Talking about feminism in Africa
ELAINE SALO speaks to PROFESSOR AMINA MAMA,
one of Africa's leading contemporary feminist activist scholars whose
critical contribution to African feminism is drawn from her work across
the academic-activist divide.
Amina Mama is the Chair of Gender Studies
and Director of the African Gender Institute (AGI) and was based
in Nigeria before joining the University of Cape Town. She has worked
outside the academic mainstream, as a researcher and consultant
to various international and governmental bodies, as well as an
array of non-governmental and women's organisations. She holds a
doctorate in Organisational Psychology from the University of London.
Her current research interests centre around bringing gender analysis
to bear on subjectivity, social relations and politics. Her major
research projects have addressed women in government and politics
in a variety of African contexts, militarism, women's organisations
and movements, race and subjectivity.
Her major publications are The Hidden Struggle:
Statutory and Voluntary Sector Responses to Violence Against Black
Women in the Home (Runnymede Trust, 1989, republished: Whiting
and Birch, 1996); Beyond the Masks: Race, Gender and Subjectivity
(Routlege, 1995) and Engendering African Social Sciences
(co-edited with A Imam and F Sow, CODESRIA, 1997). Amina lives in
Cape Town with her life partner, a daughter aged seven, and a son
Elaine: Tell us about your
personal journey into feminism and the point in your life when you
consciously identified as an African feminist?
Amina: My early life, like
most peoples', was not consciously political and I did not grow
up identifying as either 'African' or as 'feminist'. However, I
was made aware that I did not behave the way I was expected to as
a young girl growing up in one of Nigeria's northern states. I studied
too much, played too hard, and was much more assertive and confident
than most of my peers. I also had different ambitions, nurtured
by the kind of family I grew up in. Many members on both sides of
my family were relatively highly educated, and they all firmly believed
in education as a crucial aspect of upbringing, upward mobility
and nation-building. On the Nigerian side, several of my uncles
were involved in establishing the post-colonial education structures
in the '50s and '60s; much of this was motivated by the enormous
optimism that accompanied the attainment of nation statehood. My
mother was a school teacher. I accompanied her to school from a
very early age, which meant I was always the youngest in the class.
Perhaps I was always trying to compensate for this by being the
first to finish and move on, which was not expected of a small girl.
Oneconsequence was that I was often out of synchrony with my peers,
especially the other girls. Come adolescence, my peers were interested
in clothes and hair and make-upmatters that did not interest
me at all. When many of them left secondary school to marry suitable
husbands, my family urged me to carry on studying. I went away to
university, and then just kept going, largely because I did not
relish the idea of being kept at home: the world was just too exciting!
Of course that was talked about a lot. But my family supported me
and did not begin to get concerned until much later, and by that
time I had my own head, as it were.
I have often been called a feminist. I always
recall Rebecca Mae West on the subject: whenever I do anything that
differentiates me from a doormat, people call me a feminist. Naturally
I took the trouble to find out what this allegation was all about,
and the rest is herstory. We have had to fight for our own meaning
to be kept alive, as the Western European and North American women
have taken it up and filled it with their realities. Sometimes the
term has been appropriated by anti-democratic interests. The debate
about imperial feminism was our response to that. At other moments,
African regimes have tried to do funny things with gender politics
and misrepresent feminism, and our societies have not always been
clear about the meaning of 'feminism' and its perennial presence
in all our societies. I have never felt offended by being addressed
as a feminist, but rather humbled and daunted at the responsibility
it bestows on me. Feminism remains a positive, movement-based term,
with which I am happy to be identified. It signals a refusal of
oppression, and a commitment to struggling for women's liberation
from all forms of oppressioninternal, external, psychological
and emotional, socio-economic, political and philosophical. I like
the word because it identifies me with a community of confident
and radical women, many of whom I respect, both as individuals and
for what they have contributed to the development of the world as
we know it. These ancestors include many African, Asian, Latin American,
Middle Eastern, European and American women of all colours and creeds,
past and present. Among my favourites are the Egyptian feminists
like Huda Sharaawi in the '20s, organising an occupation of the
Egyptian parliament, the anti-war suffragettes and suffragists fighting
for the vote in England in the same era, the early African-American
heroines like Sojourner Truth, and for that matter, the women freedom
fighters all over the African continent. Closer to home there are
women who remind me of my own auntsthe likes of Adeline Casely-Hayford,
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Gambo Sawaba, not to mention my present-day
friends and fellow-travellers.
Elaine: There have been many
debates about whether feminism exists in Africa. Patricia McFadden
and Gwendolyn Mikell are two key thinkers who have written on African
feminism. Yet their descriptions of what constitutes African feminism
differ markedly. Whilst McFadden argues that gender hierarchies
have existed in African societies and that the subsequent power
inequities were exacerbated by colonialism, Mikell argues that contemporary
gender inequality is primarily the result of 'traumatic colonisation
by the West'. She argues that African women were integrated into
pre-colonial structures and that contemporary gender inequities
are primarily the result of colonial processes. What are your insights
on the two perspectives?
Amina: These two women certainly
display different understandings of African feminism. These differences
are partly informed by their different positioning vis-à-vis
Africa. Patricia McFadden is an activist and self-identified African
feminist with many years of experience of political activism. Like
many of us on the continent, when she uses the term feminism she
refers to political praxis that emanates from a very cogent analysis
of political, economic and social conditions which shape African
women's lives. She herself is a courageous, outspoken individual
who doesn't pull her punches and is unperturbed about her appeal,
popular or otherwise. Gwendolyn Mikell, on the other hand, is based
in Washington DC, and has indeed conducted research and toured in
Africa, interviewed and worked with African women, presumably of
her own choosing. She has done worthwhile work as an international
academic scholar, but her definition of African feminism is different
from McFadden's. Mikell's definition is based upon deductive generalisation
and observation. She therefore describes African feminism as she
sees it from the outside, from a physical and analytical distance,
rather than from the perspective of someone engaged in feminist
activism on the African continent. More disturbingly, the content
of Mikell's definition, namely that African feminism is 'distinctly
heterosexual, pro-natal' and concerned with what she refers to as
'the politics of survival' seems to me to be deeply conservative.
Her definition may describe something about fertility rates and
poverty, but it is not about challenging the status quo, or about
describing the ways in which the contemporary patriarchies in Africa
constrain women and prevent them from realising their potential
beyond their traditional roles as hard-working income-generating
wives and mothers. It is a use of the term 'feminism' that elides
all the other aspirations you and I know African women to have,
as if in being African, we forgo all the things that other feminists
struggle forrespect, dignity, equality, lives free from violence
and the threat of violence. It seems obvious to me that African
women do have aspirations that go far beyond securing their survival:
political, economic, social, intellectual, professional and indeed
personal desires for change. It may be true that most African women
are trapped in the daily business of securing the survival of themselves,
their families and their communitiesbut that is merely symptomatic
of a global grid of patriarchal power, and all the social, political
and economic injustices that delivers to women, and to Africans.
Elaine: Would you say that
womanism has any relevance for African feminists?
Amina: I believe the term
was invented by another American woman of colour, Alice Walker,
as a critique of and in response to white-dominated feminism. In
the USA white domination is the most visible thing to women of colour
like Walker. It is quite understandable that the most salient thing
to black women living in the West is racism, and that they feel
a need to distance themselves from things that look white. In white-dominated
contexts, feminism looks white, and who would want to collude with
northern based, white women's monopoly of feminism?
However, the historical record tells us that
even white women have always looked to Africa for alternatives to
their own subordination, since the days of the early anthropologists.
Look how the English dispatched anthropologists like Sylvia Leith
Ross and Judith Van Allen to try and make sense of the Women's War
of the '20s1! So we have always been part of the early conceptualisations
of so-called 'Western feminism', even if not properly acknowledged
as such. More importantly African women have always defined and
carried out their own struggles. African feminism dates far back
in our collective pastalthough much of the story has yet to
be researched and told. I mentioned Egypt earlier because of the
Egyptian Feminist Union and the actions that they undertook at the
time against Egyptian men's monopoly of political power. I have
no problems with womanism but changing the terminology doesn't solve
the problem of global domination. I choose to stick with the original
term, insist that my own reality inform my application of it. Words
can always be appropriatedfor example there is not just womanism,
but Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie's Stiwanism and Catherine Achonulu's
Motherismbut this does not get away from the main problem,
namely white domination of global politics and northern-based white
women's relative power to define. We should define our own terms.
To put it bluntly, white feminism has never been strong enough to
be 'enemy'in the way that say, global capitalism can be viewed
as an enemy. The constant tirades against 'white feminists' do not
have the same strategic relevance as they might have had 20 years
ago when we first subjected feminism to anti-racist scrutiny. Since
then many Westerners have not only listened to the critiques of
African and other so-called third world feministsthey have
also re-considered their earlier simplistic paradigms and come up
with more complex theories. Postcolonial feminism owes much to African,
Asian and Latin American thinkers. Western feminists have agreed
with much of what we have told them about different women being
oppressed differently, and the importance of class and race and
culture in configuring gender relations. Having won that battle
why would we want to abandon the struggle, leaving the semantic
territory to others, and find ourselves a new word?
Elaine: Is the distinction
that is made between women's movements and feminism still helpful
in the African context?
Amina: It is still useful
to separate the two in the African contextwe need to be able
to identify reactionary women's movements. The reason for this is
that the African experience includes all manner of women's mobilisation,
not all of our own design or choosing. Recent history has demonstrated
clearly that in Africa even the most undemocratic regimes do not
hesitate to involve women. Indeed many of them make particular efforts
to mobilise women on their behalf. Women danced on the streets when
Mobutu Seseko celebrated women within their traditional roles as
wives and mothers in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Nigerian military wives have sponsored massive women's protests
to mobilise support for the corrupt dictatorships run by their husbands.
These are examples of women being mobilised or taking to the streets
themselves to support an agenda no one would describe as feminist.
So there can be movements of women, which are not autonomous and
not about redressing gender injustice or transforming oppressive
gender relations. So in this sense it is useful to have a clear
idea of what we mean by a gender politics that is geared towards
the wholesale liberation of women.
Women-focused gender politics would work for
transformation at three levels, namely at the level of our subjectivity,
at the level of our personal lives and relationships and thirdly
at the level of political economy. Women's liberation requires addressing
gender injustice all the way from micro- to the macro-political
level, and not shying away from any level of struggle.
Elaine: Would alliances with
men be necessary to succeed in overcoming gender injustice?
Amina: We need to form alliances,
but these do need to be strategic. If we want a multifaceted struggle
to be successful then we must be prepared to form alliances both
locally and internationally. There have been many instances where
women have thrown their weight behind broader struggles both nationally
and internationally. Very often it has been the right thing to do.
But with hindsight, we have realised that these struggles have worked
with gender and power in ways that have not transformed gender relations
as we might have hoped they would. So we need to be more discerning
about the alliances that we make.
Elaine: Do you think that
the exploration of gendered subjectivity in the African context
is a worthwhile feminist project?
Amina: Even our most radical
political scientists have failed when it comes to addressing the
intellectual and political challenge posed by the problematic nature
of gendered identity. Postcolonial feminist theory has a great deal
to teach our leading lights in contemporary political analysis.
The complicated phenomena currently being grouped under the rubric
of 'identity politics', for example, have not been adequately theorised,
and ignores all the feminist theory on the gendered nature of identity.
Yet it has been clear since the days of Freud that all identities
are gendered, whether one is talking about identity at the level
of individuality, sociality or politics. Feminist theory also has
much to contribute to our understanding of statecraft and politics.
At the very least it alerts us to the partial and limited manifestations
of individuality, sociality and politics in patriarchal societies.
It leads us to ask interesting questions, such as whether there
is a link between male domination of social and political life and
the prevalence of war and militarism? We can draw a good example
from Somalia where warring factions were killing each other on the
basis of clan identities. Because these clans are exogamous, women
do not have a clan identity in the same way. Their ties with brothers,
husbands, sons and fathers extend across clans. Somali women's gendered
identities transcend clansthey are therefore less likely to
fight and kill on the basis of clans. That is why Somali women are
telling the men to step aside after slaughtering each other. They
are tired of paying the price of male-driven conflict. Similarly
in Rwanda, it was very common for Hutu men to marry Tutsi women.
During the genocide Hutu men often killed their own wives because
they were Tutsiyet these very women bore children fathered
by Hutu men. Surely an analysis of the manner in which gender identities
can mitigate or consolidate ethnic identities would be informative?
Elaine: Recent development
in the social sciences suggests that the analytical power of the
concept gender has diminished in the African context. For example
the founders of the e-journal, Jenda, have suggested that
gender is a western construct foisted upon the African reality and
that gender has not much relevance for understanding the African
reality. In yet another development a recent history workshop in
the US was held which suggested that we go 'beyond gender in Africa'.
What is your response to this?
Amina: It is entirely outrageous
to suggest that 'we have done the gender thing and now we can move
beyond it'. If US-based people are talking about 'beyond gender',
perhaps it is because they feel that in the US the gender struggle
is over? Given all the empirical evidence that women are not equal
to men in the US, it seems to me that this is more a case of rhetoric
rushing beyond reality. Perhaps it is a characteristically American
thing to produce layer after layer of rhetoric, rhetoric that addresses
rhetoric and loses touch with reality? Maybe gender struggles no
longer matter in California (although that does not match my observations
of American life) but even if it were so, African societies are
so clearly demarcated by gender divisions that it would be strategically
suicidal to deny this and pretend that gender does not exist, or
worse still, that gender struggles are a thing of the past.
Elaine: In South Africa we
have seen a disturbing trend in anti-intellectualism among some
women activists, partly in response to the fact that often more
privileged women, whether white, black or middle class, still dominate
the representation and analysis of gender struggles here. How do
we address this issue?
Amina: We women are in no
position to deprive ourselves of the intellectual tools that can
assist us in pursuit of gender justice. The arena of the intellect
has been used to suppress us. We cannot afford to ignore the importance
of intellectual work, especially in the 21st century when knowledge
and information define power more than ever before. That is why
we at the AGI place so much emphasis on getting women to engage
with theory and analysis from an activist perspective, and to develop
strategically useful skills and make sure they make good use of
information technology, research and writing skills, training, teaching,
and communication skills. I do not see the pursuit of knowledge,
or working in a university as un-African or anti-feminist. On the
contrary, these are arenas that we must imbue with our own concerns,
transform into places that serve our collective interests, instead
of leaving them to continue perpetrating intellectual and epistemic
violence against us.
1. Women in Nigeria protested against British
imposition of taxes.
Elaine Salo is a lecturer at the Africa
Gender Institute. Her major research interests include gangsterism
and the construction of gender identity in resettlement townships
on the Cape Flats.
African Feminisms I, no.50 (2001), pp. 58-63.