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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 aged five.

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-up—matters 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 oppression—internal, 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 aunts—the 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 for—respect, 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 communities—but 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 past—although 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 appropriated—for example there is not just womanism, but Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie's Stiwanism and Catherine Achonulu's Motherism—but 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 feminists—they 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 context—we 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 clans—they 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 Tutsi—yet 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.

FOOTNOTES

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.

From Agenda, African Feminisms I, no.50 (2001), pp. 58-63.