Voice Consciousness

by Felicity Okoth

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

I always look deep into a person’s eyes when I identify myself as a feminist, if only to draw out the question, ‘why?’ I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked if being a feminist means that I hate men or that I am a lesbian. Unsurprised, I usually celebrate such questions and wish more people would be more upfront, for it is such encounters that provide me an opportunity to share feminism as an ideology.

“A very general definition of work for feminism is to research how humankind is not nice to women and queer people in different ways.” – Gayatri Spivak

Often, I limit my explanation to the idea of a feminist as one who holds that women suffer discrimination because of their sex; that they have needs which remain negated and unsatisfied; and that the satisfaction of these needs requires a change in the social, economic and political order. One is a feminist if they hold this notion regardless of their gender or geographical location; anything beyond that overcomplicates it, both to someone new to the concept and in my opinion seasoned feminists alike. One only has to look at how, up to this point, both activist and scholars are yet to agree on which facets of the concept carry the most weight.

Such a succinct and objective description has resulted in backlash from men and women alike:  “Feminism is un-African, un-Christian, a Western project,” they say. This is accentuated with misplaced notions that African women feel neither the need nor urgency to liberate themselves from their traditional gender roles, that feminists hate men, that African men cannot be feminists.  All these misconceptions thrive while African countries generally rank lowest in the Global Gender Inequality index. Customs that undermine African women’s land and property rights, numerous instances of female genital mutilation, violence in both private and public spheres like honour killings in North Africa still thrive within the continent. The current debate in Kenya’s Parliament to repeal the ‘two thirds gender rule’ ; a clause in the constitution that provides for the affirmative participation of women in national politics reeks of male chauvinism. The stalemate both within parliament and in public discourse goes to show how little regard the political elite; who are supposed to be the voice of the people, have of women leadership.

Is this an indication that African women need feminism? By all means YES! I realize this sounds very much like what the Western world has been accused of: perceiving the subalterns (by this I mean women from developing countries) as in need of saving; a saving that, presumably, only the Western world can provide (to which I will return shortly). I refuse to concede to the impetus of a salvific Western feminism or the assumption that African feminisms merely replicate its methods or reproduce its aims. I don’t feel like an interloper, an outsider peeping into the exotic world of poor marginalized African women. Rather, I feel like an insider who can relate to them as an equal, talk to them (us) in their own language, our language. Theirs is a reality I share; it is our reality.  

Often, I have been told to tone down my arguments when I talk about equality between men and women. Some have predicted that I will remain single for eternity; after all, who would marry a woman who is not subservient? One who values her professional aspirations more than her family obligations? One who dresses in any manner she likes? One, seemingly, against culture and tradition? One who is ‘difficult’?”  

Such  discourses are pervasive.  The recent My Dress My Choice campaign in Kenya sparked numerous debates both in mainstream and social media, undergirded by the notions that ‘our’ culture (forget that there is no such immutable, sacrosanct thing as ‘Kenyan culture’) is rooted in decency; decently dressed women, in this instance (forget also that Africans used to walk around partially clothed before the periods of colonialism and putative enlightenment that came with it?).

Much of what we now describe under the rubric of ‘Kenyan culture’ can be attributed to colonialism which drew borders foisting a country upon us despite our different ethnicities (and, indeed, nations) and different customs within these ethnicities.

This is one among the many debates where patriarchy hides behind a deceptive concept of culture to assert its power over, and justify violence against, women in Africa.

The discourse inherent in missionary Christianity within the colonial period also contributed to the ‘our culture’ fallacy. The discourse was of a predominantly Victorian sensibility, in that women were to be chaperoned, women were to wear dresses that covered their whole bodies lest they lead men to sin, women were to honour their husbands and not talk back, as the Bible commanded. Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality (1978), wrote that “[t]he Canonical and Christian pastoral law were all centred on matrimonial relations: the marital obligation, the ability to fulfil it, the manner in which one complied with it, the requirements and violences that accompanied it,” thus women were under constant surveillance and this is what we absorbed as Kenyan culture following the erasure of our cultural histories by the colonialists. Oral folklore has, however, been able to pass across the fact that before the Victorian hullabaloo women used to walk with bare chests and shreds of clothes/beads barely covering their behinds, and that women used to have a voice  in family matters. (Is it not ironic that tourists come all the way to snap photos of Samburu women dancing bare-chested with the go-ahead of government agencies tasked with promoting culture and tourism?) My Dress My Choice was a vociferous resistance to modern Kenyan patriarchy, hiding behind culture to assert its power over African women.

I see that the African man’s presence is predicated on the African woman’s effective absence; that the perpetuation of the discourse of culture ensures a power imbalance is maintained so that the man never loses the upper hand. The woman is not permitted to make sense of who she is because she is overdetermined from without, battered by  pre-assigned cultural stereotypes of what an African woman should be: submissive, subordinate to the men, silent, available when desired, invisible when not, etc. etc. etc.

This kind of battering precedes our times as seen when Mau Mau female freedom fighters (feminists in their own right) tried to oppose FGM. Consequently, they were labelled cultural misfits and ostracised. Facing Mount Kenya (1962), authored by the founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, celebrates female genital mutilation and labels its abolition a Western colonialist project. May it not be forgotten that they as male freedom fighters did not bat an eyelid in channeling Marx and Engels in their calls for freedom; thinkers who are as Western as they get.

I love reading other feminist, Western or not.  Simone de Beauvoir is one close to my heart. Her assertion in The Second Sex (1956) lends credence to the FGM Mau Mau situation. She states that a ‘woman’ is a biological not a historical category and thus she suffers from a singular oppression which knows no historical periods that precedes it. Without a different past how can she have concepts of a different future?

Culture, taken as history, tells the African woman to stay within her bounds, to go back where she belongs (behind and beneath the man). She is given no chance, she is overdetermined from without; made a slave of the “idea” that others have of her sex (the weaker sex)…she is fixed…so that it is not her who makes meaning for herself  but it is a meaning that is already there, pre-existing, waiting for her. A corporeal schema already provided historically for the African man to give character to the African woman, for not only must the woman be a woman, she must be woman in relation to the man. The African woman is adjudged irrespective of her social, economic, and intellectual achievements. One only has to look at Wangari Maathai, the first female University of Nairobi associate professor in Anatomy, who was scorned by politicians in the Moi Era for being a crazy divorcee. All attributed to her too ‘loud mouth’ for a woman. It took the international community recognizing her efforts towards sustainable development, democracy, and peace before Africa and Kenya as a country acknowledged and recognized her efforts. Martha Karua, who despite her brilliant political manifesto was slut shamed entirely during the political campaigns leading to the 2013 presidential election. She scraped a mere 1% of the total vote count.

Enough already! I as an African woman feel burdened by historicity, patriarchal cultural representation, and the inequality that comes with it. I yearn for change, for the day social prejudices will be relegated to the periphery.

I am not alone on this going by the growing number of African Feminists. But with what voice consciousness can we all speak?

It does not escape me that Africa is a continent and thus difficult to refer to a singular African Feminism. The concept is complex with many manifestations and expressions. Heck, feminism in itself takes on different fronts as seen with Marxists feminism, modern feminisms, radical feminism, lesbian separatism, etc. This signals a multiplicity of and heterogeneity within the movement with questions arising as to whether it makes sense to assume a necessary unity within feminism.

Just like Rosalind Delmar in What is Feminism, I see feminism not as women’s movement thus in need of unity, but as women’s activity, activism, a campaign against issues, a consciousness raising. Within this I see an autonomous female subject, an African woman speaking in her own right, with her own voice. I see the ongoing transformation of  African women from objects of knowledge into subjects capable of appropriating and producing knowledge, to effect, continuously, a passage from the state of subjection to subjecthood, acquiring and evolving a voice consciousness.

The voice consciousness I am talking about is not one which presents a counter-narrative of patriarchal cultural representations, no! That would result in a few vocal African feminist carrying the burden of female representation, in that everything they say or show will be taken to represent African women as an homogeneous monolithic group. It is imperative to remember  and understand that the political, economic, and historic experiences of different African communities are internally differentiated both between and within countries. For example, a Somali woman’s experiences differs from the experience of a South African woman and within South Africa, Zulu women may face different forms of oppression from the Xhosa, as would Somali women of different ethnicities and clan affiliations, within Somalia.  

I am thus asking for a voice consciousness that admits the qualitative difference of marginalization among women, one that acknowledges that it is not enough to sit, talk and write about feminism in Africa as most African women live in the rural areas with limited access to books, electricity, and internet that power debates on both mainstream and social media. A voice consciousness that takes cognisance of the systematic qualitative disempowerment of women by poverty and tenacious cultural values like polygamy and FGM, all which vary across ethnic groups and across countries.

African feminism as it stands has been elitist, barely drawing in the women (and men) in the margins, those in rural areas, the urban uninformed, those who know no other reality than the fact that the woman comes second to man. As it stands, I have failed as a feminist because my discussions have been limited to online forums with feminists like myself. Those with access to the internet resources for gathering information.  I have failed because I have assumed that the discrimination I go through as a woman runs across board. I have closed my eye to the intersectionality of religion, ethnicity, poverty, and illiteracy when it comes to women in Africa. I have failed because I am yet to share the ideology of feminism with those outside my social and academic circles, with those less fortunate, and I am yet to create time to listen to and learn from the voices of those in the margins, the women not ‘privileged’ as I am, and to do so from a non-interventionist perspective (that is, not seeing them as needing saving but as women with a voice and reason).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a feminist who focuses on experiences of third world women, who she refers to as the subalterns argues that these kind of women have no unmediated access to ‘correct’ resistance (1988). (I take up subaltern in this essay to mean women in Africa not privileged to have access to forums that discuss on feminism). That even when the subaltern makes an effort to the death to speak, she is not able to be heard, and speaking and hearing complete the speech act. My argument on voice consciousness on the part of African feminists borrows heavily from Spivak.  I recognise the importance of listening as a complement of speaking because voice as a social process involves, from the start, both speaking and listening; an act of attention that registers the uniqueness of other’s narrative.

As African feminists we should desist from attempting to ‘lend’ marginalized African women a collective, homogenising voice. My main fear is that we are not listening enough and by not listening we are falling into the continuous reproduction of the subaltern as constructed by the West. I refuse however to let such a fear bog me down.

As an African feminist, I am on a mission to listen more, to acquire a voice consciousness, one that will consequently appeal and respond to, and even resonate with, the consciousness of the subaltern.

I however reckon that touching the consciousness of women across the board is by no means an easy feat. Feminist claims are often not congruent with claims that African women make of and for themselves. Most of these women often do not consider patriarchal structures from their natal cultures oppressive. Utterances such as “I am not a feminist because I cannot divorce myself from my cultural context and also because feminism is not practical in my culture, and is for the elite.” by one young woman at the start of OSISA’s feminism training course in Zimbabwe are widespread in the continent. Those who acknowledge the oppression patriarchy hidden behind culture presents, often lack emancipating platforms that go beyond small women gatherings (as vital and nourishing as these gatherings are), and the few who are lucky to have such platforms shy away from publicly vocalising their feminism in the fear of being ostracized by their communities. All these factors make it hard to draw them out of this kind of marginalization. It is imperative for marginalized individuals to be able to personally identify that they are in a position of disadvantage, and be aware too of the root of the disadvantage as being unaware solidifies their marginalization.

A starting point for me would be picking and capitalizing on social meaning-making and narrations of identification, specifically African women definitions of who they are and where they think they belong.  This entails listening, core to voice consciousness. As an ‘elite’ African feminist, I should be able to go out and listen to the subaltern women’s identity narratives. By so doing, I will not only drive them (and myself) to do introspective searches of how they (and I) identify themselves but how they identify themselves in relation to men, and in relation to other women elsewhere, as identity narratives are hinged on sameness and difference.

Actively listening to these narratives and restating them verbatim (the resounding voice) to women allows them to subjectively and inter-subjectively become aware of their aspirations, and the disadvantages and exclusion they face collectively. Sometimes it takes an outside voice revealing one’s deeply hidden fears and aspirations. Voices shape space and affirm life. After all, this method has worked well for psychiatrists and counsellors.

I do not for one second believe that women who applaud the oppressive nature of patriarchal cultures, who benefit from aspects of patriarchy, have never felt a disadvantage be it in terms of domestic violence, unequal distribution of land, sexism in the workplace, gender-based responsibilities in the family institution, and so forth. The kind of voice consciousness I advocate for is one that listens, one that distances itself from a merely reactionary countering of patriarchal representations from behind desks, online forums and articles that represent African women as a homogenous group with similar oppression and needing a saving.

By listening and encouraging subaltern women to speak, we bring to the fore their incidences of disadvantage in their own voice. We point out the minute disadvantages that they do not directly linke to culture through their narratives and we take flight with them. Allowing them to voice their narratives makes them realize that it is not OK to have a woman genitals mutilated to tame her wild desires, to contain her for one man (or might make us realise their ways of making meaning of their own traditional rituals and of creating transformative liberatory practices through them); that it is not OK for men to show that ‘they love women’ through beating them up; that it is not OK for a man to molest a woman wearing a short dress because ostensibly ‘she wanted it’ or was implicitly ‘asking for it’; that it is not OK to sacrifice our careers over family because the man, being the head of the family has said so; that it is not OK for men to be considered first when it comes to life opportunities like education and land ownership.

Through listening, African feminists can make it known to other African women that the very awareness of feeling a disadvantage makes one a feminist in her own right, and that these feelings are shared; that we all should and can be women who confront our disadvantages and not wait for others to fight on our behalf and give voice to our causes. Acquiring such a voice consciousness will enable African feminisms to transcend the elite ranks to women in rural areas who are not privileged to share forums with like-minded people.

My position on voice consciousness should not be misconstrued to mean that the non−poor, elite (but not elitist), African feminists are not entitled to write about women’s issues, however they are defined. I, a privileged African woman, nonetheless feels the burden of bringing to the fore the plights of women in the margins, those who do not have a voice, or who have a voice but are not heard, who do not have a platform on which to stand and raise their conscious voice.  I feel the duty to amplify women’s voices raised against power. I can only do this effectively by listening to those dissimilar to me in thought, social standing, religion, class, ethnicity, and culture. This is the only way through which other African feminists like myself can develop a voice consciousness.

A conscious African feminist voice is aware of its own sound, its timbre, its tonalities; it is in tune with the voices of women around and beyond it. An African feminist voice consciousness is attuned to different African women’s multi-part multi-vocal harmonies and dissonances, our polyphonies, our voices’ echoes and reverberations, our whispers and shouts, screams and moans; it orients itself dynamically, along the entire scale, towards other African women’s voices which in turn alter individual and collective feminist consciousness.  It materialises from within African women’s bodies across time, and speaks out, variously, raising consciousness, into the future. We have, with raised voices, many glass ceilings to shatter to this effect, but it must be done. Naive readings of culture and history, unhearing or mishearing African women’s voices, do not hold a candle to the future I foresee for African women. It will be done!