I recently had the opportunity to moderate some conversations around intergenerational African feminisms. It was a forum based on the most recent issue of the Perspectives publication of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. As soon as I read the brief and the publication, I knew it would be an excellent opportunity to ask questions, to listen to new perspectives and to learn from the very individual but also familiar stories of the diverse and knowledgeable cast of panelists.
Here I’d like to share a few thoughts out of the many I came away with.
The Ongoing Nature of the African Feminist Struggle
One of the things I noticed through the Perspectives publication is the ways that women agitated for women’s rights in conjunction with fights for independence, fights against apartheid and other political situations. The majority of African countries have been independent for over 50 years and yet women are still barely represented. It seems that we are only just coming to grips with the damage that was done. Two conversations in the publication gave me some very valuable insight.
In the opening article ‘A Critique of Africa’s Post-Colonial Freedoms Through a Feminist Lens: Challenging Patriarchy and Assessing the Gains’, Furaha Joy Sekai Saungweme says
“A critical analysis of women’s roles during this period refutes as blatantly false any assertion that they were passive or uninvolved. Yet it is also true that these fierce and resilient women, who fought alongside men in the liberation trenches, were indiscriminately raped, beaten, abused and marginalised. The intricacies of patriarchy in the context of racial and political subjugation created a complex existence for women – as victims, survivors, leaders, nurturers, guerrilla fighters and social agitators – that continues to fan the flames of African feminism.”
In another piece, Nkoyo Toyo and OluTimehin Kukoyi discuss the question ‘Are Different Generations of Nigerian Feminists Ready to Join Forces?’ where Nkoyo Toyo talks about her experience as Nigeria transitioned to a civilian government.
“Another defining moment for me and for the Nigerian women’s movement was the transition to democracy in 1999. At the time, we had already developed a political agenda for Nigerian women and worked towards domesticating the Beijing Agenda. We were part of the struggles for a return to democratic rule but unfortunately, our voices, like many other voices from civil society, were ignored during the transition period. The male-dominated political mainstream reinforced their patriarchal narrative, which had defined the post-independence character of Nigeria and unsurprisingly took over the transition process and used the Constitution to uphold their values and privileges. As feminists and rights advocates asking for a considerable transformation of the governance system, we found ourselves left out of the conversation and decision-making at this defining moment.”
As a storyteller, this publication and the conversations during the forum brought home to me the need to hear, tell and share women’s stories.
I grew up around the time that the Beijing Conference happened and remember laughing conversations where my father’s friends would say – “Ah you know the women have gone to Beijing now, they are fighting for their rights”. It’s noteworthy to me, however, that I had no idea of the names of the women who went - I didn’t know their stories or their journeys.
Related to this, I connected very strongly with the article by Dr Fatoumata Keita ‘Tracing the Development of Feminist Ideas Through Four Senegalese Women Writers’ Novels: Toward an Intergenerational Dialogue’. In her essay, she explores the feminist journey in Senegal through the work of 4 female authors and discusses their relationship with the political movements of their time. There is a need for more stories.
Another point that took me was one raised by OluTimehin Kukoyi: “For queer feminists, this raises the question: should I dedicate my radical energy to a movement that only wants my womanhood and does not want my queerness? I would not even be able to rely on the women’s rights movement to fight for me in the way we have been fighting for women... So, should I even bother to explain my perspective to them? The ideological tension is very apparent now, in a way it would not have been before.”
This point struck me because it raised similar sentiments as I felt during the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria in 2020. The protests were a rallying call for Nigerians all too tired of oppression and bad governance and yet, at those same protests, queer protesters were asked to quieten down, were harassed and told they were hijacking the protests. In a country like Nigeria where the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act gives a measure of validity to the very regular harassment of people who might look “different”, I wondered when the time would come when ALL Nigerians would be able to agitate for their rights together, understanding that the oppression of one is the oppression of all.
The forum found us expanding that point into a very real, very honest conversation about the harm often done by feminists to other feminists in organizing spaces. There’s a bit of idealism that says that because we all fight the same cause, we must be good to one another. I am accepting that this perspective often ignores the fundamental truth that people are people and that fighting for a cause does not automatically confer a crown of virtue.
In the article ‘Intergenerational Feminist Organising and Solidarity in South Africa’, Mase Ramaru and Elsbeth Engelbrecht share a perspective that I find very valuable in this context:
For most of us, when we reflect on the people who have helped us to question our place in the world and resistance to power, it is often our immediate families. It always feels to me that when we reflect on our feminist organising, our feminist practice, they are often not the examples we make when speaking about the influences we connect to and learn from. We do not speak of the group of women in our local community who would see that somebody does not have food and then organise among each other and give support to them. It always feels as if, when we talk about feminists and reference instances of feminist activism, we inevitably talk about that either in civil society or in academic spaces, and we are not intersectional. We have internalised our own hierarchies in which certain feminists have more value. So, the question for me is also how and where do we look for affirmation and learning? If I look at all my scars, I often speak of the scars I picked up in an NGO sector. I rarely speak about the scars that I experience through my familial life, for example, and I keep that somehow separate from that lived experience.
I found myself interrogating possible ways to amplify one voice over the other because one person has better language or access to the spaces where these conversations happen. A real question that kept coming up during the forum was: Whose needs are we meeting?
I believe that a valuable conversation is often one that gives you more questions to guide your process of growth and unlearning. As I reflect on the conversations in the Perspectives publication and the points raised in the forum, here are some of mine:
· How can we build on the organising of spaces that encourage openness and learning; not just based on theory but also on the many lived experiences of feminists who exist in the margins – whether due to sexuality, religion, nationality, disability or class.
· Can we foster an intersectional approach to our organizing; placing as paramount the need for all human beings to be treated with dignity?
· How do we agitate and push for greater political representation by feminists who understand the principles necessary to uphold the rights of women? We fight often and push against gender-based violence, police harassment, assault and many other ongoing issues – what is the bridge that can take these movements into political spaces where they can be entrenched in our laws for the good of other women.
· More personally to me - How can we better tell these stories? How can we challenge the world to stand in the shoes of women and see the world from their perspective?
It was humbling to read the stories and hear of the work of the women who fought side by side for political independence in their various countries. It was saddening to think about their exclusion in the political process and to see how that exclusion has trickled down to the current day. In many ways, it seems that feminists are still fighting the same battles with a different face.
Click the video below to watch our full discussion forum on African Feminism across Generations.