The issue of African feminism is of great importance to African women, not only with regards to their identities but also as it relates to the issues that affect them and their role in the feminist movement. The assumption, however, that there is one simple African feminism is problematic and necessitates a precise definition, but African feminism is not a clear cut concept that can be precisely defined and delineated. This problem of definition does not deny the existence of African feminism but acknowledges the complexities denoted by being an African and a feminist at once. This brief aims to engage the concept of African feminism and the two main forms it takes on the African continent.
Feminism is essentially two things. Firstly, it is a theoretical paradigm in social theory that seeks to advocate and enhance women’s emancipation in a predominantly patriarchal world. It is also a movement that mobilizes for women’s emancipation and equality with regards to gender. Hence, feminism encompasses many varied activities and contexts (Korany, J. A. Sterba, J.P. & Tang, R. 1993. Feminist Philosophies. Herfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf) state that those who subscribe to feminism have a number of things in common. These are “a firm commitment to gender equality, a painful awareness that such equality is far from achieved, and a continuing desire to work toward such equality.”
As a movement, feminism has mobilized for reproductive rights, affordable health care and improved working conditions amongst many other causes. Hence, one can assume that African feminism as a paradigm and movement is shaped by African contexts and experiences. Is feminism tweaked and fitted to African women’s concerns and desires? Although this assumption sounds reasonable, reality seems to contradict it. It appears as though feminism is failing to effectively represent and cater to African women. African feminist Nnaemeka states, “The issue of balance is neglected in the one-dimensional Western constructions of African women – usually poor and powerless. We African women have witnessed repeatedly the activities of our overzealous foreign sisters, mostly feminists who appropriate our wars in the name of fighting the oppression of women in the so-called third world. We watch with chagrin and in painful sisterhood these avatars of the proverbial mourner who wails more than the owners of the corpse. In their enthusiasm, our sisters usurp our wars and fight them badly – very badly.”
Nnaemeka suggests that feminism does not acknowledge the agency and potential of African women. Would a credible African feminism portray African women as ‘powerless’? Okome notes that in most feminist writings, African women are portrayed as “confused, powerless and unable to determine for themselves both the changes in their lives and the means to construct these changes.” Okome notes that Western feminists usually act as superiors who seek to help and enlighten African women. This attitude of Western women and feminists can often be observed in the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the academic field and even the political arena. Western feminists have dominated the discourse on feminism and women’s agenda, at the expense of African women. Nnaemeka defiantly proclaims, “The arrogance that declares African women ‘problems’ objectifies us and undercuts the agency necessary for forging true global sisterhood. African women are not problems to be solved. Like women everywhere, African women have problems. More important, they have provided solutions to these problems. We are the only ones who can set our priorities and agenda. Anyone who wishes to participate in our struggles must do so in the context of our agenda.”
In light of this heartfelt statement by Nnaemeka, it becomes clear that African feminism is necessary, if not vital, for the empowerment of African women. There is great need for a feminism that is distinctly ‘African’ and that caters for the needs and desires of African women. Perceptions of African women have to change completely. African women are not “children, powerless and helpless”. As Okome writes, “African women, like any other group, are able to articulate their needs, evaluate the alternative courses of action, and mobilise for collective action where necessary.” A distinctively African feminism will, therefore, portray women as strong, innovative agents and decision-makers in their specific contexts. It will empower African women and work for them in ways that they want it to.