One of the questions I am most frequently asked is “what is African feminism and how is it different from western feminism”. It is a valid question that points to the clarity that people seek in the process of self discovery, which is what becoming feminist is.
But the response that I’ve been giving over the years — namely that African feminism like all feminisms is about challenging male dominance, but that it also resists oppression based on ethnicity, class, tradition, globalisation and other specifics to Africa, and, that it is difficult to define — a similar response that can be heard elsewhere, is certainly true but has started to feel stagnant.
I have increasingly found a need to revisit the question about the different types of African feminism that exist today not to encourage rigid conceptual boxes but rather to encourage clarity and critical thinking about what African feminism actually is in today’s world. The time is right for it. Young African women and men are increasingly engaging with feminism, but fewer are engaging with feminist theory and this is at least partly because there aren’t enough new theories to engage with. Many African feminist theories: Motherism, Stiwanism, African Womanism and so on are still brilliant reads but they feel somewhat dated only because– remarkably – significant numbers of Africans are comfortable with the term feminist in ways they weren’t when these concepts were coined as substitutes.
So which African feminisms exist today? In order to think through the strands of African feminism operating today, I looked at factors that have shaped African feminism thus far and identified the short, imperfect and overlapping categories below. This is work-in-progress and I would love to think this through together so if you disagree or would like to add to my classifications please do so in the comments.
African feminisms – Precolonial – 2000s
Precolonial African feminism – Most African feminists, myself included, tend to go as far back as to precolonial Africa to find the roots of feminism in the continent. We have contended that women like Queen Nzinga, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Charlotte Maxeke, Wambui Otieno, Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Maragaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others were feminist because they fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy. But although they were feminist in the sense of the verb “feminist”, the first wave of self-defined African feminists — ideologically and politically — emerge later.
Postcolonial African Feminism – Here they are – 1960s onwards. This seems to be the era when, largely inspired by Black and Third World feminisms elsewhere, small groups of African women start labelling themselves feminist.
- Radical African Feminism – I am going to split Postcolonial African Feminism into three key modes of which Radical African feminism is the first. Bear in mind that the three overlap and also that what is radical in one society may not be radical elsewhere. For example, radical 2nd wave western feminists advocated among other things political lesbianism to challenge the heteronormative family structure with women’s co-living. In Africa, on the other hand, women have historically and still do co-live so it could be more radical to advocate single living as a challenge to the patriarchal status quo. (Although I also find political lesbianism potentially radical in some African context). In my opinion, what especially marks Radical African Feminism is “voice”. Radical African feminists like Bessie Head, Awa Thiam, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nawal el Saadawi and Mariama Bâ; scholars like Amina Mama, Patricia MacFadden and Ayesha Imam; organisations like AAWORD and Agenda all uprooted social norms perhaps first and foremost by inserting their voices into domains where women’s voices were not traditionally allowed.
- Afrocentric African Feminism – The second type of feminism that emerges in post independence Africa is marked by discussions of what I in jest refer to as the AAST – the African Authenticity Standards Test. The era was marked by bickering about un-Africanness and westernisation (like today too is) and so African feminists of course also debated and disagreed about western contra authentically African values. Theories like “Motherism” emerge in this group as feminisms that centre African values but they are not always wholly progressive; there may be essentialist and homophobic values imported into this African feminist thinking.
- Grassroots African Feminism – The grassroots and development focused postcolonial African feminism largely emerges in the 1980s and 1990s especially after the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which resulted in a lot of coalition building as well as funding for feminist activism and scholarship across the continent and diaspora. It focused on so called ‘bread and butter’ issues such as poverty reduction, anti-FGM and violence prevention but also with intellectual activism concerning these issues. The Maputo Protocol is arguably predominantly an outcome of this type of feminism.
African feminisms – 2000s – today
When we speak of African feminism today, we are still largely referring to feminism that could be located in one or all of the above three strands but I would argue that, in large part due to the internet, blogs and social media, as well as the global political mood, more African feminisms categories have emerged since the 2000s.
I’d especially argue that key moments such as the publication of the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists in 2006, the popularity of explicitly African feminist literature especially Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk and later book “We Should All Be Feminists” and the launch of blogs like Adventures From The Bedroom of African Women, Spectra Speaks, MzAgams, MsAfropolitan and hashtags like #AfriFem; as well as Rwandan women making up sixty-four percent of parliament, Africa’s female heads of state: Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Joyce Banda and Catherine Samba-Panza, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcukva becoming the Executive Director of UN Women, Africa’s three female Nobel-laureates; the late Wangari Maathai, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson and Leymah Gbowee, and also for the first time, in 2012, the African Union voted for a woman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to be its chair, Hollywood sensation Lupita Nyong’o and the influence of global feminist culture at large have transformed the African feminist space since the 2000s.
Radical, Afrocentric and Grassroots African feminism have all been imported into the zeitgeist but I would also add to our times (again short, incomplete, overlapping and work-in-progress)
- Liberal African Feminism – Liberal African feminists have championed discussions such as those about domestic gender roles, gender gaps and sexual rights that liberal feminism everywhere in the world has pushed onto the agenda. This strand of African feminism has made great strides in mainstreaming African feminism and bringing empowerment concepts to the masses, but it has perhaps failed to look critically at neoliberal capitalist values or what I have recently referred to as PIE – Patriarchal Imperialist Expansion, that liberal feminism everywhere is not traditionally critical towards. In a continent where consumption culture needs to be understood with diligent specificity, this needs to be considered.
- Millennial or 4th wave African Feminism – This is the clap-back, pushback, Bey-hive worshipping, student protesting, fierce, vociferous and woke new voice of African feminism. We currently have the most explicitly feminist generation the continent has ever had and it will no doubt have a massive impact on family and work structure. I am excited about how millennials are impacting African feminism. That said, this category does not generally speaking engage with African feminist theory to the extent it would need to in order to also revolutionise political life. As Patricia McFadden says, “That is why it is so important to recognise that we need to craft the tools for a new understanding of our social reality in this moment as well as to understand how the moment has been fashioned by the past.”
- Afropolitan Feminism and Afrofuturist Feminism – In all honesty, I am not sure these categories widely exist because these terms especially Afropolitanism are contested but it’s interesting to consider – what might each of these look like? To me, they are both exciting types of African feminism especially in the ways that they are critically connected to all of the above while present and forward thinking too.
What other types of African feminism would you say exist today? I considered adding an “anti-feminism African feminism” category because as I have written about before, there’s a whole lot of patriarchal messages being dressed up as feminist around the continent. But I am sure someone has a better name for that?
& what’s “my” African feminism? A little bit of everything, but I will always be most firmly radically feminist in both an African and global context.
Image is from Wiki Commons by David Cheyo