Liberation is not Un-African

by Cera Njagi

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

Whenever I declare that I am a feminist, I get all kinds of reactions. The most consistent one is “feminism is un-African”.  I am often accused of abandoning my culture and taking up Western ideals which cannot work in Africa. My education is mostly blamed for this ‘un-African’ way of thinking. The reaction is surprisingly consistent among both men and women who claim that the position of women in African society is clear.  I am met most of the time with resistance at any attempt to challenge this “clear position” on the position of women.

Post-colonial religion, which is hardly African since it was the religion of the colonialists, has greatly influenced African culture. Claiming that feminism is un-African on the grounds of African culture is an oxymoron.  References to religious texts, which require women to submit, and men to lead, are often used to declare any attempts to challenge status quo by demanding for equality, as un-African and un-godly. But is feminism foreign and un-African?

A century ago, feminism was un-European as well. 18th and 19th century Christianity often justified slavery, and the forceful subjugation of Africans – euphemistically calling it “civilizing the savages”. Often, might equated to right everywhere, including African societies in cases such as the rise of African Empires such as the Zulu Empire, which included displacement and / or domination over small clans and tribes. Cultures and ideas are not static, they change, through the actions of women and men who are influenced by their cultures, traditions, and perceptions of justice and morality. Although not exclusive to all African communities, most Africans societies did not have scripts, existing scripts are sparse. Instead, majority of the records of feminist struggles mostly survive in oral tradition where theyare metamorphosed into legends and myths.  In the course of migration in Africa, myths and legends spread amongst groups, often mixing, to give rise to new stories about the origins and the events of the migrating communities. However the sparsity of records, does not mean that concepts such as social justice and morality were not defined and redefined by Africans in the past.

A friend told me a story of how honor killings were stopped in his Banyankole village in southwestern Uganda.  Young girls who became pregnant before marriage were considered a “disgrace to the community”, liable to punishment through death.  Pregnant girls would be thrown off a cliff by the entire village but no question of the boy or man who impregnated the girl ever arose.  There came a time for one girl who had “disgraced the community” by getting pregnant out of wedlock to face her punishment. As the villagers took her up the cliff, she, like many girls before her who had also undergone the cruel punishment, cried and begged for mercy, but there was no salvation as she was about to face her last day on earth.  As she stood at the edge of the cliff, waiting to be thrown down, she quickly grabbed her elder brother, who had all along been standing behind her in support of the punishment, and threw herself together with him off the cliff. Being too late to stop the boy from falling, the young girl and her brother both died. From that day on, honor killing was  ended without ceremony. According to this anecdote, it took a man dying at the killing for the village to realise the injustice of the practice. It also took the agency of one single girl, to rescue hundreds of other girls from the cruel practice.

The story of the young Banyankole girl is not an isolated one. Many other examples exist of men and women who stood for social justice, questioned the position of women in society, and demanded better treatment for women.  These men and women sacrificed their freedom and their lives to create a better world for Africans in general and for women in particular.

From the book, “A History of Africa: African nationalism and the de-colonisation process” by Assa Okoth (2006) a few examples are presented. In 1922, a young Kenyan man known as Harry Thuku was arrested by the colonial administration, for challenging forced labour in rural Kenya.  Women were particularly affected as they were forced to provide labour as coffee pickers on European farms. Harry Thuku’s struggle for the rights of women gave him the name ‘chief of the women’. His arrest resulted in a protest where thousands of Kenyans in Nairobi marched to the police station where he was held and demanded his release.  Amid rumours that some of the male protesters had been bribed to be less aggressive, their failure to provide adequate leadership in demanding for the release of Harry Thuku, women took up leadership. One woman, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru stood out. Claire Clarkson documents the incident in her book, “Trouble showed the way: Women, men and trade in Nairobi in Nairobi area, 1890 -1990”.

[Muthoni] leapt to her feet, pulled her dress right up over her shoulders and shouted to the men: “You take my dress and give me your trousers.  You men are cowards. What are you waiting for? Our leader is there. Let him go.” The hundreds of women trilled in ngemi [ululation] in approbation and from that moment on, trouble was inevitable.  Muthoni and the others pushed on until the bayonets of the soldiers’ rifles were pricking at their throats, and then the firing started. Muthoni was the first one to die…..

Unfortunately, oppression did not end during  colonial era. Many African presidents in independent African states continued to perpetuate the exclusion and oppression, especially of the colonial regime.  The 24 year tyrannical leadership of Kenya’s former president Daniel Moi is among those that stand out. In the 90’s Wangari Maathai, a renowned African scholar, environmentalist and political activist led the mothers and wives of political detainees to demand for the release of political prisoners.  Similar to Muthoni Nyanjiru, the women used the power of their naked bodies to demonstrate against political tyranny and oppression during the Moi regime.

There many more stories such as the few I have briefly re-told, both documented and undocumented, lost to the vagaries of time.  This loss of peoples’ memories has happened all over the world: to Africans, Native Americans, Aborigines in Australia, the peoples of India, and even in Europe.  Even in instances where some of these stories are documented, they are often ignored in the formal body of knowledge. The heroism of women remains silent, with the formal education and mainstream media choosing to perpetuate the narrative of powerful male heroes, often from dominant communities, while women remain behind the scenes or completely out of the picture.

Statements on what is and is not African often rely on uncritical and often incomplete accounts and understandings  of what the past was like; that women and men did not question social order and gender inequality. We (Africans) should avoid idealizing and homogenizing the past and ideas of peoples because it is a violent erasure of the existence of our predecessors in fighting oppression.

Cultural practices differed from one village to the next without there being a “logical explanation”. Ideas can spread, and other times they get supplanted. Prior to modern advances the spread of ideas was slow, and often relied on the physical presence of a person, usually an elder, as a custodian of tradition.  With modern communication technology, the spread of ideas can be almost instantaneous, and far less dependent on hierarchies than in the past. To continue homogenizing and glorifying ideas of what was African in the past is impractical in a context where cultures and ideas intertwine every second.

Does it take western education to recognise and respond to injustice?  The story of the Banyankole girl, Harry Thuku and Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru  tells us otherwise. At a time when formal education did not exist in many African societies, the Banyankole girl recognised the injustice of action involvingtwo people, but for which only the girlwas punished.  Harry Thuku, a mission educated clerk and Muthoni Nyanjiru, a woman whose education undocumented, demonstrate that when injustice is glaring at the faces of men and women, it takes courage and not western education to stand up and speak out. Although the word feminism was unknown to the young Banyankole girl, to Harry Thuku and to Muthoni Nyanjiru, these to me are historical feminists.  Like other feminists of our time, they recognised inequality and injustice between sexes and actively resisted tyranny and oppression, demanding equality and justice for women.

It may be argued that Wangari Maathai was educated outside the continent, hence her position as a feminist.  What stands out for me is her choice of tactic, one with a strong message in African culture; the public exposure of the body of a naked woman, which is taboo in many African culture. If an older person stripped in the presence of a younger person it would warrant a curse regardless of whether the nudity was accidental or intentional. In cases where an older person publicly undressed intentionally, it would be to communicate that they were aggrieved thereby intentionally calling a curse upon the younger people who saw them.  Wangari could have chosen to only speak in international conferences on the issues of women in Africa, but she chose to use a tactic that would be understood by African oppressors and to stand with the women and the men who were facing oppression.

Africa’s current social, cultural, political and economic structures needs more and not less feminism.  The high levels of domestic, social and political violence against women, high maternal mortality rates, low levels of literacy women, the unequal distribution of the gains of economic development to the poor, and more so to poor women, requires that we stand up and take action to improve the lives of women in this continent.  Feminism demands that we stop and be critical of how biological differences and ‘culture’ have been used as a basis for creating and reproducing social, political and economic differences between men and women.

The argument that feminism is un-African assumes that culture is a bunch of static, inflexible rules of engagement, leaving no room for infiltration or interaction with other cultures.  This is not only unrealistic in the age of global technological advancements. It not only ignores the realities and consequences of global technological advancements, and pervasiveness of influences from other cultures as reflected in all aspects of our lives, it perpetuates ignorance. Declaring feminism un-African is also a selective way of deciding what is African and what is un-African. Our dressing, religion, transport, language, education, systems of governance and just about everything about us demonstrates that we have borrowed significantly from other cultures.

We need to create and envision a new Africa.  

We need to declare inequality, injustice and the oppression as un-African, instead of declaring feminism un-African.  

We need to realise that feminism is not a battle of supremacy between between men and women, nor a battle of supremacy between western and African cultures.  We need to embrace feminism as a tool to build a just and equitable Africa, based on dignity for women, men, boys and girls, and mutually respectful relationships in all spheres of society.