Internationally, feminism aims to liberate women from all types of oppression and provide solidarity among women of all countries. It’s a doctrine which advocates for the expansion of rights, of the role of women in society, which fights to establish social justice and get rid of gender inequality. As Chimamanda puts it, a feminist is “a man or a woman who says, ‘yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.” However, I think it’s important to note that the perspective of feminism in Africa grew from a very different dynamic than in the West. African feminism has been shaped by the resistance of African women against western rule.
Whilst Western feminism makes equality between men and women the center of its struggles, African feminism doesn’t consider gender discrimination as the only primary focus of oppression of African women. Other types of oppression like racism, economic exploitation, tribalism, ideological and cultural mechanisms that perpetuate marginalization are issues that ought to be dealt with as well. For African feminists, feminism is a struggle against all forms of injustice to attain advancements in women’s rights.
My understanding of feminism is informed by my own personal journey. As a young girl, I questioned the gender dynamics that I was exposed to. From school to family, I witnessed the gender inequality that our society had characterized as the norm. Later on as a young woman I became a fully proclaimed feminist without any reservations or fear of being seen as a copy cat of Western ideologies because I came to understand feminism better.
As a Kenyan woman, I identify with African feminism and I’m aware of some controversy that the concept of feminism has elicited among African women. Some African women writers have deemed the term as foreign, while some have embraced it altogether. In her book, Womanism and African Consciousness, Kolawole notes that, “A major problem emerges from throwing one’s voice unless the African woman is firmly determined not to allow her voice to be submerged by existing feminist discourse. While some are assertive in identifying with feminism, others are cautious, while others will have nothing to do with feminism as it is presented from the West.”
African feminists have cited experiences of being condemned and misunderstood. For instance, Chimamanda explains the varied reactions that came from some readers of her book, Purple Hibiscus. After reading her novel, a journalist, advised her “never to call herself a feminist, since feminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.” A Nigerian academic woman told her that “feminism was not their culture, that feminism was un-African.” A friend told her that “calling herself a feminist meant that she hated men.” Adichie sums it up by saying that, for these people, the “word feminist is so heavy with baggage, negative baggage — you hate men, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor,” or you’re a bitter woman. All of which I’ve personally heard so many a times.
Loaded with so heavy a luggage, it is difficult for feminism to walk far away from the Western shores. In the African community, the word feminism generally implies ‘Western feminism’ hence, many African women reject it. They refuse to be called ‘feminists,’ they view it as an insult or ‘un-African’. And I’ll echo the words of Kolawole, that African women who accept feminism, whether Black or Western, risk being viewed as parrots of Western feminism.
The concept is still treated with suspicion among most Kenyans, not just by men but even among women who have worked in the women’s and gender movement for many years. Prof. Wanjiku Kabira, in an interview with Dr. Mike Kuria, notes that this position of most Kenyan women has been due to a misconception of what feminism is and the association of it with the Western world. It’s clear that gender equality in most African societies has not yet been realized as many African women are still valued through the lenses of traditional cultures than as individuals with proper rights and dignities.
African feminism, unlike Western feminism, is a common fight of women alongside men against foreign exploitation, women’s financial self-reliance, and the focus on women’s issues, such as their lack of choice in marriage, the oppression of barren women, genital mutilations, and the look for possible avenues of choice for women. Although, despite their differences, the handling of gender-specific issues and the desire to correct women’s second-class status in society remains to be the common room shared by Western and African feminisms.
While the first and second generations of African ‘feminists’ were cautious with the term ‘feminism’ because of its Western baggage, the
third generation view feminism differently. As Chielozona Eze states, they “conceive of their feminism not in opposition to the West, but in relation to it and sometimes independently from it. They understand feminism as a moral issue that transcends cultural differences, because it seeks to enhance the dignity of individuals without disrupting community cohesion,” which is very dear to Africans.