Examining the conceptual framework of feminism
The conceptual framework of feminism, as a reactionary ideology, basically consists of ‘power,’ ‘woman,’ ‘rights,’ and ‘equality’. The same can be said of African feminism, which has on its priority list such goals as self-determination, which have economic overtones sewn on a materialistic metaphysic. African womanism, despite its pretensions to seeking co-operation or its advocacy for interdependency between men and women, uses a model of conscientisation of women that is foreign to Africa, and runs the risks of obscurantism, vulgarism, inauthenticity, and irrelevance. To put it cryptically, African womanism ‘can’t want and can’t not want’ men at the same time. Although gender has made tremendous strides in conscientising women about their plight vis-à-vis male-dominance, its future in Africa demands that it re-position itself appropriately. At least it must re-think three theories, that is, the labour theory, economic theory, and social theory.
Africa’s contemporary socio-political scene depicts theoretical and practical confusion of gender with feminism or, for that matter, gender with broad emancipatory movements, such as African womanism, which nonetheless use gender theory as an intellectual tool for critical analysis for the supposedly discriminatory social, religious and political organisational structures. Feminist thinkers loathe these structures because they see in them deliberate mechanisms for oppressing or marginalising women. This oppression of women characterises the present economic inegalitarianism in a male-dominated status quo. Consequently, it is argued that these male-founded and male-dominated structures can only be changed so as to render them balanced or equitable if and only if revolutionary measures are employed. The usual elements of such arguers form a class of people called feminist ideologues. Feminist ideologues are those people, male and female, minority or majority in one country, who share the ideas or beliefs or attitudes of male-dominance over women. They tend to look at society in one way; they are certainly unhappy, dissatisfied and critical of what they see around them as compared to what they would like to see. The rational justification of their discontent and critical attitude is quite another thing. Insofar as feminism comprises people, who share one set of ideas or Where is the Foundation of African Gender?
beliefs or attitudes as a group or community and who are (radically) organised, feminism is an ideology,1 which is posited to displace the prevailing male-dominated ideology. It is the core of an ideology or the ideological core, which is the most difficult part to change because it is the worldview of the people. The ideological core consists of the core ideas, core beliefs, or core attitudes of a people. By implication, if the core ideas, beliefs, or attitudes are purged out then the people’s practical reality is annihilated. The revolutionary spirit is germane to any feminist ideologue because he or she believes that lasting and effective change must be moral and intellectual. These detested moral and intellectual values are in-built in society so that their removal or reduction calls for a drastic revolutionary overhaul of the whole social fabric. This drastic revolutionary overhaul of society must be no less than a critique of the prevailing ideology because it purports to subject to intellectual scrutiny, and eventually refute or reject prevailing ideas, beliefs, or attitudes, which are rationally unjustified or prejudicial to the position of women in society. And then feminist ideology purports to create its own better ideas, beliefs, or attitudes. In other words, feminist ideology creates its own counter-consciousness, and eventually its own counterculture. This counterculture comprises a new set of beliefs and a new style of life that is intended or hoped to challenge and eventually expose the inadequacy of the prevailing culture. Only when the ideological core of the prevailing culture is removed and replaced by a new ideological core can lasting and effective change occur. Any change less than that involving the ideological core is superficial or transitory.
In a nutshell, feminism challenges the prevailing status quo and develops a counter-ideology that questions the prevailing status quo and then attempts to modify it. Feminism advocates change rather than order. It criticises the regime in power and existing social and economic arrangements. It advances schemes for restructuring and reordering society. It generates political movements in the form of women’s movements in order to gain enough power and influence to effect the changes it advocates. Feminism is an ideology of action for it motivates people to demand changes in their lifestyles and to modify the existing social, religious, political, and economic relations. It also mobilises its followers and adherents to preserve what they value.2 Ultimately, feminism is political and revolutionary. The revolutionary tinge of feminism has historically at times sanctioned the use of violence,3 which has not precluded bloodshed.
Gender thinking adopts this feminist stance, with little or no modification or retouching and with few or no disclaimers, so that it is conventional gender thinking to posit men as the perpetrators of female-oppression and discrimination in a society which is viewed as male-dominated, a society in which this sad scenario is ingrained in the fabric of the prevailing political regimes, and where the social, religious, political and economic relations and structures are arranged so as to embrace and promote inequality between men and women. The result is that the gender paradigm centrally addresses the problems of equality and liberty rights, more or less zeroing on a variant of welfare-state ideology. Gender thinkers see no need to take caution in distinguishing gender-ism from feminism. Feminism is taken for granted as the appropriate seed and vehicle of gender. In contemporary literary circles, the philosophical presuppositions of gender thinking and practice are not put to a litmus test because testing gender implies testing feminism, which, in any case, has withstood many a crucial test as evidenced by its record of persistence and triumph especially in Europe, Great Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. This being the case, the cogency of popular gender-isms can only be tested, or critiqued, against cross-cultural objectivity. This paper argues that the lack of demarcation between gender and feminism leads to confusion of western feminism with gender. By grounding itself in feminist ideology, gender inherits most of the weaknesses and shortfalls of western feminism. Gender finds its impetus and modes of expression in western feminism. Therefore, Africa needs to rethink a specific gender, which is appropriate to the African situation in this new millennium.
Conceptual analysis of gender and feminism becomes a problem for a start because there is a plethora of such offers on the contemporary intellectual and political scenes. Below, only extant literature is reviewed on the question of gender and feminism in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa. In the case of Malawi, only a few representative papers are considered. Any other contributions outside these papers are nonetheless worthwhile but very likely to be implicitly implicated and/or critiqued in one or more of the representative papers. The choice of the papers is free and deliberate: social philosophy, education, religion, and environment, i.e., unarguably, some of the hottest beds of gender debates and activism.
At this juncture, it should be appreciated that African intellectuals have for some time tried to conceptualise gender and feminism in their own situation. As far as philosophical writing is concerned in Malawi, Hermes Chidam’modzi was
116 Where is the Foundation of African Gender?
the first to notice and then critique this confusion between gender and feminism in the mid-nineties.
Feminism is a consecration of the moral and intellectual and hence universal values of equality purportedly denied of women by the dominance of males over women and the sacrosanct ideologies developed in society to legitimatise and perpetuate male-dominance. Thus conceived, feminism as a western reactionary and sacrosanct ideology is not African in origin and development so that the contemporary gender idiom is not a full theoretical framework and expression of the paradigm of African gender. This construing of gender invokes three important thoughts: (1) Gender does not mean and is not women. (2) Gender emerges in a specific situation depicting inegalitarianism embedded in social structures where one sex (male or female) is on the losing side. (3) Gender is a social construct of sets of behaviours, dispositions, ideas, beliefs, values, and attitudes of man and woman. (4) Gender has a strong materialistic tendency, for it grounds women’s qualities or modes of action in women's daily lives in a spatio-temporal-specific resource base presumably conditioned by a sexual division of labour. Insofar as it is situationally embedded in the society's power relations, gender is a reaction to constructed, i.e. real or imagined, male- dominance and female subordination. Gender thus conceived becomes an outgrowth from feminism.
28 The history of feminism is marked by two goals: equality and rights. Pioneer American feminists like Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton had to battle it out with men for their right to vote as equals with men by dint of creation. In the days of old, liberalism provided the initial momentum toward the release of women from social bondage. To women’s disappointment, many a revolution (like the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789) and nationalism did not specifically rescue them from subjugation by men. Social inequalities continued to prevail in the ‘new and independent’ states. Britain, America and the Continent of Europe clearly illustrate the sluggish pace of women liberation progress; Switzerland is the last European democracy to grant women suffrage in 1971.
Despite the universality of female subordination and male domination, the African woman's situation is bound to make her suspicious of western feminist discourse, which is mostly the experience of the twentieth century middle-class woman in an industrial sexual division of labour. For the western woman of that era it was only natural for her to cry for balance of power. The feminist fight was a fight for power. She made lots of gains; her emancipatory efforts bore her more equality with men, more rights, and easier access to resources, increase in opportunities or incentives, especially in the public sphere.
The yardstick was always her 'more privileged' male counterpart in the already privileged middle-class. In labour, this historicity of western feminism has led to the misconception that women were solely fighting for the 'soft' or ‘top’ jobs such as company executive, manager, prime minister, parliamentarian, physician, news editor, professor, pilot; surprisingly, the women never zealously fought for 'rough' jobs such as undertaker, trench-digger, dockyard worker, heavy industrial worker, soldier,30 or night-guards.
In its counter-critique, western feminism penetrated the 'rough' jobs; eventually, the west saw more women engineers, women soldiers, and policewomen, thus virtually transforming western society into a 'unisex' club. In the inter-war period, and much more vehemently after W.W.II, feminist thinkers zeroed on marriage as the champion of female subordination, and so they strongly argued that the demolition of the marriage institution would automatically lead to total women liberation. It was then a normal spectacle for a woman feminist to be decidedly non-married, although she could be attached and have children. Domesticity, child rearing, or whatever family life stands for, was looked upon as an impediment to women involvement and participation in public life, especially to public employment. The feminist propaganda so narrowly construed was reduced to a feminist fight for space and time in the public spheres of life especially the workplace, which was supposed as a predominantly male territory. Two concepts dominated and still dominate the western conceptual framework.
Western gender categories dismally fail to provide a gender conceptual framework for the African woman. For instance, the category of 'power' cannot be used to conceptualise gender in Africa. To argue that a certain normative concept like ‘power’ has a gender meaning is to claim that its social usage, at least in part, is not what it ought to be for reasons that have to do with gender To claim further that the usage does not command universality and objectivity, due to considerations of differing hermeneutics, i.e. interpretation as grounded in historicity and context is not to advocate gender scepticism. Although the empirical realities of women world-wide are different, this paper argues for the abandonment of gender exclusivity in the face of equally competing, urgent and appealing discourses of, say, ethnicity, racism, and ‘class’.
In western traditional masculinist literature, power is viewed as repressive, poured from a leviathan above to his subjects below. The subjects are said to need the powerful leviathan because without him, they lack security, peace and well-being. In that western literary world, power is evidently and firmly associated with the male and masculinity, like virility, thus evoking the physicality of power. The correlate of man, woman, is therefore powerless.
So when feminists wrote about 'power over our bodies' and 'power of our lives' they were using the very same concept of power, which pervaded traditional masculinist discourses on power. They affirmed the male conceptualisation of power rather than providing an alternative. It comes to us as no surprise that contemporary gender thinkers mimic the same masculinist notion of power in theorising gender. They are not wary of historical, social and political situation of knowledge-claims.32 Trapped in their own ideological cocoon, the western feminist women still think that western rationality is the only rationality; that western science is superior to other forms of rationality (if any), so that in regard to, say, family planning strategy, African women have to be ‘helped’ by their more scientific counterparts from the west.
African women, so claim the western women, need to be conscientised because it is feared that the African women have internalised the oppression or suffering and therefore are in desperate need of awareness campaigns by women animators from the west. The western feminists already fall prey to the yet another ideology of dominance they vehemently fight in their own backyard.
Western feminists are totally oblivious to the reality of subject-object relations in research; the reality the helper and the helped are equals as they each experience the other from the viewpoint of their own situations and background knowledge and cultures. Each one (the helper and the helped) is the object of experience of the other so that objectivity is somehow tainted with subjectivity.
31 Oshadi Mangena argues likewise that if one is attentive to differences of ethnic origin, sexual orientation and class, the notion of gender disintegrates into fragments and cannot anymore be employed as a useful category. See K. Lennon and M. Witford, Knowing the difference: feminist perspectives in epistemology, London: Routeldge and Kegan Paul, 1994, pp. 275-282.
32 Annette Fitzsimons and Susan Strickland, Ibid. pp. 124; 265.
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That the helper enjoys the exclusive right to the objectification of knowledge of the Other is an ingrained feature of western cross-cultural research, after all the helper has scientific skills or rational advantage over the helped, and this ontological arrangement make the helped redundant in the objectification of knowledge of the Other. The only danger though is that the consequent helpers’ knowledge is partial or fragmentary. The implication is that western feminists cannot emancipate the supposedly un-conscientised African women.
Just as the concept of 'human', as narrowly presented in western literature, fails to command objectivity, the same literature fails to define 'woman'. 'Woman' is amenable to many different things; it is shrouded by ambiguities about its ontological status. It can evoke intrinsic characteristics, like caring and love, but this smacks of essentialism, which does not have many adherents in gender mainstreams. It can also evoke familial relationships as the non-male member. Both of these evocations partially conceive 'woman' for they are normative since they are descriptive of a set of social facts or relations. As such, woman has no characterizable content and hence the challenge from postmodernist thought that 'woman' is not descriptively adequate since, it is observed, 'woman' is cross-culturally different.
According to postmodernists, 'woman' imposes unity over empirical reality.33 Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment and the humanist presumptions of wonders of reason. The Enlightenment is rejected because of its veneration of masculine reason at the expense of sensuality; humanism is rejected because of its appeals to universal subjectivity or the human condition. Instead of seeking ‘sameness’ postmodernism celebrates ‘difference,’ partiality and multiplicity. It detests the search for coherence and hankering after the ‘right’ (or Platonic or Kantian) solution.
Postmodernist feminism equally opposes a hermeneutic parochialism of the present over the past or vice versa--of searching for a single given goal, a single representation of reality. This new brand of feminism transcends the historicist recognition of the inevitable peculiarity and contextuality of human thought and practice and hence it advocates the continuity of dialogue between interlocutors, between text and interpreter, and between subject and object, with no advantage, marked goal or reality. This postmodernist re-orientation of feminism is a deliberate step away from essentialism and universalism: marginalisation and exclusion of the Other.34 It puts emphasis on particularity and multiplicity with due attention to difference, diversity and locale. But postmodernists also impose a tough demand on gender thinkers: why should the absence of facts for
33 See Alessandra Tanesini, Ibid. pp. 211-212.
34 See Susan Strickland, Ibid. pp. 266-7.
130 Where is the Foundation of African Gender?
description of woman precludes the claim for the notion of woman, even where the possession of the notion may not warrant the description or analysis of the same?
Even the points of convergence of feminism and postmodernism are not adequate grounds for their formulation of their purported common aims because their concept-lingualities are different. For example, their meanings of a concept like ‘difference’ are different. In postmodernism, ‘difference’ is acknowledged as typical of human experience worldwide; it is at the same time evaded as a threat to dominant perspectives of understanding or interpreting reality. It is consistent within postmodernism to demonstrate that ‘woman’ was all along acknowledged as different but was included in universal humanity in name only by the dominating men. Feminists believe that the ‘dominant ideology’ in world history is the root cause of the subjection of women by men. In Rousseau’s language of ‘right,’ the emancipation of western woman, albeit noticeably incomplete as we enter the third millennium, began as late as mid nineteenth century.
However, feminism does not argue for the mere acknowledgement of ‘difference’; women’s experience and perspectives should be noticed and heard along with dominant male experience and perspectives. Feminists complain bitterly that that the dominant perspectives are exclusive of women because they are ideological and hence false, since they are interested and distorted. Feminists are not content with their inclusion in or numerical addition to universal humanity as read in liberal or Marxist theories. Whereas postmodernism stops at the recognition of ‘difference’, feminism posits ‘difference’ as a challenge, a paradigm of its critical dialogue with its situation, past, present and future.
The concept 'woman' is thrown into serious doubt because the notion of gender itself is slowly moulding due to its exclusiveness. What is being advocated instead of gender is a multiplicity of identities; for instance, if one widens one's horizon, one cannot fail to realise that differences of ethnic origin and class, sexual orientation (gays and lesbians), should be priority items on the liberation agenda. In spite of its usefulness in certain emancipatory projects, 'woman' as a gender category stands to question now because it has dawned on contemporary gender thinkers that 'woman' is essentially embedded in misogynist literature and that it is conducive to, and promotes, exclusionary practices.
In short, a feminist survey of western languages shows that the meaning of some words, such as 'power,' 'woman,' 'human,' 'reason,' depicts gender bias against women; the words are not universal. The concept-lingual sources of western rightist discourses, like feminism, are liberalism or Marxism in their vicious attack of their respective archrivals, authoritarianism, and capitalism. Ironically, Karl Marx did not directly address the specific situation of women. He presumed that his communism would provide liberation for women just as it would for all the exploited masses and underprivileged minorities, male and female.
131 Nordic Journal of African Studies
Friedrich Engels (Marx’s lifetime friend, economic guardian, co-author, and Marx’s editor) also narrowly attributed women subjugation to property relationships of the conjugal family only in capitalist societies; he remained mute on the reality of their ‘enslavement’ in non-capitalist societies including communism and matriarchal societies. Marxism and capitalism cannot be plausible concept-lingual sources for the gender movement in the new millennium since both of them are ideologies of conflict: they pit man against man; the state exploits the proletariat-worker in the former, whereas the capitalist boss exploits the labourer in the latter.
The importance of authentic concepts of gender needs to be stressed. More importantly, the crucial concept of ‘power’ needs to be unambiguously stipulated in contemporary gender thought and practice.
The feminism of the 1970’s and 1980’s correctly revealed that the concepts that are presented to us as universal and trans-historically valid actually embody male biases. For example, normative concepts such as ‘reason,’ ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’ fail to pass the gender universalisation test, so to say. Even if these normative concepts embody ideals and express values, they nonetheless prescribe and evaluate behaviour in male-perspectives and so the values they express and ideals they embody are far from universal.
Normative concepts function as descriptions of the endorsements of a specific society, and are faithful to past usage. Hence the complaint that feminism has taken the experience, i.e. marginalisation, of white middle class women to be representative of all women. The glaring weakness of these normative concepts is that they leave little or no room for disagreement or difference within a situation like a community. Conformity is the order of the day since they are treated as truth-conditions, instead of being emendations of current thought and action. These contemporary feminists fear that these values and ideals are codifications of norms regulating masculinity, where the woman's 'normal' is locus of the domesticity of the family, i.e. the private sphere of life. What current gender thought needs is the evolution of ongoing social practice. It should engage in evaluation of these concepts and influence the evolution of social practice in regard to concept-usage.
3. GENDER AND FEMINISM: THE AFRICAN SCENARIO
The argument that African women cannot identify with doctrinaire western feminism comes with cogent force because the knowledge and experience of African women have been ignored or marginalised by a feminism that reflects only the perspectives of white western middle-class women; that it indulges in false universalism and lacks critical awareness of its situation are simple inferences drawn from the argument. Its conception of ‘woman’ remains problematic and therefore vacuous because its ‘woman’ is intended to deny self-evident differences between woman and woman in situation and experience,
132 Where is the Foundation of African Gender?
privilege and power. It is apologetic of the peculiarities of ‘woman’ since it misconceives them as functional and not as formal differences (from ‘man’).
As a result, its content and purpose are not based on actual commonalties between women but on the experience and interests of some women who have the position and ability to impose upon ‘other’ women their own idiosyncrasies, terms and definitions, i.e. what they mean for themselves and others. For instance, when western feminism seeks to balance or reverse the social scales, it employs conceptual polarities such as nature-culture, strong-weak, reason-intuition, public-private, male-female-neuter sexual division of labour. To explain the position of women, it says women are closer to nature; they are more intuitive; they are more private or secretive, etc, not knowing that it simply endorses masculinist (and hence exploitable) viewpoints about ‘woman’.
Indeed feminism lacks a critical awareness of its situation. Feminism is not in dialogue with its context, past and present, and therefore cannot be used to forge emendations to any society, which cries for transformation of social relations. Feminism is engaged in a monologue, which mistakes its own ventriloquism for effectiveness since it is falsely generalising and insufficiently attentive to historical and cultural diversity.
Another unwelcome feature of western feminism is that, although it borrows critical tools from other emancipatory theories like Reformation, liberalism and Marxism, it does not put itself forward to challenging other forms of subordination like slavery, colonialism, racism, and their accompanying prejudices and complexes, which affect women as well. Its exclusiveness to the western middle-class woman's experience undermines its universality and objectivity, and therefore puts to serious doubt its relevance to the African woman of the same era.35 Worse still, its silence could easily be interpreted as its assent to slavery, colonialism and racism, experiences that western middle-class men caused on both African women and men.
Though not unique, the situation of the African feminist and that of the Western feminist would not replicate. An African woman generally finds herself in a social setting where ‘power’ might not be the paradigm of interpersonal life. Jobs are just as hard to get for a female as they are for her male counterpart. In a marital situation, for example, she may dispense with the battle of balancing it out with her allegedly dominant male partner in terms of sexual division of labour, involving child-care and domestic chores due to the scenario of dependency, a creation of the extended family. Dependants fill in as auxiliary or surrogate mothers or fathers and as unofficial maids or cooks, etc. Even if dependants were not around, hiring domestic staff would be more affordable in her society than it would be in the west. As is well known, in the west, it is almost impossible to hire domestic staff.
3.1 TRADITION VERSUS MODERNITY: SOCIO-POLITICS IN
Transformation is a rare occurrence in Africa. Perhaps devolution, rather than evolution or revolution, is the modus operandi for social transformation in Africa. The interface of the past and the present may not be conducive to the development of radical gender even among urban or elite women. Past attitudes and values tend to phase out far too slowly under the weight of new attitudes and values. The usual conceptualisation of ‘woman’ both among the rural and urban folk might have more conservative undertones than radical gender theorists wish. In Malawi, for instance, even after the legal repeal of the ‘indecent dress code,’ the woman in trousers or mini-skirt risks categorisation as a champion or promoter of moral turpitude. The continuing scenario of stripping off mini-skirted city women by vendors is testimonial enough of these slow-dying conservative undertones even in the urban or modernised areas of Malawi. Radical gender might be undaunted by this current negative public reception of trousers and mini-skirts in Malawi, dismissing it as a primary reaction of a bunch of male savages. Time alone will heal this negative attitude; gender activists console themselves. At this stage though, these attitudes should be of great concern because it is not unusual for radical gender women lobbyists to experience opposition and ‘disapproval’ from fellow women.
Another reality that might prevent replication of western gender in Africa is the social history of Africa. It is difficult to identify the dominant ideology for African societies outside Africa’s recent experience of slave trade, colonialism, and nationalism. However, anthropology and archaeology, which pretend to dig deeper into Africa’s past, and re-construct the Antique Africa antedating the three recent experiences of Africa, reveal to us that there are matrilineal and patrilineal societies in Africa. In the patrilineal societies, for example, Ngoni, Tumbuka, Sena, Ngonde in Malawi, males are dominant. However, broadly speaking, in matrilineal societies women are more ‘powerful’ than men, an issue that is accentuated by the husbands’ settling in their wives’ villages upon marriage. One would expect that in a setting where land is the most valuable property, due to reliance on agriculture, a landowner would command a lot of power and influence. Husbands, as co-opted landowners, will in principle and practice have less power and influence than their wives. Therefore, if the western gender’s ‘power paradigm’ is anything to go by, the matrilineal society depicts a reversal of the western gender model. In Malawi, Chewa, Yao, Mang’anja and Lomwe societies are largely matrilineal in principle. The Tonga of the northern shore of Lake Malawi can be included in gender-wise peculiar ethnic groups although the Tonga are bi-lineal.
In these ethnic groups, one must distinguish the formal from informal power structures and modes of social organisation; in the formal power setting, that is the traditional chieftaincy, chiefs hold only symbolic power since what they execute in public is largely the consensus, or the communis sensus, of the ruling
134 Where is the Foundation of African Gender?
Unlike feminist scholarship in the West, feminist theory and scholarship in Africa have formed neither a neatly
delineated field, nor one firmly rooted in theoretically-inflected politics. With the consolidation of Western
feminisms between 1960 and the early 1980s and the growth of the so-called second wave, clear political and
intellectual traditions were formed around radical, liberal and Marxist/socialist feminisms. Subsequent feminisms
drew on or deviated from these positions to engage increasingly with theories and politics emerging in the
nineties. African theories and women's movements have taken very different paths.
In certain ways, African theories and women's movements have been closely linked to politics, although this
politics has not always been specifically feminist. During the late fifties and sixties, African women were drawn
increasingly into national liberation struggles, with gender politics having obliquely filtered into broader
mobilisation against colonialism and class oppression. While the women's movements formed at this time were
not clearly feminist, they indicate a tradition - dating from the fifties - of women organising around the network of
gender, race and class relations. This distinguishes trends in Africa from patterns in the west, where it was really
only from the eighties that feminist theory and politics began to acknowledge how pivotally class, race, ethnicity
and other social relations influenced gendered struggles.
African theories, like women's movements, have explicitly and systematically focused on the range of discourses
and power relations that shape "gender". Yet superficially similar arguments about the interconnectedness of
race, imperialism and gender are underpinned by very different political and theoretical foundations. Tracing the
development of this argument among African feminists is therefore important, particularly because "African
feminism" is often pigeonholed as a homogenous body of culturally marginal (or oppositional) practice and
Feminists' differing views about the nexus of imperialism and gender also uncover the different intellectual and
political legacies of feminisms on the continent. Various commentators have observed that the inauguration of
feminist scholarship and women's studies in Africa was not linked to the consolidation of a women's movement in
a way similar to the early connections between academia, the women's movement and feminist activism in the
west. It is important to note, however, that the connections between Western feminist activism and academia are
largely a legacy of the past. More recently, academic feminism and feminist activism have growth further and
further apart, with much of the path-breaking scholarship in theory or different disciplines having little or no
connection to feminist activism and gender advocacy. In contrast, the connections between feminist activism and
academia in Africa have often been progressively strengthened, with many academics working to insert their
voices into policy-related and developmental work and to dislodge the state's monopoly over development
strategies and gender advocacy. Currently, the cult of reverence that has developed around celebrated feminists -
like Gayatri Spivak, Rosi Braidotti or Judith Butler, as well as scholars who have settled in the United States such
as Ifi Amadiume  - is unusual to most parts of Africa. Here, leading feminists like Pat McFadden, Fatou Sow,
Ruth Meena, Sylvia Tamale, Bolanle Awe, Amina Mama, Zenebeworke Tadesse and Sylvia Tamale among many
others, often work collaboratively, regularly participate in advocacy and applied work or women's movements,
rarely confine their energies to conventional university-bound scholarship, and are not defined as icons in ways
that their counterparts are in the United States, Britain and Western Europe
Despite these contrasting histories, the origins of Western feminisms in a strong women's movement are different
from its origins in Africa. Factors like the influence of foreign technologies of gender and a donor-driven
development industry, limited funding and weak institutional and political links among scholars and activists on the
continent have all affected organic connections between research and writing on one hand, and activism on the
other. Tracing the origins of African feminisms therefore proves more complicated than is the case with Western
feminisms. African theories have grown out of the distinctive encounters of particular writers or women's
movements with local and global processes. In what follows, I explore these encounters by identifying four key
trajectories in theoretical developments on the continent. I show that the four directions traced below have been
shaped by the distinct encounters of pioneering gender scholars with women's movements and with different local
and global processes.
Among the first feminists to realign understandings of gender and feminism from an African perspective were
Nawal el Saadawi, Ama Ata Aidoo, Molara Ogundipe and Chikwenye Ogunyemi. Often motivated by their reading
of African women authors who did not conform to Western thematic expectations and forms, these thinkers and writers were concerned primarily with existential questions, focusing often on the extent to which African women's
writing and political expression registered a unique engagement with subjectivity and gendered social and
psychological experiences. Their overarching concern was the patriarchal character of imperialism and the way
that African women's gendered identities inevitably revolved around racial, colonial or imperial domination.
Ogunyemi, the Nigerian literary critic, therefore argued that black women writers "are distinct from white feminists
because of their race, because they have experienced the past and present subjugation of the black population
along with present day subtle (or not so subtle) control exercised over them by the alien Western
culture" (1984:64). This concern led writers to contest ostensibly universal explanations of gendered subjectivity
and experience developed by pioneering feminist literary critics like Elaine Showalter, Mary Eagleton, Susan
Gubar and Annette Kolodny.
African critics and writers made interventions into mainstream feminist thought at the same time that third-world
feminists like Chandra Mohanty or Trinh T Minh-ha (1989) and African-American critics like Deborah McDowell
(1986) and Barbara Smith (1986) were challenging certain North American feminists' occlusion of racism and
classism in certain feminisms. Common to both the North American and African interventions during the late
seventies and early eighties was a powerfully reactive and polemical tendency. This is epitomised in Barbara
Smith's claim that "When white women look at Black women's works they are of course ill-equipped to deal with
the subtleties of racial politics… Until a Black feminist criticism exists we will not even know what these writers
mean" (1986:170). In similar ways to Smith, many African theorists concentrated on defining African feminist
theory in terms of what Western feminist theory was not. This orientation fostered emphatic strategies of selfnaming
to signal an angry defiance of imperial control, silencing and misrepresentation.
Pre-eminently reactive currents among many African feminists, consolidating a global scrutiny of Western
feminism among culturally marginal and third-world feminists in the eighties, continue to inflect the tenor and
goals of a major strand within African feminist thought. Deborah McDowell, herself endorsing alternative black
feminisms in the eighties, criticised the tradition of angry condemnation among African-American feminists in the
following way: "Black feminist scholarship has been decidedly more practical than theoretical, and the theories
developed thus far have often… been marred by slogans, rhetoric and idealism" (1986:188). McDowell pinpoints
a knee-jerk preoccupation with rebuttal and defiant self-affirmation, a preoccupation which has taken prior place
over rigorous analysis, exploration and the definition of long-term alternative political visions.
"Womanism", espoused by a number of African and African-American feminists, originates in this tradition of
angry denunciation. Believing that much feminist terminology does not adequately address the locations or
experiences of women in Africa, scholars like Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Hudson-Weems and Jane Splawn argue
that the usage of the term "feminism" recuperates an imperialist legacy. They therefore turn to self-naming in
order to redefine black (African and "Africana") women's subjectivity. The prominence of this tradition of separatist
and, to a large degree, reactive scholarship, is evident in the journal, Womanist Theory and Research: A Journal
of Womanist and Feminist-of-Color Scholarship and Art  , as well as in the increasing growth of womanist
research and scholarship today. Importantly, womanism has been embraced more readily by radical African-
American women than by women within Africa. This is probably the main indication of the weight accorded to selfnaming
and polemical reaction in situations where minority groups of radical women challenge acute experiences
of silencing, cultural domination and misrepresentation.
At the same time that many theorists, turning mainly to African women's existential concerns, focused on refuting
mainstream feminisms, a number of African scholars defined priorities for feminist politics and research by
carefully interpreting African women's quotidian and socio-political experiences. From the early eighties, Bolanle
Awe, Christine Obbo, Fatima Mernissi, Pat McFadden, Zenebeworke Tadesse, among others, working as
activists, writers and scholars, broke silences surrounding women's subordination in the years of nation-building
that followed struggles against colonialism. The chequered histories of Africa's women scholars and activists in
the late seventies and early eighties have yet to be documented as crucial chapters in the history of African
women's movements. Struggling for autonomy in relation to male-centred nationalism and post-independence
nation-building, they wrote and worked under extremely hostile conditions. The absence of institutional and
political bases for their activism and writing meant that they often worked in isolation. Their migration from
institution to institution, or from country to country testifies to battles to find spaces for political expression
implicitly or explicitly censored in most African countries. These experiences of marginalisation, persecution and,
in many cases, refugeeism are telling indictments of the heavily masculinist climate of the post-colonial state.
Catherine Nelson captures the ethos in which these feminists worked when she cites Geraldine Heng: "The
state…has divided modernization into two distinct categories, technological and social. Anything in the first
category is positive; anything in the second category is negative. The African state thereby connected feminism to
social Westernization and hence declared feminism undesirable and dangerous"
Dealing with subjects that spanned sexuality, women's work and political organisation, these feminists introduced
women's rights discourses into public debates surrounding post-independent nation-building. Their theoretically
suggestive and cross-disciplinary explorations of African women's economic, social, personal and political
struggles led them to demonstrate that African women's subjectivities and struggles always encoded the nexus of
imperialism, race and class. Focusing not so much on how women in Africa differed from women in the West, as
on the distinctive economic, political and cultural dilemmas confronting African women, their work moves far
beyond polemical critique of Western feminism to signal the growth of historically-grounded analyses of African
These writers have directly articulated agendas for women's movements in Africa, and, in the years after
decolonisation in the 70s and early 80s, shaped the radical analysis of women and gender that succeeded the
emphasis on women's participation in nationalism. It should be stressed that a significant body of documentation
and research on women's nationalist participation celebrates their political involvement without reflecting the
gendered parameters of this involvement. In southern Africa, a scholar like Pat McFadden, editor of the feminist
journal SAFERE (Southern African Feminist Review), or Christine Obbo, a Ugandan feminist who dealt with
women's work, or Molara Ogundipe, working extensively on the connections between women's voices, women's
agency and African feminist politics gave important direction to the focused gender analysis that surfaced in the
post-colonial period. Many of today's research networks and women's organisations partly take their impetus from
the insights which this first wave of post-independence feminists defined - often in the face of enormous hostility
from the patriarchal institutional environments in which they were situated. Certain claims that "gender" is a foreign imposition that distorts pre-colonial realities tend to suppress the
hierarchies in which African men and women were situated, even though these hierarchies did not necessarily
reflect the concepts and models that most feminists assume. Overall, however, the vast body of work that revisits
pre-colonial societies to develop epistemological critiques of feminist concepts has been a pivotal strand - with the
potential for directing further exploration - in African-centred theory.
This work marks a general progressive shift in the way that feminist scholars located in the west have been
approaching gender relations and women's experiences in the third world. In particular, it transcends
representations of African women as homogenous ciphers, a tradition that ultimately reinforces complacent selfrepresentations
of enlightened western feminism. Yet it often differs in orientation from the work produced by
feminist scholars who live or have worked extensively in Africa. Attention to the nexus of race, imperialism and
gender has become de rigueur for most feminists, and many have been carefully self-reflexive in their work. But
the insight of African-based scholars whose research and scholarship has fused with political activism and lived
experiences of the concerns about which they write, rings with a special urgency and shapes historicallygrounded
and activist-oriented scholarship in distinctive ways.
The four theoretical trajectories traced above, each rooted in distinct histories and in critics' intellectual and
political locations, all focus on the nexus of race, class and imperialism. One, drawing together African and
African-American women, emerges out of resistance to acutely-experienced forms of dominant feminism and an
existential impulse towards self-naming; a second is shaped by activism, empirical observation and close analysis
of African women's experiences, a third often takes recourse to post-structuralism while retaining a focus on
African intellectual agendas and politics, and a fourth, located in the west, is shaped primarily by an intellectual
climate of post-structuralist and especially post-colonial inquiry.
Much of the work produced within these trajectories highlights a central distinguishing feature of African theories,
namely that proponents generally integrate theorising with sociological, historical, literary and other studies. In
fact, theory developed by African feminist scholars often proves difficult to delineate. Two main reasons explain
this. One is that publishing, institutional and research resources in the West encourage specialisation and
relatively well-funded research. Western feminist scholarship is therefore grounded in a supportive material base,
with this facilitating a body of specialised work often based on years of dedicated academic research within
clearly delineated fields.
Many feminist scholars based in Africa have had far fewer of these material and structural advantages.
Consequently, they have not had the opportunities to consolidate theoretical research in the specialised ways that
many other feminist scholars have. It is evident, then, that the growth of African feminist theory and specialist
research has often been constrained by limited resources and hostile institutional and political contexts. This
situation has considerably fostered the hegemony of metropolitan theories. The highly visible, widely
disseminated scholarship of feminists based in the West, who focus on African contexts has become, irrespective
of its quality, extremely accessible and authoritative.
While African feminist theorising on the continent has often been shaped by a particular engagement with practice
and experience, it has also drawn significantly on scholarship and theorising in the West. Likewise, Western
feminist scholarship has evolved in distinctive ways because of its engagement with women's political and
intellectual struggles in the third world. Certain patterns of influence and cross-fertilisation have been reciprocal,
progressive and mutually beneficial. Other patterns, stemming from the global dominance of Western intellectual
priorities and from the diluting of feminist agendas by conservative political agendas, have marginalised
contextually-grounded theory. It is noteworthy that the theoretical inflection of much work ranging from gender
training and policy-making to teaching and academic research has been strongly influenced by conservative and
technicist theories originating in the West, and especially the United States. An influential orientation here has
been liberal feminism and the discourses of developmentalism and modernisation to which it is linked. Liberal
feminism and the developmental paradigm interpret Africa from the perspective of its economic "inefficiency". The
prescription associated with this is that women of Africa should be concertedly "captured" by the global market
and the economic initiatives of the state.
council; the consensus views include decisions, advice and suggestions from women, say the chief’s siblings, aunts, mother, spouse. The chief can only underrate the women’s decisions at his/her peril. For example, in Chewa society, there is a special all-women council that nominates and elects the heir to the throne upon the demise of a chief. Its choice is irrevocable.
In the informal power setting of marriage, women are very strong, so that most marriages are wife-headed. The women not only have land but also a certain edge of power over males on reproductive issues. Most often than not women make unilateral decisions on family planning. Moreover, it is not uncommon for mothers (-in-law) to issue family planning hints to their daughters (-in-laws). The children belong to her. In a poor economic environment, children are priceless assets, and so a large number of children are an increase in wealth for her. Woe to the husband who outlives his wife while he is based in her village and cultivating her land!
To a tolerable level, the more applicable pitch of gender gymnastics is the middle class African marriage, a poor and faint imitation of the western nuclear marriage. In this darkly glass-image of the western nuclear family, decisions can be (i) syncratic, i.e. both modernised African spouses reaching open consensus on an issue; or (ii) autonomic, i.e. one spouse making their decision with little or no consultation; or (iii) autocratic, whereby the husband or wife issues decrees. The latter two modes of decision-making may cause tension and lead to ephemeral, delicate and symbolic trial marriages.