A brief search on the internet about feminism is bound to result in being overwhelmed by the vast literature that exists on feminism and the individual opinions that have framed the concept in a less nuanced manner. The idea of feminism manifests in different ways, so much so that it continues to evolve, changing in scope and definition as time passes. I’ve been reflecting on the varying interpretations of feminism[s] over time and space and I want to focus on how feminism is interpreted and how it ‘manifests’ within the African continent. In doing so I hope to expose how popular feminist narratives often misrepresent or exclude African experiences. While I do not intend to overgeneralize, I believe there is value in looking at commonalities across the continent as this can foster solidarity on common struggles. Moreover, there could be key learnings and insights that feminists across the continent can leverage to enact change in their own contexts.
Framing Feminism and unpacking tensions?
Since there are varied interpretations of what feminism is and who can be a feminist [or not], conversation and debates around the concept tend to polarize as opposed to helping individuals, organizations and institutions find common ground. For example, some believe feminism is a movement focused on hating men and led by angry women while others would be okay with the concept but only up to a point; yes speak up for gender disparities across society but dress modestly, etc. So what really is feminism? Is there a basic definition?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines feminism as “ ..both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” From this idea of framing femnism around notions of justice, it is important to consider how factors like race, culture, ethnicity, religion and class influence universal feminist justice versus localized feminist justice. If reduced to simple terms, most framings of feminism would be centered around the process of making sure there is equality between the sexes. Contemporary debates on feminism tend to interchangeably use equality with equity and this is centered around the idea of fairness.
Before engaging in untangling that debate, I’d like us to pay attention to how individual localities – where people come from – influence ideas around feminist justice. On the second level, how then does context affect and shape individual position on various topics? The importance of being aware of context when discussing feminism helps position the debate in a manner that puts into dialogue current realities with the socio-political history that informs the lived realities of women within a context. For example, the dominant critique of feminism within the ‘African’ context is around the idea that women are importing mainstream and western ideals of living and ‘culture’. Therefore, feminism is considered “un-African”. From this perspective, feminism within various African societies is met with resistance and at times framed to be contradictory and controversial, but this is a result of individuals not acknowledging how their level of privilege buys them out of some structural violence.
But why does one’s position and context matter?
According to The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research, the individual position or viewpoint is defined as “the stance or positioning of the researcher in relation to the social and political context of the study—the community, the organization or the participant group”. In contextualizing it to the scope of this work, it is simply understood as a viewpoint/opinion an individual may have regarding an issue, in this case Feminism. An individual’s position[ality] can be influenced by factors such as social class, gender, race and context. Context refers to the ‘lens’ and the perspective that an individual engages issues and individual context may be cultural, historical and geographical. Therefore, both position[ality] and context matter as they inform how individuals engage with issues such as gender-based violence, sexual and labour laws etc. The ability for one to access space is political and policed as a level of access is determined and evoked along the lines such as race, gender, class and ethnicity.
There exists a digital divide between internet users, hence the spaces of engagement are gendered. In contexts where race was used as the dominant tool to subjugate and oppress, inequality within that society to be institutionalized through the overlap of factors such as race, class, and gender. This is evident in contexts like South Africa where the history of apartheid informs the contemporary structure and fabric society. Therefore, when discussing the South African context and gender, it is important to take account of how the history of apartheid has and continues to influence the current narratives of systemic violence. For example, South Africa recently declared femicide and other forms of gender-based violence a national crisis as reports show that a woman is raped every three hours in the country. In view of the violence South African women face, varied online debates tend to polarize individuals, groups and organizations as engagement, some of the time, occurs in a setting/space where individuals are not reflective and aware of how their position[ality] and contexts inform their level of activism, empathy and the level of “outrage” they have towards a specific issue.
What are the benefits?
The ability for individuals to be deliberate about their positionality and context will pave way for a nuanced feminist movement because a sense of awareness that can produce a wave of activism that tailors’ solutions to the context in question. Therefore, before engaging in heated debates creating a stifling, toxic and unproductive dialogues, what lived experiences and social structures have either shielded or exposed individuals from understanding the core issue and factors that provide the necessary scaffolding that perpetuates for structural violence. It would be a disservice to justice if the feminist movement gets caught up in the ‘whose feminism’ is better. At the core, feminism should be about informed individual choices and respect of those choices. This is easier on paper than practising it when systemic violence has been institutionalized as culture and expected realities in everyday life. Contextualizing feminism can offer a bridge that helps a generation engage in a dialogue on how the ability of women’s access space, structures and opportunities has evolved. By reflecting on individual context and positionality, there is room to access liberation and equality by going beyond tokenistic and performative actions of diversity and inclusion.