This discussion paper on African feminism stems from a med-term monitoring and evaluation survey of the Canadian Government funded Women Voice and Leadership (WVL) Programme grantees. The Fund was set up as part of the Canadian government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, which targets gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls around the world, using a feminist approach. It supports the economic, political and social empowerment of women and girls, and makes gender equality a priority, for the benefit of all people.

As part of a mid-term evaluation of the Women’s Voice and Leadership Project, grantees were asked how they described their organisation. The four options were women’s rights organization, feminist organization, organization that promotes gender equality, and human rights organization. Just four of 28 (14%) organisations chose feminist organisation, and just three organisations (11%) identified as women’s rights organisations (WROs) while the majority 62% of the organisations referred to themselves as “organisations that promote gender equality”.

These results have raised concern over the shared understanding of the term feminism amongst women’s rights organisations in general and WVL grantees in particular, and has pointed to the need for building a common understanding of the often polarizing term.

The dictionary defines feminism as ‘the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men; the struggle to achieve this aim’

Like in many African countries, feminism is a contentious term in South Africa that has often been construed as being “anti-men.” Feminism is also something that can be understood or interpreted very differently.

Discomfort with the term feminism

“I struggle with the insistence on using the term feminist. It means something else to everyone. The word means nothing to my mother, grandmother, or aunt. It means nothing to most of the women we are supporting and sometimes it is an alienating word. It would be better to use words that people understand.”

This is backed up through monitoring visits, which also illustrate the rural /urban divide in understanding and acceptance of the term feminism, especially among smaller rural grantees and particularly for the beneficiaries in these communities. Many were either unfamiliar with feminism, misconstrued it as being about punishing men, or in the case of beneficiaries expressed overt hostility towards the term feminism.

“I think that one also has to accept that there are different ideological strands (radical, less radical, etc.) and I think this is okay. Different groups will have different points of reference. What is important is to be respectful. If you say you are feminist, you are not saying you are anti-men.”

Linked to this is the role of men in addressing women’s rights, which is seen as an important component for the grantees work, one focus group member in a rural area said:

“This gender inequality is not a problem for women. It is a problem for society. We need men’s involvement to say why gender is important. As a country and society we have focused on women trying to solve gender inequality. It is not fair; the victim shouldn’t have to solve the problems on their own. Men are the perpetrators and must be involved in the solution.”

Some grantees expressed more positive views on feminism, one grantee spoke of how

“The feminist approach does empower individuals. I didn’t know I was a feminist before, but when they explained what it really was, I identified with it. Being a feminist for me, boosts me to stand up for myself and be a leader.”

Excerpts from the Results from the Women’s Voice and Leadership grantee organisation survey report

This paper will interrogate what it means to be feminist in Africa and how ‘African’ feminisms are similar to, but differ from, ‘Western’ feminisms. It provides a brief history of African feminisms and how they have evolved over time. It aims to open up dialogue on how women continue to uphold patriarchy and the traditional belief that culture and norms cannot change. It discusses the continued need for feminisms, whether men can be feminist and what the future of African Feminism might look like.

It is, however, important at the start to state the feminism is not homogenous, there are different forms of feminisms, which have a complicated history of values, ideas and people that are sometimes in conflict with one another.