Zainab Usman: (Re)Defining African feminism (Y! Policy Hub)

by Zainab Usman

Zainab Usman (Y! Policy Hub)

African feminists should think about how to properly frame the discussions, to connect with most women while driving home the salient issues, so that we serve as rallying points for other women.

In a recent consultative session with a delegation of the Nigerian Parliament, the National Assembly, the issue of women’s participation in politics came up, and one of the male parliamentarians said: “it’s not that we dislike your (women’s) participation in politics, in fact the Nigerian constitution does not discriminate against women, it’s just that you women are mostly not organised and you do not support and encourage yourselves”. Another said, “…in the previous elections, there was a female presidential candidate but at the party primaries, she garnered only one voted — the one she cast for herself” (paraphrased). These statements weren’t the most flattering but they weren’t inaccurate either.

In addition to all the challenges faced by women in many spheres of life, a salient one is the fragmentation and the lack of cohesion among advocates of women’s rights i.e. feminists. The reason is simple. Feminism is not a single, cohesive, global movement. Far from it – there are left-wing feminists, right-wing feminists, western feminists, liberal feminists, conservative feminists, covert feminists (the ones who claim to support women’s rights but dislike being labelled “feminist”) and many other variants. A key factor at play in the fragmentation of feminism is that mainstream feminism focuses on contentious issues – and not necessarily the most important ones – that many women cannot relate to in their everyday lives. This further fragments an already uncoordinated feminism.

What is regarded as mainstream feminism (that features prominently in the media) tends to incorporate other mostly polarising debates, which many women across the world due to cultural and societal variations, just do not connect with. This includes same-sex debates, a certain dimension of the birth control debate (read my take on this), extremely sexualised discussions or in some cases, a perceived “undermining” of the institution of marriage. A friend complained that a conference she attended recently on women’s rights here in England, to her dismay was completely dominated by same-sex debates, which she just couldn’t connect with.

Other times, mainstream feminist discussions, and methods employed in message delivery tend to be needlessly provocative, sometimes playing into the neat trap set by international political actors. To date, I just cannot understand what is “feminist” about the Pussy Riot’s desecration of the Orthodox Church in Russia (which got them in trouble with the government) or the antagonisation of Julian Assange by some feminist groups.

Consequently, many women in the developing world, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa prefer to dissociate themselves from these contentious issues which they erroneously think is what feminism is all about. Many women are wary of women’s rights groups and CSOs for fear of being tagged a “feminist” (which to them translates to same-sex or sexualised debates ONLY). This alienation of a mass number of women, is a key factor – though not the only factor — in why feminist groups are incapable of effectively mobilising women to act as a single cohesive unit and press for demands and reforms. Of course the prevailing cultural norms in highly patriarchal societies are also instrumental.

It’s important that we use the opportunity of the International Women’s Month, to not only celebrate ourselves, assess how far we’ve come, and bring attention to gender based, discrimination, violence and sexual abuse, but that women especially in Sub-Saharan Africa use this opportunity to clearly define what advocating for women’s rights means to us. South America women have since the 1970s defined feminism to suit their immediate realities.

African feminists should think about how to properly frame the discussions, to connect with most women while driving home the salient issues, so that we serve as rallying points for other women. I understand the phrase “African feminists” in itself is potentially tenuous since Africa is comprised of 54 distinct countries. However, we can still focus on the basic and practical issues women in/from our societies face, issues which tend to be similar — the discrimination against women in education and employment opportunities, the stigmatisation of unmarried/or divorced women, trafficking, and so many others. Admittedly, there are many CSOs (at least in Nigeria) involved in bringing awareness on these matters. However, their lack of coordination, and the limited support they receive all mitigate their mobilisation ability, to press for more widespread economic emancipation of underprivileged women, participation in the labour force, greater political participation.

These are salient issues we should reflect on and think about how we can secure greater social-economic and political emancipation and participation of ordinary African women in different spheres of life, as we celebrate the International Women’s Day.


Zainab Usman is a research student (PhD) in International Development whose research focus is on governance and political economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her broad interests are in international political economy, development within the African context and women and youth empowerment. Zainab regularly blogs at She tweets from @MssZeeUsman


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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