12. Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
Sexuality and gender issues in African societies have often been subsumed under various discourses, local and international, that do not adequately recognize the complexities and specificities of the reality of African societies. Gender as a category is equated with women such that gender studies are mostly assumed to focus on women’s problems. The emphasis on women’s problems also derives from the assumption that African women’s refusal to speak loudly about oppression and inequality is an acceptance of marginality and minimalization. The question of the interface between men’s and women’s spaces and the dynamics of gender relations is crucial to the ways in which gender is conceptualized in African societies and this is also significant for the ways in which culture is considered central in gender discourses about Africa. This paper will foreground a dynamic definition of culture, recognizing that culture needs to be deconstructed critically as opposed to being simply connected to gender discourse as a catchall phrase. A derogatory definition of culture is still being underscored by many scholars with specific reference to Africa and the Third World. As Edward Said (1993) observed, many Third World societies are designated in exclusionist terms. Trinh Minh-ha (1989) brings this reality closer to gender issues in her observation that Third World women are treated in modern scholarship as an outgroup to be spoken for by a mainstream ingroup, in her emphasis on the philosophy of otherness.
African women researchers are located in gender discourse at the intersection of resisting the politics of appropriation and finding their own voice, but as contributors to modern scholarship. This chapter is aimed at problematizing these various layers of gender determinants and interrogates the ambivalent attitudes to the gender question in and about Africa. The chapter is also an attempt at evaluating the diversities of attitudes and approaches to gender conceptualisation by African female scholars. It gathers together various issues that are predominant in the search for new concepts regarding gender constructions, gender relations and gender research in Africa. Some of the concepts touch on the question of sexuality and how women and the society deal with it.
The chapter further seeks to problematize the traditional basis for gender inequality, by revealing the limitation of the attempts to mute women’s voices. Some female scholars take off from this muting of the voice or culture of silence to reveal how African women are dealing with it and transcending it. Others empha-
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size the anomalous nature of silencing women but also interrogate modern feminisms in terms of cultural relevance.
There is an observable polarity in the approaches of African women to feminism, ranging from acceptance, to questioning or rejection. Some African women are searching for alternative gender concepts to evade the controversies around and resistance to feminism. One such area of controversy derives from the absence of direct talk about sexuality, as well as from the problems of some African societies’ attitudes to women’s bodies and sexuality. Until recently, many African societies encouraged traditions that suppress sexuality through female circumcision and similar rites. But other traditions enhance sexuality, for instance in Southern Africa and in Mali, and in many areas of Africa female circumcision is not practised at all.
Another focus which is central to this paper is the recognition that gender in Africa needs to transcend the question of naming or self-definition, which are basically preoccupations for the academic women and not for the majority of ordinary non-literate African women. The latter is a category of women who live through the reality (and not the abstraction) of oppression. But African women’s experiences are not monolithic, nor are their struggles to resist oppression recent. History confirms that they have struggled for their rights in incredibly radical ways since pre-colonial times according to the exigencies of the time and place (Kolawole 1997a; see also Machera, this volume).
The main thrust of the present chapter is an evaluation of the varying reactions to gender as a category and the dynamics of gender relations and how these impact the attempts at definition. Some scholars are sceptical, cautious or indifferent; others have recognized the need to revisit gender concepts in a process of re-definition and re-envisioning of what feminism means to African women. I uphold conceptualization as a conduit for pragmatic transformation of African women’s space, rights and self-realisation and not as an end in itself. Women creative writers and critics have focused more on the qualitative dimension of research through theorising as an understanding of women’s struggles, their local histories and global contexts as a pre-requisite to strategizing and relocating or empowering women. The social scientists have been more involved in quantitative data collection with minimal theoretical emphasis. Both aspects of research are inter-related but the thrust of this paper is more tilted to the qualitative perspective.
Many women social scientists on the continent have been preoccupied with empirical research by using Western tools, concepts and methodology. They have researched into women’s lives and empowerment according to the donors’ agendas. Concepts such as Women in Development, Women and Development, and Gender and Development have been very influential in African women’s dealing with gender as a category and gender relations and women’s role in development. In more recent years, donors and researchers have recognized the limitations of these concepts as effective tools for changing African women’s lives, for empowering them and for advocating for gender justice. This is likely to be the case unless cultural fac-
Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
tors and the male factor are also taken on board. International efforts in the Decade of Women, the Decade of Culture, during the Beijing conference and in subsequent platforms for action have created a new attitude and a re-thinking of gender by mainstreaming gender into development policies. This coincides with the increased interest of African gender theorists who believe that the African woman’s voice is subdued in international gender discourse. Probing the traditional ‘culture of silence’ has provided a raison d’etre for constructing new gender concepts.
There is a visible ambivalence in the attitude of many of these women to the issue of gender conceptualization. The issue has been polarized—some scholars accept global feminism(s) as an umbrella for women’s struggle that has motivated and encouraged African women. Others reject the politics of appropriation and otherness implied in feminism as they also decry any deliberate act of self-effacement deriving from tradition or externalized ‘isms’. I locate myself in this discourse in the domain of deconstructing feminism, traditional ideologies, malestreaming and mainstreaming strategies of gender intervention, as opposed to the adoption of ‘gender’ theories that are exclusive and essentialist, treating African women or the category of gender as monoliths. The celebrated image of African women as passive victims, marginalized without a voice as presented in some feminist critiques needs to be unpacked. African women scholars are adopting the role of gender mouthpieces, interrogating gender concepts, confirming areas of commonality and difference, in order to unfold new concepts that are acceptable to African specificities. I have postulated this and stressed the need to see gender struggle in Africa as an aspect of larger struggles, to see women’s rights as human rights. It is true that African women have been long treated as the voiceless subaltern. But this image is changing gradually in many places, through sensitization moves by empirical scholars and theorists. This is a pre-requisite to shifting African women from the other side of the track and progressively relocating them on a new level of awareness. The challenges for African women researchers include re-articulating gender concepts and matching it with actions and activism for positive self-restoration. But we need to recognize the interplay of class, culture, ethnicity, religion and politics and the attendant result that African women’s progressive gender consciousness differs from one African society to another.
My research has focused on gender theory from an inter-disciplinary perspective, striking a balance between qualitative and quantitative research. I recognize that empirical research deriving from social science tools is functional and useful in grounding the theoretical gender assumptions on concrete premises. I have found useful the treasured information on African concepts of womanhood, gender ideologies and philosophies, that defines gender relations and constructions stored in oral literary genres such as myths, proverbs, female genres and folklore among others. Equally, a majority of women’s written literary texts, especially biographies, provide avenues for implicit and explicit gender conceptualizations. Many African women interested in gender theorizing contend that African wom-
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en did not learn about gender only from the global movement. Some have been motivated by the historical accounts of women’s mobilization in Africa. These include individual women giants who transformed their societies in pre-colonial times, such as Nehanda of Zimbabwe, Nzinga of Angola, Nana Asantewa of Ghana and others (Sweetman 1984; Kolawole 1997a). Research also reveals the catalogue of women’s activism and dynamic collective mobilization against colonial oppression, traditional repression, voicelessness and injustice (Mba 1982; Kolawole 1997a). Much of this was not adequately documented until recently. Many are therefore calling for taking these into account in African gender conceptualizing. This explains the ambivalence and shifting positions of scholars and authors such as Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, the Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta, Tsitsi Dangarembga of Zimbabwe and the South African writer Miriam Tlali in identifying with feminism. Most African women scholars agree that African women’s muting or invisibility is not desirable or justifiable, irrespective of ideological polarity and diversities in conceptualizing gender. I consider naming a means to a pragmatic end the task of empowering African women and moving them from the margin to the centre of social transformation.