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Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?

05 Mar

A friend forwarded me a link to Zimbabwean feminist activist, scholar, and regional coordinator of Just Associates (JASS) Southern Africa, Shereen Essof’s article South Africa: patriarchy, paper, and reclaiming feminism and I must say it makes for a very interesting read indeed. It left me thinking about feminism, in all its various forms, and not only did I think of the ideology of it but I did so on a much wider geographical scale than the one tackled by Essof in this article i.e. across the entire continent.

On the most part I agree with Essof, there most certainly needs to be a collective feminism, “measuring success not by how high a woman can climb, but by the condition in which most women remain”. I also agree that often times the feminist agenda falls on the wayside or takes the backburner to what are implied (through a lack of prioritisation or in some countries a blatant disregard for gender equality) to be “more important or bigger” agendas that feminists might be a part of such as trade unions or even Afrikan nationalist struggles during colonialism and all this because it is not considered an agenda in its own right.

For instance, although the liberation struggle in South Afrika, as in many Afrikan countries, created a platform to acknowledge women’s movements across the continent with the collective consciousness (Afrikan liberation) forming the foundations of the indigenous feminist movements, it has become evident that even though women’s groups were very visible and active then, they were still considered by some as auxiliary to the more patriarchal political parties of the liberation. So when Essof says “It’s the same old story, women work in supporting and building the struggles and organizations, but the campaigns are designed in ways that do not  accommodate women’s agendas”, it is easy for me to agree and come to the realisation that although nationalism, by way of example, mobilised women as political agents in the struggle days, it also acted as a restraint that hindered them from exercising their agency or allowing them to bring to the fore their fight against gender inequality.

I also agree that achieving gender equity, not only in South Afrika but in Afrika as a whole should not just be on paper. It goes beyond just signing and ratifying regional and international instruments and means very little if the implementation or lack thereof leaves a lot to be desired.

Be that as it may, I can’t bring myself to agree completely with Essof, particularly when she speaks of the evils of nationalism and its patriarchal make up. I say this because I feel that nationalism in itself is not a bad thing but it is the way in which it is designed and presented that needs to be tackled. A gender sensitive approach is paramount to the idea and success of nationalism and there is a need to deconstruct the masculinity within it and patriarchal foundation on which it is built. The empowerment and complete emancipation of Afrika is a dire need in order for the progression of its people, including the women. We must not forget that women on this continent were once powerful and respected. The subjugation of woman in my opinion, based on history, came with the subjugation of the Afrikan. Unfortunately Pan Afrikanism and Black Consciousness today have a very masculine face and one needs only look up the list of the “well known” Pan Afrikanists online to find that the list is only made up of men. The redistribution of not just political but economic power needs to go back into the hands of the people but these people are not just the men but also the women and there needs to be the realisation that this ideology is not foreign or Western but it is one that has been part of Afrikan authentic tradition, prior to the monotheistic Abrahamic religions that facilitated the enslavement and colonisation of the aboriginal Afrikan (see King Leopold II’s letter to the church). There is also a need for Afrikan feminists to see that tradition and culture need not be the enemy especially if approached from their original composition and they were not always oppressive of the female.

In academic circles, the emergence of spiritual feminism the past 20 or so years has been frowned upon and so quickly dismissed but I would not advise this within the Afrikan context. Afrika is historically acknowledged as the birth place of humanity, civilisation and religion and spirituality so it only stands to reason that Afrikans are amongst some of the most religious and spiritual peoples on the planet. Instead of fighting this I strongly believe that Afrikan feminists learn from this and design their activism against this backdrop and not that of other cultures. Whether one believes in the supernatural or the mystical is neither here nor there if their targeted beneficiaries and constituencies do.

From an academic or intellectual perspective the need for people to hold onto the idea of a supernatural being who is all powerful should be respected therefore the fact that there was widespread Goddess worship with people believing Her/Them to be the original Womb and Creator of the universe and all things within, in Afrika prior to Western influence is testimony to the possibility of empowerment and reverence of women on the continent. Afrika has its own powerful women throughout history from Nefertari and Nefertitti to Dahya, warrior queen of the Berbers to Mamphela Ramphele to Wangari Maathai to Nawal el Saadawi and to Dr. Buchi Emecheta that there really is no need to constantly look to the western champions of women’s lib such as Simone de Beauvoir for inspiration. This of course is not to say that there is nothing to learn from such great and inspirational minds as nothing would be further from the truth but instead is to highlight that not only do contexts differ but as Afrikans we have our own great minds and our own functional systems too, even if we may forgotten them. We need to make use of the feminism within culture and tradition as well as (given the nature of Afrikan societies i.e. a case where spiritualism and religion are paramount on the Continent) a need to make use of spiritual feminism.

Although I may not agree completely with American University professor and author Clenora Hudson – Weems’ Africana Womanism theory I believe she is right when she postulates that by and large the average Afrikan woman does not see the Afrikan man as her enemy as it is suggested by Western feminism that appears to be waging a war against men for subjugating women and therefore that the choice to be a wife, a mother, to cook all the meals, give up the opportunity for career advancement and to provide financially for the family so that your husband can do it instead and give up one’s individual identity by taking on the husband’s name is not necessarily a sign of disempowerment of the woman. Being pregnant and broody should not necessarily be seen as a sign of disempowerment or lack of ambition but instead be seen as the woman accepting the great responsibility that only a woman was capable of carrying out, of creating life.

When Essof tackles the patriarchy in conservative traditionalism in her article I realise that she does so, as do many people in post-colonial Afrika, from the perspective of one who has bought into the ideology of our tradition and culture as it was redefined, redesigned and readministered by our colonisers. The thing this is though, there is a need to provide revisionist histories of the role of the Afrikan woman within Afrikan society and to revisit culture and tradition on the continent. Fighting post-colonial culture which is mistaken by many as authentic indigenous culture and its vilification does nothing for the feminist fight in Africa, in my opinion, and instead only serves to reinforce people’s resistance of it and continues to reinforce the impression that feminism is a western ideology that has no place in Africa. We should instead, look into reviving authentic cultures that revered women as well as rethink our strategy and stop pushing a Western feminist agenda while ignoring our own aboriginal feminism.

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2012

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