Aberrant Maia

Does feminism in Africa require contextualization?

Woman in braids standing beside African map carving

Humm defines feminism as an ideology of women’s liberation founded on the intrinsic belief that women suffer injustice because of their sex.[1] This gender inequality is not confined to one location but evident worldwide. Although women across the globe may have shared negative experiences of gender discrimination, it is worth noting that these experiences also differ depending on the culture they find themselves in. A cultural practice such as female genital mutilation is practiced worldwide but is more predominant in sub-Saharan Africa and Arab states. Therefore, the question arises, “Does feminism in Africa require contextualization?”

Compared to the Western countries, many countries in Africa are under-developed. The World Bank statistics reveal that approximately 640 million people in Africa live without electricity and more than 416 million Africans still live in extreme poverty. [2] Consequently, addressing feminism in Africa needs a careful consideration of the myriad of complexities in an African society. Some of these include post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, corruption of governments, dictatorships, socio-economic exploitation, gerontocracy, religious fundamentalism,[3] among others. Another key aspect that needs to be assessed is the different legal frameworks in Africa and how each of these came into fruition. Some countries opt for a cultural or political self-development approach. Others have transplanted legal systems, some are borrowed, others are imposed, and some are a combination of two or more.

The idea behind feminism is not one foreign to Africa and historically, there have been African men and women who would be labelled as feminists in our modern age. However, the word feminism was first coined in 1837 by Charles Fourier, a French socialist and philosopher, to mean advocacy of women’s rights. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the term surged in popularity due to the suffrage movement focused on earning women the right to vote. This is also known as the first wave of feminism. Shortly after this period, from the 1950s to the 1990s, the second wave of feminism began. This phase was concerned with sexuality and reproductive rights. Fast forward, the third wave of feminism started from the 1990s and is still used to describe today’s feminism. This wave challenges gender binary, champions the rights of the LGBT+ community and embraces the diverse perspectives within feminism. [4] These waves have primarily been concerned with events which had occurred in the West. In the 2016 elections in Uganda, there was violence against women who voted, and reports indicated that it discouraged some women from voting. In western Kenya, women expecting children, according to cultural norms, can’t be seen in public which prevented pregnant women from casting their vote.[5] As of 2018, 93% of women of reproductive age in Africa live in countries with restrictive abortion laws.[6] These issues were generally addressed in first and second wave of feminism in Western countries but this is not reflective in many African countries. As a result, it might show the need for feminism to not be a blind copy of that practiced in the West but rather address the unique challenges African women face, irrespective of the current wave of feminism.

Another unique challenge of feminism implemented in Africa is the notion that it is a Western idea. Christianity, although in Africa before slavery, was adopted by many West African countries through slavery and colonization. Now in a post-colonial time, some Africans resent Christianity as it is seen as a propaganda tool that was used against Africans. Feminism stands the risk of being resented by some Africans as well due to its ‘foreign’ concept. To combat this, feminism in Africa should be weighed with the existing traditional institutions.[7] Instead of an eradication of cultural practices, a fusion should be considered and only harmful indigenous practices, should be abolished.

What other ways can feminism in Africa be contextualized? First, Africa should not be viewed as a homogeneous continent. Instead, it has different countries with unique cultures and laws. As a result, feminism in Africa needs to be implemented on a country-by-country basis. Furthermore, in each country, there are still variances depending on the different regions and tribes. That means feminism needs a grass-root approach which caters to the multiplicity of cultures within a country. Also, feminism in Africa must address the other non-gender related issues affecting women for total liberation. It is not enough to win a gender-based war if an economic, political, or social war is not won for all people. To truly achieve the objective of feminism, the following questions should be asked:

  1. What contributes to a woman’s oppression in a region?
  2. Where are the sources of this oppression?
  3. What are the remedies and how can women be empowered in the process?[8]

In conclusion, feminism is not exclusive to Western countries but of significance in Africa as well. Nonetheless, Africa is not a continent of identical countries but one with nations of different cultures and legal systems. Subsequently, feminism in Africa should also address the historical backgrounds and other non-gender issues plaguing many African women. This would not result in feminism becoming a Western imposition but rather, a needful ideology for the African society.

[1] Humm M. (1995). The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf.

[2] https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/overview

[3] Arndt, S. (2002). Perspectives on African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African-Feminist Literatures. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, (54), 31-44. Retrieved June 6, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4548071

[4] Weiss, S. (2015, December 15). What Does “Feminism” Mean? A Brief History Of The Word, From Its Beginnings, All The Way Up To The Present

Retrieved from Bustle: https://www.bustle.com/articles/129886-what-does-feminism-mean-a-brief-history-of-the-word-from-its-beginnings

[5] Aspinall, G. (2018, February 6). Here Are The Countries Where It’s Still Really Difficult For Women To Vote. Retrieved from Gracia: graziadaily.co.uk

[6] https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/abortion-africa#

[7] Arndt, S. (2002). Perspectives on African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African-Feminist Literatures. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, (54), 31-44. Retrieved June 6, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/4548071

[8] http://home.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/cice/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/4-3-11.pdf


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