Occasionally I worry, what if I hurt my mum with some of the stuff that I write about white people, or what if my dad is offended by my criticism of African men. Then I visit them in Lagos and I’m reminded of how, and why, my concerns are completely unnecessary. They expected, and very intentionally shaped, me into who I’ve become.
And I need to speak about these things. As an African (black, mixed race, biracial, insert racial label) woman and feminist I experience silencing from multiple angles.
Firstly, from those white feminists who produce general knowledge about womanhood and male oppression without taking into account that gendered racism is part of many women’s lives. We don’t all experience womanhood similarly. I cannot separate race from womanhood the way a white feminist (thinks she) can.
In white feminist scholarship, African feminists are often accused of ‘undertheorising’. And It is true that feminist theory thrives in western academia in a way that it doesn’t in the academies in Africa, but that’s largely because feminists in the west have more resources. African feminists do produce theory like Obioma Nnaemeka’s Nego-Feminism, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie’s Stiwanism, Catherine Acholonu’s Motherism, Wanjira Muthoni’s and Chikwenye Ogunyemi’s African Womanism to name a few. However, with limited access to funding, technology and a huge publishing industry, the kind of theoretical imperialism where white feminist work is considered theory while feminist work in Africa is considered practical is possible.
I cannot simply speak as an African either. This space is occupied by the African (heterosexual) male narrative. Although I share experiences of racial oppression with African men, as the cultural gatekeepers of African history and social theory, African male thinkers generally speaking have not included struggles with sexism into “our” story of African-ness.
Perhaps this well-intended comment from Harvard scholar, Dr Shabazz can help explain my point:
Peace my sister. I think it is a grave error to equate white women’s affiliation with white power with black men’s affiliation with patriarchy. They are hardly analogues. White American men routinely brutalize and incarcerate their black American “brothers.” African Americans make of a majority of the US prison population even though blacks only make up about 12% of the US population. Black American men suffer from obscene suicide rates. Black on black violence is still plaguing our communities. Black men are disappearing from university. These are all functions of ongoing white supremacy.
Yes, men of African heritage around the world are harshly affected by white supremacy and that is not something I take lightly. However, what Dr Shabazz failed to understand as he argued against my stance that feminism is NOT unAfrican is how similarly male supremacy affects women and particularly women of colour.
For example 70% of the world’s poor are women, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women, one in three women has been subject to sexual assault, women own 1% of the world’s property, the primary victims of wars are civilian women and their children, not soldiers…
Therefore as Africans and as women affected both by racism and sexism it seems that white female- and African male supremacy in fact are analogous.
I don’t suggest we throw the baby out with the bath water by abandoning dialogues with our white feminists sisters unless they are inefficient (and sometimes they are), or by invalidating the oft-insightful corpus of work by white feminists. However, we mustn’t overlook fabricated perceptions of African womanhood that fails to listen to what African women have to say. Nor should we cease to dialogue with our African brethren of whom many are increasingly beginning to adopt a holistic view on African issues but we must pay attention to not neglecting our stories and concerns in favour of protecting some idea of manhood.
Solidarity shouldn’t blind us in looking at the specific situation/s faced by us as women of African heritage. We must not choose between race and gender, but keep creating spaces where we narrate (and define) the intersection of both.
In the words of Audre Lorde:
The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.
Do you have any thoughts, experiences, concerns?
I am sure you are familiar with the work, books and lectures by Bell Hook, an African-americain black feminist cultural studies scholar; incredibily talented and relevant. Especially as she draws a picture of America being squared (or supported) by capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and sexism. She touches upon the point that you made in this article: the difficult existence of a black feminist narrative. And I think it can be extrapolated to the african female/feminist narrative. She’s all over youtube and I must admit that I love working while listenning to her.
Absolutely amazing article, thank you.
Great Article Minna! I love that your writing is so “accessible” and real….I love the way you link and connect theory with our everyday and the way you make me want to interrogate things that remain unsettled in my mind. Thank you.
Thanks for the generous comment. It’s a great compliment to hear my work described as accessible, it’s what I aim for.
Hi Mimi, wonderful article. My issues with white feminists have always made me shy away from the label – much prefer Womanist. The simple fact is that they have a different starting point and continue to deny the fact that they still operate under the protection of white privilege, this denial alone (tantamount to this colourblindness rubbish) in addition to feminist silence on certain topics that affect a black female majority has made me come to believe that every body needs to run their own race and we can all meet up happily at the finishing line. Expecting others to carry the torch for us in naive and lazy and will leave specialist issues unsolved.
Femke van Zeijl says
Your article reminded me of an experience I had in Germany in 2000, attending the Women’s University in Hannover. For three months that Summer amazing women from all over the world gathered to share knowledge and experience. I was thrilled. But very quickly I noticed a watershed, the same one you mention in this piece. Women from the West were mostly entangled in debates on post-modernism and deconstructivism, while those from the South and East were discussing practical solutions.
Coming from an activist background – in the nineties I was in the Dutch squatting movement and used to call myself anarcha-feminist (don’t ask me to explain now, but then I was able to) – I felt lonely. The theoretical approach did not appeal to me. But being a white European, I did not belong to the group of women from India, Sierra Leone and Guatemala talking about their shared problems either. I left disillusioned, wondering what this feminism of mine was worth if there were no sisters to share it with.
Solidarity has become a tainted word. Tainted, because solidarity has often been induced by pity. Pity of the rich for the poor, of the privileged for the underprivileged, of the North for the South et cetera. Anyone who has ever received a look of pity, knows how infuriatingly arrogant pity is. How the beholder of that look places her or himself above the subject of her or his pity. And this superiority makes it impossible to interact on a level of equality. This is how Western feminist discourse about (and yes, I mean to write ‘about’ and not ‘with’) feminists in the South and East often ended up being so embarrassingly condescending.
Solidarity should be a two way street. Or rather, it could come from and go in all possible directions. Real solidarity is based on equality. We can all learn from each other. We are all able to support others if needed. And we are all in need of support once in a while. I needed it badly at that Women’s University in Hannover.
These days I do not worry much anymore about defining my feminism. I stopped saying ‘I am a feminist, but I adore men’, or ‘I am a feminist, but I love to show off my cleavage’ (I actually said that once, because a fellow feminist reprimanded me for dressing too sexily). I am not just a feminist, I am many things. One of them is white, one is a woman. Without wanting to downplay the significance of my race and gender: I am also a journalist, writer, dancer, sister, daughter, person from the Dutch South, moin moin addict and periodical insomniac.
Identity to me is a conjunction of many aspects of one’s life and personality. Being categorised by only one or two of these aspects – even the very important ones – does not only simplify reality, it also restricts your movements. Being labeled can be just as stifling as having someone look down on you in pity. It is also typically Western, especially if the label leads to dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. Speaking in dichotomies, to use a term from feminist theory, often does because it implies a hierarchy. One of the two (black/white, man/woman, straight/gay) always ends up on top (no pun intended). It is a recipe for exclusion.
African and Asian philosophy are much more inclusive, stressing the community rather than the individual and leaving space for different interpretations of the same reality. I’ve always felt more comfortable with that way of thinking. I think a discourse starting from such a perspective would be helpful to tackle issues like racism or sexism.
So where does that leave me, labeled the white feminist? You tell me. I’m listening.
Thanks so much Femke. Your comment is illustrative of a feminist dialogue that I believe is truly desirable
I like to think that rather than solidarity, there are solidarities. feminisms, rather than feminism…
Identity is multi dimensional, this post did not mean to suggest otherwise but rather to (briefly) analyse the intersecting spaces of race and gender for women of African heritage.But there are many more aspects of one’s persona and before any ideology, sexuality, profession, class, heritage , gender etc, we are human. It sounds simple but all work must begin from that simple assumption if it’s to create change. Like you, I think emphasis on community is key but I take from “western” individualism too in that I think change that happens within, changes communities ultimately.
In response, when we specify the local, we illuminate the global (to borrow from Chandra Mohanty) and I personally appreciate to see more white feminists engaging with whiteness. What is white feminism, its history, its future, its relationship with other feminisms etc.. In trying to create transnational alliances, which I think are important, non-white femminists will repetitively hit the ceiling of western white-defined feminism and yet find it difficult to find material about what this white feminism is and how it operates if it doesn’t see itself as universal? How does it position itself to the intersections of slavery, racism, colonialism, globalisation all very real issues for sisterhood to consider
I think when building alliances the African feminist needs to curb (not neglect) her anger towards the negative images that many white feminists have perpetuated on her and focus on the resourceful work that many white feminists have produced about Africa, and that the white feminist needs to be starkly aware and analytical of her privileged position.
Where we all should be left is seeking what is at the heart of womanhood through sharing as honestly as we can.
Very interesting. I’m going to mull over this today.
My question what is feminism?
Do you seperate feminsm from racism or feminism from lesbianism? I for one just believe in the human race and the idea of men and women treated fairly and equally.
Every individual has his or her own issues for me it’s simply about equality and to be treated fairly.I demand respect and I do not care if you are White or Black.However I must admit that I do demand more respect from my White colleagues call it excess baggage ie colonisation,slavery …
That’s my 2 cent.
Hi Minna, good work from an inspiring Afropolitan lady, we certainly need more of you to enlighten, and bridge the divides we have in most system. More grease to your elbow..
Thank you Victor! Your comment means a lot.
First, I am SO glad I discovered your blog today. Second, while I can accept your point that white female racism is *analogous* to patriarchy, would you rank white supremacy and African male patriarchy as being on *equal* footing in terms of oppressiveness and power?
Thanks again for a great read.
Hi Ted, thanks for your comment! I certainly rank them on equally damaging footing.
I just read the article while I was looking for some important african feminist. I enjoyed reading our point of view, but I believe that one thing is not included in this discussion. Feminism means equal rights for black and white, for men and women, transgender. A feminist is fighting for equal opportunities for everyone.
Scholars for Europa and USA discussion different things because they are in a different situation. While Apartheid is still present in certain areas of South Africa, Europa has to fight already a different fights. This one differs also from the on in the USA.
The biggest mistake that we can make as women, is to make this differences between skin-colore and therefor a difference between black feminism and white feminism.
we leave in different cultures and come from different background, there we experience different problematics, but we all suffer under a patriarchal system that is being accelerated by capitalism. And as long we all leave in a capitalistic system, as long we will have to experience this issues.
I believe in critical race feminism; let’s not be politically correct about it and get off the train of color-blindness. Most of the time, white feminism is all about the bad evil men being the causes of all female sufferings (a bit of generalization but you get the gist). Just like you cannot have a “one-fit-all” model of democracy for everyone, it is the same for feminism. I think it’s all a matter of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Let me illustrate my point by an experience I had as a student.
I was taking an international human rights law class in some Canadian university. At some point, the professor decided to broach the topic of female genital mutilation in Africa and how men are the main reason it’s still perpetuated. A part of my maternal family happens to hail from Guinea, All of my female cousins born and raised in Guinea were circumcised, even the youngest ones born in the 90s when the practice was deemed criminal as per the law. One of my cousin (born in 1950) was a midwife and she used to help our old illiterate grand aunts, get medical circumcision for their granddaughters. It was illegal but y cousin who was educated, was like: “It is our traditions and at least done at the hospital, there will be no further complications.” What I am talking about happened in 1996. When I was a kid in the 80s, I remember attending some of the celebrations surrounding what was considered at the time (and still is in many rural places) as a rite of passage. It was about teaching the girls what’s life is (a mix of painful and sweet times) but about all how important it is to be chaste. Things might have changed because I haven’t gone back to Guinea since then but until the 2000s,in Guinea, women were the ones who perpetuated female circumcision and not the evil chauvinistic African men. I read a few years ago about some government awareness campaigns about the issue and it seems the trend is being curbed. I tried to explain that to the professor, that change is happening and that it isn’t because it isn’t happening overnight as someone would love too, that nothing is happening. My professor was adamant about it wasn’t the case, as per some NGOs reports and above all, she kept bringing how men were the main reason the practice was still alive in Africa. At some point, I just got fed up with this non-sense from someone who has never lived in a country where female mutilation is practiced, let alone set foot in Africa. So I just told her a few truths of my own in front of the whole class:
– if female mutilation might have been invented by men, it is now perpetuated by women because more and more African young men are no more interested in women with no clitoris. It isn’t men who hold down the little girls and spread their legs so that they can do their things with filthy razor blades, it is women.
– if you want the practice to disappear from Africa, you’d better let African women like me who know our customs, speak the dialects do the talking. Indeed, African women, feminists or female whatever, have more chance to convince some other African women to give up female genital mutilation than non-African women working for some NGOs. The truth is having a non-African person coming and trying to raise awareness about the whole issue is not gonna work. They’re just gonna nod and then say: “These are just a bunch of non-sense of crazy white women who know nothing about our traditions.” Maybe rural African should learn some things about colorblindness but they tend to tune more to people who look like them.
– Last but not least: if you wanna convey a message, know your audience and adapt your pitch in consequence. A white feminist is always about how she understands the plight of other women, no matter their skin color, because she’s a woman ergo we all feel the same thing, at the exact same time, when we wake up everyday. IT’S ABSOLUTELY FALSE.
In the same class, we had the same type of conversation about the muslim veil:
– White feminist: it’s a symbol of oppression.
– Palestinian white feminist who happens to wear a veil but whose parents used both to be engineers in Dubai: nope, I chose to wear it because of my religious beliefs.
Like another of my muslim female friend who doesn’t wear the veil put it: “In the name of feminism and/or human rights, they claim people should get rid of the veil. No, as a feminist, I want them to give people, the choice of wearing or not wearing the veil, but not to impose what they deem is the only right solution. They just take away the right to choose, it’s no different from the islamists.”
I am an Afropolitan (so far, I’ve lived in Africa, Europe and North America) and also a feminist. Yet, on a daily basis, I can see how my views of feminism are so different from the Quebecer women because we don’t hail from the same cultures.
I just read your comment. Thank you for taking some time. I agree with you that many women are truly responsible for many things that are still happening to girls. And by the way I live at the moment in South Africa, I was born in Poland. Travelled trough big parts of Africa. Part of my family come from Eritrea. I studies Gender Studies in New York, Frankfurt and South Africa. I am believe that people should have a choice, but I don’t believe that it is enough to say you have a choice. Everyone is socialized and impacted by their family and so how free is your choice if you have been born into a muslim family, to choose freely a head scarf or not? The same thing regarding women born into christian societies, how many women say that they are feminist, but at the end of the day they will clean up their men’s asses.
But I agree, we need a new approach and we forget constantly about the men. If we want truly to have the freedom of choice and a true feminism, MEN need to change and their attitudes and not just their words. At the moment I am working with rape victims and words and actions are two different things. I also believe leaving between cultures coming from an metrical family, that making a difference between black and white and purple is not helping it is creating a bigger gap between us women.
We should learn form each other and yes women in Africa have different problems than women in Europe, but they also have similar problems. And I see often culture as a problem, while many women in africa say that there is nothing wrong with culture. That is not true. And that is a problem. Culture can suppress and it doesn’t matter in which country we are.
No one is disagreeing with the fact that MEN must play their part but I stand corrected when I say that sometimes, most of the time, WOMEN are enablers, somewhat obliging complicit of what’s going on. So I’m a fake feminist for not covering the faults of my fellow weak women, so be it! So I see an educated African woman complaining of her husband cheating on her, in her face, or bringing a 2nd spouse into the house, I’ll lay the blame on both of them but more on her. Why? Because she is an enabler. Yes, culture, at least some convenient (MIS)interpretations of culture are the culprit but NOT ALL the culture is wrong. So enough with the fear of the big bad words culture, religion! TBH, when someone tells me that they studied gender or religion studies, so they’re somewhat more apprised of some underlying dynamics unknown to the lay people, I can’t help but be wary. It just reminds me of my university professors, experts 101 after a few trips or stays in some developing countries, of everything related to that country whereas you grew up there, not among the riches, you spent 20 years of your life in your country, so you know the real thing, not what’s written in the book. Then, you spent almost the same amount of time abroad and you notice that there are differences between your Pakistani Muslim roommate and your own Muslim mom in the way they practice Islam, while you’re a Roman Catholic yourself. In NY, the Pakistani can’t do anything without feeling compelled to ask the permission of her big brother in…. Atlanta. My African Muslim mother whose dad had 4 wives started going to parties when she was a teen in the 60s and never wore a veil or a headscarf. However, she thinks she’s my God on earth because as per her, the Prophet said so; the Pakistani girl from NY, she’s hellbent on finding a job of her own because she refused to be fully dependent on her future husband like her mom was. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t get why a grown ass woman has to ask for her brother’s permission, nor why my mom thinks she has a right of life or death over me because it’s (supposedly) written in some book I’m not concerned with. I’m not making this up: this is a part of my life. When I only consider things from my strongly eurocentric POV, these 2 women are doing men and religion’s bidding, they aren’t even aware of just following the herd. Yet, when I take a step back and try to see things from their POV without necessarily agreeing, I can understand it:
– the Pakistani girl is proud of her culture, thinks that she has to ask her brother’s permission out of respect, love for him. I might have some hard time wrapping my head around it but when she vehemently tells me that she’s high maintenance for herself and not to abide by men’s definition of beauty, I cannot deny her commitment to UN Women.
– when my Muslim mother who wore mini dresses in her 20s, allowed to wear whatever I please, calls me at 15 to impart some motherly advice about how I should be less independent otherwise I’ll never get a husband, am I gonna say that she knows nothing about female oppression by men? Am I gonna say that when she’s among the first women of her country, who after the independence, chose to study in a field thought to be reserved to men?
The whole point of my post is if feminism only means empowering women with blanket arguments about how men, culture and religion hold women down, that all women around the world have to stand against all of that because they’re still in the dark, when I’m happy not to be a feminist. Besides, no matter how many years I’ve been and will probably be spending outside Africa, aside from carrying the same XX chromosomes, you aren’t gonna convince me that the feminists who were demonstrating in Toronto a few summers ago for the right of walking with their bare chests in the name of parity are doing it so that Women in Peru or France will be able to do so. Nope: different cultures, different strokes!
“While Apartheid is still present in certain areas of South Africa, Europa has to fight already a different fights.” and
“The biggest mistake that we can make as women, is to make this differences between skin-colore and therefor a difference between black feminism and white feminism. ”
I agree completly. When i started to look for feminist blogs on the ‘net i saw alot of division between “white” feminism and “other feminism”. I think this has no place in the 21st century.
Human rights, morals and ethics should be equal over the world and not only in some places.
Meybe feminism is not for me because i’m too humane and i want best for all of us.
This whole “ethnic women-feminism” thing IS actually being PC big time, because it keeps us from diggin’ the bigger picture. it’s culture and religion that hold us women back in many ways.
It’s exusing (destructive)culture and religion once again.
Can’t you gals see that? Please?
So far, when I read you, I am sorry but I don’t think you want best for all, you want YOUR best for all. My culture and my religion do not hold me back. I can’t help but cringe at your post because you sound like you have all the answers. There is nothing wrong with cultural diversity, different religions, we all come in different shades, shapes but are still human indeed. So what the deal with the whole cultural/religious blindness? My religion, my culture (by example, the fact that I know that my people have a matriarchal system) are part of the woman I am today and I am proud of that. So don’t come and try to convince me that there’s a bigger picture than that. What picture? One in which you don’t seem to grasp concepts you don’t seem to take a step back from and understand (without accepting them) from a different perspective?
I agree and don’t agree on this issue.
I’m a “white” feminist and I know that I will offend people here … But this is my opinion.
I understand that women, everywhere on the world, need different kinds of feminism. Kind of.
But excusing acts like female genital mutilation, because it is DONE BY women these days, is just a wrong approach. In my book, men and women, regardless skin color or sex, need to be held responsible for their actions. And participation in genital mutilation is wrong.
I would like to know what you think about all those little girl who had it done and are devastated about it. They did not ask for it. And if you are truly feminist and for equal rights, genital mutilation is not a right in my book, nor in the one of the UN. The UN must be non-feminist because they are fighting against the practice??
As for wearing the veil… I honestly don’t believe the women who wear the veil for their religion know what they are talking about. And trust me. I know. I studied religion and before we are saying that women should have the choice.. Hear me out.
We should look at the Ko’ran first (islam’s holy book/scriptures).
The veil is encouraged because : The principal aim of the Muslim veil is to hide that which men find sexually attractive. Which is the hair, neck, parts of cleavage….
Men don’t need to cover up. So wearing the veil as a women, is giving in to an unequal treatment.
Why do women, and only women, need to cover up because men might find you attractive?
Apparently, men cannot hold themselves together when they see a pretty head of hair or an ankle, so women must be covered.. ha.
Maybe I should stop calling myself a feminist. I’m’ much to humane for it perhaps?
And before you start throwing culture in my face… Culture is a beautiful thing, but it is as equally dangerous. It are un-written “laws”, people must follow and freedom is far away.
Religion and culture made women sub serviant, second class humans in a lot of part of this earth and feminists should fight for equel right AND a humane approach.
Just my 2 cents………
– No one’s condoning female genital mutilation because it’s done by women. I was just pointing out the fact thatit is NO LONGER right to use these blanket arguments whi consist of accusing men of being 100% responsible for the pursuit of the practice.
– I believe that if someone has a message to convey, the more important thing is to make sure that your target is going to understand you. So, you might disagree with it, but I can assure you that lecturing people attached to their traditions (doesn’t matter how archaic you thing they’re) without trying to drive your point home from their perspective is pointless. And when it comes to customs and traditions, especially in Africa, please allow me to tell it like it is, illetrate people are more and more reluctant to let go of them because they just see the alternatives as another “white” thing.
– I do not in one feminism. Feminism is tainted by the culture in which the feminist lives, For example, I totally disagree with the latest actions of the 3 FEMEN activitists who protested topless in front of a Tunisian court of justice. Not only I don’t get how it’s supposed to help Amina’s case but it’s offensive to the Tunisian culture. That’s the thing a lot of people refuse to understand: when it comes to human rights, cultural relativism is not a myth. If you want someone from another culture to agree with you or at least acknowledge the validity of your point, you first start by understanding where does that person come from, and then you try to explain your perspective by putting yourself in their shoes. Otherwise, you’ll be preaching in the desert.
– Studying religion, from a total rational and abstract point doesn’t mean you understand its subtleties and above all, how it permeates people’s lives, no offense. I know atheists who are professors of theology so please don’t tell me that these people will understand me if I start talking about the importance of Jesus’s teachings in my everyday life. Studying something doesn’t make you infaillible and above aLL doesn’t mean you understand how someone else is going to perceive and apply what you studied on a pure theoretical level. Some educated, non-oppressed at all, Muslim women chose to wear the veil. I happen to know a lot of them who live in countries like Canada and who are engineers, lawyers and it’s their decision, not their husbands’s. Who are you,we, to tell them, in the name of feminism, that you, we, know what’s better from them when you define and evaluate their rights from your own cultural perspective?
If feminism means imposing one’s personal truths to the rest, in the name of good intentions and because you (subconsciously?) think it’s the one and only way of seeing things, well, I want nothing from that movement. If my coworker decides, makes a personal well-thought decision to wear the veil (maybe people should stop thinking that veil-wearing women are brainwashed), I think that the minimum respect I can show her is to respect her decision. If she tells me that she’s wearing the veil against her own will, that’s another decision.
I apologize if my answer appears aggressive but please, you might want to read my previous post again, take some time to completely absorb it, because boy, you absolutely missed the point of it.
In my 2nd bullet, when I talk about a “white thing”, I mean Western, European, foreign” when I use the word “white”. Call it “white apartheid” but in most African countries which used to be colonies, people don’t talk abouot “western concepts” but “white people concepts”. It’s just a remnant of what things used to be (and somewhat still are) Under colonialism.
Love this piece, and what I find worrying as well is the erasure that goes with statements like ‘feminism is un-African’. Erasure by patriarchy and by the imperialist ways of ‘white feminism’. Erasure that allows for and accepts an African history that is written without its feminist past. Yet so much of what white feminists held as a model was inspired by black and brown colonies. And to date much of the feminist lived experience can/should be modeled from ‘black’ and ‘brown’ countries, eg political inclusion, agency and leadership as a quick example. But even in this, where we succeed, we are erased and the victim black/brown body is preferred. Quite unfortunate.