There have been numerous debates on whether feminism is part of Africa or even if it should be embraced by Africans. The argument against feminism in the African context is often rooted in saying that it is ‘un-African’, but the beauty is that feminism existed in Africa way before the term even reached our shores. Some Africans view feminism as a western import, claiming that it was brought in by the colonizers. And I understand why anyone would think that, a lot changed with the coming of the white person. They influenced our behaviors and erased most of our cultures — so that idea isn’t far-fetched. However, it is important to note that the major shift in the status of African women came as a consequence of the European attack on Africa.
African women reigned over kingdoms and prospered in commerce and military. Guess I’ll name drop a few of these legendary women — Empress Kandake of Ethiopia who is regarded as one of the most dreaded war generals of her time and known to be a tactical and uniting military leader. The royal Kemetic women of Ancient Egypt, such as Hatshepsut who is widely respected as one of the most successful Pharaohs of all time. Queen Yaa Asantewa of the Ashanti Kingdom, her fight against British colonialists is a key story in the history of Ghana. Mammy Yoko, leader of the Mende of Sierra Leone ruled the fourteen tribes of the Kpa Mende Confederacy, the largest tribal group in 19th century Sierra Leone. These African women among many others are the epitome of African feminism.💪🏾
During the early twentieth century, African feminism emerged as an interest group with women like Charlotte Maxeke who founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa, Huda Sharaawi who established the Egyptian Feminist Union and Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonean women’s rights activist referred to as the ‘African Victorian Feminist’ who contributed widely to both pan-African and feminist goals. As a movement, African feminism also stems from the liberation struggles such as those witnessed in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola and Kenya, where women fought alongside their male counterparts for state autonomy and women’s rights. African feminist icons from this era like the Mau-Mau rebel, Wambui Otieno, the freedom-fighters Lilian Ngoyi, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy.
Modern-day African feminism was solidified during the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which led in the wide spread of feminist activism across the continent and diaspora. Since then the African feminist movement has expanded in policy, legislation, scholarship and also in the cultural realm. The movement not only has to do with intellectual activism but also grassroots activism, tackling issues such as poverty reduction, violence prevention and reproductive rights as well as lifestyle, pop culture, media, art and culture. But a lot of African men still maintain that African feminism is built on ‘western categories.’ Some will even justify the idea of a husband having marital rights to his wife’s body – an argument for marital rape cloaked in tradition. They try to dictate the boundaries and applicability of feminism without, conveniently, having to inhabit the experience that is at the center of why feminism exists. But you see, culture is constantly shifting, and must be subject to critique.
In many ways, the critiques used to justify why feminism is un-African erase the many women who have championed for gender rights in the continent, keeping us locked in a distractive back-and-forth situation. Exploring the power relation between Western feminism and African feminism is important, but these arguments made do not get us anywhere. In the words of Minna Salami, it is important for us, ‘African feminists to shape our own ideological home for African feminism through which we can view African women’s issues.’ This work of shaping this home is being and has been done by several women, too many to name — women who are writing and talking about what it means to be right here, right now and ensuring that those who came before us are not erased. So, is feminism a western import to Africa? Yes and no. Yes, because just like all English words, the term feminism is a western word and no, because we’ve had and there are still a lot of African women at the forefront opposing the facets of patriarchy.😊