There is a persistent misconception that African women fighting for their rights and building their identity owe a debt to feminism passed down by White women and the West. It is crucial to understand that there are unique forms of feminism that have developed on and of the African continent.
"You cannot go around claiming that an idea or an item was imported into a given society unless you could also conclude that — to the best of your knowledge — there is not and never was any word or phrase in that society's indigenous language which describes that idea or item.”
These words, spoken by the Ghanaian feminist writer and playwright Ama Ata Aidoo, perfectly illustrate why feminism is tirelessly put on trial the moment it is used in reference to sub-Saharan or Afropean girls and women. Here, feminism is seen by many to be an import from the West, an imposition from white women to women of African descent, going against the "true" traditional values of the latter.
As if their being sub-Saharan exempted them from desires of emancipation. As if there was confusion, and it was an unknown process for them. Besides, from whom could they claim to be emancipated, if their situation is so enviable!
African feminism did not wait for anyone.
Oppression and desire for emancipation
Personally, I like to believe that at all times, in every region, African women have aspired to reign over themselves, to be free and to use this freedom to liberate others. Historically women’s oppression has known neither ethnic nor racial boundaries.
To perpetuate the idea that African women’s feminism is a simple emanation of white women’s feminism, is to deny them from any kind of singularity.
The oppression of women, regardless of the culture, also deprives men of their humanity
It is to refute the idea that they could have been responsible for their plight, and instead give women the impetus to take their destiny into their own hands. It is to reflect on their oppression, and to envisage possible solutions.
When it comes to freedom and the refusal of patriarchal authority — the hallmarks of feminism — I frankly find it hard to believe that sub-Saharan women have not had their share of grievances.
I find it hard to believe that feminisms of the global South began with colonialism, that women from these places waited for Western women to federate, fight, support and show solidarity with each other. It is an insult to imagine that it could have been otherwise. It is an affront to consider the stories of the emancipation of Sub-Saharan women as consecutive to those of other women.
At the heart of the question of feminism is that of self-determination, that of the reappropriation of one's narrative: to conceive or not to conceive children, to live freely one’s sexuality, to assert one's humanity. By its claim to individualism, feminism makes of the woman an individual, a subject, a citizen willing to make her own choices.
And perhaps it is because it is synonymous with self-determination that it is perceived as a "white woman's thing,” that its detractors lie and say there is no history of feminism on the continent, no need to claim it.
Art+Feminism Editathon held by Wikimedia Nigeria Foundation with CEEHOPE in Nigeria in March 2019
Against the patriarchal order
African feminism did not wait for anyone. It is even possible that it was in force among African women before there was even a term to define it, because from time immemorial, everywhere, there have been those fighting against sexism and the patriarchy imposed upon them.
Those who did not tolerate the existing inequalities, especially in the intimate and family sphere, are evidence of this. Those who rebelled against the idea that their participation in the life of the community depended on a man and their identity to be circumscribed to "daughters, wives, and mothers."
Vilified almost everywhere by its opponents because it goes against the established patriarchal order, and particularly within our cultures where the group prevails over the individual — especially when this individual is a woman — feminism appears as the community’s enemy.
Yesterday as today, all the argumentation about its relevance for African women illustrates the adage that says “when the sage shows the moon, the fool looks at his finger.”
To claim that the problem lies in the Westernization of the term, and not in the situation of women and the inequalities they experience, is to look through the small end of the telescope. It is a distraction. It is losing sight of the big picture.
It is to refuse to understand that no matter what you call it, no being on this planet will be truly free as long as a single woman, a single girl is enslaved.
The oppression of women, regardless of the culture, also deprives men of their humanity.
Feminism is everyone's business. It expresses a desire to live for something else. A world where each and every one of us can be who they are, a world of peace and possibilities. Updating the discourse on emancipation starting from oneself and using one's own terms belongs to all women, including Sub-Saharan women and their descendants.
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