African FeminismS Past and Present
Africa and 18 Years of Nego-Feminism: Space, Intersectionality, Responsibility
On July 20th one of the pioneering African feminist scholars Professor Obioma Nnaemeka kicked off “African FeminismS Past and Present”, a lecture series organized by JRG Intersectionality with her keynote “Africa and 18 Years of Nego-Feminism: Space, Intersectionality, Responsibility”. Listening to Dr. Sabine Jell-Bahlsen’s- herself a German anthropologist and filmmaker and a long time friend of Nnaemeka’s- introduction, it became apparent why Professor Nnaemeka was chosen to kickstart the series that aims to promote conversation between the themes of intersectionality and feminism. Prof. Nnaemeka has published groundbreaking research regarding the particularities of feminism in the African context. She is a scholar who is extremely committed to social change, particularly concerning the education of girls and women in Africa. Prof. Obioma Nnaemeka‘s keynote lecture provided also an ideal introduction to the lecture series for other reasons. With her captivating narrative and figurative rhetorical style, she was able to gently guide the audience from one theme to the next, alternating between theory, anecdotes and personal advice to young researchers in Gender Studies and African Studies.
The most crucial advice she provided was her demand “to go to Africa and talk and walk with African women“. Such simple advice, and yet indispensable in light of the history of the two fields, aptly termed by Prof. Nnaemeka a “voyeuristic scholarship of alienation“, was a critique of Western scholars who have relentlessly attempted to apply Western theories and knowledge onto the African context. Specifically, Prof. Nnaemeka recalled conversations around the title of her paper “Bringing African women to the classroom”, conjuring the image of Westerners bringing the women to the classroom, but “on a leash, objectified, their humanity ignored“. However simple Professor Nnaemeka‘s advice may seem, it was far from readily apparent to Western scholars for a long time—a time that continues into the present day.
Beginning with a quotation by Ama Ata Aidoo, namely that “African women were feminists long before feminism“, Prof. Nnaemeka invited the audience to interrogate its Western-oriented notion of feminism in order to finally perceive African women not as abused or silenced objects, but as human beings in charge of their own lives and armed with sufficient self-knowledge. She urged Western feminists to acknowledge that however different African feminism(s) may be, precisely these divergences from orthodox Western feminism were deserving of scholarly attention—that, rather than being forced into existing Western notions of what feminism should look like, African feminisms should be studied in their specificity.
With the many examples Nnaemeka provided from protests and personal encounters to examples in literature and philosophy, the audience came to understand that African women regard their relationship with men differently than their Western counterparts. The fight African women are waging is not against men, but against those who challenge their humanity; here it is pragmatic cooperation with men rather than isolation that is valued. For this African women can be said to be seeking not merely equality, but equity and fairness.
Another important difference when considering African feminisms, according to Prof. Nnaemeka, is the understanding that family, motherhood and womanhood are not seen as an obstacle or a burden, but as an integral and celebrated part of their identity and a motivation to fight for a more just society and a brighter future. From protests against the change of constitution in Burkina Faso to the 2002 Ugborodo Women’s Oil Protests in Nigeria, Nnaemeka convincingly demonstrated that African women have been neither silent nor passive, but that they are fighting on their own terms.
It was this exploration of what feminism(s) might mean and which forms they may take that made Prof Nnaemeka's lecture so enriching for me personally, and that left me extremely grateful to have been able to take part in it.
The recording of the session can be found here.
This report was written by Julia Inderst, Student Assistant of the Research Projects "Sexualities, Political Orders and Revolutions in Africa" and "Toward an Islamic Cultural Archive" at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth.