In the 1960s, an anticolonial political and military group in Angola, the MPLA (Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola), began an intensive guerrilla warfare campaign against the Portuguese. The MPLA were a determined army whose efforts forced Portuguese resettlement.
The MPLA was also a dual gender army. And with both men and women fighting in the bushes, unwanted pregnancies were inevitable. So to avoid them, women guerrillas started using contraceptives. At the time, the birth control pill was revolutionising women’s lives globally but for the Angolan freedom fighters to whom pregnancy would be a particular nuisance, its advantages were especially practical.
And yet despite that pregnancy disadvantaged female soldiers in a struggle that required as many resources as possible, male members of the MPLA opposed the pill, claiming that it was antagonistic to African traditions.
It was the same story across all the independence struggles. From Mozambique to Guinea to Algeria – as if the colonialists were not enough – female freedom fighters met additional opposition from male militias who, under the guise of tradition, claimed that women should not be part of the struggle. As a Mozambiquan woman guerrilla soldier said,
There was strong opposition to our participation in combat because that was against our tradition. We started a campaign explaining why we also had to fight […] We as women were even more oppressed than men and therefore had the right as well as the will and the strength to fight. We insisted on our military training and being given weapons.
In 21st century Africa, tradition remains the patriarchal revolver with which women’s rights are gunned down. Whether it is the right to contraceptives or abortion or to same-sex relationships, we hear the same mantra again and again, “It is not African tradition.”
So let us ask, then, what exactly is African tradition? Is it African tradition to deny women equal rights to land, inheritance, divorce, decision-making and property? Is it African tradition to prohibit African women from being in control of their own bodies? Is it African tradition to mutilate girls’ and women’s vaginas? Is it African tradition to force women into polygamy, or to a pay bride price? Is it African tradition to kill women accused of being witches or who wear certain types of clothes? Shamefully, yes, the answer is yes.
To be clear, tradition in itself is not a problem. Tradition is simply a form of human activity through which groups of people – families, institutions, ethnic groups, countries etc. – find meaning and structure in togetherness. For a continent that has been colonised by Arabs and Europeans, tradition is an important tool for cultural pride, to insist on our uniqueness, spiritual knowledge, cultural memory, and to preserve dignity.
Furthermore, the African continent is home to some of the most enchanting traditions on earth such as veneration to ancestors, griots, festivals, masquerades, ritual, dance, you name it. It is also African tradition to show respect for female power, to honour mutuality between the genders, to listen when women say that they have had enough. In fact, in no other continent have women enjoyed as much power historically as in Africa.
But while it is understandable that Africans celebrate our traditions at large, in those indefensibely many instances where tradition infringes on women’s rights, the key 21st century challenge for African feminists is to prevent the sacrifice of women’s rights in the name of tradition.
The scope of this task cannot be understated. But the good news is that tradition is like a muscle – to grow powerful, it needs to be exercised. The feminist challenge is to make the “traditional muscles” that beat women down flaccid.
To achieve this, we’ll need to instead pump up muscles that hitherto have been neglected. That is to say, we need to create new traditions. Women are doing this already, mind you. They are creating new queer marriage traditions, they are founding matriarchal villages, they are reimagining what traditional art looks like, they are reinterpreting mythology, and they are annulling marriages to children. They are rooting new traditions in women’s oldest tradition – feminism. Because no other tool has proven as effective as feminism in challenging traditions that oppress women. In fact, feminism itself is an African tradition.
Image source: inkanyiso
I think that the word “tradition” has 2 meanings: first, the type of tradition that means celebrating something every whatever, like annual independence celebrations, or cultural festivals, or carnivals, which are harmless. Not even harmless, actually very important and a way of holding a culture together.
Then there are the “traditions” which are just a justification for oppressing (usually) women (although I think other groups can be harmed by this, I think women are the only group where it’s across the board, worldwide, that have “tradition” used as a justification to cause harm to). This type of tradition is just an excuse. When people say someone has “traditional values,” I think what they really should just say is that this person has sexist values, because that’s always what it means.
“So let us ask, then, what exactly is African tradition? Is it African tradition to deny women equal rights to land, inheritance, divorce, decision-making and property? Is it African tradition to prohibit African women from being in control of their own bodies? Is it African tradition to mutilate girls’ and women’s vaginas? Is it African tradition to force women into polygamy, or to a pay bride price? Is it African tradition to kill women accused of being witches or who wear certain types of clothes? Shamefully, yes, the answer is yes.”
This entire paragraph. It is so disappointing to hear people use African tradition as an excuse for not progressing. In my own experience, people use their/our Africanness as an excuse for why women should be beneath men. And yet, when I say Africans are sexist, they either laugh in my face and tell me to stop talking about sexism (further proving my point), or get angry and say it’s racist for me to say that, even though they literally just said that Africannes as a justification for [insert whatever sexist thing]. You can’t say that being African is being sexist and then get mad when I say that mean that Africans are sexist.
So, create our own traditions we must. I just wonder how long it will be before people stop clinging mindlessly to tradition without evaluating whether it’s helpful or harmful to themselves and to those around them.
Thank you for the great comment @disqus_7AddwPUWNC:disqus . There’s a long way to go still, but at least it will be less tedious if we know what to focus on. Interesting observation that when someone says they have traditional values, it can be equated to sexist values.
Sakhile Ncayiyana says
I wonder how you feel about African traditions that are inherently anti-men for example: 1)hypergamy for women and not men 2) Forced Male circumcision 3) Paying lobola as if the marriage will only serve the interests of the man 4) The forced recruitment of boy and men soldiers for territorial battles wherein they have to sacrifice themselves for the safety of women. 5) the financial burden carried by men for most traditional ceremonies. I could list a whole number of things about African traditions that are deeply hurtful and destructive to men, the sad part is that for us African men it is against African tradition for us to speak out and complain so we suffer silently.
As a feminist who claims to be a gender egalitarian is it not your duty to expose the harm that is brought to women AS WELL as men by African traditions? Is it possible that like many 3rd wave feminists you don’t want to erase the privileges provided to women by African traditions despite their observance being particularly abusive towards African men? Should women have had property rights if they didn’t have to risk their lives to acquire such property (historically it was the men who had to sacrifice their lives in tribal wars over territory)? African men’s bodies have never belonged to them: if we were not conscripted into wars to expand the king’s territory we were going on dangerous hunting trips to feed our women and children, as men we don’t reserve the right to not be responsible for some woman. In fact it is considered a part of African manhood to slave away to make your woman happy and secure. If you complain you’re gay or unmanly; we get labelled.
African tradition reduce African men to mere commodities: we have to build the house, find and raise the cattle and provide for women and children, if we haven’t done any of the three we are crucified. I can be a rich black bachelor with his own house and cattle(money) but I will be the object of derision with accusations of homosexuality and all kind of insults. WHY? because our humanity/dignity as African men is granted only when we display the capacity to provide for our women, is that not sexist?
Hi and thanks for your comment Sakhile. The points and questions you raise are truly important and well-articulated for the progress of our continent, as well as for the goals of feminism.
I absolutely agree that men too face challenges due to traditional systems. In fact, I would argue that tradition poses a problem for progressive development, period, because to honour tradition is to honour the past rather than the present and future.
It has long been my stance that African men need to be liberated from patriarchy to the same extent as women. While the prison bars for men may, in many instances, be golden, they are nevertheless prison bars.
You might be wondering why I say that the prison bars are golden for men, especially when you point out that men loose their lives (especially historically) in the name of traditional property laws and land acquisition. This is a grave consequence of traditional life, and you are right that women have not been subject to the harshness of war and territorial conquest. That said, nor has tradition allowed them to participate in the fight for territory even if they wanted to. So women cannot own land even if they were to be willing to risk their lives for it.
Nevertheless I say that the prison bars for men are golden simply because men are not fighting for liberation in substantial ways. They are not protesting the abuse of their own gender as well as the violence (physical, psychological, spiritual) that their own gender inflicts on women.They are not writing, discussing and disseminating ideas about men’s liberation from patriarchy and their right to control their own bodies. They are not advocating for egalitarian leadership and for societies that can be based on mutuality rather than dominance. In fact, this is why your comment, contentious as it may have been intended?, is in fact encouraging to me. I hope to continue the conversations.
Why do you think that African men aren’t fighting for liberation from sexism? Or am I simply unaware of such struggles and discussions?
Is this the Twilight Zone? Because I could swear those are PATRIARCHAL “traditions” that came out of the PATRIARCHAL system. A patriarchal system that overall still benefits you. If you have a problem with it complain to the other African men. Women damn sure aren’t the ones starting these wars – we’re always the ones who suffer the most for your selfish, self centered, territorial attitudes, naked greed, ego driven wars, rapes, and violence. It’s time for African males all over the world to stop playing the victim. Your greed and antisocial, selfish attitudes got us where we all are today and you are the ones keeping it this way. A lot of us have had it with your selfishness and your basic inability to be accountable or hold other African men accountable for the antisocial shxt you’ve inflicted upon world.
The next time you want to complain about ANY of the violence or economic problems don’t bring it the women knowing damn well women are not the ones starting wars and kidnapping children to fight them. AFRICAN MEN are the ones doing that horrific shit to innocent children along with kidnapping, raping, and killing women and girls. You have two choices: you either act like a man and fight to be the top patriarch so you can get all of the (ill gotten) benefits of the system, or you act like a man and fight to destroy the evil patriarchy altogether. The basic premise is act like a man. And that means never ever in your life embarrassing yourself again by trying to burden WOMEN who are already overburdened with your “pain” about your low ranking amongst the OTHER MEN in the patriarchy. You take that up with the OTHER men who are inflicting that upon you. Until and unless you’re ready to fight to undermine and destroy the patriarchy you have nothing to say to women. We have more than enough to deal with as women. African misogynsts use the same exact disrespectful derailing tactics as avowed white supremacists while posing as much of a threat to our safety and well being as women. It’s unconsionable. Take the whining elsewhere unless you’re ready to take action.
Minna, I’ve been reassessing some of my debatable feminist perspectives among black folks in America of late which has become more startling given the growing evangelical, fundamentalist & far right conservative movements. Tradition(s) among black people here have taken revisionism and time honored tenets to task. Patriarchy and traditional views on a ‘woman’s place’ and rights as noted in your essay certainly speaks to the adage “discomfort is a necessary step towards enlightenment”. It’s not EXACTLY the same given that patriarchy is expressed and practiced in different forms based on varied ethnic, cultural and economic contexts. It’s real…tho…and how we as women respond to it through advocacy and change agents always begins with defining the problems and posing at times the most daunting questions. Hmmm….
This article and those similar on your website are featured on my website of the week!
Peace to you.