African Woman Seeks Feminism for Survival

 by Nyaboe Makiya

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

Irecently found an old high school journal where I had written:


In the paragraph above this little meltdown, I was pleading with my Judaeo-Christian God, to ‘show himself to me’ so that I could live a ‘full, useful life.’ My 17 year-old self was tired of all the parables and puzzles that were part of figuring out what life was about. I wanted a clear, direct answer from him, because I had been told, that on my own, I was powerless, and more than that, worthless. Naturally, God stayed silent, probably sipping his tea and shaking his head at my foolishness.

It was after sitting in this loud, divine silence that I considered all the people I had to ask for both direction and permission to simply live. My family, my church, every man I had ever met, and society in general, all had a say on my worth, and what I could and couldn’t do with myself. I was the last person who had a say. I felt completely boxed in and helpless, and mad as hell!

This was quickly followed by a deep despair. If these were in biblical times, there would be sack cloth, ash on my head, weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. I couldn’t see a way out.

It took me nearly a decade to realize that there was, in fact, a way to be my own person. There was a way to see myself anew and to have the first and final say over my own life. I realized it would take a lot because I had to be fully responsible for myself and not defer decisions about my life to all the people and institutions I had deferred to before.

This way was feminism.

When I first came across feminism, I perceived it as this far-removed theory about which intellectuals wrote papers. It wasn’t a thing that one could use in daily life. But on actually reading about it for myself, I realized that feminism gave me the ability to think critically about how and why, I, as a woman, behaved a certain way and was treated a certain way, by society, in general, and by men, in particular. It explained why I was constantly ‘seeking affirmation’ and why it always felt like I was a second-class citizen with little say in my own life. The answer was simple: Sexism.

You see, contrary to common belief, Feminism is not merely about women versus men. It is not women trying to be ‘manly’ (whatever that means) and it is not the blind abandonment of what is perceived as ‘femininity’. In her book ‘Feminism is for everybody’, bell hooks describes feminism as ‘a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.’

Sexism is a highly contested issue. I have found, that there are four broad categories of people when it comes to opinions on sexism. The first lot of people, both men and women, question the existence of sexism since, in their minds, they have never perpetrated or experienced it. Others believe that sexism exists, but think that perhaps its effects are exaggerated and that women have a lot of privileges which men don’t (this is called benevolent sexism, but that’s a topic for another article). There are those who acknowledge that men and women are indeed regarded and treated differently, but suggest that this is the ‘natural’ order of things and as such, should be accepted without question. Finally, we have those who view sexism as a very real problem that adversely affects society as a whole but particularly oppresses and exploits women.

I fit into the last category.

Now for an African woman, a curious thing happens when you become aware of sexism and speak about it: You are seen as a diversion (‘distracting us from more important issues,’ they say), you are called un-African and — my personal favourite — ‘Westernized’ (used as a derogatory term). Often, because detractors are ‘uncomfortable’, they dismiss feminism as ‘Western’ to delegitimize and silence the discussion. This assertion is demonstrably wrong because Africa actually has a long history of feminism. In her article, ‘A brief history of African Feminism’, Minna Salami said that,  ‘[w]hile the term “feminism” is an import to Africa (as all English words are), the concept of opposing sexism and the patriarchy, the raison d’être of feminism, is not foreign. Africa has some of the oldest civilizations in the world so while they didn’t always call it feminism (the noun) as far back as we can trace we know that there were women who were feminist (the adjective) and who found ways of opposing patriarchy.’ In pre-colonial times, famous and powerful women such as Nehanda of Zimbabwe, Wangu wa Makeri of Kenya and Nzinga of Angola, are held up as examples of women’s agency.

We have post-colonial heroines like, Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonean women’s rights activist referred to as the ‘African Victorian Feminist’ who contributed widely to both pan-African and feminist goals, Charlotte Maxeke who in 1918 founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa, and Huda Sharaawi who in 1923 established the Egyptian Feminist Union. Feminism is neither predominantly nor exclusively Western.

There has been contention on the issue of oppression because sexism in Africa is entrenched in our cultural ideologies. In ‘Silence is a Woman’ (2013), Wambui Mwangi writes that, ‘carefully circulated and re-narrated cultural “knowledge” re-inscribes alleged contradictions about women’s bodies, power, and political possibility. It reminds women that all our bodies are always available for physical degradation by all men. It threatens while inscribing the illegitimacy of women in political authority. It destroys the public power of women’s bodies by destroying women’s power to use our bodies in a public way. It inscribes the collective memory of matriarchal rule with the mark of illegitimacy and perversion.’

Consider that a large number of our customs and traditions undermine African Women’s land and property rights. According to a 2013 study by FIDA Kenya on women’s land and property rights, the constitution of Kenya protects women against discrimination, and the ratio of men to women is estimated to be 1:1, yet only 5 percent of land title deeds in Kenya are held by women jointly with men. Further, only 1 percent of land titles in Kenya are held by women alone, and yet 89 percent of subsistence farming labour force is provided by women. In addition, 70 percent of labour in cash crop labour production is provided by women and approximately 32 percent of households are headed by women. These numbers are a clear indication that women are being taken advantage of by a sexist system. The number one hindrance to land ownership for women in Kenya is cultural beliefs. Other reasons include: lack of awareness, discriminatory official responses, an expensive legal system and fear. Women who try to fight back face hostility and may be subjected to physical and/or sexual violence, or ostracized.

Let’s consider another pressing issue: the rampant violence against women in public and private spaces. Custom, tradition and religion are frequently invoked to justify the use of violence against women. Recently, in Nairobi there was a resurgence in stripping women and sexually assaulting them, under the guise of ‘maintaining morality’. Further, statistics from the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) paint a clear picture of how much women’s agency is completely disregarded when it comes to their own bodies:

  • 45% of women between ages 15 – 49 in Kenya have experienced either physical or sexual violence with women and girls accounting for 90% of the gender based violence (GBV) cases reported;
  • One in five Kenyan women (21%) has experienced sexual violence;
  • Strangers account for only 6% of GBV in Kenya. 64% of survivors of violence reported that the offenders behind their ordeal were known to them;
  • Most violence towards women is committed by an intimate partner;
  • 90% of reported perpetrators are men.

Yet, ‘I don’t feel oppressed!’ and ‘I am not oppressing anyone!’ are statements I hear a lot when discussing sexist oppression.

I will not continue to spew statistics because frankly, it’s upsetting, and if we were to consider the facts of gender-based inequalities in health, education, economic and political power, we could write an entire library of books.  Indeed, a lifetime’s reading worth of books has been written.

In addition to the general gender inequalities, women face a barrage of micro-aggressions daily. These are forms of unintended discrimination by the use of known social norms of behavior and/or expression that, while without conscious choice of the user, has the same effect as conscious, intended discrimination. In her poem, ‘A Brief History of Micro-aggressions’, Shailja Patel describes them as, ‘daily ordinary interactions / one drop of blood at a time / until we bleed to death […]’ Catcalling and street harassment, unwanted sexual touch, and gendering of spaces (by making them unfriendly to women or excluding women entirely, for example, in all-male panels) are all examples of sexist micro-aggressions. They are often said and done without much thought, but the very thoughtlessness underscores the attitudes behind them, the callous approach people have to women (and each other), and the internalized nature of many forms of prejudice. The people who say and do these things often profess shock and horror that they’d caused harm with their words and actions, or they downplay their violence altogether.  Patel’s poem adds that ‘we [women] are assured / that our concerns / are silly / minor / best forgotten.’

There is, in fact, oppression occurring everywhere women turn. As long as we do not identify sexism, educate ourselves on its pathology and act to eradicate it, we condemn women to live, at best, half-lives. At worst, we banish them to death.

As a proud, black, African woman, I admit that I struggle with the implications that come with feminism. A misunderstanding of feminism has led to a fear of it, and as a result, a majority of people dismiss it without really finding out what feminism sets out to achieve. I have often felt alienated and attacked when trying to assert myself as a feminist. It’s not easy, so I understand why most people are reluctant to identify as one. In spite of this, I wear the label proudly because I cannot pretend that patriarchal sexism does not oppress more than half of the society of which I am a part. I live as a feminist because I hear the voices of the matriots who came before me and of the women who surround me.  As a woman, feminism is essential for me not only to survive, but to thrive as a human being.