The Afrikan woman and feminism
Updated: Jan 27, 2019
By Nancy Monnya
“The struggle for the black woman is different to that of the white woman because while the white woman battles the white man for subjugating her, the black woman battles all oppressive forces that subjugates her, her children and her black man,” Clenora Hudson – Weems .
The Feminism movement, like many such movements to have sprung up in our societies, was formed to address social issues that were seen as a hindrance to a society’s progress, more specifically the western society. But like many of these movements it has brought controversies and instability, more specifically for the Afrikan woman. When you seek to bring solutions to a problem that does not exist, you inadvertently create the problem because your solution would then be in vain. Feminism has in many ways done this. First lets try and explain what Feminism is and what it purports to do.
Feminism has given rise to many divergent movements and ideologies that has led to the concept of plural Feminisms. This in itself poses problems for its application, definition and implementation in society. The 18th century feminism waves were centered on the establishment and achievement of equal political, economic, social and cultural rights for women as well as exposing western society as patriarchal.
From this it is clear that these movements were designed by and for a western society that was deemed patriarchal. This stands starkly as a western ideology that has little, if not nothing to do with the Afrikan woman. The first point of argument is the context on which the movement is focused – European and American society. The second point is the founders of these movements, who happen to be white women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Afrikan woman finds herself having to deal with and accept a concept that is thrust at her and is deemed necessary for her emancipation, without her Afrikan identity being taken into consideration.
Many argue that by western society Feminism alludes to society in general and not necessarily the western world because women everywhere are faced with similar challenges. This assumption is incorrect and misleading. To further this argument is to say that all theories designed by and for the western world are applicable to the world at large without giving consideration to the cultural differences of these diverse societies. It is also to ignore that the Afrikan woman fights forces that oppresses her such as being deemed inferior for the mere fact that she’s black; forces that the western woman does not have to deal with. How do you as a people then trust a foreign ideology to build and emancipate the most crucial aspect of your society; that is women, when this same ideology derives from a society that has always misunderstood you, and sought to change you, and, to annihilate you? To seek to instill western ideologies on the Afrikan society is not only to further the agenda of the western world which is not necessarily for the good of Afrika, but it is also to shift the dynamics that holds the Afrikan society together.
To further understand and broaden the argument that the Feminist movement cannot bring solutions to Afrika’s social issue, because we agree Afrika does have issues, let us put it in context. Before and during the rise of these movements many western women were not actively involved in the development and running of their communities, which was a contributor to them feeling that their patriarchal society put restrictions on them and their aspirations. In many a western home there was a nanny to raise and even breastfeed the children, there was a cook, and there was a driver. There was every helper you could think of. This, when you are a woman who stays at home, can leave you with so much time on your hands you might start to feel unproductive. Now this cannot be said for the Afrikan woman. From stories narrated to us by our elders we know of female Afrikan warriors, we have accounts of how an African society operated and from many of these stories; we recognize many Afrikan societies as matriarchal.
This can still be observed even in today’s Afrika. For example, in South Africa children are said to belong to mothers – at least in some ethnic groups, the BaPedi being one. Children retain the names of their mothers if the mother and father are not together anymore, which in itself was rare. When mothers get remarried, children from previous marriages or relationships are left with the maternal grandmother. When we refer to ‘home’ we mean our maternal home. A patriarchal society would never allow or even understand that. This arrangement shows the power Afrikan women have in society. Not to undermine the Afrikan men but because the society at large understood these Afrikan proverbs, “Mother is God number two.”– Chewa, Malawi proverb. “Even if a baby seems unpleasant to look at, his mother never refuses him”. – Bamoun proverb. “A mother is like a kernel, crushed by problems but strong enough to overcome them.”– Congo proverb.
The Afrikan woman is an integral part of her society. This has always been the fundamentals that upheld the Afrikan society. There were communities that were solely run by women as chiefs and Queens and the Afrikan man never felt invisible.
True we cannot downplay the issues that Afrikan women faced when it came to property ownership especially for divorced women, and widows. But dealing with these issues looking at them through a western lens is problematic. The Afrikan society is centered on family and community. The western idea of emancipation is centered on the individual and therefore cannot be applied to a communal society.
The Afrikan woman’s role in her society goes deeper than these movements has led us to believe. For example, there are Afrikan rituals that men cannot perform. There are rituals that men are not even allowed to witness. But the advent of Christianity saw the suppression of these practices and therefore many are left to falsely believe that the Afrikan woman had no roles or rights in her society. These rituals were not limited to women and girl’s initiations. Take for instance the rain rituals. Kgoshigadi Modjadji is an example of the power women wielded in this regard. These are rituals that were performed to pray for rain when there was drought.
True, ‘behind every successful man is a strong woman’. Being behind is not necessarily being in the background and invisible – For the Afrikan woman, this is being behind the scenes and utilizing her intellect and intuition to see that the men in her life thrived. Again the Afrikan woman’s intellectual ability should not be measured in western terms for it is not naturally in the Afrikan woman to be western just as it is not naturally in the western woman to be Afrikan. When Europeans came to Afrika and saw the Afrikan woman busy at work, manually arranging her home and her community, and rearing her children, the western women assumed that these were not free women as they could not see themselves performing such duties with such zeal. For them, house work was drudgery and reserved for ‘slaves’, while forgetting that it is this same people that are subjected to slavery. What they failed to understand was that the Afrikan woman was built with the capacity to reign without seeking to make her presence felt. The BaPedi say “mosadi o swara thipa ka bogaleng” (a woman holds the knife from the sharp end). The Afrikan woman knew her role in her community and she did not take that lightly.
With this assumption that the Afrikan woman is abused, came the implementation of western ways of life in a people that knew no idleness. It was through these implementations that the Afrikan’s productive time was spend building missionaries and not his home, and cleaning mission churches instead of sustaining her home. It was through these implementations that the Afrikan warrior abandoned her spear and shield to defend the people and picked a Bible leaving the people vulnerable. This western system of chopping off the other leg of the table and expecting it to continue standing was foolhardy. The exchange of roles, cultural and gender roles, and believe systems came at the detriment of the Afrikan society.
Today you would hear arguments such as “it is hard for women to penetrate certain industries because the patriarchal system keeps women in cultural positions”. What we forget to acknowledge is that the need for a woman to have a career and keep a job came with the advent of western ways of life. Life has become expensive requiring both the man and woman to work to keep the home running and contribute to the economy. The Afrikan woman therefore finds herself at loggerheads with her cultural identity and the identity that society has created for her in order to ‘look’ and not necessarily be free. Albeit all of this, the active Afrikan woman is still very much visible in the modern society.
Feminism argues that it seeks for women to have equal cultural rights. The Afrikan culture identifies a woman as a nurturer, a community leader, a spiritual leader, a wife and more. The western society says a woman must have a right to choose to be a mother and therefore sees killing an unborn baby as a woman’s right. The Afrikan culture values life. The concept of choosing to end a life to retain what you call ‘freedom’ is abhorrent to the Afrikan culture.
Feminism argues that women could not buy or own property. The Afrikan woman acquired her property through marriage and therefore her society saw no need in creating such a law. Marriage was an instrumental joining of two people, families as well as communities. It ensured the stability of the Afrikan society, and while the western woman saw a need to break away from “culturally constructed” gender roles and deconstruct the “myth that is gender”, she found herself in need of a law that gave and protected her rights to acquire property without getting married. This concept is and has always been foreign to the Afrikan society.
Like all societies, the Afrikan is faced with many social ills that plagues its people and it is through the introduction and implementation of ideas and the start of movements that a society can address its ills. But the solution cannot come from a place of ignorance of that society’s norms and values. There can and should be a movement tailored to suit the Afrikan situation, and the Afrikan woman. The Afrikan society should refrain from equating social movements of western origin and western influence with progress, while holding the view that any social movement to come from Afrika itself is limited and unprogressive.
first published on Vuka Darkie magazine
Credits: Clenoraa Hudson-Weems, Africanan Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves
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