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Radically Speaking: The Significance of the Women's Movement for Southern Africa

Patricia McFadden

Paper presented in Vienna, Austria, October 2000.

In trying to craft this presentation, I was faced with numerous possibilities. For a moment I stepped into that space where I find myself each time I am invited to engage with other human beings on an issue of particular relevance to an activist moment and the building of a feminist platform of action; or as part of the nurturing of a personal tie that was created by a coincidental meeting somewhere, maybe a few years ago, and usually as part of the work that I have gladly done as an activist feminist thinker, from the 'dark' continent, for the past three decades. It is always a moment of tension and pleasure. The rebel in me is fascinated by the possibility of being totally irreverent in the way that I interpret an invitation, and the short but often critical journey to the place where I decide how my intellectual gift will look and sound is filled with all kinds of emotions and mind titillating sensations.

However, time, the exigencies of the moment, and the expectations of my hosts always bring me back to earth—not a bad place to be in, really, as a radical feminist, because the challenges facing us are so numerous and so exciting that I can, temporarily, forsake my passionate intellectual meanderings for the real task of 'putting my shoulder to the wheel of change' wherever I find myself.

And so, I took a deep breadth and considered the less 'riotous' possibilities, one of which was that I could dwell upon the welcome resurgence in what might be considered 'traditional' feminist epistemology; a resurgence that is most obvious in the collection that makes up the SIGNS Millennium issue and the latest volume of a new journal called Feminist Theory. I must admit that I was tempted by this possibility, because after several years of struggling with the sense of frustration that accompanies most of us as we do battle with the obfuscating bla bla of post-modernist/post-structuralist jargon, I was joyous at the return to familiar expressions, stimulating and pleasuring traditions of anti-patriarchal language and thought, and a conceptual tradition that is embedded in speech which we as women/feminists have created over at least a century of writing.

I resent the implied expectation that I, in this modern world, should refer my thoughts and arguments, my musings, to a lexicon that has been crafted and marked by old, predominantly white, male philosophical renderings of human experience and envisioning. Why would I return to a body of thought and words that is male, masculinist, classist in almost every sense, and often racially exclusionary, when I have the beautiful, liberated and energizing feminist writing traditions of Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Virginia Wolfe, May Sarton, Toni Morrison, Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarengba, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandria Kollontai, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Ama Ata Aidoo, and a gallery of the most incredibly empowering women thinkers and writers human society has ever experienced? Why, for goddesses sakes, would I refer to the thoughts of men who have no idea what it has meant to be a woman in the political, spatial, intellectual, ideological and cultural sense, at all, let alone in the physicality of being female. I simply do not need a philosophical tradition that does not include me, especially as a Black woman living and working on the African continent. And so I agree whole-heartedly with Catherine Stimpson that one reason feminism has proved so powerful is that it too provides a vision. The most influential feminists have had imagination enough to see below the crust of custom and beyond the horizon of convention. To be sure, individual feminists have been swept along by historical forces that galvanize changes in gender roles and relations—shifting patterns of women's work; the lessening reliance on physical strength in war and work, which is altering traditional rules of masculinity; the new reproductive technologies, which are altering traditional rules of femininity; and a more universal belief in human rights and democracy. Nevertheless, we have also had our visionaries.

Therefore, I am neither post-modernist nor post-structuralist in the location of my thoughts and activism.

But, the task required more than that. I needed not only to be feministically radical, but also to respond to the challenges posed by the appropriation of a key feminist construct: a thinking tool which has come out of our struggles as women for rights, visibility, integrity, equality and inclusion in the academy as well as at policy levels. Here I am referring to gender, that notion which so many rejected and resisted initially as unscientific, emotional, inadequate, inappropriate and well, maybe applicable only if it were denuded of its radical, political features by being disrupted from the feminist epistemological groundings where it was 'born'.

These days, we have to battle to use gender as a feminist thinking tool, it has been so 'mainstreamed' that in fact those who do not know of its early origins in the work of feminist scholars like Ann Oakley and Linda Nicholson could imagine that the notion of gender is a technical invention of the femocrats and Gender and Development types who currently homogenise its definition, meaning and use in many arenas around us.

However, I want to acknowledge the work of those scholar feminists, in whose footsteps I feel honored to tread, because of their creativity as wordsmiths, women who harvested the energies and thoughts, the passions and anger, the brilliance and experiences of women (albeit initially within their respective societies, and one cannot expect any more in reality) to present us with a century-transforming conceptual tool. This is a tool which we have continued to refine, reflect upon, bend and shape in various ways according to our needs and uses, but always, as feminists, maintaining the connection between the intellectual and political sources of gender—which are our daily struggles against exploitation and domination in whatever form—and the critical need to think and transform as women in our special life situations. In a nutshell, gender as a construct came out of the insistence by women that conceptually women's knowledge could be best understood and re-positioned within the knowledge production systems of our societies only if we constructed a specific vehicle that signified who we are in terms of our relationships with men, with power, with ideologies and structures and among ourselves.

Therefore, I want to reclaim gender as a feminist construct; a tool that is available to me, as an African feminist, thinking through the ways in which African patriarchal ideologies and systems, practices and conventions, have shaped and determined the spaces within which we live as African women, given our specific class, social, cultural, political, religious and ideological identities and locations.

I also want to insist that feminism is an identity that comes out of our global struggles against patriarchy wherever we live, and as a woman whose primary preoccupation is to resist patriarchal exclusion, I deliberately position myself within this feminist identity as a political statement of who I am. It is a truism that I want to repeat, simply for the effectiveness of its commonsense. Forms of resistance are always marked by their location, whether in local or global terms. This is 'natural' and expected. Consequently, we have what are called 'Western' feminisms; 'Asian' feminisms; African' feminisms; 'Caribbean' feminisms, etc. These feminisms are the markers of anti-patriarchal struggles that often go back thousands of years; some of which were not known because we have lived in such androcentric worlds, and many of which were deliberately erased or denied, even in the present day discourses of globalisation and world openness.

Contestations over the occupancy of knowledge spaces are not only gendered in terms of patriarchal exclusionary practices. They are also linked to colonial traditions of intellectual privileging which are still reflected in appropriational tendencies that seek to speak for 'the Other'; to define the space within which Black women, for example, can think and express who they are and where they want to go; and which enable certain groups—white women and men, Black men—to patrol the borders of the academy often under the guise that the Other is herself a participant in this continuing exclusion from the centers of intellectual power and knowing.

Therefore, while some of my African sisters may prefer to name themselves 'womanist'—and, yes, as women, self-naming is central to where we position ourselves politically and ideologically in relation to men, to patriarchal power and in terms of identity politics—I do not. I would be the last one to insist that African women can only be named through one political identity, which is why I strenuously resist the homogenizing tendencies which exist within certain streams of essentializing, esoteric 'Western' feminism that attempt to lock African women into narrow and 'exotic' identities, more recently through collaborative discourses between such Western feminists and African 'womanists' based mainly in the North.

While the beauty of the academy is most dramatically displayed through cross-cultural discursive engagement and interplay, I am wary of debates and texts which, to me, reproduce the old colonial inspired representations of Africa as romantically different in its constructed primitivity—through the claim, for example, that something called 'the African family' is fundamentally different from the supposedly monolithic nuclear family of the white North. This is not only blatantly erroneous in historical and empirical terms, let alone stupendously flawed in methodological terms (there are many families even though the heterosexual, male created/male owned, legally acknowledged patriarchal family is hegemonic in most societies). It is also politically suspect and mischievous in that it re-invents old, conservative, ethnographic claims about African societies through homogenizing, blanket notions which flatten the cultural and socio-political, ideological landscapes of African family life, while providing sophisticated sounding tropes for radical nationalists who occupy the African state and its patriarchal institutions. Such claims, which might be the products of genuine attempts by certain African female scholars (who I do not name as feminist and who themselves do not wear this identity, and rightly so) are easily deployed by right-wing state-based elements, mainly men, to insist that African women remain as the authentic, 14th century markers of African authenticity and difference.

it is in the logic of this authenticating, nationalist rhetoric that I, a radical feminist who is critical of the state; who is unsatisfied with the meager gestures of male/state tolerance as reflected by the short-lived creation of so-called 'women's ministries/wings/units' etc, become, an outsider, un-African and most certainly inauthentic in my embrace of the political identity of a radical feminism. The accusation of Westernism—-which in itself is ridiculous, given the interaction between worlds over the past five centuries, and, more importantly, the long and vigorous traditions of resistance within which someone like myself positions herself—is easily hurled by those who assume to represent the real African identity, past/present/future.

These are dangerous, risk-filled conceptual terrains where increasingly there seems to be a meeting of common interests between the more conservative streams of white, female anthropologists, who may name themselves 'feminist', and a cadre of Black womanists of a similar ilk. But then, as I stated earlier, African women come in all shapes, colors and hues of Black; political and ideological persuasions and class, ethnic, and cultural variations. We are as varied as the women of the North, East and West, even as we sometimes wear similar cultural, racial, and physical markers.

For me, womanism in its most politically productive use is only a sense of my 'womanness', as in The Color Purple—sensual and aesthetic terms shaped and molded by the color of my body, its place of origin and sense of continuity, and the reality of being a Black woman in a white, male dominated world. However, as a political stance, womanism has moved from the initial sense in which Alice Walker so poetically expressed it in her book In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, and has become a political stance which defines issues of African authenticity through heterosexism (and often implicit homophobia), right-wing defenses of ritualistic heterosexist practices like polygamy, and a conservative ideological re-construction of what Africa is, based on old, patriarchal notions of the African—in spatial and human/cultural terms. I reject this kind of narrow, intolerant conservatism, which presents itself through the guise of esoteric uniqueness and cultural relativism. Therefore, I am not troubled by those who refuse to name themselves feminist, because they are not feminist, and why should they wear a political identity that they neither embrace nor have crafted? After all, the right to name oneself political is one of the gifts that the feminist movement has bestowed on all women.

I would now like to speak to several issues relating to the ways in which the appropriation of gender as a feminist construct has thrown up an interesting conceptual/activist debate that reflects interesting features of the South African political landscape. I will focus my attention on the intersectionality between notions of gender equality as they are interpreted and deployed within civil society—in the context of the Women's Movement—and within the state, through structuralist, mainstreaming approaches that attempt to de-politicize such notions, framing them instead in economistic and or welfarist terms.

It is in the interface between so-called 'entryism' and 'outsiderness' that the struggles between women and the state are being played out, reflected in the uses of the notion of gender equality as a feminist construct and activist rallying point, and the attempts of men who occupy the state to re-define women's claims and demands for power and inclusion through the recruitment of a cadre of women—femocrats and Women in Development/Woman and Development/Gender and Development activists—whose politics are embedded in an old liberal notion of the relationship between the state and the citizen. In the context of Zimbabwe, these contestations have been intensifying as white and Black men battle over the control of land and other material and social forms of property, including the continued ownership of women's bodies, in particular the bodies of Black women, and women's relationship with the state and with property has become an exciting conceptual and activist space through which to reflect upon that society.

I shall not have time to speak as exhaustively as I would have liked to all these fascinating political unfoldings. Suffice it to skim over the surface of a seemingly troubled and crumbling region, which in effect is becoming post-colonial in new and exciting ways. This is good for Zimbabwe, for Southern Africa and for African women in particular, because post-coloniality understood as a transitional process presents new and significant opportunities for women, the most important being that of becoming citizens in modern terms.

For me, as an activist whose intellectual stimulation is largely dependent upon my interactions with spaces of engagement and struggle in both the public/state arenas as well as in relation to private battles for equality and justice in gendered and more socially general senses, civil society as we understand it today is one of the real products of modernity in Africa. Civic spaces were for the many decades of the colonial and early neo-colonial times, masculine, white spaces, wherein a few privileged women moved cautiously as 'ladies' or as 'Christians' or both. In Southern Africa, the exclusion of Black women from urban sites, where cheap Black, predominantly male migrant labor was mobilized to build the domains of white existence as well as to service the everyday needs of white colonial comforts, was one of the very few conscious collaborative projects between Black and white males. Patriarchal borders, common to both pre-capitalist Africa and Victorian England, were erected and monitored through the licensing of both Black and white males to undertake continuous surveillance over the mobility and identities of Black women in the colonial territories. This was critical to the continued supply of cheap Black labor on the one hand and the preservation of 'authentic' spaces in the rural areas for Black men, where they were allowed to return periodically, to reproduce themselves sexually, culturally and ideologically as males.

In recent human memory, the relationship between modernity and consciousness of self as a being with integrity and the ability to lay claim to rights and property is linked in some way to mobility and re-location in space. Keeping Black women out of urban spaces was of particular interest to the colonial state as well as to Black men: a strange coincidence which many Africans still deny but which is clearly reflected in the often vicious and violent activities of both Black and white men against women who entered the city/urban space.

Rape was one of the responses by Black men to women's attempts to enter the city, often accompanied by accusations that such women were 'unAfrican', and had become 'polluted by notions of whiteness'; that they had become whores (we know that whore has meant many things for women besides that which is derived from its association with uncontrolled and rampant sexuality), and therefore needed to be re-culturalized through misogynist, sexual occupation. For decades, Black women could not bring the crime of rape by Black men, and least of all white men, into any colonial court, not only because they were deemed illegally in those public spaces where rape was a criminal offence in 'white' terms, but also because the onus of proof that they had not invited such sexual violation was almost impossible to argue in such circumstances. Sexual violation in the traditional, patriarchal context was interpreted as a crime against the woman's father or husband, but she had no sexual integrity that could be violated in relation to herself as a female being. This is common to old, archaic forms of patriarchy, which constructed women as the property of males within family structures or in religious sites (as is the case with religious shrines, for example, in many societies across the world).

But African women resisted such surveillance and exclusion, and in a controversial, and what is often interpreted as an un-nationalistic political gesture, Black women used the opportunity of colonialism to reject sites of African patriarchal oppression and privatization, often fleeing into the newer sites of white patriarchy that were controlled by white colonial or religious males. Initially situated in the margins of this new colonial urbanity, Black women found ways of reproducing themselves in economic, social, cultural and sexual terms. This new existence was not interpreted as political, and is still resisted as such. Typically, most of the historiography on migration in Southern Africa represents Black women only as prostitutes who brewed beer and lived off the 'hard earned' meager wages of 'good men' whose 'decent wives' waited for them patiently in the rural spaces—women curiously constructed as 'grass widows', passive and without resistance, a myth as we have come to uncover through feminist her-storiography.

This juxtaposition of Black women who seek freedom from African and white patriarchy—the crux of feminist activism to this day—has become a key feature of both white, anthropological reminiscing about an essential Africa, whose labor capitalism can easily exploit; and a deeply misogynist, anti-feminist vitriol which is manufactured and deployed by Black males (and increasingly by Black female radical nationalists situated in the Northern academy). This is why I interpret academic attempts to mark African women with old, anachronistic, patriarchal notions of who an African woman is or was as expressions of re-invented right-wing politics, wearing the guise of anti-modernity.

African women have striven to be modern at every opportunity. At the first chance, we flee the backward constraints of patriarchal privatization and seclusion through the doors that are opened to us by education and what is euphemistically called 'book learning'. When this door has been shut to us, we work ourselves to the bone so that our daughters, and sons, can experience the beauty of flight into those vistas made possible by institutionally based knowledge. We have flourished, wearing the garb of new languages and the ability to speak for ourselves, articulating loudly and clearly the priority of being free, whatever our social and class locations. We continue to challenge and reject those racist, sexist stereotypes which seek to limit and denigrate our creative sexual expressions as exquisitely beautiful persons; thinkers; dancers; wordsmiths; creative artists; engineers; healers; crafters of a different reality wherever we have lived.

Of course, as with all groups of women who are caught in the ambiguities of patriarchal social and cultural construction, we push and pull against the tides of identity forming structures and conventions that beckon to us, through notions of belonging and promises of intimate inclusion—in ethnic and locality specific terms—even as they vigorously restrain our freer instincts with threats of exclusion and outsiderness. But this is not peculiar to Africans; it is the stuff of struggle in all societies that remain un-free, and it must be exposed for what it is, instead of allowing the commonsensical to become 'peculiarly African' via an essentializing, conservative rhetoric.

It was in this mobilization of flight as an expression of new freedom that African women began the process of constructing a specifically female space within what we call civil society today. Through their involvement and engagement in liberation struggles, more often than not fighting multiple expressions of exclusion (as the film Flame by Ingrid Sinclair so poignantly re-tells, in spite of the re-shoots of its most central feminist narrative due to chauvinistic nationalist outcries that it insulted and blemished the glory of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle!!!)*, African women put down the foundations of what has become the most critical site of struggle for them vis-à-vis the state and institutionalized cultural forms of patriarchy.

Through an occupancy of civic spaces, where women struggle to be acknowledged as whole beings, with rights which the state is obliged to recognize and guarantee, African women have begun to engage with issues of power and entitlement at several levels of the society. By setting up institutions/organizations/structures which we manage and control; by establishing relationships mainly with white Northern men who continuously attempt to direct and define our political agendas, often with the collusion of Black men in the African state; and by contesting such political and ideological manipulation even as we know that often we have to accede to their demands and follow a trend (of which gender mainstreaming is the most recent and most politically threatening to feminist interests), African women have been able to locate themselves within the civil society in new and empowering ways.

Firstly, women have engaged in a lively and often frustrating battle to construct the Women's Movement as an autonomous space. In doing so they have had to contend not only with continuous attempts by the state to appropriate this political vehicle, which is, in my opinion, the most powerful social movement of the late 20th century in almost every country of the African continent, but also from the control of moderate to right-wing conservative elements within the Women's Movement, which have access to this space by virtue of being 'women', that is, they wear a female body. articulate grievances against misogynist practices like rape and domestic violence, and through nationalistic ideology have shaped the politics of the Movement in certain distinctive directions.

For example, through their agency as women in the state, development activists, often with the collaboration of Northern liberal elements, have defined the issues of gender equality from a more moderate, accommodationist perspective. They argue for the integration of women's political interests into state structures (through mainstreaming gender) and for the formulation of women's rights within a welfarist ideological frame. The relationship between women and the state is therefore couched in terms of old relations of power which have defined women as nurturers and care-givers; wives and daughters, paternalistically protected by males in both the private and public spheres. The notion of rights, even when acknowledged as critical to development, is mediated by an ideological claim that the interests of everyone (that is, men) are more important than the individual rights of the subject (that is, women).

In the African context, this pre-capitalist rhetoric which feudal ruling classes deployed against the claims of male peasants attempting to enter into a direct relationship with property, especially in the form of land, is re-invented as peculiarly African and in need of preservation. Yet we know that in the age of capitalist relations, the status of citizen and access to most civic rights is directly related to one's position in relation to property. For those groups in the society which are furthest from property, rights, entitlements and claims remain largely a dream, dependent upon the good will of a social-democratic state/elite. For example, the investment in education is not only about breaking into new worlds of knowledge and opportunity; it is also about creating the possibility of acquiring intellectual property; something that one's progeny can sell to make a better life for herself/himself and hopefully for those who made the initial investment. Yet, in the liberal language of developmentalism, the link between rights, status and property remains muted at best, and openly frowned upon at worst.

It is this battle to re-define the real issues between women as aspiring citizens—as a category of people who often do not have a recognized personhood in legal and property terms, fundamentally because they are seen as the cultural property of men—that characterizes the relationship between the state, women as political agents and the civil society as a contested space in Southern Africa today.

The struggle for an autonomous Women's Movement; autonomous from nationalist control and ideological manipulation; autonomous from the influences of elements who seek to homogenize this radical, political space that women have crafted in resistance to patriarchal confinement; a Movement which is guided by a feminist political agenda that does not consider the possibility of qualifying women's rights and entitlements in any manner possible, is the bone of contention in the political arena of the region.

Through the foregrounding of community or national issues before those of women, the state and moderate development elements hope to undercut the radical edge of feminist demands in the Women's Movement, an edge which aims at re-casting women's rights as equal to those of all citizens (rather than those of men) and which insists that the integrity and personhood of women as individuals is central to any discourse or practice of democracy and notions of justice in legal and socio-cultural terms.

In Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana, and Mozambique, the struggles within the Women's Movement reflect this tension between on the one hand, class elements who argue for a more 'rational' accommodationist relationship with the state; states which are totally irresponsive to the needs and rights of their citizens, and on the other hand, activists who argue for an uncompromising stance against these dictatorial regimes. These are states which spend with impunity the national resources of their citizens on militaristic ventures that have resulted in the destruction of huge swaths of the region and the loss of millions of human lives; the destruction of innumerable species; the devastation of eco-systems and the installation and or maintenance of increasingly repressive, autocratic and dictatorial regimes.

How does one even begin to accommodate the rampant jingoism of Mugabe, Museveni, Kabila, Savimbi, and their ilk while the poor of the region die the most horrific deaths imaginable at the cusp of a new, technologically and developmentally meteoric century?

How does one 'negotiate' with buffoons who have no concept of what democracy might feel like as an intellectual notion, let alone the reality of accountability and justice for women as persons with rights which they are obliged to respect and preserve?

How does one negotiate the relationships of autocracy, embedded in old colonial legal and economic precepts of citizenship, which excluded, first, all Africans from relating to the state as custodian of the rights of the individual; and which, more lately, have become enshrined in the very character of the neo-colonial state through its hegemony and control over land 'on behalf of the people', the majority of whom are women; poor; without access to education—generation after generation—and whose lives remain locked in the privatized, patriarchal wastelands called 'communal areas'—relationships which the men in the state refuse to change because they are a critical source of their power and masculinity.

How does one disengage the notion of citizenship, which is historically and materially locked into the assumption that white men are the true citizens (because supposedly they embody what is civilized, rational and stable), making their claim over the vast material resources of Southern Africa logical and economically 'efficient'?

The challenges we face as feminists/women/Africans/human beings living on the continent are vast in their complexity and commonness. They speak to the imperatives all societies face, directly or indirectly, as we enter a new time—a euphoric invention, which nonetheless, provides a moment of possibility as we emerge from the chaos that the first two millennia have bequeathed Africa.

These are certainly trying times. But they are also times of great hope and rejuvenation. Globalisation, understood as a context which offers new possibilities for the refinement and consolidation of the gems we mined through our uncompromising struggles for justice, rights and equality in the 20th century, means that we can come together once again, having learnt that the liberal palliatives of the bourgeois state did not resolve the critical tensions between women and the state, in the West; and that for the rest of the world, even the most basic liberal rights have not yet been secured.

The challenge of re-politicising gender as a transformational thinking tool and human relational space—by subverting its ordinariness and normativity, through a revitalisation of feminist envisioning and the creation of global platforms which once again appeal to the being in all of us—is not only possible but imperative. I look forward to this century when we will be able to engage with old issues in new ways, convinced that every effort is worth it, now and for a different, wholesome world in the future.

I would like to end with a quotation from Catherine Stimpson which I think in many ways summarizes my own feelings about being a feminist in this here and now: I once imagined a feminist future abstractly as a place where 'equity' and 'rights' would be as common as sunshine in equatorial climes. I now imagine a feminist future more metaphorically. It is first a place of sufficient bread where all of us have enough to eat and where all of us are physically secure. It is next a place of roses where all of us have a sense of self, the ability to participate in democratic communities, and the capacity to love fully and freely. Finally, it is a place of keyboards where all of us have access to literacy, education, and the technologies that will shape the twenty-first century. Bread, roses, keyboards: my rubric for a unifying vision of the future.

I struggle for all of the above—to be able to live in the most beautiful place on earth, where sunshine is as common as existence and death. But I, too, and billions of women, poor children and poor men, want bread, roses and the ability to fly along the technological and informational highways that mark this new time we live in. And it is possible if we don't give up the dream.

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.