What is African feminism? An introduction

| January 14, 2019

The African female is vastly different from the Western female given the different socio-economic, political and cultural structures. Further the African female is viewed to have somewhat different preconditions from the Western Female, such as war, poverty, illness, illiteracy and so on. Therefore it has emerged that in the plight for female empowerment the African female fights for a different type of feminism.

African feminisms address cultural issues that they feel pertain to the complex experiences faced by all women of all cultures on the African continent. In regards to feminist theorizing, many of the authors of such theories originate from West Africa and Nigeria in particular. In her article, “West African Feminisms and Their Challenges,” Naomi Nkealah discusses the various forms of African feminisms.  She looks at four main types: womanism, stiwanism, motherism and nego-feminism.

First, she points to womanism, which she argues is not part of African feminism, as it pertains to African women of the diaspora and not continental African women.  Second, she looks at stiwanism, which places African women at the center of the discourse. This is due to the fact that stiwanism is deeply rooted in the experiences and realities African women face. Thirdly, she looks at African Motherism, a maternal form of feminism that sees rural women as performing the necessary task of nurturing society. Femalism is also interrogated when it comes to African Feminism. It puts the woman’s body at the centre of feminist conversations. Lastly she looks into nego-feminism which urge the inclusion of men in discussions and advocacy for feminism and both argue that the inclusion of men is necessary to the freedom of women. These modes of feminisms share several commonalities. They all challenge the term “feminism,” both its Western term and roots, because they bring to the forefront the experiences of the African woman and it being significantly different to the Western woman. Further, they are dependent on indigenous blueprints, they take from the histories and cultures of African peoples in order to create the necessary tools needed to embolden women and educate men.

However, there is a school of thinkers that views African feminism to be a divide between pre-colonial and post-colonial. Pre-colonial African feminism tries to decipher the roots of feminism in the continent. Women like Queen Nzinga, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Charlotte Maxeke, Wambui Otieno, Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Maragaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others were feminist because they fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy. But although they were feminist in the sense of the verb “feminist”, the first wave of self-defined African feminists — ideologically and politically — emerge later.

Post-colonial African Feminism is viewed to be the era when,  largely inspired by Black and Third World feminisms elsewhere, small groups of African women start labelling themselves feminist. This type of feminism is viewed from the lenses of radical African feminism (in Africa, this was marked as finding a voice), Afro-centric radical feminism ((theories like motherism emerge in this category),  and grass-roots African feminism. Grass-roots 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. Lastly, there is the emerged liberal African feminism which has its root in challenging the traditional gender roles in the African society.