Feminism in many African societies is often misconstrued as being anti-men whereas its only objective is the equality of sexes. A feminist as defined by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is ‘a man or a woman who says yes there is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it and we must do better.’
Pre-colonial African societies regarded women as equal to men[i] and the roles of each gender in society was complementary. The conjunction of traditional patriarchal kinship patterns and a modernising postcolonial state resulted in an ironclad economic rationale behind women’s subordination. Religion was used as a tool to achieve the passivity of women, thereby exacerbating patriarchal African traditions.
African feminism is rooted in the social and cultural conditions of the continent and as a result, the univocal theory of global feminism does not apply as African feminism raises issues of sex, gender, race and canon formation.[ii] African feminism in the 20th century has its origins in the liberation struggles of nationalist women who fought alongside the men, for independence and women´s rights.
Women have always played an active role in the growth and development of Africa even though their contributions have sometimes been lost in the narrative, or undermined. The end of colonial rule in Africa was made possible by the struggles of women who fought alongside men for nationalism.
However upon the attainment of independence by many African States, African women were once again relegated and side-lined by African men and this led to their subjection to various forms of abuse such as physical assault, degrading practices and social beliefs and customs that make them vulnerable and insecure in the highly patriarchal society. The strong activist-women in various African countries were not deterred by this as they continued to push towards the actualisation of equal rights and liberation of the African woman.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first elected woman president in Africa. She has been praised for maintaining the peace in Liberia after the civil war. Though saddled with crippling debts and destroyed infrastructure, she was able to negotiate settlements, rebuild infrastructure, and also lift sanctions. She was a strong advocate of equal rights for women in Liberia.[iii]
African women intellectuals and writers, such as Buchi Emecheta, Mariama Ba used storytelling to bring to the fore and consciousness of the society the challenges and sufferings of the African woman. This led to the rise of female writers who began challenging their male counterparts who had previously and with impunity, represented African women in their literary works as second-class citizens.
The efforts of various women have not only contributed to the development of Africa but it has continued to yield results and have paved the way for women and women’s rights in the society.
Although most Africans believe that the emancipation of women is critical and necessary for the growth and development of the society, and they often strive towards the attainment of gender equality, many of them do not like to be tagged feminists because of the disapproving views of the society of the word. The word ‘feminism’ is often misconstrued, as people view feminists as ugly women who hate men because they do not have husbands, and seek to influence others to hate men too. This is as a result of the misrepresentation of mischief makers, often men, who are afraid to lose the privilege that patriarchy affords them, hence the strong resistance to feminism and anything it represents. There are also women who oppose feminism because they have not fully grasped the concept or have been brainwashed by the cultural and religious norms which promote the passivity and subservience of women to men.
African feminism is thus stuck with trying to move from the traditional notions which stipulate that a woman’s principal purpose on earth is to satisfy the man as a wife such that no matter the level of her achievement, if she is unmarried, she deserves no respect, since a husband is supposedly viewed as the crown of a woman’s life.
It is undoubted that feminism in Africa has come a long way but there are still miles to cover in order to attain equality of both men and women. There is thus an urgent need for the sensitization of all the members of the society about the injustice and maltreatment meted out to women as a result of the misguided belief that they are inferior to men. Societal and cultural norms that have normalised violence and degrading of women must be constantly challenged. The portrayal of women as weak and inferior to men in books that are read in schools, and in movies should be changed so that young girls do not grow up believing these narratives. Efforts must be made to avoid unnecessary dissipation of offensiveness which would only intensify the conflict between the sexes which would end up being destructive.
It is fundamental that laws be made to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men, in terms of education, employment and remuneration and there must be adequate mechanisms put in place to implement these laws and punish wrongdoers. Judicial intervention should be encouraged where the parliamentary process of law making proves cumbersome. A cue can be taken from the Supreme Court of Nigeria which gave landmark decisions conferring the right to inherit properties on women, thereby upstaging the age long tradition in Eastern Nigeria which forbade women from enjoying any inheritance rights.[iv] With this decision, women from that region of Nigeria can now take benefits in family property and inherit properties alongside their male counterparts.
A new generation of feminists, building on the foundations laid by the older ones, are emerging daily all over Africa. They are redefining and reorienting feminism from an African perspective such that feminist discourse is taking place all over Africa on and off social media.
There are still countless obstacles to be overcome in the fight for gender equality but as long as the discourse is constantly in the mainstream, then there is hope that equality would be achieved in the nearest future.
It is important to emphasise that any plan for a better and brighter African future must begin with the emancipation of women. Thomas Sankara, a former president of Burkina Faso who was the first African leader to promote women’s rights and also appoint them as key Ministers, recognised this when he said that, ‘The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other end of the sky.’[v]
- L. Amede Obiora, Reconsidering Customary Law, 17 Legal Stud. Forum 217-252 (1993)
- Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs 11, no. 1 (1985): 63-80 at 64, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174287.
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Johnson_Sirleaf
- Ukeje & Anor. v. Ukeje SC.22/2004, available at https://www.lawonlinereport.com/mrs-lois-chituru-ukeje-anor-v-mrs-gladys-ada-ukeje/
- Thomas Sankara , We Are the Heirs of the World’s Revolutions: Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87, 2nd Edition