African Feminism Discussion paper July 2022
Introduction | Global: Brief history of feminism | Continental: African Feminisms | African feminism spectrum | Charter of African Feminist Principles for African Feminists | Regional: Southern Africa | Local: South Africa | Feminist organisations in South Africa | Role of young women | Young women led feminist groups in Africa | Challenging harmful cutlural practices | The role of men | Why we still need feminism | The future of African Feminism | Questions for discussion
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Several feminisms have been identified within the African continent, reflecting the complexities entailed in being an African and a feminist (or even African and a woman) at the same time. All however distinguish themselves in one way or another from ‘Western’ feminism.
As an interest group, African feminism can be traced to the early twentieth century with women like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonian women’s rights activist referred to as the “African Victorian Feminist” who contributed widely to both pan-African and feminist goals, Charlotte Maxeke who in 1918 founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa and Huda Sharaawi who in 1923 established the Egyptian Feminist Union. African feminism as a movement stems also from the liberation struggles where women fighters fought alongside their male counterparts for state autonomy and women’s rights. African feminist icons from this period are women like the Mau-Mau rebel, Wambui Otieno, the freedom-fighters Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Margaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others who fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy.
Postcolonial African feminism, 1960 to 2000s was an era largely inspired by Black and Third World feminisms elsewhere, small groups of African women started labelling themselves feminist. The landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 further entrenched modern African feminism and resulted in feminist activism and scholarship spreading widely across the continent and diaspora. Since then the African feminist movement has expanded in policy, legislation, scholarship and also in the cultural realm.
Postcolonial African Feminism can be split into three categories that may overlap:
Radical African Feminism – focuses on challenging patriarchy and traditional cultural and social norms and challenge the heteronormative family structure, as well as promote the rights of LGBTQI persons, and sex workers, as opposed to more conservative African feminists who remain distinctly pro-heterosexual (if not homophobic, sometimes citing religious reasons). Radical African Feminism is marked by “Voice”. Examples of Radical African feminists are Bessie Head, Awa Thiam, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nawal el Saadawi and Mariama Bâ; scholars like Amina Mama, Patricia MacFadden and Ayesha Imam.
Afrocentric African Feminism – is marked by grappling with the un-Africanness and westernisation, debating and disagreeing about conflict between western and African values. Theories like “Motherism” emerged in this group as feminisms that centre African values, and which are not always progressive; there may be essentialist and homophobic values imported into this African feminist thinking. This form of feminism was to maintain and preserve African culture.
Grassroots African Feminism – The grassroots and development focused postcolonial African feminism largely emerges in the 1980s and 1990s especially after the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which resulted in a lot of coalition building as well as funding for feminist activism and scholarship across the continent and diaspora. It focused on so called ‘bread and butter’ issues such as poverty reduction, anti-FGM and violence prevention but also with intellectual activism concerning these issues. The Maputo Protocol is arguably predominantly an outcome of this type of feminism.1
African feminisms today, are still largely referring to feminism that could be located in any of the above three strands, but with the advent of the internet, blogs and social media, more African feminisms categories have emerged since the 2000s:
Liberal African Feminism – has successfully championed feminist discussions about domestic gender roles, gender gaps and sexual rights. This strand of African feminism has made great strides in mainstreaming African feminism and bringing empowerment concepts to the masses, but it has perhaps failed to look critically at neoliberal capitalist values.
Millennial or 4th wave African Feminism – may be considered the most explicitly feminist generation in Africa. This African feminism is marked by student protesting, fierce, vociferous and woke new voice of African feminism. This feminism has reinvigorated African feminism through the organisation of marches and demonstrations, coupled with high activity on social media. It has been very influential in calling out sexual violence against women, as the current ‘16 days’ campaign shows. The criticism of this feminism is that it does not generally speaking engage with African feminist theory to the extent it would need to in order to also reform political life.
Afropolitan Feminism – Afropolitanism describes the work and activism of 21st century Africans in Euro-America who challenge western discourses that malign Africa and connect women on the African continent to African women in the diaspora in a transnational and future-oriented approach to feminist liberation.