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Redefining Feminism and Feminist Activism in West Africa

For decades, feminism has been a key word that has influenced national and international agendas across the globe. The scope and specificities of its practice arouse prolonged arguments as to what feminism is. Often perpetrated or perceived to be promoted by women, feminism has over the years raised controversies within the West African society. This is mainly because the values perpetrated by feminists could sharply stand in contrast to the patriarchal values of the West African society. Despite this, a key element that provokes the perceived tensions around feminism is the overwhelming misunderstanding of feminism in a society that is deeply rooted in cultural values.

What is feminism?

It is one of the most controversial and misunderstood words in the world today. Feminism was the “word of the year” or the most looked up word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017. It is defined in the dictionary as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes or organised activity on behalf of women's rights and interests’’.

A more human centred perspective on feminism considers it to be the belief that men and women deserve equality in all opportunities, treatment, respect, and social rights. In general, feminists are people who acknowledge that social inequalities are based on gender discrimination and make efforts to eliminate these inequalities.

There are many myths and realities that underlie the understanding and practice of feminism across the world. For example, feminists have demonstrated that in most cultures throughout history, men have received more opportunities than women.

In a bid to understand feminism, one must first recognise that all feminists cannot be grouped as one or described in the same manner. This usually creates misconceptions. There is a general stereotype towards feminists. There is an overarching misconception that feminists are angry or bitter women who only want to subjugate men. However, this is not true.

Major types of feminism

Over the years, different kinds of feminism have emerged, and the concept means different things to different people. There are generally four main kinds of feminism; radical, socialist, cultural, and liberal feminism.

Radical feminism is a movement that believes sexism (which is the discrimination against women based on sex) is so deeply rooted in society that the only cure is to eliminate the concept of gender completely. The reason this group gets the "radical" label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression and one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class.

Socialist feminism is a movement that calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist reformation of our economy. Basically, socialist feminism argues that capitalism strengthens and supports the sexist status quo because of the inherent power of patriarchy.

Cultural feminism is a movement that points out how modern society is hurt by encouraging masculinity, but society would benefit by encouraging feminine behaviour instead. Cultural feminism believes that the society needs a female 'essence' or a female 'nature' that should be celebrated and infused with the male-dominated world to provide the right balance to the working of society.

Liberal feminism is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. It asserts the equality of men and women through political and legal reform. It also seeks to abolish political, legal and other forms of discrimination of women to allow them the same opportunities as men as well as alter the structure of society to ensure the equal treatment of women.

Gains of Feminism in West Africa

In West Africa, feminism has long existed in these diverse forms. Feminist activism predates colonialism and has achieved a lot in the region. One can cite the example of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa who fought against British colonial conquest in the Asante kingdom (in present-day Ghana) from March 1900 to January 1902. Yaa Asantewaa inspired courage in the men of the Asante kingdom and led them to fight in the War of the Golden Stool, also known as The Yaa Asantewaa War.

Another example is the Aba Riots or Women’s War, among the Igbos of Nigeria. The riots demonstrated women’s ability to use their networks/associations to protest colonial or community decisions that clashed with women’s interests. The revolt occurred in November 1929 when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the imposition of taxes on market women and curb the power of Warrant Chiefs, who were appointed by colonial governor. The protest is regarded as one of the first major challenge of British colonial rule in Nigeria.

In modern times, in West, East and Southern Africa, women are stepping up their campaign against sexism and exploitation. African feminists have opposed such practices as early marriage, female genital mutilation, women’s exposure to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) through unsafe sex practices, and various forms of medical neglect. In Ghana, for example, a remarkable achievement after years of agitation was the promulgation of the Domestic Violence Act in 2007 and the introduction of a Gender Policy in 2015. There is also an ongoing advocacy campaign for the passage of an Affirmative Action/Gender Equality Bill in the country.

 Challenges faced by feminists and feminist movements

Feminists encounter several challenges in championing the causes they are most passionate about.

They face stereotypes, they are stigmatised and sometimes perceived as outliers within their communities. This is largely due to the fact that African feminists pursue an agenda that gives more value to women and such perspectives are frowned upon within a patriarchal society as ours. Our traditional practices tend to uphold patriarchy and feminism is often viewed as a western concept and thus, not widely accepted in West Africa.

Feminists are also subjected to stringent discrimination in communities that are deeply rooted in certain religious norms and extremist perspectives and practices that do not provide opportunities and equal space for women to engage in their communities. These norms and practices tend to limit women and prohibit them from driving their agendas. For example, the expansion of Shari’a law in twelve states in Northern Nigeria between 1999 and 2001 sent a wave of anxiety through human rights activists worldwide and stoked inter-religious conflicts in the region. Critics argue that women are the most negatively affected by expanded Islamic laws, restricted by patriarchal values and given unequal rights and representation within the legal system.

Another problem affecting feminist activists is insufficient and or poorly directed funding to carry out their activities. This was raised during a West African Women’s dialogue organised by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) with support from the Commonwealth Foundation. The conference brought together feminists from five countries in the sub-region. The over 40 participants argued that over-dependence of feminist organisations and associations on donors and international organisations in the region affect their advocacy activities and has a negative impact on their development. This, they said, is because the donors determine the agenda(s) to be pursued by these activists or movements and some of these may not align with the priorities of the feminists nor the contextual needs. The issue of the lack of a common definition of feminism to which all feminists can identify with was also identified as a challenge.  

The way forward

Ideally, it would be best for the feminist movement in West Africa to push for a common regional agenda.  This would allow for consistent efforts to address the present challenges of gender inequality. The richness of the feminist movement lies in the capacity of each feminist to self-define their feminism and promote a feminist agenda they are passionate about. Instead of attempting to find a universal definition of the concept, it is ideal to establish the tenets and principles that underline the concept; one of them being the fight for equal opportunities for both men and women.  Having equal opportunities will ensure increased human resources which would spur economic growth and result in increased GDP as well as a reduction in poverty levels across the globe. It would also positively affect decision-making by making it more reflective of collective interests. More resources would reach children as women would have more control over family resources and family planning decisions would be made to improve the quality of life of children.

Overcoming the stereotypes akin to feminism will require encouraging men to join in the feminist campaign. In the long run, the fight for gender equality is beneficial to everyone. An individual irrespective of their sex should unapologetically be able to identify as a feminist.

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  • Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff

    Very Good. Please note that the history of post colonial West Africa is replete with instances of feminist action. Another interesting example is the successful 1996/97 campaign of the Sierra Leone women's movement for Return to Civilian Rule.

  • Charles Vandyck

    Hmmm @⁨Nana Ekua⁩ thank you for confusing me. Now I don’t know whether am cultural or liberal feminist if I am any at all. But it’s interesting the proposal that says we should all individually define the feminism we identify with. Isn’t it like the liberals calling gender a spectrum so you fit where you feel like. Why can’t there be a universal definition for feminism? Wishful thinking huh? Anyway for me the last paragraph is the deal maker, a more pragmatic approach to realising the dividends of feminism for our society.

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Nana Ekua Awotwi

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