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Edith Miguda

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Volume 10, November 2002

African Women's Movements in a Post-Colonial World: Exploring Discourse

Where are African women in the post-colonial world? Where is the post-colonial in African women's thought? This article discusses some of the discourses on what African women are doing and have done, and the way such discourses situate African women's movements in specific locations in the global divide. I use a post-colonial reading of African women's movements to examine some claims and assumptions of western feminism as a discourse in the post-colonial world, how it assembles and deploys African women's movements within the larger paradigm of western discourse and African women's challenges to some of these claims that seek to decentre the dominance of western concepts, ideas and claims in understanding women's struggle in Africa.

Postcolonial thought in all its variants has thrown open a number of intellectual locations, and has also provided tools by which to expand frontiers and bring the thought patterns of some of the hitherto marginalized peoples to the forefront in discourse. The idea of post-colonialism itself has received a variety of treatment from scholars and has been used to depict a range of things.

The idea of post-colonial depicts the conflict between dominant discourse and local realities, encapsulated in the problem of the legitimation of knowledge (Ashcroft 2000). Postcolonialism tries to subvert structures of domination, writing back the marginalized into the dominant discourse. It can also be seen as a critical perspective through which to view colonialism even though it comes out of colonialism, in opposition to colonialism (de Hay, no date). It is therefore a kind of defining term as it responds to the material position under which people live in the colonial and neocolonial situation. In this regard, postcolonialism (and post structuralism) attempt to chart the course of power/knowledge and desire in various forms and to show the social construction of the self under the conditions produced by western modernity (Janz 2000). Louise Vijoen (no date) uses the term oppositional postcolonialism, referring to writings used to interrogate discourses of power. From this, we may distill three usages of the idea of postcolonialism that are pertinent to my discussion, i.e., post-colonialism as space, post-colonialism as time or a timeframe, and post-colonialism as an ideology (political stand).

These three components of the meaning of post-colonialism make up a significant part of the post-colonial world into which African women's movements are given meaning, lived out and experienced. No doubt, there is a post-colonial world in which African women exist as a result of having been colonized. Post-colonial here is viewed as a timeframe that covers the culture affected by the imperial process, from the moment of colonization to the present day. African women have been part of the colony (timeframe/spatial). African women have also been involved in resistance to colonization from the time it began, using various means, tools and strategies (ideological/spatial). At the third level, African women also experience post-colonial ideas in which certain thought patterns place them in specific locations in the global divide, both physical and intellectual (spatial/ideological). These three meanings are therefore inter-related and interwoven in the lives of African women.

What constitutes African women's movements? To a large extent, this question is given meaning via a description of what African women are doing and have done throughout history by mobilizing along gender lines to negotiate stakes for women in political decisions, improve women's lot, engage in international activities, articulate women's positions, challenge injustice, refuse or reject decisions that affect them negatively, help each other out, fight nationalist wars, reject colonialism, among others. African women's movements around such issues have been given expression through organizing in women's groups, women's associations and women's organizations. These can be class based. For example, some of the professional women's organizations of necessity assemble specifically educated women giving them a more elitist framework. Some others, like trading organizations, are not necessarily elitist in nature. There are also mass based organizations such as national women's organizations or women's wings in political parties; rural based organizations as well as urban-based organizations. Organisations also range from regional based organizations such as the East African Women's League, to continental based ones such as Association of African women for Research and Development (AAWORD) to international based women's organizations, such as Women in Africa and African Diaspora (WAAD). Some of these are at times national chapters to international organizations such as FIDA-Kenya, which is affiliated to the larger International Federation of Women Lawyers.

These organizations change over time and others arise depending on specific needs of women as they organize to confront new challenges or confront old challenges in new ways. Clearly these comprise diverse activities among women of different classes, age groups, religious orientations, geographical locations, and status. Such organizing among women Africa preceded colonialism.

Much of the literature that addresses African women's movements draws from these activities among African women. Representations of African women's movements rest on certain theoretical frameworks, one of which is understood from the perspective associated with the terms post-colonialism and feminism.

How are these aspects of women's organizing being captured in academic discourse emanating from the three strands of post-colonialism as space, ideology and as timeframe?

In the first instance, African women have not escaped the generalities and larger frameworks of knowledge production around which Africans are assembled as the "Other". For much of the colonial period, the little that was known outside Africa about Africa and African women came from anthropological works conducted by missionaries, colonial administrators, European adventurers, explorers and settlers. Much of this writing was based on the ongoing European notion of the "Other" as 'primitive' and 'uncivilized' and sometimes as exotic and atypical (see the discussion in Mudimbe 1988, 1994). These were of course normed, or based, on European experience and history. The discussions were often specific to the activities of interest to the writer: hence missionaries wrote a lot about religion, traders about trade and administrators on administrative difficulties. When these ideas filtered into academic discourses on Africa what became best known were the 'exotic' or 'primitive' assertions about Africans. The rest was what early Africanist historians referred to as the history of Europeans in Africa (Temu and Swazi 1981).

Activities among African women, and the lived experiences around them, are captured and written about via a larger 'disciplinary' approach that directs the general thinking about Africans within the academy. African women, as part of this general thinking about Africans, are being represented in specific discourses in academia as part of a framework in which Africans have become some kind of a "black box" to be explained in social scientific accounts, and become whatever the methodologies employed will allow or require. "Africans then become the mute subjects of investigation, unable to be heard in response to these methodologies, since the responses are always another piece of evidence to be absorbed and interpreted, or at best, anomalies on the graph" (Janz 2002: no page numbers). These distortions, flaws and orientations continue to influence mainstream discourses about African women.

Following the independence of African countries from colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s, much of this history was discarded with a re-writing of African history from an Africanist perspective, with African perspectives at the center stage of discourse. However, the Africanist writings bypassed and thereby silenced African women and their experiences so that the hegemonic discourses and production of knowledge about Africans at this time became male in orientation. African experiences and African history became equated with African male experiences and history. Mainstream writing on African women continues to suffer from the impact of this great omission.

With the advent of women's studies in Europe and North America, a number of feminists in these countries began to research and write about African women. Much of the writing about African women that informs mainstream present day academia has been done by western feminists (This is changing gradually, but remains the standard). At the margins - mainly because these works remain ignored, never cited in other works, or unpublished and unknown - are the writings by a number of African women (and sometimes male) scholars, some located in the west and others writing from within the continent. However, the theoretical positions and methodologies used in this writing have been those advanced in the west.

In the post-colonial space and world, therefore, earlier European anthropological writings distorted and falsified African women's experiences and history, Africanist writings reacting to and attempting to correct these distortions omitted and silenced women's histories. Feminist writing, in attempting to bring in the woman question, largely employs lenses coloured by its western orientation, leading to misrepresentation of African women and their experiences. Interpretations of African women's movements are caught up in this maze around the production of knowledge in such a way that African women's activities are dispersed in various ideological locations in the production of knowledge, and given meaning through different driving forces, agents and actors in ways not necessarily beneficial to African women.

We can see this through an examination of some of the frames around which western feminists incorporate African women's activities in feminist discourses. Following much critique of being an Anglo middle class movement, western feminism embarked on something of an expansionist agenda, or an integrationist project. In this project, African women's movements and activities have been incorporated in the expanding frontiers of feminism as an (other) form of feminism, hence - African feminism. A significant aspect of the major thrust for this incorporation of African feminism is based on African women's collective mobilization towards goals for improving women's lot, the components of which form parts of African women's movements, but which in feminist discourse are brought on board as forms of African feminism.

Along what lines and, on what terms has this incorporation taken place? Which idea of Africa, and which idea of African women do feminists draw from as they incorporate African women's activities as feminist? What is voiced and what is muted in this incorporation? It is important to address these questions because, at any given time, there is an idea of Africa expounded within western tradition and there is an African reaction to that idea. Furthermore, this idea is part of the larger construction of the "self" among Europeans as much as it is a construction of the "Other' (see the discussion in Bulbeck 1998).

In the process of constructing the idea of the 'other' and the 'self', western discourses tend to displace and silence African discourses because models of analysis, categories and conceptual systems used depend on the western epistemological order (Mudimbe 1994). This construction takes place in a special post-colonial ideological system, one that instituted thinking in which there is a central divide in the global configuration. In this divide, African women and western feminists are assembled on different sides. The original divide centred around a division between civilized west and uncivilized Africa. This gave way to a divide between developed West and developing Africa. This divide is historic, it is continuous and is sustained by discourses around which knowledge is produced, giving power to the civilized against the uncivilized, the developed against the developing and so on.1

Through tendencies arising from this divide, African women are given meaning in terms of: underdevelopment, oppressive traditions, high illiteracy, rural and urban poverty, religious fanaticism, overpopulation, voicelessness. Most of these analysis are normed on white western hierarchies and ideologies that form the progressive civilized, literate, democratic opposite, giving women on this side of the divide unequal power over other women on the other side of the divide. For example, the postmodern quest to explore the conditions by which some aspects and voices are marginalised, while others expressed, seems to have led to a rush by western feminists to "give voice" to women of the Third world. The good intention in this quest becomes lost as women to be given a voice immediately become constructed around "voicelessness" or, "not having a voice". This result refutes the very essence of western feminists' objectives, as the voiceless 'other' remains within the confines of their zone produced by the central divide between developed and developing. Given such distinctions, in the expansionist project of western feminism, cultural differences are often included on the terms of the dominant group and not on those of the marginalized (for example see Moreton-Robinson 2000).

In this frame, Oyewumi (1997) poses a critique of western feminist assumptions. She questions the ability of feminist categories confined largely to western logic to be applied to other cultures with a different cultural logic. For example, she argues that biology, largely used in the west to map the social world, is not necessarily used this way in other cultures. Yet western feminism is stuck in this frame of thought, as a result of which it continues to exhibit the same ethnocentric and imperialistic characteristic of the western discourses that it sought to subvert. Western feminism has not escaped this logic in its focus, or in the meanings it gives to all its tools of analysis such as gender, patriarchy, women and sexual difference. Such western-centric frames continue to direct the mode of incorporation of activities of women in Africa, and the meanings assigned to their activities in mainstream feminist discourses.

First, the incorporation of, and reference to, African feminism takes place within a homogenizing compulsion. This sits in contradiction with the very moment that western feminism is facing up to heterogeneity in the global feminist movement, at least in terms of national feminist paradigms, for example, Australian feminism as distinct from say French feminism, American feminism or British feminism.

We can readily discern two levels of homogenizing incorporation of African feminism. One level is the idea of 'African', used in spite of the recorded differences (although there are similarities) among African women. Another level of homogenization is at the level of the idea of 'feminism'. Disparate groups of African women are assembled under the idea of African and further still under the idea of feminism. What are authors talking about when they apply this term African feminism? Usually it is a variety of things drawn from African women's activities: African women's organization and their objectives, practices, activities, claims etc. The idea of their "Africanness," or identity that makes them African is taken for granted and remains unexplained. It is expected that it will be understood, perhaps ased on some essentialist idea. It remains unexplained whether the identity is essentially colour based, whether it essentially has to do with residence, or origins from the continent of Africa or whether it is essentially a claim to being an African. Perhaps it is all of these and something more? As long as this issue remain vague, African feminism remains incorporated as feminism within a vague notion of 'African' and within an 'all inclusive, anything goes' notion of feminism.

This manner of incorporation leaves intact the Us/Them dichotomy, which is often rife in western discourses. Within this framework, some women find that they are exceptionalised as "African women". "It does not matter that many such women hardly know the pitiable creature that proliferates in the western imagination as 'African woman'. Once designated an African woman, they are expected to confirm the legitimacy of the caricature by living up to it" (Nzegwu, 2001: no page numbers). In such a postcolonial space, so coloured by the racial divide, African women enter the subject of 'African women's studies' through the imagination of women's studies scholars who draw from the earlier distortions about, and omissions of, African women in the colonial literature and Africanist literature respectively. The process erases the meanings assigned to events, actions, identities and institutions by the various categories of African women themselves.

The picture that emerges in the process of incorporation of African women's activities as feminist activities points to more of a moral incorporation in the feminist expansionist project rather than a cultural or political incorporation.2 This moral inclusion has often placed western feminists at pains to explain and theorise African women's rejection of the term feminist and feminism when similar rejection in the west remains muted or untheorised or unproblematised. The intellectual input that goes into the rejection by some African women of the term feminism, or of the terms around which feminisms are framed, receives a simplistic interpretation as an anti-western stance. This makes totally invisible the discourse around which rejection or acceptance of the term feminist takes place among African women scholars.

This moral incorporation into the story of African feminism denies many African women's activists self-description of their movements as not feminist. With such interpretations, African women's movements are viewed as feminist as much as they are viewed as not feminist. This discourse places African women in a position in which being feminist or not becomes the same thing. Where western logic points to 'A cannot be not A', African women's activities, referred to as African feminism whatever the self-description of the actors, are incorporated along the lines of 'Not A can be A'.

The challenge for western feminists in incorporating 'Other' feminisms perhaps lies in finding aspects that western feminism can relate to in these 'Other' worldviews, and perhaps in the ability to make western feminist sense of views such as that of the Yoruba's worldview on women. It requires western feminists to ask what tools of analysis, struggle for and perceptions of gender equality do the activities of African women bring to the women's global struggle, not just to describe what African feminists receive from western feminism. Can African women heroines gain the ancestral locations in feminist history and global women's movements, locations that are currently confined to western feminists? Could these views begin to replace the 'exotic' other and form part of mainstream feminist tools of analyzing and understanding and modeling the world of women and for providing answers to women's questions, not just for women in Africa but women in the west? These are questions whose answers may open frontiers for conversations between the west and the rest as the two interact in the postcolonial space and ideological frameworks that seek to subvert the structures of domination.


1. For example, this unequal power relation has been an area of challenge in efforts to establish partnerships between professional women NGOs in Africa and women's international NGOs operating in the west. African women NGOs require material resources, including finance (usually possessed by women from developed countries) while they are able to provide human resource (already in place through African women professionals). In the global divide, the material resource holder (women from the west), almost automatically assumes an upper hand over and above the human resource (African women professionals), in a way that privileges those who possess the material resources (western women) over the human resource holders (African women), tilting the balance of control of projects run by women and aimed at women.

2. I use the term moral to show that this inclusion is based on tokenism and 'the proper thing to do' basis, but without any political gains in terms of assigning equal value or equal status in mainstream feminist politics to the activities now incorporated as feminist. For example, African women heroines in the nationalist movements do not enjoy the same status in feminist discourses as western suffragettes in spite of the gains made, and losses suffered by both in their respective struggles. African women have still not yet entered western academic women's thinking about the various waves of feminism.


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DeHay Terry, (no date) What is Postcolonial Studies? http://www.sou.edu/English/IDTC/Issues/postcol/postdef.htm

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Nzegwu, N. 2001, 'Globalisation and the Jenda Journal' Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies. http://www.jendajournal.com/jenda/vol1.1/nzegwu1.html

Oyewumi, Oyeronke 1997. The Invention of Women: Making African Sense of Western Gender Discourses Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

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Vijoen Louise, (no date) Postcolonialism and Women Writing in Afrikaans. http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/landow/post/sa/viljoen/2.html

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