Re-conceptualizing gender in Africa

The dominant discourse on gender in Africa is the question of decoding feminin­ity and women’s status in a critical manner. The concepts, ‘woman’, ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ are being constantly interrogated, and to many, this is an aspect of that quest for self-assertion. This position is further enhanced by many decades of male-biased research in the social sciences that ignored gendered approaches. More recently researchers have responded to the challenges as gender approach has become ubiquitous in African humanities. When donor agencies began to sponsor gender research, African researchers adopted western theoretical frame­works for developing nations. This is evident in the application of development theories especially Women in Development (WID) and Women and Development (WAD). With the Gender and Development (GAD) agenda, however, there was a self­conscious attempt to mainstream gender into development projects without the recognition that this is also problematic because it subsumes women’s issues un­der development and political agendas. Numerous gender training workshops, seminars and conferences were launched by African social scientists according to the agenda of the donors without adequately taking cultural contingencies into account. So, a lot of data were produced in a predominantly top-down approach. The majority of women who are the targets of the programmes distrust the re­searchers, believing that they are being used as guinea pigs for research. Others see these researchers as outsiders using them to make money from donors. This was the scenario in the nineties. At the same time, a focus on gender and feminism became dominant not by social scientists but women writers, critics and activists who were not at ease with an uncritical adoption and application of Western con­cepts.

Re-conceptualizing gender in Africa

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A school of thought upholds the deconstruction of the ideology of imposed silence as a central issue in conceptualizing gender in Africa. Many like Irene D’Almeida attempt to chart areas of African women’s audibility and power as an important process in the on-going re-conceptualization of gender on the conti­nent. The Gambian gender researcher, Siga Jajne is one such theorist who re-di­rects attention to a conscious effort by Sene-Gambian women to transgress ex­isting space designed to put women in the margin. She underscores Sene-Gambi — an women’s increasing visibility as the women transgress the culturally imposed silence by articulating a theory which takes sani baat as a point of departure. Sani baat is a traditional act of transgression as women force their voices on social dis­course. Women force their voice on existing male-dominated agendas in words and in practice. It is remarkable that many of the theorists who are attempting to re-conceptualize gender in Africa do so through a double approach, in creative writing as well as in theoretical propositions.

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Re-conceptualizing gender in AfricaRe-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor

In a similar theoretical thrust, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, through her creative writings and activism, has advocated the need to enhance African women’s voice by re-discovering uncharted sources of African women’s self-expression and self re-creation. Convinced that there are areas that can reveal African women’s voice, she raises the question: “Are African women voiceless or do we fail to look for their voices where we may find them, in the sites and forms in which these voices are uttered?” (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994:11). She advocates a search for African women’s voices “in spaces and modes such as in ceremonies, and worksongs…” Ogundipe-Leslie’s concern transcends revealing African women’s voices as she advocates inclusive social transformation in her theory of Stiwanism. She is one of the scholars who recognizes the need for self-naming as an essential step to re­routing the direction of gender conceptualization in Africa. Her definition of this term reveals the direction of her thoughts:

I have since advocated the word “Stiwanism,” instead of feminism, to bypass these concerns and to bypass the combative discourses that ensue whenever one raises the issue of feminism in Africa. . . The word “feminism” itself seems to be a kind of red rag to the bull of African men. Some say the word is by its very nature hegemonic. . . “Stiwa” is my acronym for Social Transformation Including Women in Africa (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994:229).

In her creative works of poetry, Ogundipe-Leslie thematizes diverse problems confronting African women which need practical solutions. She and others be­lieve that conceptualizing gender in Africa should not be divorced from practical efforts towards removing the obstacles to African women’s involvement in social transformation, which she describes as mountains on the back of African women. It is a dominant trend in African women’s creative writing to identify with wom­en’s oppression and advocate gender justice. But some writers transcend the level of creative writing in order to join others in the desire for gender re-conceptuali­zation. Notable among such are Miriam Tlali, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zulu Sofola and a host of others. Buchi Emecheta prefers to dissociate herself from the tag ‘feminist’ in many interviews:

I write about the little happenings of everyday life. Being a woman, and African born, I see things through an African woman’s eyes. I chronicle the little happenings in the lives of African women I know. I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist then I am an African feminist with a small ‘f’ (Umeh 1981:178).

Almost without exception, her creative works present the dilemma of gender op­pression with the African woman as a victim and the man as the oppressor, the indolent parasite holding the woman down. Her own personal experience and battering at the hands of her husband reinforce her reaction against gender injus­tice. She has lived in London most of her adult life. Yet, she refuses to be called a feminist and each time she is questioned about this, her answer becomes more de­fensive:

Q: Why do you refuse to be called a feminist?

A: I will not be called a feminist here, because it is European. It is as simple as that. I just resent that. . . I don’t like being defined by them. . . It is just that it comes from outside and I don’t like people dictating to me. I do believe in the African type of feminism. They call it womanism

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. . . (Emecheta 1989:19).

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Emecheta upholds gender as a means to a pragmatic end, that of addressing the specificities of African women’s ordinary problems—education, welfare, inherit­ance and other fundamental issues of existence and survival.

The Zimbabwean writer, Tsitsi Dangarembga also rejects feminism as a label of her identity: “The white Western feminism does not meet my experiences at a certain point, the issues of me as a black woman. The black American female writ­ers touch more of me than the white ones” (Dangarembga 1989:183). Ama Ata Aidoo, one of the first black African women writers, initially rejected feminism as an American ideology imported into Africa to destroy the family structure. She later shifted her position slightly by acknowledging the unifying role of feminism which also confirmed the existing beliefs of African women: “|T]f you take up a drum to beat and no one joins then you just become a fool. The women’s move­ment has helped in that it is like other people taking up the drum and beating along with you” (Aidoo 1988:183).

The South African writer Miriam Tlali prefers to be recognized simply as the voice of African women speaking on their behalf and striving to make their voice audible:

In South Africa we live under a pyramid of power, so I regard myself as the voice of the African woman who is oppressed politically, socially, and culturally. There is not enough emphasis given to the plight of the South African woman. I insist on this in my collection of short stories Soweto Stories. . . African women have no voice, no platform and nobody cares. . . Therefore I feel that I must address them in my writing” (Tlali 1989:69ff.).

Zoe Witcombe and other scholars are rather cautious about the South African sit­uation. They prioritize the need to put South African women under a global fem­inist umbrella, but black writers are interested in focusing on the need of black women along the general lines of struggle.

Another black woman who has directed attention to the issue of naming their own struggle is Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (1985/86), a Nigerian critic and theorist. Self-naming has become a very important aspect of black women’s self-re­creation. Several African-American women have problematized feminism and the view of Clenora Hudson-Weems (Hudson-Weems 1993) is cardinal in this theoretical direction. She maintains that African women’s self-reclamation hinges on ‘self-naming’. This derives from the importance of self-naming in African phi­losophy. Many African societies believe that naming affects identity and for this reason, self-naming is celebrated and naming is often accompanied by ceremo­nies based on a deep-rooted understanding of the culture and history of a family or ethnic group. It is equally believed that strangers cannot name your struggle ap­propriately (Kolawole 1997a). This is at the heart of the constant search for a new gender terminology by African women. The most outstanding alternative con­cept is ‘womanism’. This was simultaneously coined by Alice Walker and Chik — wenye Okonjo Ogunyemi in 1982. Walker believes that self-naming is an aspect of the “search for our mother’s garden” (Walker 1983:xii). Okonjo Ogunyemi ar­ticulates black womanism as an inclusive cultural concept:

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Black womanism is a philosophy that celebrates Black roots, the ideals of Black life, while giving a balanced presentation of Black womanhood. It concerns itself as much with the Black sexual

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power tussle as with the world power structure that subjugates Blacks (Okonjo Ogunyemi 1985/86:24).

Womanism appears more acceptable to many African scholars because of this in­clusive nature (Kolawole 1997a, 1998). The struggle for gender equity is insepa­rable from class, racial and other forms of oppression. The male factor is also ac­commodated as many scholars maintain that for women’s conditions to be amel­iorated, men have to be taken on-board. They constitute a large percentage of policy makers and political office holders. This touches on mainstreaming gender into development programmes. Many men and women consider womanism a more conciliatory gender theory than feminism.

Many African scholars resist the tag feminism because of the general assump­tion that it is a Western ideology that might be problematic if grafted indiscrimi­nately to an African cultural context (Kolawole 1997a). From this premise, gender research in Africa has witnessed a polarity of reactions and re-vision. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie sums up the major issues, “Some who are genuinely concerned with ameliorating women’s lives sometimes feel embarrassed to be described as ‘feminist,’ unless they are particularly strong in character” (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994:229). Daphne Williams-Ntiri reiterates the dilemma of African and black women who are dynamically engaged in gender studies and activism:

For years Africana women have found themselves in a serious ideological predicament. In the absence of viable organized women’s groups they have been invited to embrace feminism as an instrument of emancipation and as a new-found source of empowerment and status-building. Unfortunately, the majority of Africana women on public platforms have rejected feminism for a multiplicity of reasons. First, there is the unquestionable need to reclaim Africana women; sec­ond, they are perplexed over the racist origins of the feminist movement; third, they have found little solace in the doctrines and mission of the feminist movement, and fourth, the realities, struggles and expectations of the two groups remain on different planes (Williams-Ntiri, intro­duction to Hudson-Weems 1993:1).

Williams-Ntiri further affirms that global feminism is not controversial and that Western feminism cannot provide a panacea for all women’s problems across time, race, ethnicity, and class. She calls for the recognition of difference.

Oyeronke Oyewumi is a radical defender of an endogenous approach to gen­der conceptualization in Africa. According to her postulate, it is a common belief that some of the perceptions of African women’s reality are occasioned by the im­position of Western canons of gender analysis on African realities as delineated in her remarkable work: The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Oyewumi castigates the invention of images of African woman­hood to fit Western myths of black people. In her rather radical sociological study of womanhood, she rejects Western universalization of women’s reality and the imposition of ‘the woman question’ on Africa:

This book is about the epistemological shift occasioned by the imposition of Western gender categories on Yoruba discourse. . . [I]t is concerned with revealing the most basic but hidden assumptions, making explicit what has been merely implicit, and unearthing the taken-for — granted assumptions underlying research concepts and theories (Oyewumi 1997ix).

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Oyewumi opposes the Western gender binary and oppositional gender discourse as well as what she sees as a Western obsession with bodies. She equally opposes

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basing gender in other cultures on Western biological determinism or what she describes as body-reasoning or bio-logic. She belongs to the group of scholars that ad­vocate cultural relevance in African gender conceptualization.

Like Oyewumi, the Cameroonian scholar, Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi em­phasizes identity, sexuality and difference as she perceives gender in Africa as an aspect of postcoloniality. She maintains that the conceptualization of gender in Africa is male-biased and Western oriented and calls for a re-visit of African gen­der theory. She decries the politics of exclusion as scholars claim to speak for Af­rican and black women. This is made manifest in the neglect of African women’s writing. She resists Western labels and isms. She reiterates the existence of wom­en’s struggle in many parts of Africa before colonialism and advocates the recog­nition of the plurality of voices in conceptualizing gender in Africa (Nfah — Abbenyi 1997).

In the search for African theoretical re-conceptualization womanism has be­come a vital theory that has appealed to many. It is crucial to define and delineate the rationale that underlies and underscores womanism as a manifestation of self­naming. Many active African scholars resist the label of feminism and conse­quently do not make a concerted attempt to understand major issues in interna­tional feminist theorizing. Yet, any methodology that is designed to capture the specificity of African women’s reality needs to comprehend the issues in feminist concepts. Because gender is closely inter-related to cultural identity, a clear defi­nition of culture is an imperative. Womanism has been a conciliatory gender con­cept as it emphasizes cultural relevance, the family, motherhood, and the intersec­tion between various forms of oppression, social stratification and marginaliza­tion based on race, ethnicity, class and gender. The inclusive womanist approach is considered more appealing to African reality. African women exalt femininity and recognize the need to separate gender space when necessary. Many maintain that African women can use their existing, often uncharted power base and build on it instead of trying to be like men.

Updated: 11.11.2015 — 05:20