A Weekend at #WOW and Thoughts on Africa’s Feminism

I spent the weekend before last at the Women of the World festival in London, probably the most inspiring thing I’ve done in the past year. WOW celebrates women in all their diversity using a platform of talks, debates, workshops and panel discussions on women’s issues.

Any weekend spent at the Southbank Centre feels awesome for a culture geek like me, but a couple of things had me feeling like I was walking on air as soon as I walked into the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday morning.

First, I was struck by just how diverse the women around me were: in age, sexual orientation, race, physical ability, religion, and by how inclusive the atmosphere was. Afros mixed with hijabs, mixed with blond hair, mixed with shaved heads. It felt really cool to be part of a sisterhood, without judgement. Whatever we looked like, or believed, we were there, together, because we shared similar interests, concerns, dreams and challenges. And that’s a powerful thing.

I was also struck by how visible African influences were, at least in terms of imagery, arts and crafts. In the main lobby or “marketplace”, there were a number of privately run stalls featuring many different things, but lots of ankara clothes, jewelry, and soft furnishings. While I don’t know the modalities of getting/running a stall at WOW, there sure was a lot of African print! Perhaps African print has come to represent diversity in general? (That possibility makes me proud.) When you think about globally impactful images of diversity, there’s probably none more powerful (and apolitical?) as African print today.

WOW runs for a week every year, around International Women’s Day, and the sheer number of sessions, many run in parallel, means you can’t attend every discussion. We talked about intersectional politics, sexuality, being female in the media/music industry, ISIS/Yazidi women, the politics of public toilets, sexual abuse, reclaiming our bodies after abuse, black feminism, asian feminism, domestic violence, the list goes on…On Sunday, a group started with a 9am run and then the day ended with a performance by Sister Sledge. Every discussion motivates you, inspires you, energises you and empowers you. 30 of them are recorded here.

All weekend, I kept asking myself: “In the midst of all this positivity, empowerment, sisterhood and diversity, where is the African feminist voice? Is there a place for ‘African feminism’? Do we need it? Are our issues peculiar? And how do we create clear and organised thought and advocacy around it?”

As I weaved in and out of the discussions and eavesdropped on the buzzy conversation in the lifts and lobby, I noticed that when Africa came up, we talked about Boko Haram and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, or we talked about FGM. On one occassion, we talked about the incidence of rape in South Africa, the so-called ‘rape capital of the world.’ Incidentally, Nimco Ali, FGM survivor, an anti-FGM campaigner, and speaker at WOW, blogs about what the annual festival means to her here.

Rape, FGM, and Boko Haram are of course important issues, but to my mind, they are not issues that overridingly impact the power and agency of “most” women on the continent. They are important symptoms of the absence of that agency, but I believe we need to own our own voice in the global feminist debate, and that the depth of that voice needs to run deeper. It needs to bring to the fore political, economic and legal issues, and to begin to critically evaluate the structures in those spheres that determine the scope of our agency as women and rob us of our voices.

I yearned all weekend for the African voice and wondered what its perspective would be on all of those issues we discussed, not just BBOG or FGM. I listened to a talk called ‘Badasss Feminists in History’ (the panelists nominated Harriet Tubmann, Sophie Brown, Enheduanna and Mary Woolstonecraft), and wondered: “Is our struggle different? Or just ‘earlier stage’? Indeed is it even fair of me to define ‘African’ feminism, rather than Nigerian or Kenyan or South African, for example?”

Then I attended a discussion about Black British Feminism and while even there, I felt not fully represented, there was my chance. In that room were probably the roughly 100 women that I shared the most in common with. We weren’t all black, but we were interested in the same discussion. And they were there in recognition of the fact that mainstream feminism doesn’t always represent the interests of black women.

All the panellists were either first or second generation African. Four out of five were Nigerian and the other was Eritrean. Incidentally, one of them was Adura Onashile (writer of ‘Expensive Sh*t’, a play set around a female bathroom attendant in Fela’s Shrine and one that I’m now desperate to see) and another was Becky Olaniyi, a 19-year old that lives the intersection between race, feminism and disability and who absolutely stole my heart with her combination of unapologetic honesty and dry wit.

So I decided to ask them this:

“You’ve talked about the intersectionality between race and gender politics, and how mainstream British feminist isn’t necessarily your feminism, but how do you navigate feminism as an African woman? Do you think about that? What does being a second generation African living in London, and a feminist, mean for you?”

I was amused that I saw the same expression emerge on each of their faces. They each smiled slowly, wryly, knowingly. And these are the responses (loosely transcribed) that I got:

“I don’t even know how to answer that. I don’t know what to say.”

“When I go to Nigeria, I suppose it’s easy for me to express my opinions. I am in a wheelchair, so I don’t really socialise anyway. Most of Lagos isn’t very accessible. Plus I suppose I know I’m going home in a week, so I say what I think.” 

“I don’t have a straight answer to that. But what I will say, is I think that in many African societies, the key organising principle is wealth first and foremost, not gender. In Nigeria, you have women in positions of power, but these are very wealthy women. Last time I went home, my uncle’s new wife whispered under her breath to me in the kitchen: ‘so I hear you’re a communist.’ I don’t know why; I don’t know what my family has been telling her about me.”

“There is a lot of patriarchy. It’s there, it’s obvious. It’s in the fact that we sit around the table and nobody eats until the patriach eats first, and that there’s a special chair that nobody else dares sit in. I bite my tongue a lot because I suppose, I know I’m going home eventually. But I can imagine how difficult it must be for the women out there. Speaking up could very easily leave you with a reputation, ostracised.” 

“When I go home to Eritrea, I find that I overlook many things that make me uncomforable. Whether it’s at a wedding of a much older man to a young girl…but at the same time, some of my aunts are badass. They might not describe themselves as feminist, but they’re badass.”

Our women find it easier to pursue their rights in other environments and cultures, but are stumped, the task is almost overwhelming, it would seem, back at home, in the context of a cultural norms and societal expectations that can be overwhelming.

Being a feminist in Africa remains too vague and undefined, in my opinion. We know that what we must insist on is equality of rights, but how do we begin to navigate that? We need to start to consciously think about equality and rights in tangible steps, and about how we get from here to where we want to be. We need a coherent and considered narrative, in my opinion, and much better organisation.

In the last couple of weeks, a couple of events have brought the question of the rights of Nigerian women to the forefront for me and have helped to solidify this viewpoint.

On International Women’s Day, no less, on a day when the strength, beauty, power and resilience of women globally were being celebrated, our senators saw fit to trade lewd jokes about keeping mistresses and ‘taking care of women’ by marrying them. With a handful of ill-considered, foolish words, we were ridiculed and disempowered, reduced to supposedly having little value outside of that which the men in our lives think they bestow on us by marrying or not marrying us.

Ironically, also, this past week, a bill for equality of women’s rights was brought before the Senate and thrown out, on the strength of dubious arguments of religion and culture. The bill sought to create protections for women and girls in the areas of marriage, land ownership and education — key aspects of those economic, legal and political structures I mentioned earlier.

I was ashamed at the frankly primitive views expressed by our s0-called lawmakers and how easily the bill was dismissed on the strength of unchallenging arguments that cautioned unabashedly against “allowing your woman to do whatever she likes.” I hope it will be brought back, as is rumoured, and that the behind the scenes lobbying and politics necessary to ensure its passing is being done. We need better organisation and a deliberate agenda for women’s rights.

Africa needs her feminists right now, perhaps more than ever.

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