Page 1

THE WIDE MARGIN

FEMINIST WHILE AFRICAN

1


2

THE WIDE MARGIN

DEBUT ISSUE

FEMINIST WHILE AFRICAN

The Wide Margin is for African feminisms by African feminists. A space on the internet, vast as it is, is as good as any other, to be claimed and filled with our feminisms. We write and read African feminism because we must.�

Editor in Chief - Varyanne Sika


THE WIDE MARGIN

CONTENTS CONTRIBUTORS Feminist While African (Editorial) The Political is Personal by Sara Salem African Woman Seeks Feminism for Survival by Nyaboe Makiya Liberation is not UnAfrican by Cera Njagi My Sister’s Keeper by Varyanne Sika Voice Consciousness by Felicity Akoth The Right Kind of African Woman by Livoi Wendo Unfemiliar Territory Chapter 1 (Illustration) by Narobidhobi

Cover Art / Image Hazel Belvo Design & Layout Zack Adell. Illustrations Naddya Oluoch, Nairobidhobi.

Cera Njagi is a feminist and policy research officer. She enjoys debating and sharing feminist ideas on her blog with an aim to transform complex academic debates on feminism, gender and other social-cultural issues into relatable, accessible and relevant arguments. Felicity Okoth is an a part time lecturer at Moi University in the departments of Political Science and Communication Studies. She is interested subjects raging from socio-economic integration of immigrant women in the society, social citizenship, to the deconstruction of intersectionality in feminism. Sara Salem runs the blog ‘Neocolonial Thoughts‘ and is currently doing a PhD in Political Economy. She’s into postcolonialism, Marxism, feminism and other conspiracies. She loves Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty, Lila abu Lughod and Joan Scott. Also Foucault, Fanon, Gramsci and Edward Said. And cupcakes. And cake. Carrot cake especially. And ice cream. Livoi Wendo is a purveyor of feminist musings and debate. She makes good tacos and bad chapatis.

3


4

THE WIDE MARGIN

01

FEMINIST WHILE AFRICAN By - The Wide Margin Editors

In the past decade, there has been a tremendous amount of work done in articulating feminism in Africa and the global South. In the past 5 years, in particular, feminist discourse has exploded on­ line (on websites, blogs, journals) and especially on social media as well as in the street. In Kenya, for instance, there is vigorous debate about gender based violence, homosexuality, the policing of women, and women in pop­culture (e.g. in discussions about music videos by, say, Elani, Sauti Sol, Kalekye; television shows like Tujuane​in Kenya​, How​to Find a Husband​; the rise of the socialite as a publicly visible figure of female sexual expression and autonomy; voluble and visible campaigns such as #WhenWomenSpeak, #MyBodyMyHome, #MyDressMyChoice, #BringBackOurGirls).

Women and feminist­-allied men are continuously positively discussing policy and legislative issues affecting women as well as the labour of living with everyday sexism. The growth of Nollywood and African television and cinema has provided an important trove of cultural production which remains relatively untouched by African feminist discourse. Recent novels like the Folio Prize nominated, Dust,​ by Caine Prize winner, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya), Kintu​ ​, by Commonwealth Prize winner, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda), Americanah​ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, are written with fierce female voices and imagine new ways of African women inhabiting the modern world. The Feminist​Africa journal, founded by Amina Mama, remains a cornerstone in African feminist organizing and thinking.


THE WIDE MARGIN

5


6

THE WIDE MARGIN

The Wide Margin’s inaugural issue seeks to imagine living a feminist life while African, thinking and creating through and beyond the work already done by the many feminists working in East Africa, and Africa as a whole as well as its diaspora.

‘What is it that African women and men mean and aspire to when they say “I am a feminist”? What misgivings, and perhaps misunderstandings, about feminism, are revealed when people refuse or reject feminism?’

Feminism has often been distorted or co­opted by media, by religion, by capitalism, and by patriarchy. Many Africans avoid associating themselves with feminism. The claim that feminist ideals and projects “are not our culture” is often parroted as a stodgy excuse to disengage with feminism. But, as shown in Silence​ is a Woman by Wambui Mwangi, ‘Transversal​ Politics’ by Nira Yuval­ Davis, We​ Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others, the concept of “culture” is fraught, and, while often in an antagonistic patriarchal relationship with women’s lives, culture also provides an archive and site of articulation for women’s trans­generational quests for sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and pleasure.

The popular spaces (our national newspapers and dailies, lifestyle magazines, mainstream television) where we could explore feminism are ridden with superficialities, silences, and erasures which perpetuate sexism, or they are inaccessible to those who would reform them.


THE WIDE MARGIN

How then should we subvert the popular sexist ways of discussing women and feminism and advance the growing interest in talking and thinking about women beyond gender stereotypes? How should we advance thinking about feminism in Africa? What are the issues with which younger feminists are grappling? What new frontiers of African feminism are becoming visible even as the old struggles continue? “Feminist While African” explores how we (Africans) have come to understand feminism, how we are involved (or not) in feminism, how we interact with feminism, and how we have learned and continue to learn about feminism. The Wide Margin is pleased to publish its inaugural issue: “Feminist While African” with contributions from a few feminists to whom feminism in Africa is important to think, talk and write about. In this issue, the Wide Margin explores a diverse range of perspectives on learning, (mis)understanding and practicing feminism; from embracing our defiance of how we are expected to be, to how we became to be feminists, to how we relate to each other as feminists.

‘We are here to occupy space, to increase the number of feminist voices from the continent, and to tell other young feminists in Africa, ‘you are not alone’.

END

7


8

THE WIDE MARGIN

02

THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL By - Sara Salem

The personal is political has become one of the most famous feminist slogans, created to confound the notion that what happens in the home is detached from what happens in the so-called public sphere. Over time feminists have used it to address a whole array of questions related to gender relations, patriarchy (Hanisch 1970, 2006), and race (Lorde 1979, 1984). I use the personal is political to show how it has been personal experiences and events that have led me to feminism. However, there is not a straight line between my ‘personal life’ and my becoming a feminist; often, it was my feminist convictions that impacted my ‘personal life.’


THE WIDE MARGIN

9


10

THE WIDE MARGIN

‘I put ‘personal life’ within quotations because I do not see a clear distinction between my personal and political life; the two are extremely porous. I believe the converse, the political is personal, is an even stronger testament to feminist history.’

The varieties of feminism as well as the feminist issues that I am most interested in today, it seems, are completely divergent from the questions I had five or ten years ago; and yet, without the questions I had five or ten years ago, I would never have arrived at this point, now. Today, the questions that most interest me about feminism are centred around three areas: transnational feminism, feminism and class, and feminism and women. Each can be traced to specific events and experiences in my own life that led me to look at gender relations in specific ways. These questions and experiences are intertwined with other questions and experiences, and often contradict one another. Rather than attempt to outline a chronology, I will take each area by itself and try to trace a trajectory in my thinking. My aim is not to simply present an individualistic account of my feminist journey, but rather to highlight some of the broader debates within feminism, that continue until today, that have been central to many feminists, and that are therefore key to any feminist movement.

TRANSNATIONAL FEMINISM My father is Egyptian, my mother is Dutch, and I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Lusaka, Zambia. Since then, I have spent a total of seven years living in Egypt, three in the Netherlands, and one in the United States.


THE WIDE MARGIN

On the one hand, this has meant that there is a feeling of weightlessness when it comes to nationality and ethnicity—a feeling of not really being tied down to one place, or being from one place. On the other hand, it has also meant a very acute awareness of the role of the nation, the state, ethnicity, race, and geography. The feeling of weightlessness has often been a negative experience that has led me to place unduly high value on national belonging. Related to this is the role of language: coming from an English-speaking home and having been educated in British schools, I think and articulate myself using English, the language with which I have become most comfortable. Over time, I have become intensely aware of what this means for my involvement in feminist projects in Egypt and the Netherlands, or more concretely, the limits that this places on my understanding of gender issues in diverse societies.

Recently, these feelings—of weightlessness and that I don’t really know any one context well enough to represent it or work to change it, that my knowledge of different languages is not as deep as it could be—continuously drive me to re-evaluate the role I see for myself in feminist activism and scholarship in Egyptian, Dutch, or Zambian contexts. Here the work of postcolonial feminists has been crucial to my conception of myself as limited in terms of offering a feminist analysis of certain spaces. The first time I read Chandra Mohanty’s Under Western Eyes (1988) I remember thinking: yes, this makes sense! For a long time, I had internalized liberal (white) feminist notions of what gender justice meant: equality, allowing women the choice to be like men through adopting more ‘masculine’ traits, a focus on legal reform, the right to work, the right to education, and so on. Along with this came a view of men that did not see them as similarly affected by patriarchy, but more as an enemy that needs to be attacked. I know where I got these ideas from: from my British education (where the curriculum did not teach Zambian history, languages, culture, geography or anything remotely connected to the actual place in which we were); from the media and literature to which I was exposed (from Jane Austen to Hollywood movies);

11


12

THE WIDE MARGIN

and from my community (made up of many Western expats and Zambians from a certain class, a result of overt race and class segregation in most post-colonies). And yet these ideas never struck me as a specific ideology or worldview; they were natural and common sense. The moment I began to be exposed to ‘alternative’ ideas of feminism, from postcolonial feminism to Black feminism, I got the shock of my life. Many writings have been key here, from the work of Angela Davis to bell hooks, Nawal el Saadawi to Fatima Mernissi, and Chandra Mohanty to Gayatri Spivak. Although I have come to disagree with some of these writers, there is no doubt that without having had access to these formative texts, my feminist journey would have been very different.

The main inspiration that came from these writings revolved around the key idea that patriarchy was not simply about men oppressing women. “Intersectionality” has now become a buzzword, but this is precisely what these writers have shown for decades now: that women are oppressed by many different interlocking social structures. Angela Davis’ Women, Race, Class (2011) was essential here, as was Gayatri Spivak’s focus on nation and imperialism (1988). Nawal el Saadawi (2005), writing about Egypt, clearly shows the connections between capitalism, impe rialism, and patriarchy, and Mohanty demonstrates how liberal (white) feminism has managed to elide all of these complexities and write a very different story, where all women are assumed to be white, Western, and middle class, and where all men oppress women in the same way. The question of patriarchy and men was another learning moment: the concept that patriarchy is a structure that affects men adversely was something I saw articulated very well in the work of Black feminists. Their arguments stemmed from the fact that in places like the US, women suffered more at the hands of racism and capitalism than simply at the hands of ‘men.’ Moreover, the conditions in which marginalized groups lived served to exacerbate patriarchal violence and therefore feminists saw the need to target these structural conditions, and not merely rely on notions of men as aggressors and women as victims. Conceptions of Black men as aggressors also served to further racist notions of Black male violence, notions which Black feminists were wary of reproducing. This resonated with me, as it was what I felt about patriarchy in the postcolonial contexts of Zambia and Egypt.


THE WIDE MARGIN

It seemed too simplistic to tell a story entirely about men as aggressors and women as victims as this ignored a whole host of structures implicated in patriarchy. I slowly realized that this was not a mistake or something that liberal (white) feminists had overlooked; rather it was a specific outcome of the very theoretical and material structures that gave birth to liberal feminism. In other words, liberal (white) feminists benefitted from the global structure of inequality, and were therefore often unlikely to be aware of, or able to critique, the very relations constituting this structure.

Given all of these divergences, the question that remains pertinent to me today is whether a transnational feminist movement is possible. It is clear that there are very strong dividing lines between various strands of feminism, and that they cannot be overcome simply with calls to dialogue or pluralism, both liberal ideas to begin with. The very real material differences between women around the world are one of the main reasons solidarity remains untenable. Rather than analyzing these differences through the lens of privilege—which has become extremely popular—I believe it is more productive to look at these differences from the perspective of structures and representations. Indeed it seems to me that as feminists, our goal should be to dismantle these very structures and representations that produce divisions between women (and men) rather than to simply focus on patriarchy. Patriarchy as a structure is not isolated but rather co-constituted by other structures such as race, religion, and so on. All of these structures are conditioned by the capitalist moment we are in. Similarly, representations are intrinsically tied to more than one structure, and therefore cannot be analyzed separately from them or from one another. The way Egyptian women are represented in a given text or film, for example, is connected to the economic, to the political, to the social, and so on. The picture is therefore complex with regards to transnational feminism. It is not simply about, for example, white feminists recognizing their privilege they have racially; it is about the very structures producing that privilege and the question of how to dismantle it.

13


14

THE WIDE MARGIN

CLASS POLITICS There is little doubt that growing up in Zambia and later living in Egypt—both previous British colonies, although Egypt was more of a protectorate while Zambia was a full-fledged colony—made it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore questions of class. My own class privilege also played a big role, as it attuned me to how feminist movements in African contexts are often dominated by middle and upper class women (and men) and that this can easily result in paternalism. However, including class in my analysis did not necessarily mean focusing on capitalism, and to this day I am wary of analysis that claims to do class analysis but that takes class as simply designating income or socioeconomic indicators. My exposure to Marxist approaches to the question of capitalism happened during my MA degree at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. As an institute, it is an extremely critical space where critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism were commonplace. It was during my time there that I became acquainted with neoclassical and Keynesian approaches to economics, as well as Marxism. I went through the same process with neoclassical economics that I had gone through with liberal feminism: the initial shock that what I had thought was common sense was in fact one approach of understanding the economy among many others, followed by an increasing attraction to historical materialism. Another crucial development that attuned me to the question of capitalism was the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Here was an event, taking place in a society that had undergone significant neoliberalization over the past few decades, and yet much of the analysis was silent on the question of capitalism and Egypt’s position within the global economy. Here again I saw the difference between work that looked at ‘class’ simplistically, and work that instead looked at capitalism and class. It struck me as absurd that Egypt could be analyzed separately from the global system. This again comes from my experiences of living in both Zambia and Egypt, and the similarities I saw between them. The British had colonized both, and both countries had their economies restructured to facilitate the export of precious raw materials; cotton in the case of Egypt and copper in the case of Zambia. In the words of Frantz Fanon:


THE WIDE MARGIN

‘ Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country’s industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty, or at all events sinks into it more deeply,’ (1963, 7)

Both Egypt and Zambia suffered from a native bourgeoisie subservient to global capital, which claimed to represent nationalist sentiments but did little more than reproduce imperialism. Fanon described this bourgeoisie and how thoroughly damaging they are to any goals of independence. He has written, for example, that ‘[t]he national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner,’ (Ibid., 152153). In considering these two major similarities between the two countries, I saw that there is an international division of labour, determined by capitalism, that is both heavily racialized and heavily gendered. Connecting this to the Netherlands, I saw that the Dutch people could not have the standard of living they did unless people in the Global South experienced drastic amounts of poverty and deprivation. All these were connected; and it seemed that Marxists were, thus far, the most astute at analyzing these global connections. Here, the most important writer who influenced me has been Samir Amin, an Egyptian Marxist who has worked on capitalism and imperialism (1974, 1979, 1980); another is Patrick Bond, whose work I discovered very recently. Bond’s writing on South Africa and Zimbabwe from a Marxist perspective resonated with my own experiences in Zambia and Egypt (2000, 2003).

15


16

THE WIDE MARGIN

All of this led me to the inevitable question of feminism and capitalism. Here I have found a field that has posed perhaps the most important critique of liberal feminism. The centering of class has meant that liberal assumptions about what constitutes gender equality—the right to work, for example—have been thoroughly critiqued. Silvia Federici has written that,

‘The women’s movement must realize that work is not liberation. Work in a capitalist system is exploitation and there is no pleasure, pride, or creativity in being exploited. Even the “career” is an illusion as far as self-fulfillment is concerned. What is rarely acknowledged is that most career-type jobs require that you exert power over other people, often other women, and this deepens the divisions between us,’ (2012, 57).’

Despite the strong critical trend within Marxist feminism, there have been questions raised about its Eurocentrism. However, I have found the work of Federici, James, and Davis illuminating as excellent examples of how a theory developed within Europe can provide conceptual tools that can be used elsewhere. Indeed, the strong focus on imperialism and its connections to patriarchy across the globe have allowed some Marxist feminists to move beyond Eurocentrism. Silvia Federici, for example, has provided excellent analyses of patriarchy and capitalism at the global scale: ‘There is a tendency to view the problems women face internationally as a matter of “human rights” and privilege legal reform as the primary means of governmental intervention. This approach however fails to challenge the international economic order that is the root cause of the new forms of exploitation to which women are subject. Also the campaign against violence against women, that has taken off in recent years, has centered on rape and domestic violence, along the lines set by the United Nations.


THE WIDE MARGIN

It has ignored the violence inherent in the process of capitalist accumulation that, through the ’80s and ’90s, have cleared the way to economic globalization,’ (2012, 66). It seems to me that many Eurocentric Marxist feminists have also been able to address critiques they have received from Black feminists, among others. In Michele Barrett’s classic book, The Marxist Feminist Encounter (2014), she admits in her updated preface that she had been wrong in her conceptualization of the family as a space that was oppressive by default . Following critiques from Black British feminists, who argued that for them the family was not an oppressive space but rather one within which women recovered from racism from the state, Barrett realized that racism complicated assumptions many European Marxists had taken for granted. Similarly, the Italian Marxist feminists associated with autonomous Marxism, such as Maria Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, drew extensively on critiques they received from Black and postcolonial feminists about some of their Eurocentric assumptions (Bohrer 2014). What has been refreshing has been the incorporation of these critiques as a way of expanding the critical potential of Marxist feminism.

FEMINISM AND THE WOMAN QUESTION Feminist approaches that look at gender relations as a whole have been more inspiring to my own journey than those that take women as the center of analysis. It is not a question of denying the presence of patriarchy in African contexts, nor the destructive gender dynamics it produces, but by focusing on patriarchy as though it is something only affecting women, we not only obscure masculinities and gender relations, but we also de-emphasise how patriarchy, as a social structure, is part and parcel of other social structures, from capitalism to racism. Precisely because of these issues, I am finding it increasingly difficult to write about ‘Egyptian women’ or ‘African women.’ Indeed, it is even difficult to write about ‘gender in Egypt.’ Because once this becomes an essentialised sphere of knowledge, it is difficult to come to a complex understanding of how gender and patriarchy reproduce, and how we can undo them.

17


18

THE WIDE MARGIN

Recent work that has used ethnography has been useful in showing how gender is created through femininities and masculinities, as well as how men are also affected by capitalism, nationalism, and other social categories. Farha Ghannam’s Live and die like a man: gender dynamics in urban Egypt (2013) has been a favourite of mine. She clearly shows, for example, that neoliberalization has had extremely adverse impacts on Egyptian men and how this has affected notions of masculinity. The point is not to detract from the fact that patriarchy benefits all men—albeit to different extents—but rather that it is also a structure that oppresses all men. Gender justice will therefore come about through the elimination of patriarchy, not simply the empowering of women.

Reflecting on the question of ‘women’ and feminism began when I was thinking of what I wanted to write for my PhD dissertation. I had just finished an MA on gender and development, and it was a year after the Egyptian revolution. My instinct was to focus on gender and the revolution. I wanted to ‘do gender’ and understand ‘gender and the 2011 Egyptian revolution.’ But this soon began to feel like I was analyzing only part of a story. I chose to do something different: focus on the revolution as a political economic event that needs to be contextualized and historicized. Instead of taking gender or women as my subject, I have taken the event itself as a subject and have been using feminist tools to analyze it. It has been difficult and trying, and yet I think this is definitely one way forward to move away from the tendencies to understand events only by looking at the role of women in them.

Of course this is not new. I have been fascinated with how some feminist scientists have taken feminist methodologies and applied them in science, which has led to groundbreaking research (Martin 1991, Harding 1986). Doing this within the field of African feminism could be just as promising: a way to furthering the feminist cause as well as move beyond seeing women as a solitary and simplistic category of analysis. It could also move us past the focus on gender as part of a field called gender studies, and instead spread feminist methodologies throughout disciplines.


THE WIDE MARGIN

I’m still trying to think through this idea of feminist methodologies rather than feminism as a field or discipline on its own (which makes it easy to ghettoize it). This would mean African feminists working in all disciplines on all topics, rather than working only on the question of gender in African contexts. This would be one way of spreading the incredibly useful tools we have gained from feminists doing gender analysis and making them truly inter-disciplinary. For the foreseeable future, this is my project, as a feminist while African.

END

19


20

THE WIDE MARGIN

03

AFRICAN WOMAN SEEKS FEMINISM FOR SURVIVAL By - Nyaboe Makiya


THE WIDE MARGIN

I recently found an old high school journal where I had written: ‘THE PROBLEM WITH BEING A WOMAN IS THAT I’M CONSTANTLY SEEKING SOME SORT OF AFFIRMATION. REALLY SUCKS!!!!!’

In the paragraph above this little meltdown, I was pleading with my Judaeo-Christian God, to ‘show himself to me’ so that I could live a ‘full, useful life.’ My 17 year-old self was tired of all the parables and puzzles that were part of figuring out what life was about. I wanted a clear, direct answer from him, because I had been told, that on my own, I was powerless, and more than that, worthless. Naturally, God stayed silent, probably sipping his tea and shaking his head at my foolishness.

It was after sitting in this loud, divine silence that I considered all the people I had to ask for both direction and permission to simply live. My family, my church, every man I had ever met, and society in general, all had a say on my worth, and what I could and couldn’t do with myself. I was the last person who had a say. I felt completely boxed in and helpless, and mad as hell!

21


22

THE WIDE MARGIN

This was quickly followed by a deep despair. If these were in biblical times, there would be sack cloth, ash on my head, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I couldn’t see a way out. It took me nearly a decade to realize that there was, in fact, a way to be my own person. There was a way to see myself anew and to have the first and final say over my own life. I realized it would take a lot because I had to be fully responsible for myself and not defer decisions about my life to all the people and institutions I had deferred to before. This way was feminism. When I first came across feminism, I perceived it as this far-removed theory about which intellectuals wrote papers. It wasn’t a thing that one could use in daily life. But on actually reading about it for myself, I realized that feminism gave me the ability to think critically about how and why, I, as a woman, behaved a certain way and was treated a certain way, by society, in general, and by men, in particular. It explained why I was constantly ‘seeking affirmation’ and why it always felt like I was a second-class citizen with little say in my own life. The answer was simple: Sexism.

You see, contrary to common belief, Feminism is not merely about women versus men. It is not women trying to be ‘manly’ (whatever that means) and it is not the blind abandonment of what is perceived as ‘femininity’. In her book ‘Feminism is for everybody’, bell hooks describes feminism as ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’ Sexism is a highly contested issue. I have found, that there are four broad categories of people when it comes to opinions on sexism. The first lot of people, both men and women, question the existence of sexism since, in their minds, they have never perpetrated or experienced it. Others believe that sexism exists, but think that perhaps its effects are exaggerated and that women have a lot of privileges which men don’t (this is called benevolent sexism, but that’s a topic for another article). There are those who acknowledge that men and women are indeed regarded and treated differently, but suggest that this is the ‘natural’ order of things and as such, should be accepted without question. Finally, we have those who view sexism as a very real problem that adversely affects society as a whole but particularly oppresses and exploits women.


THE WIDE MARGIN

I fit into the last category.

Now for an African woman, a curious thing happens when you become aware of sexism and speak about it: You are seen as a diversion (‘distracting us from more important issues,’ they say), you are called un-African and — my personal favourite — ‘Westernized’ (used as a derogatory term). Often, because detractors are ‘uncomfortable’, they dismiss feminism as ‘Western’ to delegitimize and silence the discussion. This assertion is demonstrably wrong because Africa actually has a long history of feminism. In her article, ‘A brief history of African Feminism’, Minna Salami said that, while the term “feminism” is an import to Africa (as all English words are), the concept of opposing sexism and the patriarchy, the raison d’être of feminism, 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.’ In pre-colonial times, famous and powerful women such as Nehanda of Zimbabwe, Wangu wa Makeri of Kenya and Nzinga of Angola, are held up as examples of women’s agency. We have post-colonial heroines like, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonean 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. Feminism is neither predominantly nor exclusively Western. There has been contention on the issue of oppression because sexism in Africa is entrenched in our cultural ideologies. In ‘Silence is a Woman’ (2013), Wambui Mwangi writes that, ‘carefully circulated and re-narrated cultural “knowledge” re-inscribes alleged contradictions about women’s bodies, power, and political possibility. It reminds women that all our bodies are always available for physical degradation by all men. It threatens while inscribing the illegitimacy of women in political authority. It destroys the public power of women’s bodies by destroying women’s power to use our bodies in a public way. It inscribes the collective memory of matriarchal rule with the mark of illegitimacy and perversion.’

23


24

THE WIDE MARGIN

Consider that a large number of our customs and traditions undermine African Women’s land and property rights. According to a 2013 study by FIDA Kenya on women’s land and property rights, the constitution of Kenya protects women against discrimination, and the ratio of men to women is estimated to be 1:1, yet only 5 percent of land title deeds in Kenya are held by women jointly with men. Further, only 1 percent of land titles in Kenya are held by women alone, and yet 89 percent of subsistence farming labour force is provided by women. In addition, 70 percent of labour in cash crop labour production is provided by women and approximately 32 percent of households are headed by women. These numbers are a clear indication that women are being taken advantage of by a sexist system. The number one hindrance to land ownership for women in Kenya is cultural beliefs. Other reasons include: lack of awareness, discriminatory official responses, an expensive legal system and fear. Women who try to fight back face hostility and may be subjected to physical and/or sexual violence, or ostracized.

Let’s consider another pressing issue: the rampant violence against women in public and private spaces. Custom, tradition and religion are frequently invoked to justify the use of violence against women. Recently, in Nairobi there was a resurgence in stripping women and sexually assaulting them, under the guise of ‘maintaining morality’. Further, statistics from the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) paint a clear picture of how much women’s agency is completely disregarded when it comes to their own bodies:

– 45% of women between ages 15 – 49 in Kenya have experienced either physical or sexual violence with women and girls accounting for 90% of the gender based violence (GBV) cases reported; – One in five Kenyan women (21%) has experienced sexual violence; – Strangers account for only 6% of GBV in Kenya. 64% of survivors of violence reported that the offenders behind their ordeal were known to them;


THE WIDE MARGIN

– Most violence towards women is committed by an intimate partner; – 90% of reported perpetrators are men. Yet, ‘I don’t feel oppressed!’ and ‘I am not oppressing anyone!’ are statements I hear a lot when discussing sexist oppression.

I will not continue to spew statistics because frankly, it’s upsetting, and if we were to consider the facts of gender-based inequalities in health, education, economic and political power, we could write an entire library of books. Indeed, a lifetime’s reading worth of books has been written. In addition to the general gender inequalities, women face a barrage of micro-aggressions daily. These are forms of unintended discrimination by the use of known social norms of behavior and/ or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination. In her poem, ‘A Brief History of Micro-aggressions’, Shailja Patel describes them as, ‘daily ordinary interactions / one drop of blood at a time / until we bleed to death […]’ Catcalling and street harassment, unwanted sexual touch, and gendering of spaces (by making them unfriendly to women or excluding women entirely, for example, in all-male panels) are all examples of sexist micro-aggressions. They are often said and done without much thought, but the very thoughtlessness underscores the attitudes behind them, the callous approach people have to women (and each other), and the internalized nature of many forms of prejudice. The people who say and do these things often profess shock and horror that they’d caused harm with their words and actions, or they downplay their violence altogether. Patel’s poem adds that ‘we [women] are assured / that our concerns / are silly / minor / best forgotten.’

25


26

THE WIDE MARGIN

There is, in fact, oppression occurring everywhere women turn. As long as we do not identify sexism,educate ourselves on its pathology and act to eradicate it, we condemn women to live, at best, half-lives. At worst, we banish them to death. As a proud, black, African woman, I admit that I struggle with the implications that come with feminism. A misunderstanding of feminism has led to a fear of it, and as a result, a majority of people dismiss it without really finding out what feminism sets out to achieve. I have often felt alienated and attacked when trying to assert myself as a feminist. It’s not easy, so I understand why most people are reluctant to identify as one. In spite of this, I wear the label proudly because I cannot pretend that patriarchal sexism does not oppress more than half of the society of which I am a part. I live as a feminist because I hear the voices of the matriots who came before me and of the women who surround me. As a woman, feminism is essential for me not only to survive, but to thrive as a human being.

END


THE WIDE MARGIN

04

LIBERATION IS NOT UN-AFRICAN By - Cera Njagi

27


28

THE WIDE MARGIN

Whenever I declare that I am a feminist, I get all kinds of reactions. The most consistent one is “feminism is un-African”. I am often accused of abandoning my culture and taking up Western ideals which cannot work in Africa. My education is mostly blamed for this ‘un-African’ way of thinking. The reaction is surprisingly consistent among both men and women who claim that the position of women in African society is clear. I am met most of the time with resistance at any attempt to challenge this “clear position” on the position of women. Post-colonial religion, which is hardly African since it was the religion of the colonialists, has greatly influenced African culture. Claiming that feminism is un-African on the grounds of African culture is an oxymoron. References to religious texts, which require women to submit, and men to lead, are often used to declare any attempts to challenge status quo by demanding for equality, as un-African and un-godly. But is feminism foreign and un-African? A century ago, feminism was un-European as well. 18th and 19th century Christianity often justified slavery, and the forceful subjugation of Africans – euphemistically calling it “civilizing the savages”. Often, might equated to right everywhere, including African societies in cases such as the rise of African Empires such as the Zulu Empire, which included displacement and / or domination over small clans and tribes. Cultures and ideas are not static, they change, through the actions of women and men who are influenced by their cultures, traditions, and perceptions of justice and morality. Although not exclusive to all African communities, most Africans societies did not have scripts, existing scripts are sparse. Instead, majority of the records of feminist struggles mostly survive in oral tradition where theyare metamorphosed into legends and myths. In the course of migration in Africa, myths and legends spread amongst groups, often mixing, to give rise to new stories about the origins and the events of the migrating communities. However the sparsity of records, does not mean that concepts such as social justice and morality were not defined and redefined by Africans in the past.


THE WIDE MARGIN

A friend told me a story of how honor killings were stopped in his community called Bakiga in southern Uganda. Young girls who became pregnant before marriage were considered a “disgrace to the community”, liable to punishment through death. Pregnant girls would be thrown off the Kisiizi waterfall by the entire village but no question regarding the boy or man who impregnated the girl ever arose. There came a time for one girl who had “disgraced the community” by getting pregnant out of wedlock to face her punishment. As the villagers took her up the waterfall, she, like many girls before her who had also undergone the cruel punishment, cried and begged for mercy, but there was no salvation as she was about to face her death. As she stood at the edge of the waterfall, waiting to be thrown down, she quickly grabbed her elder brother, who had all along been standing behind her in support of the punishment, and threw herself together with him off the waterfall. Being too late to stop the boy from falling, the young girl and her brother both died. From that day on, honor killing was ended without ceremony. According to this anecdote, it took a man dying at the killing for the village to realise the injustice of the practice. It also took the agency of one single girl, to rescue hundreds of other girls from the sexist and inhumane practice. The story of the young Bakiga girl is not an isolated one. Many other examples exist of men and women who stood for social justice, questioned the position of women in society, and demanded better treatment for women. These men and women sacrificed their freedom and their lives to create a better world for Africans in general and for women in particular. From the book, “A History of Africa: African nationalism and the de-colonisation process” by Assa Okoth (2006) a few examples are presented. In 1922, a young Kenyan man known as Harry Thuku was arrested by the colonial administration, for challenging forced labour in rural Kenya. Women were particularly affected as they were forced to provide labour as coffee pickers on European farms. Harry Thuku’s struggle for the rights of women gave him the name ‘chief of the women’.

29


30

THE WIDE MARGIN

His arrest resulted in a protest where thousands of Kenyans in Nairobi marched to the police station where he was held and demanded his release. Amid rumours that some of the male protesters had been bribed to be less aggressive, their failure to provide adequate leadership in demanding for the release of Harry Thuku, women took up leadership. One woman, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru stood out. Claire Clarkson documents the incident in her book, “Trouble showed the way: Women, men and trade in Nairobi in Nairobi area, 1890 -1990”.

[Muthoni] leapt to her feet, pulled her dress right up over her shoulders and shouted to the men: “You take my dress and give me your trousers. You men are cowards. What are you waiting for? Our leader is there. Let him go.” The hundreds of women trilled in ngemi [ululation] in approbation and from that moment on, trouble was inevitable. Muthoni and the others pushed on until the bayonets of the soldiers’ rifles were pricking at their throats, and then the firing started. Muthoni was the first one to die…..

Unfortunately, oppression did not end during colonial era. Many African presidents in independent African states continued to perpetuate the exclusion and oppression, especially of the colonial regime. The 24 year tyrannical leadership of Kenya’s former president Daniel Moi is among those that stand out. In the 90’s Wangari Maathai, a renowned African scholar, environmentalist and political activist led the mothers and wives of political detainees to demand for the release of political prisoners. Similar to Muthoni Nyanjiru, the women used the power of their naked bodies to demonstrate against political tyranny and oppression during the Moi regime.


THE WIDE MARGIN

There are many more stories such as the few I have briefly retold, both documented and undocumented, lost to the vagaries of time. This loss of peoples’ memories has happened all over the world: to Africans, Native Americans, Aborigines in Australia, the peoples of India, and even in Europe. Even in instances where some of these stories are documented, they are often ignored in the formal body of knowledge. The heroism of women remains silent, with the formal education and mainstream media choosing to perpetuate the narrative of powerful male heroes, often from dominant communities, while women remain behind the scenes or completely out of the picture. Statements on what is and is not African often rely on uncritical and often incomplete accounts and understandings of history; assuming that women and men did not question the existing social order and gender inequality at the time. When we idealize and homogenize the past and the possibilities of varied ideas before our time, it is a violent erasure of the existence of our predecessors in fighting oppression. Cultural practices differed from one village to the next without there being a “logical explanation�. Ideas can spread, and other times they get supplanted. Prior to modern advances the spread of ideas was slow, and often relied on the physical presence of a person, usually an elder, as a custodian of tradition. With modern communication technology, the spread of ideas can be almost instantaneous, and far less dependent on hierarchies compared to the past. To continue homogenizing and glorifying ideas of what was African in the past is impractical in a context where cultures and ideas intertwine with every minute.

Does it take western education to recognize and respond to injustice? The story of the Bakiga girl, Harry Thuku and Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru tells us otherwise. At a time when formal education did not exist in many African societies, the Bakiga girl recognized the injustice of action involving two people, but for which only the girl was punished. Harry Thuku, a mission educated clerk and Muthoni Nyanjiru, a woman whose education is undocumented, demonstrate that when injustice is glaring at the faces of men and women, it takes courage and not western education to stand up and speak out.

31


32

THE WIDE MARGIN

Although the word feminism was unknown to the young Bakiga girl, to Harry Thuku and to Muthoni Nyanjiru, these to me are historical African feminists. Like other feminists of our time, they recognized inequality and injustice between sexes and actively resisted tyranny and oppression, demanding equality and justice for women. It might be argued that Wangari Maathai was educated outside the continent, hence her position as a feminist. What stands out for me is her choice of tactic, one with a strong message in some African communities’ beliefs; the public exposure of the body of a naked woman, which is taboo in many communities in Africa. If an older person stripped in the presence of a younger person it would warrant a curse regardless of whether the nudity was accidental or intentional. In cases where an older person publicly undressed intentionally, it would be to communicate that they were aggrieved thereby intentionally calling a curse upon the younger people who saw them. Wangari could have chosen to only speak in international conferences on the issues of women in Africa, but she chose to use a tactic that would be understood by African oppressors and to stand with the women and the men who were facing oppression.

Africa’s current social, cultural, political and economic structures needs more and not less feminism. The high levels of domestic, social and political violence against women, high maternal mortality rates, low levels of literacy women, the unequal distribution of the gains of economic development to the poor, and more so to poor women, requires that we stand up and take action to improve the lives of women in this continent. Feminism demands that we stop and be critical of how biological differences and ‘culture’ have been used as a basis for creating and reproducing social, political and economic differences between men and women. The argument that feminism is un-African assumes that culture is a bunch of static, inflexible rules of engagement, leaving no room for infiltration or interaction with other cultures. This is not only unrealistic in the age of global technological advancements.


THE WIDE MARGIN

It not only ignores the realities and consequences of global technological advancements, and pervasiveness of influences from other cultures as reflected in all aspects of our lives, it perpetuates ignorance. Declaring feminism un-African is also a selective way of deciding what is African and what is un-African. Our dressing, religion, transport, language, education, systems of governance and just about everything about us demonstrates that we have borrowed significantly from other cultures. We need to create and envision a new Africa.

We need to declare inequality, injustice and oppression as un-African, instead of declaring feminism un-African.

We need to realise that feminism is not a battle of supremacy between between men and women, nor a battle of supremacy between western and African cultures. We need to embrace feminism as a tool to build a just and equitable Africa, based on dignity for women, men, boys and girls, and mutually respectful relationships in all spheres of society.

END

33


34

THE WIDE MARGIN

05

MY SISTER’S KEEPER By - Varyanne Sika

My friend often speaks fondly, light-heartedly, but with detectable although mild irritation, about ‘The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014’, when ten women on a Whatsapp group had a nightlong back-and-forth that turned into a political correctness fight about feminism. The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014 is nearly always brought up in our (the pro-feminism faction of the group) casual conversations about feminism because it reminds us of the potential friendships we missed out on, it reminds us of the bond three of us formed after the fallout, but most importantly (to us), it reminds us of having recruited a newly self-proclaimed feminist (albeit with slight nudging). The fallout happened because of what seemed like one group trying to get the other group to understand the importance of self-identifying as feminist and that “woman is to feminism, as purple is to lavender” like Alice Walker says. They felt forced into accepting an identity that was not theirs (how could it be theirs when they did not understand it in the same terms that we did?) They stood firm in their refusal to identify as feminists, justifying their adamance with #nolabels, which we, the loud and proud feminists, saw as #yourprivilegeisshowing and #ignoranceisnodefense.


THE WIDE MARGIN

35


36

THE WIDE MARGIN

We called ourselves Feministas after the fallout. Of course, it was never the intention to fall out with one another and break off into smaller groups. We (Feministas) dreamt of a feminist sisterhood where we would have regular conversations about feminism and being anti the imperialist-white-supremacist- capitalist-patriarchy over tea, and making more friends who understood feminism and openly identified as feminists. We hoped to help start a united family of feminists right here in Kenya! Ideally, doing feminism is far more important than merely saying feminist things or identifying as a feminist, so when what they, our sisters, do is reject feminism, it is important to address their rejection. In 2006, The African Feminist Forum held in Accra, Ghana, produced the Charter Of Feminist Principles For African Feminists. The preamble, ‘Naming Ourselves As Feminists’ closes with the declaration that, “[o]ur feminist identity is not qualified with ‘Ifs’, ‘Buts’ or ‘Howevers’. We are feminists. Full stop.” Ideologically, naming ourselves as feminists is important for solidarity. Accepting the language, the word ‘feminism’, specifically, which describes an ideological standpoint against sexism and patriarchal structures, is an indication of change, and the desire for such change, in the negative social attitudes about it. While naming ourselves as feminists is important, it does little for those women whose actions align with the principles of feminism yet are skeptical about feminism. I understand now what bell hooks says, that feminism is ‘neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into’, and that for the most part, expecting all women to name themselves as feminists might wrongly project the assumption that ‘feminist’ is a lifestyle choice, or a pre-packaged identity rather than a political commitment to fight sexist oppression. Arguments for naming ourselves as feminists that focus on it enabling community, connection, and support, assume that all women lack community and support from other women. Focusing specifically on the need for a self-proclaimed ‘feminist community’ to support the argument for naming ourselves as feminists, assumes that the communities of women who do not identify as feminist are not in fact already seeking ways to end sexist exploitation in the contexts of their lives. Obioma Nnaemeka in the book Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power in Africa, says,


THE WIDE MARGIN

‘They (African women) are not hung up on articulating their feminism, they just do it…It is the dynamism of the theatre of action with its shifting patterns that makes the feminist spirit/engagement effervescent and exciting but also intractable and difficult to name.’

When formally organized feminists declare their feminist stance, that they are ‘feminists, full stop,’ they inevitably welcome some women but leave out many others, whether or not they intend to. There’s isn’t a clear indication of an intersectionality of African feminism in the African Feminist Charter except in broad phrases such as,

‘We recognize that we do not have a homogenous identity as feminists – we acknowledge and celebrate our diversities and shared commitment to a transformatory agenda for African societies and African women in particular.’

It can be assumed that ‘we’ here refers to the group of feminists who self identify as feminists and/or those who attended the forum, presumably a combination of African feminists in academia and women working in gender and development. There is an insistence, particularly by those who name themselves as feminists, on a unifiability of African feminisms.

37


38

THE WIDE MARGIN

This unity is not one of ‘togetherness no matter what’, not one that brooks no disagreement, but one that can survive, and even grow through, conflict amongst feminists. In advocating for a unity of purpose and for the broadest possible solidarity amongst ‘all women,’ we point to the necessary work of addressing, in material ways, the need to continue developing a sophisticated intersectionality in African feminism.

Sisterhood among African women aims at ending sexist oppression and imagining previously unimaginable futures for ourselves, bringing these futures into existence, together. The Charter of Feminist Principles emphasises, ‘[a] spirit of feminist solidarity and mutual respect based on frank, honest and open discussion of difference with each other.’ It evokes a utopia built on ‘the support, nurture, and care of other African feminists, along with the care for our own well-being.’ We often think of Black/African feminist sisters like Ramatoulaye and Aissatou (in Mariama Bâ’s novel, So Long a Letter) Angela Davis and Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, the mutual support and strength that develops among the women in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and imagine that kind of powerful sisterhood for ourselves.Although there was no intentional unkindness in the exchanges that preceded the fallout with women I had only recently begun to know as friends, there was a marked drop in the excitement and energy with which we interacted, a vim which previously flowed through our messages even when we disagreed on other subjects.

As the group was dismantled, the possibility of sisterhood was shattered, perhaps permanently, hopefully only temporarily. In that moment, the patriarchy had a smaller anti-sexist army to worry about.How do we as African feminists, with our different, and differing, feminisms survive the fractures amongst ourselves? In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde exhorts us to ‘consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit’ because the love of (black) women for each other has been stolen from us. As we learn to be tender with each other, we must speak truth to each other, Lorde says that ‘if we speak truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves.’


THE WIDE MARGIN

The kind of sisterly bonding that results in, or because of, excluding or oppressing, demeaning or deploying micro-aggressions against other women, is a false sisterhood as bell hooks says in ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’, which will in fact not dismantle sexist oppression. Within sexist thinking, women have learned to be suspicious of one another and competitive. When it is perpetuated, women become violent to one another.“I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women. I am alarmed by a growing absence of decency on the killing floor of professional women’s worlds.” (Toni Morrison, Commencement Address at Barnard College, 1979)We need a self-critical, tender, truth-telling approach to feminist sisterhood that is capable of confronting unaddressed issues of intersectionality. We need to continually interrogate our understanding of what feminism is and for whom it exists. Our feminist movements are strained and fragmented along lines of class, geography, ethnicity, religion, and generational gaps. Amongst those who don’t identify as feminists, there is a prevalent lack of clarity when discussing African women’s oppression which when coupled with the hesitation in identifying as feminist, might frustrate the efforts of community organizers and feminists who are working to raise the consciousness of others. It is dispiriting when we find that we cannot even succeed in inspiring our friends to identify as feminists. How then, can we even begin to weave together a sisterhood?I’m exasperated by voices that cheapen the discussion on African feminist sisterhood with ‘we can’t all be friends’ and ‘It is impractical to be sisters with women who irritate me’, yet I understand these statements as valid reactions to proposing the abstract concept of sisterhood without attempting to describe what it means and what is at stake. I understand because I too get impatient when other women seem (to me) to derail what I see as a formation of sisterhood. Frustrated, I sometimes mistakenly think that there is no time to engage with women who are willfully ignorant or too blinded by their privilege to establish an inclusive sisterhood. It is easy to feel that they don’t need sisterhood, that they don’t want sisterhood, so I will expend the scarce energy I have in a sisterhood in which I don’t have to wrestle women into being my sisters. This approach does little to establish the solidarity in sisterhood that African feminists need.

39


40

THE WIDE MARGIN

Energy must be conserved for other battles (sexist oppression) and women who are unwilling to be a part of an African feminist sisterhood mustn’t be wrestled into it. The middle ground that I see is in continuing to explore different avenues to foster and perform our sisterhood. Avenues to unlearn sexism, to collectively work towards a clarity in what we mean in and by our different feminisms and to share how we do our feminisms, to ask and offer each other support where we can, to share our frustrations, to laugh, to talk, to be, sisters. Yet, in looking for sisterhood, a feminist has to learn to deal with rejection. African feminisms have always begun a home, amongst those with whom we interact daily. High bandwidth connectivity and high-speed transit for those who can have them, make it possible to build sisterhood with women from far ends of the continent. Sisterhood means that we learn more about our feminisms together, talk more to one another about our lives and to do more of our living (working and playing) together. There are videos on youtube of African women discussing African feminisms, there are feminist publications such as the African feminist journal and Buwa! (although few that are inclusive in terms of accessibility and language), feminist writing groups such as Amka Space in Kenya (if Amka space can commit to having women instead of men facilitate its sessions), facebook groups such as Feminists in Africa, the informal feminist collectives on Twitter, and blogs such as Ms. Afropolitan which are trying to create and sustain spaces online to do our feminism together. Offline, there are numerous organizations and groups for doing feminism including sporting, economic empowerment groups, single mothers support groups, and the plain and simple friendship between women. All these avenues are important because they grow spaces that are friendly and nurturing to women, in which intersectional sisterhood and tenderness amongst women is possible. The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014 is only one example of many such fallouts among friends who disagree rather strongly about feminism. I have not heard from any of the other members of the original group from which we/they separated. Possibly not entirely because of the fallout but because what brought us together in the first place, was not a collective deliberate attempt at building lasting bonds amongst ourselves.

END


THE WIDE MARGIN

06

VOICE CONSCIOUSNESS By - Felicity Okoth

41


42

THE WIDE MARGIN

I always look deep into a person’s eyes when I identify myself as a feminist, if only to draw out the question, ‘why?’ I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked if being a feminist means that I hate men or that I am a lesbian. Unsurprised, I usually celebrate such questions and wish more people would be more upfront, for it is such encounters that provide me an opportunity to share feminism as an ideology.

“A very general definition of work for feminism is to research how humankind is not nice to women and queers in different ways.” – Gayatri Spivak

Often, I limit my explanation to the idea of a feminist as one who holds that women suffer discrimination because of their sex; that they have needs which remain negated and unsatisfied; and that the satisfaction of these needs requires a change in the social, economic and political order. One is a feminist if they hold this notion regardless of their gender or geographical location; anything beyond that overly complicates it, both to someone new to the concept and in my opinion seasoned feminists alike. One only has to look at how, up to this point, both activist and scholars are yet to agree on which facets of the concept carry the most weight. Such a succinct and objective description has resulted in backlash from men and women alike: “Feminism is un-African, un-Christian, a Western project,” they say. This is accentuated with misplaced notions that African women feel neither the need nor urgency to liberate themselves from their traditional gender roles, that feminists hate men, that African men cannot be feminists. All these misconceptions thrive while African countries generally rank lowest in the Global Gender Inequality index.


THE WIDE MARGIN

Customs that undermine African women’s land and property rights, numerous instances of female genital mutilation, violence in both private and public spheres like honour killings in North Africa still thrive within the continent. The current debate in Kenya’s Parliament to repeal the ‘two thirds gender rule’ ; a clause in the constitution that provides for the affirmative participation of women in national politics reeks of male chauvinism. The stalemate both within parliament and in public discourse goes to show how little regard the political elite; who are supposed to be the voice of the people, have of women leadership. Is this an indication that African women need feminism? By all means YES! I realize this sounds very much like what the Western world has been accused of: perceiving the subalterns (by this I mean women from developing countries) as in need of saving; a saving that, presumably, only the Western world can provide (to which I will return shortly). I refuse to concede to the impetus of a salvific Western feminism or the assumption that African feminisms merely replicate its methods or reproduce its aims. I don’t feel like an interloper, an outsider peeping into the exotic world of poor marginalized African women. Rather, I feel like an insider who can relate to them as an equal, talk to them (us) in their own language, our language. Theirs is a reality I share; it is our reality.

Often, I have been told to tone down my arguments when I talk about equality between men and women. Some have predicted that I will remain single for eternity; after all, who would marry a woman who is not subservient? One who values her professional aspirations more than her family obligations? One who dresses in any manner she likes? One, seemingly, against culture and tradition? One who is ‘difficult’?” Such discourses are pervasive. The recent My Dress My Choice campaign in Kenya sparked numerous debates both in mainstream and social media, undergirded by the notions that ‘our’ culture (forget that there is no such immutable, sacrosanct thing as ‘Kenyan culture’) is rooted in decency;

43


44

THE WIDE MARGIN

decently dressed women, in this instance (forget also that Africans used to walk around partially clothed before the periods of colonialism and putative enlightenment that came with it?).

Much of what we now describe under the rubric of ‘Kenyan culture’ can be attributed to colonialism which drew borders foisting a country upon us despite our different ethnicities (and, indeed, nations) and different customs within these ethnicities.

This is one among the many debates where patriarchy hides behind a deceptive concept of culture to assert its power over, and justify violence against, women in Africa. The discourse inherent in missionary Christianity within the colonial period also contributed to the ‘our culture’ fallacy. The discourse was of a predominantly Victorian sensibility, in that women were to be chaperoned, women were to wear dresses that covered their whole bodies lest they lead men to sin, women were to honour their husbands and not talk back, as the Bible commanded. Michel Foucault, in TheHistory of Sexuality (1978), wrote that “[t]he Canonical and Christian pastoral law were all centred on matrimonial relations: the marital obligation, the ability to fulfil it, the manner in which one complied with it, the requirements and violences that accompanied it,” thus women were under constant surveillance and this is what we absorbed as Kenyan culture following the erasure of our cultural histories by the colonialists. Oral folklore has, however, been able to pass across the fact that before the Victorian hullabaloo women used to walk with bare chests and shreds of clothes/ beads barely covering their behinds, and that women used to have a voice in family matters. (Is it not ironic that tourists come all the way to snap photos of Samburu women dancing bare-chested with the go-ahead of government agencies tasked with promoting culture and tourism?)


THE WIDE MARGIN

My Dress My Choice was a vociferous resistance to modern Kenyan patriarchy, hiding behind culture to assert its power over African women.I see that the African man’s presence is predicated on the African woman’s effective absence; that the perpetuation of the discourse of culture ensures a power imbalance is maintained so that the man never loses the upper hand.

The woman is not permitted to make sense of who she is because she is overdetermined from without, battered by pre-assigned cultural stereotypes of what an African woman should be: submissive, subordinate to the men, silent, available when desired, invisible when not, etc. etc. etc. This kind of battering precedes our times as seen when Mau Mau female freedom fighters (feminists in their own right) tried to oppose FGM. Consequently, they were labelled cultural misfits and ostracised. Facing Mount Kenya (1962), authored by the founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, celebrates female genital mutilation and labels its abolition a Western colonialist project. May it not be forgotten that they as male freedom fighters did not bat an eyelid in channeling Marx and Engels in their calls for freedom; thinkers who are as Western as they get.

I love reading other feminist, Western or not. Simone de Beauvoir is one close to my heart. Her assertion in The Second Sex (1956) lends credence to the FGM Mau Mau situation. She states that a ‘woman’ is a biological not a historical category and thus she suffers from a singular oppression which knows no historical periods that precedes it. Without a different past how can she have concepts of a different future?

Culture, taken as history, tells the African woman to stay within her bounds, to go back where she belongs (behind and beneath the man). She is given no chance, she is overdetermined from without; made a slave of the “idea” that others have of her sex (the weaker sex)…she is fixed…so that it is not her who makes meaning for herself but it is a meaning that is already there, pre-existing, waiting for her. A corporeal schema already provided historically for the African man to give character to the African woman, for not only must the woman be a woman, she must be woman in relation to the man.

45


46

THE WIDE MARGIN

The African woman is adjudged irrespective of her social, economic, and intellectual achievements. One only has to look at Wangari Maathai, the first female University of Nairobi associate professor in Anatomy, who was scorned by politicians in the Moi Era for being a crazy divorcee. All attributed to her too ‘loud mouth’ for a woman. It took the international community recognizing her efforts towards sustainable development, democracy, and peace before Africa and Kenya as a country acknowledged and recognized her efforts. Martha Karua, who despite her brilliant political manifesto was slut shamed entirely during the political campaigns leading to the 2013 presidential election. She scraped a mere 1% of the total vote count. Enough already! I as an African woman feel burdened by historicity, patriarchal cultural representation, and the inequality that comes with it. I yearn for change, for the day social prejudices will be relegated to the periphery.

I am not alone on this going by the growing number of African Feminists. But with what voice consciousness can we all speak?

It does not escape me that Africa is a continent and thus difficult to refer to a singular African Feminism. The concept is complex with many manifestations and expressions. Heck, feminism in itself takes on different fronts as seen with Marxists feminism, modern feminisms, radical feminism, lesbian separatism, etc. This signals a multiplicity of and heterogeneity within the movement with questions arising as to whether it makes sense to assume a necessary unity within feminism.


THE WIDE MARGIN

Just like Rosalind Delmar in What is Feminism, I see feminism not as women’s movement thus in need of unity, but as women’s activity, activism, a campaign against issues, a consciousness raising. Within this I see an autonomous female subject, an African woman speaking in her own right, with her own voice. I see the ongoing transformation of African women from objects of knowledge into subjects capable of appropriating and producing knowledge, to effect, continuously, a passage from the state of subjection to subjecthood, acquiring and evolving a voice consciousness. The voice consciousness I am talking about is not one which presents a counter-narrative of patriarchal cultural representations, no! That would result in a few vocal African feminist carrying the burden of female representation, in that everything they say or show will be taken to represent African women as an homogeneous monolithic group. It is imperative to remember and understand that the political, economic, and historic experiences of different African communities are internally differentiated both between and within countries. For example, a Somali woman’s experiences differs from the experience of a South African woman and within South Africa, Zulu women may face different forms of oppression from the Xhosa, as would Somali women of different ethnicities and clan affiliations, within Somalia. I am thus asking for a voice consciousness that admits the qualitative difference of marginalization among women, one that acknowledges that it is not enough to sit, talk and write about feminism in Africa as most African women live in the rural areas with limited access to books, electricity, and internet that power debates on both mainstream and social media. A voice consciousness that takes cognisance of the systematic qualitative dis-empowerment of women by poverty and tenacious cultural values like polygamy and FGM, all which vary across ethnic groups and across countries.

African feminism as it stands has been elitist, barely drawing in the women (and men) in the margins, those in rural areas, the urban uninformed, those who know no other reality than the fact that the woman comes second to man.

47


48

THE WIDE MARGIN

As it stands, I have failed as a feminist because my discussions have been limited to online forums with feminists like myself. Those with access to the internet resources for gathering information. I have failed because I have assumed that the discrimination I go through as a woman runs across board. I have closed my eye to the intersectionality of religion, ethnicity, poverty, and illiteracy when it comes to women in Africa. I have failed because I am yet to share the ideology of feminism with those outside my social and academic circles, with those less fortunate, and I am yet to create time to listen to and learn from the voices of those in the margins, the women not ‘privileged’ as I am, and to do so from a non-interventionist perspective (that is, not seeing them as needing saving but as women with a voice and reason). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a feminist who focuses on experiences of third world women, who she refers to as the subalterns argues that these kind of women have no unmediated access to ‘correct’ resistance (1988). (I take up subaltern in this essay to mean women in Africa not privileged to have access to forums that discuss on feminism). That even when the subaltern makes an effort to the death to speak, she is not able to be heard, and speaking and hearing complete the speech act. My argument on voice consciousness on the part of African feminists borrows heavily from Spivak. I recognise the importance of listening as a complement of speaking because voice as a social process involves, from the start, both speaking and listening; an act of attention that registers the uniqueness of other’s narrative.

As African feminists we should desist from attempting to ‘lend’ marginalized African women a collective, homogenising voice. My main fear is that we are not listening enough and by not listening we are falling into the continuous reproduction of the subaltern as constructed by the West. I refuse however to let such a fear bog me down.

As an African feminist, I am on a mission to listen more, to acquire a voice consciousness, one that will consequently appeal and respond to, and even resonate with, the consciousness of the subaltern.


THE WIDE MARGIN

I however reckon that touching the consciousness of women across the board is by no means an easy feat. Feminist claims are often not congruent with claims that African women make of and for themselves. Most of these women often do not consider patriarchal structures from their natal cultures oppressive. Utterances such as “I am not a feminist because I cannot divorce myself from my cultural context and also because feminism is not practical in my culture, and is for the elite.” by one young woman at the start of OSISA’s feminism training course in Zimbabwe are widespread in the continent. Those who acknowledge the oppression patriarchy hidden behind culture presents, often lack emancipating platforms that go beyond small women gatherings (as vital and nourishing as these gatherings are), and the few who are lucky to have such platforms shy away from publicly vocalising their feminism in the fear of being ostracized by their communities. All these factors make it hard to draw them out of this kind of marginalization. It is imperative for marginalized individuals to be able to personally identify that they are in a position of disadvantage, and be aware too of the root of the disadvantage as being unaware solidifies their marginalization. A starting point for me would be picking and capitalizing on social meaning-making and narrations of identification, specifically African women definitions of who they are and where they think they belong. This entails listening, core to voice consciousness. As an ‘elite’ African feminist, I should be able to go out and listen to the subaltern women’s identity narratives. By so doing, I will not only drive them (and myself) to do introspective searches of how they (and I) identify themselves but how they identify themselves in relation to men, and in relation to other women elsewhere, as identity narratives are hinged on sameness and difference. Actively listening to these narratives and restating them verbatim (the resounding voice) to women allows them to subjectively and inter-subjectively become aware of their aspirations, and the disadvantages and exclusion they face collectively. Sometimes it takes an outside voice revealing one’s deeply hidden fears and aspirations. Voices shape space and affirm life. After all, this method has worked well for psychiatrists and counsellors.

49


50

THE WIDE MARGIN

I do not for one second believe that women who applaud the oppressive nature of patriarchal cultures, who benefit from aspects of patriarchy, have never felt a disadvantage be it in terms of domestic violence, unequal distribution of land, sexism in the workplace, gender-based responsibilities in the family institution, and so forth. The kind of voice consciousness I advocate for is one that listens, one that distances itself from a merely reactionary countering of patriarchal representations from behind desks, online forums and articles that represent African women as a homogenous group with similar oppression and needing a saving. By listening and encouraging subaltern women to speak, we bring to the fore their incidences of disadvantage in their own voice. We point out the minute disadvantages that they do not directly linke to culture through their narratives and we take flight with them. Allowing them to voice their narratives makes them realize that it is not OK to have a woman genitals mutilated to tame her wild desires, to contain her for one man (or might make us realise their ways of making meaning of their own traditional rituals and of creating transformative liberatory practices through them); that it is not OK for men to show that ‘they love women’ through beating them up; that it is not OK for a man to molest a woman wearing a short dress because ostensibly ‘she wanted it’ or was implicitly ‘asking for it’; that it is not OK to sacrifice our careers over family because the man, being the head of the family has said so; that it is not OK for men to be considered first when it comes to life opportunities like education and land ownership. Through listening, African feminists can make it known to other African women that the very awareness of feeling a disadvantage makes one a feminist in her own right, and that these feelings are shared; that we all should and can be women who confront our disadvantages and not wait for others to fight on our behalf and give voice to our causes. Acquiring such a voice consciousness will enable African feminisms to transcend the elite ranks to women in rural areas who are not privileged to share forums with like-minded people.

My position on voice consciousness should not be misconstrued to mean that the non−poor, elite (but not elitist), African feminists are not entitled to write about women’s issues, however they are defined.


THE WIDE MARGIN

I, a privileged African woman, nonetheless feels the burden of bringing to the fore the plights of women in the margins, those who do not have a voice, or who have a voice but are not heard, who do not have a platform on which to stand and raise their conscious voice. I feel the duty to amplify women’s voices raised against power. I can only do this effectively by listening to those dissimilar to me in thought, social standing, religion, class, ethnicity, and culture. This is the only way through which other African feminists like myself can develop a voice consciousness. A conscious African feminist voice is aware of its own sound, its timbre, its tonalities; it is in tune with the voices of women around and beyond it. An African feminist voice consciousness is attuned to different African women’s multi-part multi-vocal harmonies and dissonances, our polyphonies, our voices’ echoes and reverberations, our whispers and shouts, screams and moans; it orients itself dynamically, along the entire scale, towards other African women’s voices which in turn alter individual and collective feminist consciousness. It materialises from within African women’s bodies across time, and speaks out, variously, raising consciousness, into the future. We have, with raised voices, many glass ceilings to shatter to this effect, but it must be done. Naive readings of culture and history, unhearing or mishearing African women’s voices, do not hold a candle to the future I foresee for African women. It will be done!

END

51


52

THE WIDE MARGIN

07

THE RIGHT KIND OF AFRICAN WOMAN By - Livoi Wendo

The first thing I learnt when I started to explore the world of feminism was to be yourself. I spent a large amount of my teenage years looking at models and wishing I could dramatically alter my appearance, my lack of enthusiasm towards ‘traditional feminine pursuits’ and the plain awkwardness of being referred to as a teen who should have been a boy because of my interest in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. As the number of opinions increased around me, I was distinctly made aware of some sort of gold standard of womanhood I needed to attain. Feminism’s message of self acceptance was a particularly life affirming for the teen who didn’t seem to fit. I had been waiting for a sign that I didn’t have to perm my hair to be beautiful, that I didn’t need to hide my ‘loud’ personality to be more feminine. .I was thrilled to learn that I could take hold of my identity and claim my right to be treated equal to the next person. I was especially pleased at the idea that I could finally put to rest trying to be the right kind of African Woman.


THE WIDE MARGIN

Who is the right kind of African Woman? She is immaculately dressed, her mannerism are punctuated with just the right amount of polite and respectful; she is the zenith upon which we epitomise African women. Beneath her sparkling exterior lies a woman who knows how to keep a good home, a woman who pleases her husband, takes care of her in-laws and raises her children impeccably. You see her pictured walking miles to provide water for her family. You see her face in the local magazines alongside her household. She and I were never meant to be.

53


54

THE WIDE MARGIN

The exact moment I knew I didn’t fit the mould was during a family meeting, we were sitting down to lunch when my Aunt remarked “ Livoi, I don’t know what kind of man would marry you! I’m sure no African man would marry you, especially since you don’t seem to know how to keep a home!” I was deeply embarrassed, thirteen, awkward and feeling very out of place when mixed with my cousins who were chapati making champions. I had spent my youth opting out of cooking to garden with my father, jumping through hoops to avoid babysitting and generally, avoiding any overtures from my mother to ‘nurture my feminine side’. As I got older, my lack of domestication was evident; it was seen in my wonky ugali, my preference of pets over babies, and my general independent streak. At 16, I was a feminist and to many, I was also un-African. I struggled to mesh the two; I didn’t want children (and I still don’t!), I wasn’t keen on marriage, my cleaning skills were at an optimum level, but ugali wasn’t coming to the plate. Feminism made me more aware of the world we live in and the disparities between genders fueled by ‘culture’ and ‘correctness’ . The standards applied to women and men varied consistently, in terms of appearance, mannerism and the rights afforded to each. Often these disparities were justified as being right or meaningful on the basis of culture. The justification in letting a man ‘take care of the females’ was brought up when a group of sisters was disinherited out of their father’s will on the basis of gender. I remember visiting our village and hearing of the girls who had insisted on FGM, lest they be seen as ‘less of a woman’. Growing up, I was made aptly aware of how my appearance needed to be ‘acceptable’ lest I invite undue attention. I realised how futile this attempt to keep women within certain bounds was, when I was openly catcalled at 10 years by a man far older than me .

As I explored my feminist learning, I began to reshape my understanding of the African woman. I saw her insistence on educating all of her children. I saw her strength in contributing towards forming society and participating in framing communities. I noticed her drive to succeed, the power she held in her hands and I began to realise we had her all wrong.


THE WIDE MARGIN

The African Woman needed feminism, just as feminism needed her. The strength embodied by the African woman should not be constrained to her capability for domestic labour or her resilience in patriarchal injustice. Her thoughtfulness should not be reserved only for taking care of her husband, her children and the rest of society. Her generosity should not just be measured through the lavishness of her lunch spread. In my understanding of Feminism, the African woman became more than just the number of children she had raised; she became the future of her nation. No longer would she be “so and so’s “something”, she had an identity beyond her interactions and relationships with others. I looked up (and still do) to writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Ama Ata Aidoo , women who wrote about the African woman in her full complexity. No longer one dimensional, but an evolving character. My ideal kind of African woman turned out to simply be the one I turned out to be.

END

55


56

THE WIDE MARGIN

08

UNFEMILIAR TERRITORY With - Nairobidhobi


THE WIDE MARGIN

57


58

THE WIDE MARGIN


THE WIDE MARGIN

59


60

THE WIDE MARGIN


THE WIDE MARGIN

END

61


62

THE WIDE MARGIN

EDITORIAL TEAM VARYANNE SIKA – Editor-in-Chief Varyanne is a researcher, writer, reader and feminist. She practices black feminist breathing while championing intersectional, rigorous and unapologetic feminism.. varyanne@thewidemargin.org

NYABOE MAKIYA –

Contributing Editor

Nyaboe is a feminist writer and editor who cares deeply about the liberation of African women from the imperialist- white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal system, and spends most of her time talking and writing about it. When she is not doing this, she is likely talking and writing about the music she likes, or drinking tea. Because where there is tea, there is hope. nyaboe@thewidemargin.org

DANIEL MULI (NAIROBIDHOBI) – Feature Illustrator Daniel runs The Wide Margin’s strip ‘Unfemiliar Territory‘ and is a multidisciplinary creative. He is a founding member of Just A Band (a group of electronic musicians from Nairobi) he has made music and D.J.’ed, toured the world, made music videos and art installations. Dan has also worked as an animator/cartoonist for the International Emmy Award-winning comic book series Shujaaz. He was introduced to Feminism by his family and wants to lend his voice to feminist discussion. daniel@thewidemargin.org

NADDYA ADHIAMBO OLUOCH-OLUNYA –

Issue Illustrator

Naddya is an animator and illustrator living and working in Nairobi. She started illustrating for ‘Shujaaz’ in 2009 and is currently working for Zana Africa, The Wide Margin and doing freelance visual development work for Animated Feature Films naddya@thewidemargin.org


THE WIDE MARGIN

DEBUT ISSUE

FEMINIST WHILE AFRICAN

END

63


64

THE WIDE MARGIN

thewidemargin.org

TWM - Feminist While African (Issue #1)  

The Wide Margin's first issue!

TWM - Feminist While African (Issue #1)  

The Wide Margin's first issue!

Advertisement