In this day and age when conversations about gender are becoming more fluid, there is a word that by it’s very mention is becoming more and more gender specific – “Feminism”.
Feminism is a movement aimed at equal rights for women that was started formally at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 when three hundred men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (d.1902) drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement’s ideology and political strategies. But in Africa Feminism is still young, and it’s uses are proving to be contentious. Therefore, we decided to tackle this so-called controversial topic in two parts – This is Part 1 : The Boxes and The Hammer.
Before we discuss African Feminism and all it’s colourful meanings and uses, first let’s give you some context, aka The Boxes. African societies are communally constructed. This means activities where people gather such as religious ceremonies, trials, family gatherings, home life, and meal times are traditionally structured. Some of these social structures have survived colonialism and some have been adapted/remixed by Christian, Islamic, Capitalist, and modernist/post-modern influences. As a result, in the post-colonial era, the twin fears of the continued erosion of indigenous knowledge systems coupled with the prospects of cultural irrelevancy, have led to the construction of tunnel vision inspired social boxes. These social boxes became more apparent when we asked four feminists about “what Feminism means to them” and “how they reconcile Feminism with the typical expectations of an African woman?”
“Colonialism has changed societal perceptions of what tradition means. Pre-colonialism, our ancestors, and still to this day, man and woman toiled in the fields, side by side – weeding and reaping crops to feed themselves, their children and their communities. It wasn’t until colonialism arrived on our shores that rural to urban migration and Western ideas of social hierarchies really established the idea of women as lowly and homebound, in our culture. Today tradition for women somehow means “in the home and in the kitchen”.
Situmbeko Wambulawae, a Zambian Journalist who runs Zambian Feminists – an online platform on Facebook and Instagram, has a personal experience that is the perfect example to corroborate Catherine’s statement.
Situmbeko says, “I went on a work trip and we were camping for 20 days. And, every morning this man would eat the leftover food and leave the pots, and say ‘there’s a woman in the group to clean’. He always thought it would be me. I found myself asking questions like – even in the workspace, there is an assumption that the woman must do the housework. So you find that we (feminists) end up rebelling against that and just saying – “I’ll not be a part of it” or “I don’t want to do that”. This kind of rebellion is not only very Christian, it is also traditional says Kenyan media consultant and freelance Journalist, Tiffany Kagure Mugo, recalling a book she read called, “Bad Girls of the Bible”.
In addition, Tiffany says we must not view Feminism and African religions/traditions as if “there is a dichotomy between the two, as if one exists in spite of the other”. For her, rebellion or “bad-assery” is just as much a part of pre-colonial African society as it is contemporary. “You do not need to go deep into our own African histories to find women who were powerful and changed the societies around them in ways that the trolls on Twitter would describe as, ‘like these awful feminists’. There is a need to reconcile what Feminism was and is, with what traditions/religious beliefs really are. You mustn’t look only at the surface. A deeper analysis, which people often do not want to do, will show you that none of these things are particularly static”, she added.
A deeper analysis of the Bible conducted by Amanda Tayte-Tait Marufu, revealed to her that the Bible “was written by flawed human beings who were sharing their own experience with God”. Furthermore, “traditions are entirely man made” and the stories in the Bible of men abusing, raping, cheating on, shaming, and killing women are a “cautionary tale for all humans”.
Amanda Tayte-Tait Marufu is Zimbabwean author of the book At What Age Does My Body Belong To Me?, and the co-founder of the award winning media company Visual Sensation. She is also created a Feminist content platform called –#NoFilter. For Amanda, “Christians who hate are being contradictory to what it means to love. If you love God and love someone you wouldn’t rape and abuse them. You would love them as you love yourself and treat them as an equal. Using tradition or religion as a tool to stifle and abuse women angers me”, she said.
Anger! This is the typical box that feminists are placed in to be silenced. “I used to say that I didn’t understand why Feminists were angry. Yes, I used to be one of those people too”, said Amanda and she is not alone. A significant number of Africans don’t understand where the so-called “anger” is coming from. This might be because in our minds, traditions, just like God, are inherently “good”. “Tradition reminds us of where we are coming from, and also highlights things that need fixing”, Situmbeko said. However, she also pointed out that, “society and tradition always find ways to agree when it comes to the suppression of women, and what is expected of them”. This agreement partitions culture, which is dynamic, and makes it “stereotypical”. Stereotypes are not only incomplete, they lack spontaneity, originality or individuality. They limit the capabilities of what women can do “because of the whole idea that women have to do certain things well to be considered women, also affects men and how they are raised – because they are made to feel like basic life skills that they actually need should be assigned to gender roles”, Situmbeko explained.
Traditional and religious stereotypes effectively create the man made boxes that hamper not only the majority of society [FYI there are more women than men in the world] but the whole of the culture. Let’s do a brief thought experiment to illustrate how. “Imagine somebody put you in a glass box and told [you] – not how to be all you can be – but how fragile [you] are and how [you] need to be an idea of what a certain group of people has decided [you] should be. When you are born you are given a stencil that you have to fit into or you are deemed not fit for a society. So not only are you segregated before you know yourself, but even your right to exist is curated by standards and expectations that do not take your individuality into consideration. In such a situation would you sit there quietly or would you voice your concerns?
Now, let’s say fear makes you choose the former, and you opt to quietly stay seated and do what you are told. Then one day, that somebody who has been telling you how to act and behave gets up a leaves. And, in your reprieve from [his] gaze you look around and find you are not alone. In fact, there are hundreds of [yous] in this box [and other boxes], sitting upon the bones of tradition and religion. Now, imagine the more daring individuals in the box huddle around you and start talking to [you] and each other about themselves and where [you] are. Will you not form what Tiffany calls, “A cognitive framework for me to understand the world around me and my existence. A thinking space to hold, grapple, embrace and understand how I fit into this big wide world – why it is problematic and my problems. And, notions of all that I am”.
According to Situmbeko, “women go through so much and sometimes we are afraid to talk about what it means to be in an environment that doesn’t accept people who are different”. So for her, “Feminism is very much a release” because it opens “all these little boxes” and highlights what being “woman” or being “female” is in contemporary African societies. Furthermore, Feminism makes her “feel okay to be who I am and to just share myself with the world without feeling I have to be apologetic for it”. But feminism is “not just an identity that you have to perform” Amanda adds. “Feminism is a political movement. And the movement is us freeing women from all these men made things that they are using to continue to put us in boxes and treat us like second class citizens”, Amanda continues. Feminism is the theory “that informs the action in response to an external pressure” according to Catherine. To illustrate this theory in practice let’s return to our thought experiment once more, and pick up where we left off.
Let’s re-imagine you are back in the box and you’ve collectively formulated what Tiffany termed “notions” of who [you] are and the world around [you]. Suddenly, you notice one of those “openings” that Situmbeko mentioned. Like Amanda and Catherine you take action and upon closer observation you realize this box you are in is not only made of glass, it is “man made”. In your gleeful realization of the possibility of freedom, you reach for the nearest bone you can find and you hurl it to the roof of the box. The bone shatters the glass ceiling like a hammer. To the untrained ear, shocked to hear your voice clearly for the first time as it breaks through the noise of glass, as they are turning their back to look down at the shattered pieces they spent centuries maintaining. Do you think your scream will sound like a joyful shout, release of pain, or cry of freedom? To most wardens ears, any scream from any woman, feminist or not sounds “angry”, loud and unruly. And, their first instinct is to silence her. But to their surprise you are not the only one speaking, there are other survivors with you and the other wardens’ boxes are cracking.
To most women, their first encounter with Feminism is this release and escape from the glass boxes that have been built up around them. This allows them not only the opportunity to find their voice and peers in pages/bones of religions/traditions that are being used to gag them, but also the tools they need to express themselves. And, much more than this, they find protection under this umbrella of Feminism. However, with so many other women, although they share a common ground, their opinions about the nature of Feminism are as diverse as life itself. Therefore the next step – in part II: The Cocoon and The Butterfly – we discuss how women find themselves in all these new voices.
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