Feminism, Exclusion & The Silencing of African Women

I’ve been thinking about feminism and exclusion lately. Even before the hash tag #solidarityisforwhitewomen started to trend last week.  It all started for me when middle class white feminists made out the right to be stay at home moms a feminist issue. That was one reason why I paid close attention when the debate started; I followed it obsessively even though I knew that the issue that started it all had little if anything to do with African women. I had never even heard of Hugo Schwyzer before his meltdown triggered a conversation about men in feminism.

Ututu by Ben Enweonwu 1971

Ututu by Ben Enweonwu 1971

As if to underscore the issue of men in feminism, a self-proclaimed male feminist from Nigeria decided to opportunistically jump into the twitter debate and hold forth on the needs and goals of African feminism and protecting the feelings of white feminists  rather than honoring the obvious  anger of WOC or maybe asking why African and Nigerian women were not joining  the debate. He chose to make himself an umpire insisting women conduct a ‘clean conversation’ that does not alienate white feminists. But this is a matter for another post.

My contribution to the larger debate was minimal. While I empathized with my sisters of color, my personal experience with white feminists is limited and remote. However, I did try to point out that the voices of African and Third World women are frequently excluded by women of color in the west. An Afro-Caribbean woman who claimed western women of color had no power to exclude anybody asked me for specific examples and I felt I should save it for this blog post.

What are some of the issues important to African women that are excluded or ignored by mainstream feminism and often by feminist women of color in the west, the African Diaspora and even certain African feminists? Some of them were raised in the debate, like how white feminists refuse to accept and respect their sisters’ choice to wear the hijab.  However, some issues did not come up, like female circumcision, polygamy, infertility, adoption, and Africa’s family values.

Black and white feminists in the west and many African feminists have targeted female circumcision (and I use the word circumcision deliberately) for complete eradication. It is a crude practice in its present form, but many African women have said they support it; can we help them make it a safe option instead of telling them they are wrong? Young boys are dying in South Africa during circumcision rites; the on-going conversation is about ensuring safety not ending the practice.

Western women practice cosmetic surgery of all sorts including genital piercing and vaginoplasty, and call it ‘bodily enhancement’ or ‘body art’, in ‘primitive’ Africa its mutilation. I do not support this practice on children that cannot exercise informed choice but shouldn’t we listen and respect adults who make that very personal choice?  Having a clitoris shouldn’t be a badge of honor. Kola Boof may be problematic as a role model but she has shown that even infibulation can be erotic and powerful.

Otu Odu by Ben Enweonwu

Otu Odu by Ben Enweonwu

I am confronted daily by sisters who are desperate to find a husband or to conceive and who are risking their mental and physical health in the process.  While I believe that a woman’s worth and self-identity are not and should not be dependent on either, how can I ignore her suffering? Why should I tell her she should be satisfied with a career or that marriage or having children isn’t really important?  It’s important to her.

Marriage is an important rite of passage in many African cultures; it’s a sign of maturity and responsibility and in a lot of Nigerian communities a single person, male or female, is not allowed to exercise leadership unless they are married.  Marriage and procreation are not just individual choices; they are seen as an obligation of community citizenship. Discrimination against women in marriage is patriarchal oppression, not marriage itself.

The discrimination a Nigerian woman faces if she is married and can’t conceive is very, very real.  The ability to overcome infertility is determined by economic class.  Middle class women have the option of expensive fertility treatments or they adopt, another expensive option.  Reducing the cost and ease of adoption and fertility treatments would seem as important for Nigerian women as the right to abortion or contraception.  But are these particular issues receiving as much attention on the feminist agenda?

Motherhood provides protection for women. My ancient aunts in the village would ask ‘who will visit you and ask after your welfare when you are old if you don’t have children?’. Stories of old (and young) people dying alone and undiscovered in the west baffle us.  In Nigeria middle and upper class women can afford geriatric care and will have people concerned for their welfare so long as their money lasts even if they don’t have children. But for the working class and poor, rural woman not having children could have harsh consequences in her old age.

Negritude by Ben Enweownu 1957

Negritude by Ben Enweownu 1957

African feminists like Rose Acholonu, Catherine Acholonu , Helen Chukwuma and Molara Ogundipe-Leslie have written extensively on the importance of marriage, family and motherhood in African.  They tried to define an African feminism that recognizes and celebrates these communal values in opposition to western feminism that promoted individualism and saw marriage and motherhood only as oppressive patriarchal burdens or personal pleasures.  They also argue persuasively that the Africa worldview is not primarily patriarchal but based on equal male-female complimentarity. Are we throwing out the baby with the bath water? Yet again?

It should be noted that African-American feminists have also articulated the issues of motherhood and family as an important part of what they called ‘womanism’, an alternative to mainstream white dominated feminism and its hyper individualism. However, these African feminist scholars felt womanist acceptance of and uncompromising support for homosexual rights was incompatible with their values and tried to differentiate their brand of feminism from it, they called it motherism and positive feminism. Their work has been largely ignored as a result of their perceived homophobia.

Nigerian women have told us polygamy gives them more options and freedom but do we as feminists respect that?  In the late 80s when Women in Nigeria, WIN , a radical left leaning feminist organization that promoted women’s rights  held its first conference with market women in Ibadan they failed to reach a compromise on polygamy in their final communique and squandered an opportunity to build a powerful alliance with woman’s market associations. The matter remains one of contestation and has been largely ignored by feminists as a matter of individual choice rather than a part of the feminist agenda. Polygamy is still demonized but apparently it does work for some women.

These are just some of the many ways that mainstream feminism has ignored and excluded African women’s choices. This exclusion by mainstream white dominated feminism, WOC in feminism and African feminists seems to be less of a racial issue and more of class issue. The concerns of feminism do not seem to include the concerns of the poor and the working class as one writer has stated so eloquently here. If feminism really wants to broaden its appeal among WOC generally and African women in particular it needs to speak a language that is more inclusive and relevant.

Ogolo Metamorphosis by Ben Enweonwu 1991

Ogolo Metamorphosis by Ben Enweonwu 1991

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One Response to “Feminism, Exclusion & The Silencing of African Women”

  1. Pura Heier Says:

    Feminism, Exclusion

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