I have recognized the necessity to focus on a strong theoretical framework on gender in Africa that is conciliatory in many ways. This double pull is peculiar to African researchers. Donors do not give funds for theorizing or conceptualizing, they give funds for empirical research. On the other hand empirical research tests and validates theories as being related to true life situations of women and not abstractions. Theories help the sensitization process too. I am directly involved in the attempt to set a relevant agenda for women’s studies in Nigeria and the West African region along with many other researchers. The best approach to re-conceptualizing gender in Africa is the identification of a nexus between the pure theory and social science-based methodology. My research has consequently highlighted both qualitative and quantitative approaches. I have participated in baseline studies on the implications of negative traditional practices against women
Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
and the girl child and sensitization workshops working with grass root women. This exposure convinces me that theorizing African women cannot be an end but a means to an end. Gender theory in Africa needs to be inclusive as one thus avoids polemics. This calls for simultaneously embracing data collection, interviews, evaluation of opinion leaders’ perceptions of gender, as well as baseline studies of socio-cultural practices that shape gender relations and perceptions. At the same time, data collection on oral myths, proverbs, folktales and women’s oral genres have provided a rich repertoire of traditional philosophies and ideologies on gender in African societies, past and present. Research into African women’s literature—novels, plays, short stories and poetry—is a rich source for charting African women’s space and a major avenue for eliciting gender concepts from African perspectives. Women’s biographies have equally enhanced gender perception as many of the writers have been victims of gender injustice but many have emerged undefeated in their desire to be spokespersons for their gender.
In conducting empirical research, I have discovered that many African women are passive to the reality of gender injustice and such an attitude derives from socio-cultural beliefs. Many of these women often cite myths, proverbs, anecdotes or folktales that justify accepting their marginalization. It is considered culturally correct to accept marginalization in many cases and this derives from oral traditional beliefs. So an important research target has been to sensitize the women by de-constructing and re-constructing proverbs, myths and other beliefs that shape the mind-set. Grass-root women are not concerned about conceptualization which is considered as an academic preoccupation by many of them. But in belief and in practice, many prefer a position that enhances women’s conditions and opportunities for participation in development that does not alienate men, that does not jeopardize the esteemed family system, and that celebrates motherhood. This provides a meeting point between grass-root women and the scholars, between working class and middle-class women, between theory and practice, between concept and activism. Womanism seems to be the most functional and broad — based of the African gender theories as it addresses the plurality of expectations and the multiplicity of viewpoints. Many African scholars are, however, subscribing to the ideals of womanism without overt recognition and realisation of, or identification with, the concept.
In gathering together the diverse positioning of African women in search of gender re-conceptualisation, the search for African women’s voice becomes a paradigm for the quest for self-definition and self-naming. African women researchers see themselves as being the voice of the inarticulate majority but their role has to be culturally acceptable. As many resist the label ‘feminism’, they acknowledge that the essence of gender struggle is not new to Africa although previously terminologies or labels were not emphasized. Juliana Nfah-Abenyi has aptly articulated this: “What this means is that before feminism became a movement with a global political agenda, African women both ‘theorized’ and practiced what for them was crucial to the development of women, although no terminology was used to describe what these women were actively doing, and are
Arnfred Page 264 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM
still practicing on a day-to-day basis” (Nfah-Abbenyi 1997:10). The lived experience of African women reveals hopes and aspirations, denials and oppression but also struggles against forces that put women in the liminal position. Gender conceptualization has to be intertwined with development in a conspicuous desire to improve the conditions of African women. These gender concepts are encoded in the creative writings of many women writers. Abbenyi, like Aidoo, has identified these gender concepts as the ‘cry’ of African women which when their multiple voices are pulled together becomes a drum-beat, an outcry, a rejection of voicelessness. Scholars need to move beyond concepts to action. Scholars can help in organizing grass-roots women through sensitization. Revealing how African women in the past and currently have resisted oppression and linking them up with policy makers to include the women’s needs on national agenda in various sectors, will go a long way in making women scholars relevant. Many are already working closely with ordinary women through NGOs, women’s trade guilds and town organizations. Women’s wings of political parties can also be targeted for collaboration as they are powerful tools for asking for women’s needs to be met like when the women’s wing of the ANC with Mandela’s government got about a third of parliamentary seats allocated to women. The drum-beat presents multiple rhythms, at times specific, at other times identical to a universal women’s outcry. This makes the positions of Abena Busia, Ama Ata Aidoo and Nfah-Abbenyi paradigmatic. The reality of their contention is that “the women’s movement has provided one of the spaces where many different drums can be beaten to many different tunes at the same time” (Nfah-Abbenyi 1997:10).
I will advocate gender research that is inclusive and pragmatic, recognizing and borrowing from the gains of international women’s movements past and present even as the researchers learn from the wisdom of our mothers by being aware of and utilizing traditional tools used by women in African societies who have effectively resisted subjugation and oppression through concerted mobilization and bonding. Feminism is relevant to African women but there are many routes to women’s transformation from the margin to the centre, some of which are local while others are global. Gender as a category cannot be perceived as ahis — torical or acultural and gender as a concept needs more flexibility. The African woman scholar is more of a cultural and ideological hybrid than the majority of ordinary women. The former should strategize, even in a subtle way if necessary, to re-socialize these women taking class and cultural needs into consideration. One should not neglect concepts because they come from outside, but feminism is not culturally neutral in its diversities and emphasis. Researchers should use data and theoretical knowledge to move African women beyond the culture of silence and transcend naming. A vital link between researchers and grass-roots women will encourage them to cross the borders that hold them down. In Africa, gender strategies need to be more subtle and inclusive to avoid the wasted time and energy based on polarization which Africa cannot afford. This is where I consider womanist approaches more likely to carry many more categories of women on board as well as men who are the majority in policy making sectors and are
Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
needed to initiate women-friendly policies and eradicate certain traditional attitudes to women that are detrimental. At best, gender re-conceptualization is a tool, a means, a conduit, a way of manoeuvring, to a functional end, that of pragmatic improvement of African women’s conditions. Researchers should bring out results and work for implementations of policies that take such results on board. The challenge for women researchers is the shift from the comfort of academia, to move out to meet the women through outreaches that truly mobilize the ordinary women, who make up the majority, to the action and participation in social change, which result in the visible transformation of women’s life and roles in all sectors of society.