“Naming oneself as a woman, in societies and traditions which have always named us as somebody’s mother, wife, or daughter, in both the public and private, makes it more difficult to introduce the new space of naming ourselves feminist.” –Dr. Patricia McFadden, South African Regional Institute for Policy Studies
In societies that are characterized by male dominance in every facet of life it is a challenge to determine how far African women have come, when there is clearly so much farther to go. Yet despite the fact that the West thinks African women are far behind, over the years the struggle for equality, political and socioeconomic emancipation has gained momentum from a passive to a more vocal advocacy on all fronts. African women are raising their voices and demanding representation.
The rest of the world is still struggling to define African feminist thought. Some would argue that feminism does not exist in Africa. Some would even argue that feminism completely goes against the African way. It is “un-African,” as if misogyny and patriarchy are Africa’s only defining characteristics. Unfortunately, African women’s accomplishments are continuously being overshadowed by these myths and stereotypes.
In reality the power of African women is clear, if only people would care to take a closer look. Feminism is not un-African and it has always existed on the continent. The term feminism may be an import but the concept of female empowerment and the celebration of womanhood have been powerful aspects of African societies for centuries.
In Africa today, we see women on the rise in everything from politics and media to agriculture and development. African feminism can be found in the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the other female presidents on the continent, the literature of Chimamanda Adichie, and the activism of women like Leymah Gbowee and the late Wangari Maathai. Most recently we can see African feminism in the solidarity amongst the thousands of brave women in Nigeria and across the African continent who made the world pay attention to the case of their missing daughters.
So what is African Feminist Thought and can it even be defined in a Western context? Well honestly, it doesn’t need to be. The attempts to characterize the actions of African women based on Western criteria are destructive and patronizing. Feminist academia in America is grounded in institutionalized standards. As necessary as they are, the countless Women’s Studies programs in American universities aren’t necessarily translating into actual active female participation and political and economic empowerment throughout the whole population. In the United States there is often a disconnect between academia and activism.
In African countries, women do not have the luxury to dwell on the institutional aspects of feminist thought. Rather, feminist thought manifests itself in the active struggles of everyday women. Feminism in Africa is active. It is not isolated to classroom seminars or textbooks. That is a privilege that African women do not have. Action is the first priority.
African Feminism is constant. It is the call to action that is moving and empowering African women everywhere. It does not come in waves. It is continuous, and it is embodied in the power, the courage, and the solidarity amongst African women.
by Dianne Lake