Feminism as a way of life was born at my mama’s house, in a space that made woman power and intentional equality a survival strategy and mechanism to make up for oppression, the absence of men, and lifestyles that were without the luxury of adhering to strict gender scripts…I learned feminism from my mama and them, rural women who did not have the benefit of formal college education or fancy words for how they lived.
They would have no doubt, by strict standards, in the vulnerable moments of their lives that were necessary for sanity and survival, been called unfeminist while the world called them unfeminine. They would have had little investment in either label, learning from experience how dangerous it is to let outside people dictate your inside thoughts.
Women who read our feminism as inherited from family members who would not have necessarily been called feminist or identified as such, but whose way of living and expressing it formed the spine of our feminisms.
Dr Robin Boylorn’s recent article ‘Mama’s feminism’ poetically describes her personal relationship to feminism. Her words echo through the lives of many of us who understand our identification with feminism as complex. Women who read our feminism as inherited from family members who would not have necessarily been called feminist or identified as such, but whose way of living and expressing it formed the spine of our feminisms.
Considering ways of being feminist (particularly many of those that go unrecognised), the term’s perception, place and evolution are important in an age where it is increasingly becoming a distinct part of pop culture’s vocabulary and our identities.
On our continent, it is fundamentally important to address these ideas, in an environment where feminism is still argued to be un-African, where black women are asked to identify as black before they identify as women by ‘progressive patriarchs’ who view racism as more important than the gender struggle, or where we consistently assert the need for safe spaces.
In a radio show last week, multiple men called in to explain why feminism was not important or relevant in Africa. Some argued that it was built on ‘western categories’, while another sought to justify the idea of a husband having marital rights to his wife’s body – an argument for marital rape cloaked in tradition. There are many familiar ways to justify this argument – across the lines of race, class and culture. What they were essentially attempting to do is dictate the borders and applicability of feminism – without, conveniently, having to inhabit the experience that is at the centre of the reason feminism exists.
Numerous African feminists have made complex arguments that debunk this mythology, backed up with the receipts. They show how culture is constantly shifting, and must be subject to critique. And importantly, they reveal how these kinds of patriarchal critiques treat Africa as a country, flattening out the numerous differences – one of which Milisuthando Bongela recently highlighted using an example from Kenya.
African women have always found ways of resisting patriarchy through manipulating popular ideas of motherhood, or religion, or labour.
The idea that feminism has nothing to offer to African women often appeals to an urban/rural divide, which not only undermines the intelligence of women outside urban areas, but also disregards their many feminist practices. Echoing Dr Boylorn, Minna Salami argues: “African women have always found ways of resisting patriarchy through manipulating popular ideas of motherhood, or religion, or labour.”
In many ways, the critiques used to justify why feminism is un-African erase the many women who have championed gender rights on the continent, and keep us locked in a distracting back-and-forth. Exploring the relationships of power between Western feminism and African feminism are important, but these arguments made do not get us there. As Salami puts forward: “it is also important for African feminists to shape our own ideological home for African feminism through which we can view African women’s issues”.
The work of shaping this home is being and has been done by numerous women – too many to name. These women who are writing about what it means to be right here, right now – and also ensuring that those who came before us are not erased. This work cannot be disregarded. But there are also women in different locations and contexts who are practising the very thing we preach, in ways as complicated as our own – and get little attention or acknowledgement for their radical actions in homes, other workspaces on and streets. These are the women Boylorn writes about in ‘Mama’s Feminism’.
Additionally, there are important conversations that are currently being had – and must be extended – about feminism’s academic feel and class, as the “term was born in academe, in an environment that polices people’s behaviours to dictate who can and cannot be feminist and what is and is not feminist”, and therefore can feel exclusive and shut out women outside of its ivory towers, who are still coming to grips with its vocabulary.
It is not that we should not ask the questions about feminism on the continent, among these, questions about how often we validate, share and acknowledge the work of feminists outside the content, disregarding African feminists or even our contemporaries: those writing, speaking, and bringing feminism to life, whether through think pieces, features, Facebook posts, or succinct 140-character tweets, or questions about the nature and form of contemporary feminism. But we will not have them on the terms that disregard our lives, or our feminism.
There are always new frontiers for us to question, to push against and critique – the work of feminism is constant – but many of the conversations that we get caught up in, keep us from generating new, dynamic conversations that are relevant to how we live, where we are, and the thoughts that ricochet through our heads and rarely reach our lips.