My Feminism Won’t Be Contained

This is an extract from my mini feminist manifesto, a.k.a. my final paper for one of my classes entitled “My Feminism Won’t Be Contained: An African Feminist’s Self-Location.” I wrote about African feminist politics of location, and I’m more than happy to elaborate if you want, just not here because I have too many thoughts running around in my head and bumping into each other, and I would have to start citing sources and showing receipts and…no one wants that. The paper was challenging and enjoyable to write all at once because I blended fictionalized accounts of my own experiences in academic spaces where I often feel invisible, with theory and critical analysis.

I will say that I read a blog post a while ago that was asserting that African feminism can define itself outside of the restrictions and stereotypes of Western feminism, a standpoint with which I strongly agree. Still, a few pieces of my heart broke and fell to the bottom of my stomach when the writer chose to describe African feminism as “basic,” more concerned with the needs of the millions of women on the continent who are denied basic human rights. While I agree wholeheartedly with that point, it was the word “basic” which took me by surprise. It seemed as though in trying to check her class privilege, the writer ended up suggesting that issues like the call for larger representation of women in arts, media, academia and so on are problems that we don’t have time for because we have more important, life-threatening elements of patriarchal society to grapple with. This sounds like the “Daughters of Imperialism” versus “Daughters of the Goddess” conundrum, where elite African women were seen to be dictating what they thought was best for women at the “grassroots level”, essentially mimicking the same top-down imposition Western feminism has been accused of when dealing with “Third-World” women.

If I understood the article I referred to earlier, the writer seemed to be attempting to tackle the question: what is all my theorizing and high-flown language going to do for the woman who does not align herself with any kind of feminist movement or even know what it means because her family as been grooming her for motherhood and not classrooms and boardrooms since the day she was born? Like if I roll down my window and give a few coins to the woman with the baby on her hip, what has my feminism done for her? I won’t lie and say that I haven’t been plagued with these kinds of thoughts myself, especially because of my choice to pursue this Master’s degree instead of “doing something practical” with my brains and my time. This is what happens when you listen to the incessant chorus of people who somehow always manage to materialize when it’s time for you to make an important life decision. What is the point? I could go on and earn the highest degrees and all the flowing robes and puffy hats with tassels on top, but what would I really be doing for all these women I claim to care about? I’m trying to unlearn this brainwashing that has me thinking that writing and producing knowledge is the pursuit of people who prefer to blow hot air rather than actually do anything productive for society.

The point I’m trying to make, and what I also argued in my essay is that we have to create an African feminist space that makes  equal room for the women who are  striving to achieve PHds, for stay at home mothers, for women who have suffered extreme gender-based violence, for sex-workers, for women who are organizing and rallying for policy change, for queer women, for women who are the breadwinners while men sit under trees and throw dice, for all of us. I appreciate that the writer included the fact that all our narratives are valid, not just those of women who are more severely oppressed than others. Yes, there are certain needs and concerns that are more immediate than others, but our struggles and identities are interconnected. One cannot be seen as more important than another because one woman has the cushion of higher education and class resting behind her neck while the other doesn’t. That mindset almost sounds as though we’re saying,”I, benevolent and educated African woman acknowledge that you poor, (probably) rural woman is so oppressed beyond anything I could imagine. I’m here to help you out of that oppression because I’m much better off than you are.” Who else do we know that speaks like this? Look up the terminology “ourselves undressed” and then try to answer the question.

My feminism acknowledges the fact that there are multiple different systems of oppression acting on African women in different ways because of our different political, cultural and historical locations.I believe that we can make, and have been making space for each other to confront and dismantle these structures rather than upholding one cause over another as more deserving of space. It is also important within that space to realize how certain women benefit from the oppression of others based on their socioeconomic status and access (or lack thereof) to resources, and their visibility in social spaces. This is what must be undone. Take note of the fact that African women continue to subvert the patriarchy and have been doing so forever without necessarily calling it feminism. It is not up to one group to decide what “all African feminists” should be focusing on, and that being said I acknowledge the fact that I can only speak from my particular standpoint. I speak for no one else but myself, a self that still has so much to learn. This was going to be an entirely different post in response to the blog I read, but once I get started, it’s hard to stop. If you haven’t already closed this window, you can read the actual extract from my paper below!


a good woman’s work

The head will be inclined at a reasonable angle towards your interlocutor, with enough of your smile peeking from behind your lips to imply an easygoing character but not so much so that it comes across as wanton. The children and husband will be fed, washed and moisturized, dressed in pristine school uniforms and shirt with tie to match the socks, all fabric starched into stiff submission. The windows will be rolled up between you and the world, hot air condensing on the other side of your air-conditioned oasis, a barrier protecting you from “what you could’ve been” if you hadn’t been a nice girl with strong work ethic and a stronger back, good reputation and good good good–

The ideology will be moderate, it will not stray too far away from the pulpit or the ballot box; it will not upset those “fundamental traditions and values” that have been woven into the fibers of your muscles, it will help your sisters who have not felt the light of formal education shining on their foreheads. The feminism will be yours in so far as it doesn’t push you to forget who you really are. The feminism will be yours as long as you call it by another more palatable name that will be decided at a later date.

(Image: Cover of Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes published in 1991, in which she talks about things like marital rape which even now is seen as an oxymoronic and ridiculous idea by many people. Basically, Ama Ata Aidoo is the writer I always wanted to be “when I grow up.”)

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