Photo: Kadeniy and Yimbiha
Recently I was at a book launch in Abuja. The book being launched was political in nature and had loads of feminist inklings. Even though I’d vowed that I’d stop speaking to men about feminism in the same way that I’ve stopped talking to white people about racism, I was there listening in on the conversation until I heard something not unfamiliar to me. A man proceeded to say “This feminism thing really conflicts with our African cultures so I’m not really sure how I feel about it”.
This is an argument I’ve seen made countless times by African men who wear suits all week and articulate their political positions in English. According to them, there is a logical inconsistency between feminism and African cultures or an essentialist view of what is African. The implication of this is thus that patriarchy is implicit within our cultures because African women should serve and carry the whole family on their backs while never talking down to or leaving their husbands.
In response to this man’s argument, the author of the book referred to the -now defunct- practice of killing twins in southern Nigeria, and said that if these twins were girls we’d still be killing them. This thought walked through my mind all day. Culture is something that is always changing and evolving but when it comes to women’s rights we allow it to stagnate. Who says that all African cultures rely on the subordination of women for their continuation? If some of our cultures are hell bent on keeping women in abusive marriages, on denying them agency to their bodies and their lives, those cultures should surely be dismantled.
I want to challenge the idea that western cultures are inherently more open minded about women’s issues. Women in countries that enforce their protection have the rights they have because of long fought battles. Things like the right to divorce, being able to personally hold your rapist accountable, accessing birth control are all the products of the continuous effort of women. These things also get taken away when the continuous effort stops. The underfunding of birth control and loss of abortion rights in America is a proof of this.
Even in Africa there are things our societies have come to accept as objectively inhumane, female genital mutilation and bride kidnapping to name a few, are now very much taboo. So why do sexist African men still continue to make an argument that culture is more important than those living by it? Maybe it’s because they think we deserve certain rights and not others and that we should go through the world as partially human while they keep the monopoly on humanity.
Another way to defend this argument is by saying that precolonial African societies were matriarchal by design, that we don’t need feminism which is apparently a western ideology and finally, that women should put their struggles aside to build the great African society.
The belief that men and women are equal and should have equal opportunities is not western. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk, she said that her grandmother was a feminist. It is a sentiment I share. Our grandmothers actively expressing their agency, our grandmothers who had not read Soujouner Truth and did not know who Ama Aidoo was, actively moved against a system of patriarchy, obviously not all of them but some who were very brave. Women like Fumilayo Ransome Kuti and Charlotte Maxeke have shown that feminism is part and parcel of any decolonial movement, and that there have always been african women who were feminists. Furthermore even if our societies were matriarchal by nature we must face the fact that through colonialism and the sustenance of post-colonial inequality, men have dominated contemporary african societies.
Nonetheless I’m of the opinion that none of this matters. Women existing should be enough reason for our societies to ensure we achieve gender equality. Without essentialising Africans as we are a vast mass of people, culture has already changed so much that African women, as over half of our population, should be included in our conceptualization of tomorrow. A truly African tomorrow is something that includes everyone. A society that is safe for everyone and that’s what feminism wants to achieve.
So yes sir, feminism is African and will continue to be African until we no longer need it. Until men like you realise that there is something painfully wrong in the way women have been forced to exist thus far.
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