Our Africa: mapping African women’s critical resistance

By IndepthAfrica
In Analysis
Oct 17th, 2012
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Jessica Horn

Do you ever get the feeling that you’d like a little good news? In the year since Our Africa was launched, the world and the African region within it has had its fair share of calamity and short quick uptakes of breath. Politically, the past year has been momentous. We have seen the people-led overthrow of oppressive regimes in Africa’s North, the emergence of Africa’s second woman President, Joyce Banda of Malawi, the birth of a new African nation, South Sudan, and moves toward armed and ideological takeover of communities by Muslim fundamentalists in northern Mali. In September 2011, the world lost a visionary leader with the passing of Kenyan environmentalist and outspoken political activist Wangaari Mathaai. A week later, two Liberian women, Leymah Gbowee and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf joined her in history as Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, representing different but compelling models of activist leadership.

Woman in blue dress in act of talking Leymah GboweeAcross the African region, and from the streets to official decision-making spaces, there is a resounding call for new overarching political frameworks in which to engage and make decisions about our collective lives. Indeed, as suggested by the names of the Girifna movement that grew of out university campuses in Sudan, and the street-based Y’en a marre movement in Senegal that emerged in the lead up to Senegal’s 2012 presidential elections, people are – well – fed up!

We see it differently

In an incredible year in the history of African nation-states, Our Africa tracked the birth of the new nation of South Sudan in July 2011, and the realities of both the promise and the compromise associated with this transition on both sides of the border. Amel Gorani reported how women political activists in the Sudanese region of South Kordofan have faced state repression, but persisted in their solidarity including in refugee camps, and as self-settled refugees in urban South Sudan.

Our Africa authors have also written both from and about the political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, flagging the complex gendered dynamics of protest and how societies shift their understandings of women’s political participation. While women were active as participants and mobilisers in the Tahrir square protests that forced regime change in Egypt, they also faced backlash for this role in Tahrir Square itself, and later when gathering publicly in support of women’s rights including on International Women’s Day.  Zainab Magdy poses a poignant question to fellow activists about what to do when the tables actually turn, asking “…when revolting is over, do we go back to performing in the margins, trying to shift our positions for a breath?”. As if in response, Mariz Tadros offers a reminder about the now ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s history in Egypt as advocates for retaining oppressive gender norms including the practice of Female Genital Mutilation. For women, performing in the margins is not an option.

In the case of Libya, questions of gendered power take on a different form. While the overthrow of the Gadaffi regime in Libya was not shaped by the same degree of autonomous popular organising, it nevertheless presents volatile possibilities for women. Kathyrn Spellman-Poots maps a context in which Gadaffi’s ‘state feminism’ provided some formal equality which Libyan women’s rights activists are now taking on, debating and working to expand, albeit in hostile traditionalist company.

During the uprisings in Senegal, Sudan, Egypt and Tunisia in particular, young women have played vibrant roles including through social media and in framing a more progressive, alternative politics. Their visible leadership raises questions about the legitimacy of the overwhelmingly old and male political face of the African region, and the extent to which “those old men” still have a right to serve as majority decision-makers over a demographic that looks nothing like them.

Still, while each of these instances of brave protest against political oppression points towards more hopeful futures, Hakima Abbas reminds us that it is vital to remember the past. She argues that we must keep situating individual moments of uprising or victory in the context of a history of struggle and mobilisation. In the case of Egypt for example, she points out that “Egypt’s leaderfull revolution was the culmination of decades of popular resistance primarily centered around the labor struggle and its formations.”

All that war

There are, by one assessment, four major wars underway in the African region, down from 12 in the mid 1990s. However armed conflict is by no means disappearing from the region, and is instead morphing in its forms. Amina Mama cautions in her assessment of burgeoning militarism that,“[i]f the US war on terror is the ‘father of all wars’, Africa’s conflicts are his angry and rebellious offspring, sharing the same disrespect for borders and the close connections to private profiteering. Open conflict is only the surface eruption of much deeper-seated contradictions, vivid ulcers on the skin of an unhealthy body politic governed by a militarist mindset.”

Woman at a market stall holding a placard saying 'Nous sommes la solution'

This militarist mindset provides one frame for understanding the growing conflict in the Sahel region. In the days preceding the military coup in Mali, a Malian feminist activist spoke to Our Africa, drawing out the links between Tuareg cultural nationalists, more radicalised Tuaregs armed after fighting for the former regime of Libyan President Muammar Gadaffi, and a multi-cultural, multi-national movement of armed Muslim fundamentalists. She warned against prioritising military response over direct humanitarian support for communities affected by the conflict, and over social interventions to affirm existing cultural and social norms in Mali that value tolerance, women’s economic autonomy, creative expression and community solidarity.

Land has always been a hotbed of gendered contention. For Africa’s rural agricultural communities, struggles continue over women’s rights to own and use land, but also against agricultural and trade policies that militate against women’s agricultural production. In Burkina Faso where women represent 80% of farmers, they have decided to mobilise in farmers’ unions while developing strategies such as grain banks to protect against famine, according to Mariamé Touré Ouattara. In the Casamance region of Senegal, Fatou Guèye describes how women are using research and community dialogue to negotiate support for land access after a long period of armed conflict.

Unfortunately, as creative initiatives by women are gradually shifting land ownership towards the equitable, new crises loom. Kathambi Kinoti cites the astonishing 227 million hectares of land in Africa estimated to have been usurped in the last decade in land grabs- the practice of corporate entities or foreign governments buying large areas of land under covert or compromised bargaining conditions. Land grabbing represents an active threat to women’s rights to own and sustain livelihoods through land, and an issue for further analysis and activism.

Navigating hypocrisies

While generalisation is always dangerous, it is probably safe to say that across the African region, patriarchal social and cultural norms valourise the married mother as the ultimate symbol of womanhood, protecting the ideal at all costs, to the extent of actively denying unmarried women and non-mothers the social respect and legal rights afforded to “womanhood”. Yet in turn, governments are largely failing to make changes to ensure that Africa’s mothers live healthy and fulfilled lives. Rachel Kagbe’s assessment of the underlying dynamics behind Chad’s sky-high maternal morality rates are testimony to this. Aissa Ngatansou Doumara argues that the gendered pattern of hunger in Cameroon is shaped by similar patriarchal double-standards, with the onus placed on women to care for their families, and yet widowed rural women left landless and thus unable to grow food to feed and earn an income for themselves and their children. As she says, “The state needs to recognise that speaking about hunger inevitably comes back down to food, to the means and resources necessary to procure it, to policies on land ownership, agriculture, cattle rearing and fishing, all of which still exclude women”.

Counter-narrators

I had promised good news, and despite the realities of gendered exclusion and active violence, there is in fact cause for celebration. Why would I dare articulate such an optimistic statement? Put simply, no compromise to women’s lives takes place without activist women speaking back about it.

As Siham Rayale elaborates in the case of Somaliland, women have played complex roles as narrators of Somali community and visions of nationhood, in conformist but also subtle critical ways. While some men in nationalist narratives happily laud this role, Somali women still insist that their voices are very much present and audible today, and must be heard in shaping the new nation. In a different context, Sehin Teferra draws out the complexities of Ethiopian women’s own experiences of sex work in Addis Ababa. Her analysis insists on appreciating women’s agency and capacity to analyse and respond to the variegated realities of their own lives. Teferra brings this point to life by expressing her opinion that “the young women I got to know during my fieldwork are intelligent, humorous and often honest about the opportunities and challenges of being a sex worker”. Tsisti Masvawure’s research into women’s sexual cultures on a university campus in Zimbabwe suggest a similar counter-narrative to the idea of women as solely passive or victimised. Her research shows that prudish HIV and AIDS interventions are failing to take into account the fact that many young women are assertive and vocal about sexual pleasure, and need sexual health services and information that support safe, pleasurable sex.

While Our Africa authors engage in big thematic debates, they have also explored the micropolitics of women’s everyday lives, detecting subtle indicators of shifting trends in gendered power, questioning stereotypes about women’s agency, and raising warning signs of backlash. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s insightful critique of multiple efforts to censor women’s clothing choices in Nigeria suggests the importance of considering how seemingly small-scale efforts at gendered social control provide warning signs of trouble to come.

To me, these rich and sometimes surprising counter-narratives are the ‘good news’. They are the fruits of a forest of African women’s resistance that takes many forms, including ones named explicitly as feminist. The narratives are also self-critical. Our ability to deal with this kaleidoscope of challenges is dependant on our ability to hold and analyze its complexity. A case in point is the issue of sexual violence. Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee asserts the need to sustain an integrated understanding of women’s oppression across the conflict/peace divide, advising that “It is time women globally start making the connection between sexual violence and the unequal treatment of women in economic, social, and political context, and devise strategies for tackling these inequalities in a holistic manner.” In a similar vein, Zimbabwean Shereen Essof proposes, “in reclaiming feminism we need concepts and thinking tools that reflect our reality and serve our purpose. The feminism we need is anti-essentialist. It sees gender as lived in many different ways”.

We’re working on it!

Echoing through analysis on Our Africa is a recognition and interrogation of women as authors and innovators of culture, as agents of history and as complex political actors. There is certainly good news amidst the devastating, the unfair and the plain frustrating phenomena shaping African communities and gendered experiences within them. My suggestion to consider the positive is not a call for naïve optimism. The point is that while compromise and overt marginalisation is perhaps an inevitable aspect of lives shaped by patriarchal power relations, a history of African women’s critical resistance to it can indeed be mapped. Our Africa will continue to provide space for these varied, dynamic voices that make up women’s perspectives on the African region, documenting women’s defiance and assessing alternatives for our collective futures.

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