Regional Programs > Africa > Next Story


Political Power: The Challenges of Sexuality, Patriarchy and Globalization in Africa

Patricia McFadden

Paper delivered at a seminar hosted by the Mauritius Women's Movement (MLF) and the Workers Education Association (LPT), Port Louis, Mauritius, February 2001.

Let me share with you some of the reasons why I think this moment—this time we are living in—is special, because these ponderings provide the context of my reflections on how power intersects with the notions of sexuality, patriarchy and globalization—the subject of our conversation this evening.

The specialness of this moment lies in its being the culmination of many long and difficult struggles, especially within Southern Africa, for dignity and peace. Each and every one of us is the custodian of a sacred memory, drawn from the long battle to free ourselves from colonization, racism, bigotry, backward feudal practices and conventions as well as the so-called 'civilizing' agendas of capitalist modernity as they have unfolded, often with great pain and heart rendering loss, these past five hundred years. This moment brings together all the energies and desires that we have whispered quietly or shouted out in great anger across the landscapes of this place we call home. Many times we have found ourselves at the place of great mourning—as did those enslaved foreparents who threw themselves off the great heights of the mountain rather than return to the indignity and denigration of enslavement—a choice they had to make given their knowledge of the monster that pursued them to that end; and it is at those times of great challenge that we have to step back, take a deep breadth and pause in order to be able to review the past so that we might understand the present and through that craft a new and different future. And this moment gives us the opportunity to do exactly that.

Most significantly and in a very intimate way, this is a moment which is finally of our own making; a time that has come out of the imperative to be Africans in our own ways; an opportunity which we have crafted and nurtured through an unfailing belief and conviction in our ability to change our worlds/our lives/our futures as women; as workers; as citizens of our national and continental spaces and increasingly as citizens of the world.

So this evening, I want to lean back and reflect upon what it means for those of us who believe in freedom to accept the challenges which patriarchal privilege and exclusion present, and I would like to use three key issues—the notions of the political as personal and inclusive; integrity and personhood; and rights and citizenship—to open up the terrain of discourse in the hope that this short sojourn will take us one step closer to a resolution of the century old problems of injustice and oppression in all our societies.

I will first of all assume that this audience does not require my re-statement of the consequences of globalisation in economic and political terms because the evidence is clear for all of us to resist—the threats to basic services like health, education, affordable transportation and shelter, access to dignified and safe employment and the guarantee of our rights as citizens without exception. Therefore, I will refer to the notion of globalisation as an ongoing context made up of historically recognizable forces that are once again attempting to restructure the world in order to maintain hegemonic systems of exploitation and privilege.

However, this is only one side of the notion of globalisation. I think that we need to explore another, often less recognized side of how our world is changing or has changed—that of the emergence of international coalitions and movements of resistance around the lives of women and poor people. These are the coalitions to defend the eco-systems and environments that have sustained our livelihoods and very ability to exist as a species; the movements for the rights of people who move and or are coercively moved around the globe in search of political and economic security, fleeing religious fundamentalist persecution, or simply exploring the immenseness of this planet. There are also movements, almost a century old, to resist the militarization of the world and the ever-present threat of nuclear destruction which knows no boundaries; these are movements which have made the issue of peace central to our understanding of what globalisation means for all of us in a much more diverse and less defeatist way.

This is my context—to locate some of what I think are the most pressing issues facing us as Africans within a context of modernity that requires that we envision a new and different future, even as we remember the lessons and mistakes of the past.

Power and Democracy as Historically Exclusionary Practices

Throughout the human narrative in all but very exceptional cases, which are rare and often romanticized, power and notions of freedom and justice have remained deeply class based and androcentric, reflective of the opinions and interests of ruling class men, regardless of their colour or location in spatial terms. And even when such systems aspired to be inclusive and socially expansive, they remained essentially exclusionary and patronizing of those who had been constructed as Other in relation to power as the most critical resource in that society. Across our world we struggled for what appeared to be collective visions of freedom and justice, and while it is critical to acknowledge the opportunities that nationalist liberation struggles and anti-colonial resistance provided to those groups in our societies which had been up till then excluded from the public, for example women, we must also critically evaluate the implications of nationalism as an ideology which is fundamentally sexist and exclusionary of women, particularly during the neo-colonial period. However, the very notion of the public space emerges as an expression of the development and existence of surplus pegged largely on the unpaid labour of women in the home and the unremunerated labour of enslaved communities in the wider society.

It is within this milieu of exchange that new relationships of property and power rise which are institutionalized in new structures that over time become known as the public—a space and a concept which reflects the new relations of production and civic interaction. It is here that the state and the key institutions of the society are located and dominated by men as a gender and as the owners of wealth—both material and social. Juxtaposed to the public space where men are 'free' to roam, always of course in relation to their status, the notion of the private arises out of the definition of women as the private property of males, located in male headed households. Even to date, women cannot form a family on their own, as a legal entity in all our societies. They have to marry men in order to create a legally and socially recognized unit called the family. Through rituals and practices that have become euphemistically understood as 'cultural' and 'traditional', women's capacities and abilities to labour and to reproduce are institutionalized in the patriarchal family as the private property of their fathers and husbands. It is at this interface between human creativity and the existence of surplus that the most crucial relationships of power and control become embedded, especially in relation to women.

Over time, women, like poor men and the young, became excluded from the resources that were located in the public, and a dualistic system of rules and regulations were formulated which have kept women largely in the private—working long hours without remuneration for their labour—which is one of the main reasons why women remain the poorest people in the world, and like the slaves, women have been excluded from the rights and civic entitlements that emerged out of the various struggles enacted in the public. Therefore, while it is important to show the linkages between gender and poverty across the female/male divide, it is even more important to recognize that poor men have always had access to the public sphere where they are able to engage in struggles for fairness and economic and social justice, while women have remained largely tied to the private sphere where they continue to be treated as the slaves of men in the heterosexual family, even in the families of those men who struggle against economic enslavement.

In all our societies across this continent, men have colluded to keep women out of the public sphere where rights and entitlements are located (we know that there are no rights in the family, only privileges and benevolent gestures and much violation, exclusion and death), and even as we laud the struggles against colonization, we often shy away from the acknowledgement that most black men colluded with the colonial state in the exclusion of black women from the cities and those sites where the possibility of becoming free was located. To date, even after almost fifty years of independence, all African governments have retained the vicious socio-legal and coercive practices that exclude and suppress women and female children, which characterized feudal African societies and were further refined by the colonial state with the assistance of privileged African men. The present re-institutionalisation of traditional courts and traditional statuses in the political and legal systems of a country like South Africa speaks most tragically to this ongoing collusion between men of different classes and colours to exclude women from the democratic institutions and practices we have fought so courageously to build.

The maintenance of the public/private divide through claims of cultural authenticity and the need to hold onto so-called 'traditions'—which we all know are basically practices and value systems that privilege men in the home and in the key institutions of our societies—has inhibited the greater participation of women in the transformation of Africa to the present day. Notions of what is political and public are still fundamentally tied to the claim that what women know and do is best suited to the production of use values for household consumption and the reproduction of the species. Even in societies where women have excelled as professionals and knowledge producers, they are faced with a continuous backlash, often premised on fundamentalist beliefs that so easily mobilize communities to participate in the undemocratic exclusion of women from their rights. One has only to look at the issue of taboos around the sexuality of women and how these taboos are perpetuated through fundamentalist claims that are centuries old and viciously misogynist—allowing, for example, women to be raped and violated by claiming that women bring such violation upon themselves through the ways in which they dress and by the very nature of their female bodies as 'unclean' and 'sexually dangerous.'

In all our societies we find the blatant justification of the victimization of women by men in key positions—within the judiciary, in organized religion, within families, and in social and cultural organizations, which deploy ancient patriarchal myths of exclusion and privatization to defend impunity. By impunity I mean the deliberate, socially sanctioned violation of rules and systems of human conduct that are the collective possession of a society, and which have been designated as the markers of human dignity. The notions of integrity and personhood lie at the core of human dignity and decency, and we all learn these from the moment we enter a human space. Every human being is born with the inalienable right to physical, emotional and sexual integrity, and the nurturing process in all our societies recognizes the importance of not only protecting the integrity of another human being, particularly while they are young and vulnerable, but is also anchored on the transmission of these notions to the individual as untouchable and inalienable rights. This is why we abhor slavery and fight to the death to remain free.

Yet the very people who understand the centrality of human integrity as a civic right are often those who engage in and support practices and so-called 'customary laws' that violate and undermine the physical, emotional and sexual integrity of women and girls—in the name of culture and male supremacy. In my opinion, and through my work as a radical feminist who is totally uncompromising on the rights and entitlements of women wherever they live, this impunity, which lies at the heart of violation and social injustice in all our societies, is embedded in the privatization of women within the key social and political, religious and cultural institutions across this continent and the world at large.

Therefore it is critical to understand that in as much as the private/public divide, which has facilitated the construction of power in essentially class and masculinist terms within most of our societies, continues to be challenged and resisted by women's and other social movements, the major difficulty in making the political inclusive of everyone lies in the persistent exclusion of women as citizens of our societies. Unless we are able to see the interconnectedness of impunity as it is culturally, politically, economically, religiously and legally framed and sanctioned we cannot begin to respond effectively to the imperative of restructuring our societies in sustainable and democratic ways.

We have to see the culturalized expressions of impunity (through female genital mutilation, male child preferences, unfair eating practices, incest, witch-hunting women, especially older women and widows, child marriages and coerced marriages, and feminized altruism) in order to debunk them and declare them criminal offenses against citizens in each and every instance. Only in this way can we begin to replace them with new democratic, life-enhancing cultural notions and practices.

We have to reject outright (and not try to reform) those legal systems that are partial and often blatantly patriarchal: for example, the persistence of notions of male conjugal rights; refusals to recognize marital rape as a crime; allowance of polygamy and rampant sexual mobility; notions of paternity which define children as the property of the man rather than emphasizing the responsibilities and obligations of parenting in democratic family relationships; inheritance practices that allow men to inherit women as a form of property/as slaves of male controlled families; and a myriad of injustices that are allowed to circulate and reproduce themselves through the often deliberate misrepresentation and/or insistence by judicial officers that women cannot be considered persons in the ways that men are.

We must critique the exclusionary economic practices (which globalization is reinforcing and extending to every aspect of human life) that are deepening the immiseration of women and young people through a rhetoric of dog-eats-dog; dangerous claims which have become normative and naturalized as the only reality possible. How unthinkable that we could be living in a world where the narrow, sectarian claims of a voraciously greedy class could assume such public hegemony and go so largely unchallenged even by those who know that it is a blatant lie.

We have to make the personal political by transforming the meaning of politics from its current definition as men contesting power by any means—including and especially through the making of war and the use of our resources at the expense of millions across this continent, while its citizens become refugees; non-persons in flight, without any rights or securities. We have to change it to a notion and practice of politics that guarantees the rights and securities of all citizens, all the time. We have seen over and over these past decades a worsening situation in numerous African countries, as the African petite bourgeoisie finds itself less and less able to accumulate competitively with the ruling classes of the North. Africa has remained 'economically marginal' in the capitalist global system, even as we know that for centuries our resources and knowledge have fueled the 'development' of Northern societies and continue to be crucial to the maintenance of their current notions of democracy.

However, for the African petite bourgeoisie, the crisis of reproduction has been intensified by the concentration of wealth globally in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of Trans-National Corporations that are poised to take over the state in the North as they have done to a large extent in Africa and in the rest of the South. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments agenda was precisely about that—making capitalist privilege the ultimate priority in every sense of the word and deed. We also know that in the history of human existence, war has always been a means of class accumulation by those elements that occupy the state—a patriarchal state that ensures the privilege and supremacist ideologies and systems of a small group over the rights and entitlements of the vast majority. Today we can see the coincidence of globalized class interests with those of an African ruling class in almost every African theater of war. The generals are consolidating their class statuses by looting national treasuries and extending the arenas of war and destruction across national and regional boundaries. A re-structuring of the relationships within and among the ruling factions that occupy and use the African patriarchal state is clearly visible when we look at the ongoing devastation of the Congo and the parties involved in that debacle. Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, Sudan, Liberia, Nigeria, etc, etc—war has become the everyday tragedy of this the most beautiful and unquestionably most bountiful continent on earth.

That is why the normalization of war through the militarization of our societies and regions, under the guise of so-called pan-Africanist rhetoric, is totally unacceptable and must be exposed for what it really is—the plunder and accumulative rampaging of gangs of middle-class bandits who openly defy the demands of the people for accountability and democratic responsibility. At this point in time, we have to fight to retain the very language of anti-imperialist resistance and to keep the memory of enslavement and colonization alive because it belongs to us all—always—until our worlds are no longer determined by racism, classism, sexism, fundamentalisms and pernicious forms of sectarianism and communalism. Certain groups of Africans are deploying a collective memory in the justification of an openly militaristic class project that is costing the lives of millions of Africans and has laid waste to great swaths of this continent. This nationalist opportunism must be exposed and the rights and security of the African citizen must become the most important priority of all. We can no longer allow selfish class interests to dominate and destroy a continent that belongs to us all.

We have to find the courage to go beyond the hypocritical rhetoric of regional integration that in actual fact only facilitates for greater accumulation by both national and global capitalist forces, at the expense of the basic human and social rights that African working people have fought so courageously to attain. For me, the interface between class, gender and racist/communalist interests is the site where the most critical and most productive contestation has to take place. We need to understand the phenomenon of globalisation, in its multifarious forms, as a re-structuring of the old, hegemonic relationships of economic and political power, which are mobilizing technology, new notions of space and communication, and the political lapse in radical politics to make up for whatever was lost to them during de-colonization and liberation struggles across the world.

Women's Politics as the Source of a Sustainable Alternative Political Vision

As a feminist, I draw my intellectual and political resources from the struggles of women on this continent—land and sea—and from the pursuit of rights by women globally. For centuries women have fought private and public battles to make the world safer for themselves and for those with whom they live, and it is this fundamentally inclusive epistemology that informs women's politics across the ideological and political divide within what we call the Women's Movement. This is where one of the most critical political resources to a different future lies, and I would like conclude my presentation by indicating some of these political gems that are so often unseen or even misunderstood by so many progressive men in the workers' and youth movement in particular.

Firstly and most fundamentally, women's struggles against patriarchy have made visible the intersectionality of all known forms of exclusion and oppression—racism, class exploitation, sexism and chauvinism, paternalism, ableism, and heterosexism. By rejecting all these expressions of injustice, women have brought together in a social movement for rights the totality of issues that underpin patriarchy as an ideology and a system of privilege for the few over the interests of the majority. Women's struggles have, for the first time in the human narrative, made visible the interconnectedness of all systems of injustice in ways which neither the struggles of workers or of poor people in general have done.

Secondly, by raising the essential issues of integrity and personhood, women's politics has challenged the bifurcated nature of notions of justice and equality at every level of their societies, rupturing the public/private divide which still keeps millions of women the world over outside those civic resources and spaces where rights are embedded and secured. As we know, the notion of rights is intimately linked with the demand for the social, economic, political and legal recognition of human value by those whose labour and reproductive capacities were appropriated and exploited by the ruling class. Men who laboured without pay came together to collectively demand the right to paid work and the recognition of their labour as valuable. It is in the valorization of human labour that the right to a dignified life becomes possible, and through a publicly recognized engagement with the market and the demand that profit making not be allowed to keep the worker enslaved to the owners of capital, workers have been able to win the rights that define them as a class in all our societies.

Through the demand that women's rights must become human rights, women have drawn from the struggles by workers and colonized people and are insisting that the notion of human rights itself is partial and unsustainable unless and until it encompasses fully (without a single cultural compromise) the total rights of women to physical, emotional, sexual and social integrity as complete persons in all their societies. The demand for integrity and personhood lies at the core of women's sexual and reproductive rights and this campaign has been most instrumental in taking women's unmet sexual and reproductive needs out of the private where they were considered 'domestic matters' and locating them in the public, making them a political and policy issue and requiring that the state and the major institutions of the society not only recognize these rights as legitimate and inalienable, but also provide the material and infrastructural resources to sustain them. The extension of these rights to all women in all our societies remains a major challenge which globalisation as a retrogressive process is making even more difficult. In response to the specific impacts of globalisation in this regard, women have formed global coalitions around the issues of sexual and reproductive rights and health, meeting in various international conferences (Beijing, Nairobi, Mexico, and at the level of the UN and the Economic Commission for Africa) to insist that states not only ratify the conventions and international instruments that women have formulated, without reservation clauses, but also that states, as the assumed custodians of citizens rights and entitlements, must undertake to implement such policies in order to safeguard the sexual and reproductive rights of women in totality.

This has met with a tremendous backlash, the use of so-called cultural appropriateness and slogans of authentication that seek to fragment women's rights through the claim that sexual and reproductive rights are 'western' and 'un-African'. Of course we know that when women demand their rights they become inauthentic and un-African and that is exactly what we aim to do. We will subvert the archaic notions of what is African as we insist on becoming modern and free; and we will re-define and re-structure relationships of power and control, surveillance and exclusion as we claim our democratic rights to be citizens in the fullest ways. Therefore, African men can moan as much as they want—while they remain locked in backward notions of what is African and practice western modernity in every other way but towards Africa women. We will not be stopped by patriarchal claims and threats.

In reality, however, these claims and threats often become translated into life-taking expressions of the backlash, and the vilification of women's rights activists and women who claim their rights is real and requires the urgent response of all progressive men in our societies. This is not a matter only for women to resolve, because fundamentally it is about old systems of male privilege which all men benefit from in one way or another. Therefore no man is exempt from the political responsibility of fighting for the sexual and reproductive freedoms of women; for women's integrity and personhood and for our right to be total citizens in both the public and private spheres. But, in addition to recognizing and defending all women's rights, men have to begin the process of moving themselves to a new gendered and male identity by interrogating their location within patriarchal society as men. How could it be that male comrades spend their lives critiquing and resisting capitalism and fundamentalisms of every kind, except those that construct them as males in deeply essential ways? At the core of masculinity lies heterosexism and male systems of privilege that underpin impunity and supremacy—even if not used by individual males in their relationships with women.

As a radical feminist I know and understand patriarchy in its most intimate and most pernicious forms, and almost never allow anyone to oppress me in any way. (Sometimes I am not sufficiently vigilant and do find myself in situations where I have been excluded and victimized in some way. However, I deal with that immediately—it is a promise I made to myself long ago and to which I am committed.) But feminist and women activists never assume that because we are able to defend ourselves we do not need to restructure the societies we live in so that all women can access their freedom and the rights that we have begun to exercise. Progressive men have to do the political work of transforming maleness and masculinity. It is not enough to be a good man—you have to be a revolutionary man so that women do not have to do this work for men, which we cannot do anyway. Everyone has to free her/himself as we all know.

Finally, the Women's Movement is without doubt one of the most vibrant and most sustainable movements globally, and through the creation of national, regional and global coalitions and networks, women have begun to change the world in very significant ways. In Africa, women's demands for justice, peace and equality have shaken the foundations of old patriarchal assumptions about what is normal and acceptable. Women have begun to change the character of the public through educational and professional achievement and contestation. We are changing the meaning of science and knowledge by challenging the old dogmas and paradigms that excluded our experiences and opinions. At the level of the law the changes have been astounding and absolutely marvelous—in most African societies impunity no longer rages as an absolute force, although it remains a key challenge in the transformation of those areas where women's lives are most undemocratically and most dangerously affected. Politically, women are challenging the state and its hegemony over the meaning of citizenship; women are questioning the assumption that the state is the best protector of common property, and in countries like Zimbabwe, where a neo-colonial state simply took over from the colonial state in terms of being the 'middle-man' in relation to the land as a common resource, women are demanding that the state step aside and let the citizens relate directly to the land as a critical economic and socio-legal resource. The same is happening here in Mauritius and in many countries on the continent.

By changing their relationships with the state and with males in both the intimate and public spheres, women are becoming post-colonial in new and exciting ways. In my opinion, the challenge and disruption of old patriarchal relationships that constructed women as private or communal property and men as the natural heirs of all power in our societies speaks to the emergence of a 'post-colonial' consciousness among women (and among poor men who are challenging the neo-colonial state from where they are located as workers and peasants and homeless/landless persons) which will form the core of a sustainable anti-golbalisation strategy in the future. In addition to understanding how capitalism and neo-imperialism work at the levels of macro-economic strategies, cultural and technological hegemony, the military-industrial complex and the use of guns, human trafficking and drugs, we also need to focus on our own political traditions and the resources being generated by our social movements at the national, regional and global levels. While we have to understand how the World Trade Organization and General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade work to extend and intensify capitalist exploitation and human misery, and remain vigilant about the resurrection and pernicious implementation of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments agenda, we also have to put more energy into the re-formulation of our capacities to think, mobilize and transform ourselves and our societies in ways which will finally rid us of the scourge of human-invented systems of greed and inequality. After all, globalisation is just a fancy term to describe patriarchyi in its most nefarious form.

Patricia McFadden is a well-known African feminist, born in Swaziland. She was women's policy coordinator for the Southern Africa Regional Institute for Policy Studies (SARIPS) in Harare, and is currently on a Ford Foundation fellowship to the Five Colleges Women's Studies Center at Mount Holyoke, where she is writing a book on feminism and nationalism.