service delivery and fairer representation in the public sphere have been undermined by global shifts away from public provision of services and cutbacks in public sector employment.
Despite its diversity, feminist activism in Africa in the early twenty-first century can probably be defined by its relative autonomy from the state, and the expansion and spread of numerous kinds of organizations within and across borders. While much African feminist activism continues to focus on lobbying and making demands on the state, the limited gains in recent decades have seen many activists preferring to work from outside, rather than within the state. This explains the proliferation of organizations and networks that do not derive any support from government. The growth of feminist thinking within African universities reflects the increase in the overall numbers of women attaining higher levels of education and becoming less likely to passively accept the subordinate positions that African societies continue to arrogate to women. While there has been an increase in the number of women pursuing political careers, only a minority pursue explicitly feminist agendas, and there is a growing consensus over the need for strong autonomous women’s movements to push feminist agendas in and beyond the sphere of government.
The Zimbabwean women’s movement is a good example of this shift. While the new state established a women’s bureau and opened up some space for legal and policy reforms, it was only a few years before key activists left government to establish independent organizations, among them the Women’s Action Group and the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network. The Women’s Action Group was formed to resist the widespread victimization of women during Operation Clean-up in the early 1980s. The Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre’s key role in supporting the formation of a coalition of women’s organizations to intervene in the constitutional drafting process and the Land Lobby in the 1990s is illustrative of this capacity for autonomous activism. The increasingly oppressive nature of the regime of President Robert Mugabe has also had negative effects on the women’s movement and has created a new degree of reticence that did not characterize the same movement five years earlier.
In South Africa the Women’s National Coalition (WNC) marked a high point in South African feminism. Formed during the negotiations that culminated in the coming to power of the African National Congress (ANC), the WNC carried out nationwide consultations and produced the National Women’s Charter and ensured women a high level of participation in the emerging polity. However, the institutionalization of gender within the state apparatus has become identified as a source of concern, as independent activism has largely subsided since then, allowing for a slowing down of change, despite the proliferation of “gender desks” within government.
The uptake of gender matters within the state has seldom led to radical changes, although it has seen incremental increases in the number of women in government in many countries. Analysts frequently point to the importance of more autonomous mobilizations that can continue to lobby and advocate for change.
Despite the limits encountered within state-focused activism, the 1990s were also years of growth and diversification for feminist activism across the region, as evidenced in the number of independent organizations and networks espousing feminist causes. The best known national and subregional organizations include the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP), the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network, Baobab and Gender and Development Action in Nigeria, the Nairobi-based FEMNET, and the Women and Law in Southern Africa network based in Harare. Various branches of international women’s organizations like the Federation of International Democratic Advocates (FIDA), the Soroptimists, and the numerous church-related and Islamic women’s organizations also deserve to be mentioned.
There is also a trend toward greater specialization in organizations, as more have taken on a sectoral focus, or have been established to pursue work in a defined field. Specific organizations have addressed matters that cover the full range: domestic violence, legal rights, education, health and sexuality, reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, militarization, peace-building, housing and land, cultural and religious practices, female genital mutilation. These are just some of the areas being addressed by women’s movements in different parts of Africa.
More recently African feminists are deploying information and communication technologies in highly innovative and radical ways, as evidenced by the activism of a number of electronically-based networks, notably ISIS-WICCE, GAIN, GENNET, and the Feminist Studies Network.
However, autonomous movements of the 1980s have often been replaced or displaced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) primarily charged with the delivery of specific funded projects. NGOs differ from women’s movements in being usually small in scale, urban-based, often sectorally specialized, and reliant on external funding. The NGO reliance on donor funding, while ensuring space for gender activism to continue in increasingly resource-starved environments, is increasingly viewed as compromising the capacity for autonomous feminist activism. Critics variously describe this as the “projectization” or “NGO-ization” of feminist movements, drawing attention to the manner in which even limited funding can have divisive and fragmenting effects, and lead to the reintroduction of conventional hierarchical structures and the neutralization of feminist agendas. It is this complicated scenario that leads African feminist Sisonke Msimang to write
I am part of a new generation of young African feminists whose entrance into “the movement” has been marked by feminist engagement in ways that are distinctly new. Many of us are feminists by profession and our “experience” and analysis comes from having worked on projects that employ the terminology of Gender and Development. We enter the arena of activism not necessarily through struggles specifically geared towards women’s liberation, but through a complicated route that often involves the technical jargon of Gender and development and human rights. (p. 54)
With the democratization of politics in many African countries, women have continued to mobilize, demanding greater participation in political life, a concern reflected in the Beijing platform of 1995. In doing so they have also challenged the patriarchal biases of the political establishment, its militaristic culture, and the fact that large sums of money are necessary to the pursuit of political careers. Feminist politicians who have held seats in parliament have often found themselves profoundly challenged on key issues such as militarism, HIV/AIDS, land, and financial corruption, and in situations that have left them unsupported by the political mainstream. More commonly, they are simply not taken seriously by their male counterparts, as Sylvia Tamale’s insightful study of women in the Ugandan parliament indicates.
Well-known feminist thinkers who have played prominent roles in political and intellectual debates throughout the 1970s and 1980s include Nawal El Sadaawi (Egypt), Zenebewerke Tadesse (Ethiopia), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Fatou Sow (Senegal), Bolanle Awe (Nigeria), Patricia MacFadden (Swaziland), Ifi Amadiume (Nigeria), Ruth Meena (Tanzania), and Fatma Allo (Zanzibar). In terms of organizations, the establishment in 1977 of the Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) marked the growing assertiveness of African feminists. The founding workshop set out to establish a continent-wide network of scholars dedicated to undertaking research from an African and gender perspective. The declared mission of AAWORD includes two clearly feminist commitments: to analyze and transform gender relations and social conditions in Africa; and to build a powerful African women’s movement linking human rights to the theory and practice of development.
During the 1980s AAWORD was joined by several other research and documentation centers, notably the Women’s Research and Documentation Centre (WORDOC) at the University of Ibadan, set up by a group of Nigerian academics that included the historian Bolanle Awe, and the Women’s Research and Documentation Project (WRDP) at the University of Dar Es Salaam initiated by Tanzanian academics.
The 1990s saw a continuing proliferation of documentation centers and gender and women’s studies units on African campuses, as well as several new initiatives to bring these together through research and networking activities. In pursuing an initiative designed to network and strengthen the work of scholars in gender and women’s studies working in African institutions, the African Gender Institute (itself formed in 1996) was able to identify as many as thirty such sites in Africa’s 316 universities, with several others still being established (Boswell, 2002). The scholarly output in the field of gender studies, much of which bears the influence of feminist thinking, has also increased rapidly, as several recent reviews indicate (Mama, 1995; Lewis).
The expansion of the field appears to be continuing in the early twenty-first century, despite the apparently unfavorable context offered by Africa’s beleaguered universities, most of which remain extremely resistant to the idea of feminism and offer very limited institutional support to gender and women’s studies, teaching, and research (Feminist Africa). A core concern reflected in both AAWORD and the African Gender Institute is the commitment to bring critical reflection and political activism together for the benefit of women. Intellectual activism is intrinsic to feminism worldwide, but in African contexts it has raised unique challenges because of the particular salience afforded to “gender planning” and “gender mainstreaming” in the international development discourses that have such profound effects on the region.
Feminism in the African Diaspora
Diasporan feminism is rooted in the historical experience of enslavement and racism, so it challenges the oppression of women within the relations of racism that still curtail the prospects of black people located in Western contexts.
African diasporan thinkers in the United States have therefore developed feminist thinking that maintains the centrality of racism in black women’s experience. In the United States these include Angela Davis’s book Woman, Race and Class (1982) and bell hooks’s Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and the Politics of Feminism (1982). Literary works that illustrate changing African-American feminist perspectives include the well-known work of writers such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lourde, June Jordan, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker, all of whom have had an influence far beyond the United States.
In the European diaspora, the debate on black feminism opened up in the early 1980s with the publication of Hazel Carby’s article. Caribbean and black European feminist thinkers have since produced a body of feminist thought that incorporates antiracist and anti-imperialist perspectives, while displaying a sensitivity to class oppression (Amos and Parmar; Grewal et al.). Julia Sudbury’s Other Kinds of Dreams: Black Women’s Organisations and the Politics of Transformation (1998) presents an overview of the British black feminism that emerged out of the black struggles against racism and state harassment carried out within the predominantly working-class Caribbean, African, and Asian communities during the 1980s.
The history of feminism in the Caribbean diaspora is also rooted in antislavery and antiracist movements, with its contemporary manifestations typifying postcolonial struggles around identity and difference, while pursuing feminist agendas of antiviolence activism, and responses to sexual exploitation and global economic development, to name only some of the various fronts (Reddock; Mohammed; Antrobus; Barriteau). The Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Activism (CAFRA) and the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies have played key roles in articulating and internationalizing Caribbean feminism.
African and African diaspora women concerned with emphasizing the distinctiveness of African legacies and not always wishing to be identified with feminists in the Western world have improvised a number of alternative terms. Womanismis a term attributed to the African-American writer Alice Walker and adopted by some South African and Nigerian writers, while others prefer the term motherism. Catherine Achonulu advocates motherism, while Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie advocates stiwanism, to denote commitment to the social transformation involving women of Africa (stiwa). The more pragmatic term gender activism has been increasingly deployed by women activists working in development organizations, where policy demands require expertise in gender, but the term feminism is considered too political.
While it may be hard to discern a unified and coherent feminist movement in many African countries given the complexity of gender politics and the disparate influences of the state, local, and international development agencies and diverse women’s movements, it is clear that African women have been able to come together as a powerful force at key historical moments in various countries during the recent historical period. Feminist thought continues to evolve on the African continent and to maintain links with women located in various Western countries, not least because conditions on the continent ensure that continental feminists often find themselves in the diaspora.