My Sister’s Keeper

by Varyanne Sika

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

My friend often speaks fondly, light-heartedly, but with detectable although mild irritation, about ‘The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014’, when ten women on a Whatsapp group had a nightlong back-and-forth that turned into a political correctness fight about feminism. The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014 is nearly always brought up in our (the pro-feminism faction of the group) casual conversations about feminism because it reminds us of the potential friendships we missed out on, it reminds us of the bond three of us formed after the fallout, but most importantly (to us), it reminds us of having recruited a newly self-proclaimed feminist (albeit with slight nudging). The fallout happened because  seemed like one group trying to get the other group to understand the importance of self-identifying as feminist and that “womanism is to feminism, as purple is to lavender” like Alice Walker says. They felt forced into accepting an identity that was not theirs. (how could it be theirs when they did not understand it in the same terms that we did?) They stood firm in their refusal to identify as feminists, justifying their adamance with #nolabels, which we, the loud and proud feminists, saw as #yourprivilegeisshowing and #ignoranceisnodefense.

We called ourselves Feministas after the fallout. Of course, it was never the intention to fall out with one another and break off into smaller groups. We (Feministas) dreamt of a feminist sisterhood where we would have regular conversations about feminism and being anti imperialist-white-supremacist- capitalist-patriarchy over tea, and making more friends who understood feminism and openly identified as feminists. We hoped to help start a united family of feminists right here in Kenya! Ideally, doing feminism is far more important than merely saying feminist things or identifying as a feminist, so when what they, our sisters, do is reject feminism, it is important to address their rejection.

In 2006, The African Feminist Forum held in Accra, Ghana, produced the Charter Of Feminist Principles For African Feminists. The preamble, ‘Naming Ourselves As Feminists’ closes with the declaration that, “[o]ur feminist identity is not qualified with ‘Ifs’, ‘Buts’ or ‘Howevers’. We are feminists. Full stop.” Ideologically, naming ourselves as feminists is important for solidarity. Accepting the language, the word ‘feminism’, specifically, which describes an ideological standpoint against sexism and patriarchal structures, is an indication of change, and the desire for such change, in the negative social attitudes about it. While naming ourselves as feminists is important, it does little for those women whose actions align with the principles of feminism yet are sceptical about feminism. I understand now what bell hooks says, that feminism is ‘neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into’, and that for the most part, expecting all women to name themselves as feminists might wrongly project the assumption that ‘feminist’ is a lifestyle choice, or a pre-packaged identity rather than a political commitment to fight sexist oppression. Arguments for naming ourselves as feminists that focus on it enabling community, connection, and support, assume that all women lack community and support from other women. Focusing specifically on the need for a self-proclaimed ‘feminist community’ to support the argument for naming ourselves as feminists, assumes that the communities of women who do not identify as feminist are not in fact already seeking ways to end sexist exploitation in the contexts of their lives. Obioma Nnaemeka in the book Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power in Africa,  says,

‘[T]hey (African women) are not hung up on articulating their feminism, they just do it…It is the dynamism of the theatre of action with its shifting patterns that makes the feminist spirit/engagement effervescent and exciting but also intractable and difficult to name.’

When formally organized feminists declare their feminist stance, that they are ‘feminists, full stop,’ they inevitably welcome some women but leave out many others, whether or not they intend to. There’s isn’t a clear indication of an intersectionality of African feminism in the African Feminist Charter except in broad phrases such as,

‘[W]e recognize that we do not have a homogenous identity as feminists – we acknowledge and celebrate our diversities and shared commitment to a transformatory agenda for African societies and African women in particular.

It can be assumed that ‘we’ here refers to the group of feminists who attended the forum, presumably a combination of African feminists in academia and women working in gender and development.’). There is an insistence, particularly by those who name themselves as feminists, on a unifiability of African feminisms. This unity is  not one of ‘togetherness no matter what’, not one that brooks no disagreement, but one that can survive, and even grow through, conflict amongst feminists. In advocating for a unity of purpose and for the broadest possible solidarity amongst ‘all women,’ we point to the necessary work of addressing, in material ways, the need to continue developing a sophisticated intersectionality in African feminism.  

Sisterhood among African women aims at ending sexist oppression and imagining previously unimaginable futures for ourselves, bringing these futures into existence, together. The Charter of Feminist Principles emphasises, ‘[a] spirit of feminist solidarity and mutual respect based on frank, honest and open discussion of difference with each other.’  It evokes a utopia built on ‘[t]he support, nurture, and care of other African feminists, along with the care for our own well-being.’ We often think of Black/African feminist sisters like Ramatoulaye and Aissatou (in Mariama Bâ’s novel, So Long a Letter) Angela Davis and Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, the mutual support and strength that develops among the women in Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, and imagine that kind of powerful sisterhood for ourselves. Although there was no intentional unkindness in the exchanges that preceded the fallout with women we were only recently begun to know as friends, there was a marked drop in the excitement and energy with which we interacted, a vim which previously flowed through our messages even when we disagreed on other subjects. As the group was dismantled, the possibility of sisterhood was shattered, perhaps permanently, hopefully only temporarily. In that moment, the patriarchy had a smaller anti-sexist army to worry about.

How do we as African feminists, with our different, and differing, feminisms survive the fractures amongst ourselves? In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde exhorts us to ‘consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit’ because the love of (black) women for each other has been stolen from us. As we learn to be tender with each other, we must speak truth to each other, Lorde says that ‘if we speak truth to each other, it will become unavoidable to ourselves.’ The kind of sisterly bonding that results in, or because of, excluding or oppressing, demeaning or deploying micro-aggressions against other women, is a false sisterhood as bell hooks says in ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’, which will in fact not dismantle sexist oppression. Within sexist thinking, women have learned to be suspicious of one another and competitive. When it is perpetuated, women become violent to one another.

“I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women. I am alarmed by a growing absence of decency on the killing floor of professional women’s worlds.” (Toni Morrison, Commencement Address at Barnard College, 1979)

We need a self-critical, tender, truth-telling approach to feminist sisterhood that is capable of confronting unaddressed issues of intersectionality. We need to continually interrogate our understanding of what feminism is and for whom it exists. Our feminist movements are strained and fragmented along lines of class, geography, ethnicity, religion, and generational gaps. Amongst those who don’t identify as feminists, there is a prevalent lack of clarity when discussing African women’s oppression which when coupled with the hesitation in identifying as feminist, might frustrate the efforts of community organizers and feminists who are working to raise the consciousness of others. It is dispiriting when we find that we cannot even succeed in inspiring our friends to identify as feminists. How then, can we even begin to weave together a sisterhood?

I’m exasperated by voices that cheapen the discussion on African feminist sisterhood with ‘we can’t all be friends’ and ‘It is impractical to be sisters with women who irritate me’, yet I understand these statements as valid reactions to proposing the abstract concept of sisterhood without attempting to describe what it means and what is at stake. I understand because I too get impatient when other women derail what I see as a formation of sisterhood. Frustrated, I sometimes mistakenly think that there is no time to engage with women who are wilfully ignorant or too blinded by their privilege to establish an inclusive sisterhood. It is easy to feel that they don’t need sisterhood, they don’t want sisterhood, so I will expend the scarce energy I have in a sisterhood in which I don’t have to wrestle women into being my sisters. This approach does little to establish the solidarity in sisterhood that African feminists need. Energy must be conserved for other battles (sexist oppression) and women who are unwilling to be a part of an African feminist sisterhood mustn’t be wrestled into it. The middle ground that I see is in continuing to explore different avenues to foster and perform our sisterhood. Avenues to unlearn sexism, to collectively work towards a clarity in what we mean in and by our different feminisms and to share how we do our feminisms, to ask and offer each other support where we can, to share our frustrations, to laugh, to talk, to be, sisters.  Yet, in looking for sisterhood, a feminist has to learn to deal with rejection.

African feminisms have always begun a home, amongst those with whom we interact daily. High bandwidth connectivity and high-speed transit for those who can have them, make it possible to build sisterhood with women from far ends of the continent. Sisterhood means that we learn more about our feminisms together, talk more to one another about our lives and to do more of our living (working and playing) together. There are videos on youtube of African women discussing African feminisms, there are feminist publications such as the African feminist journal and Buwa! (although few that are inclusive in terms of accessibility and language), feminist writing groups such as Amka Space in Kenya (if Amka space can commit to having women instead of men facilitate its sessions), facebook groups such as Feminists in Africa, the informal feminist collectives on Twitter, and blogs such as Ms. Afropolitan which are trying to create and sustain spaces online to do our feminism. Offline, there are numerous organizations and groups for doing feminism including sporting, economic empowerment groups, single mothers support groups, and the plain and simple friendship between women. All these avenues are important because they grow spaces that are friendly and nurturing to women, in which intersectional sisterhood and tenderness amongst women is possible.

The Great Feminist Fallout of 2014 is only one example of many such fallouts among friends who disagree rather strongly about feminism. I have not heard from any of the other members of the original group from which we/they separated. Possibly not entirely because of the fallout but because what brought us together in the first place, was not a collective deliberate attempt at building lasting bonds amongst ourselves.