Call for papers

to a conference at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa, 19–22 January 2005

Writing African Women – Poetics and Politics of African Gender Research

The conference is organized in the context of the Sexuality, Gender and Society in Africa programme at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden

The aim of this three-day conference is to facilitate discussion on a range of subjects relating to the critical study of gendered subjects, relationships and discourses in Africa. The conference seeks to address two main obstacles to critical gender research in the contemporary African political and academic environment: On one hand, the conference will critically confront the growing backlash against feminism in contemporary Africa, a backlash associated especially with a resurgence of traditionalism and the argument that feminism is un-African. On the other hand, by drawing on critical theories and interdisciplinary approaches, papers will challenge the predominance of atomised and sector-specific gender work that is being actively encouraged by neo-liberalism, the hegemony of Gender-and-Development paradigms and donor prescriptions.

We are interested in the ways in which gender aspects of African societies – often rooted in assumptions regarding patriarchal African traditions on one hand and in Western Enlightenment-based notions of gender equality on the other – are constituted by states, donor agencies, NGOs etc – and by researchers. We are concerned, critically, with strands in African studies and certain NGO practices that summarily denounce everything ostensibly ‘traditionally African’ as detrimental to women. We are equally concerned about Afrocentric approaches that have emerged in response to the above-mentioned perspectives; the re-enchantment of tradition and the propagation of imaginaries drawing on a mythical African past appear to be not much more than yet another attempt at asserting African otherness through romanticisation. Against these binary, yet complementary, conceptualisations of Africa as ‘unique’, the conference aspires to investigate new ways of theorizing women’s and men’s lives in Africa, in modes which may also enhance the outlook and deepen the understanding of gendered lives elsewhere.



The prominent traditional/modern cleavage in much of African gender research may be attributed to the mutually constitutive nature of academic and popular discourses. The conference aims to take a critical and careful look at the complicity of researchers and informants respectively in the ongoing construction of academic and cultural knowledge, and social practices of gender. How are these parts interconnected discursively and practically? What are the implications of power imbalances between the different players? How has gender been constructed in the ‘long conversation’ between missionaries, colonial administrators and local men and women? How did men and women in pre-colonial Africa think about gender – if they thought in those terms at all? Which cultural discourses on gender have been appropriated in specific historical, social and geographical locations, which have been appropriated piecemeal and which have been rejected? How is gender currently constituted in the discourses used by states, donors, religious representatives, civil society organizations etc – and by ‘grass root’ men and women? Which are the lessons from feminist re-interpretations of ‘tradition’? Also in the context of this theme we would like to see some critical attention directed at the parts played by applied social science approaches to constructions of gender, such as Gender-and-Development studies or medical anthropology.


This theme aims to explore the multiplicity of identities in the historical and contemporary African experience. Historically, how has gender been constituted and how is it currently mediated in relation to other forms of identity? What are the connections between subjectivities, multiple cultural discourses and gendered identities in specific social situations? Recent feminist research, in the wake of the criticisms of early feminist writings that universalised gender, has focused increasingly on the contextual ways in which gendered identities and relations are played out. How do, in these contexts, issues of power come into play? How is it possible in studies of multiple identities to take not only discourses, but also embodied practices into consideration? By exploring discussions on, among other subjects, masculinities, gay and lesbian identities, heterosexism, and the social and discursive constructions of gendered identities within different sites and through a range of social and cultural practices, the conference aims to generate debate about what ‘gender’ in African and other contexts means.


Fresh critical interest in African women's writing and cultural production, and the growing interest in the politics and imaginative force of this production present important challenges in terms of investigating how women's knowledges can contest power. To what extent have, for example, theatre and oral performance, fiction and artwork, as well as African women's traditional forms of cultural expression (e.g. oral poetry) provided knowledge that talks back to dominant discourses? How do audiences engage with gendered meanings in different cultural texts (such as soap opera or romance fiction) and create subversive knowledges that read against the grain of dominant gendered meanings? In what way does everyday cultural behaviour, manifested, for example, in cooking practices, dress styles, the performative codes of African youth subcultures etc, work to unsettle dominant discourses of gender, and to constitute sites for exploring marginal forms of knowledge? This theme aims to explore the visionary and imaginative power of marginal knowledges, as expressed in social practices as well as in cultural production.


The organizers invite proposals for papers on any aspect of gender research related to African contexts, provided that they touch on the conference themes. We are interested in theorizing, which is located in real historical time and space, drawing on the ethnography, historiography, literature and cultural research of Southern, East, West, and North Africa. Hence, we encourage papers that emphasise epistemological and methodological perspectives as well as those based on empirical studies.
Among topics of interest are the following: New historical and contemporary perspectives on matriliny, on rituals, on women’s movements and activism, and on citizenship. Discussions of sexualities, masculinities, motherhood and fatherhood, etc. Investigations regarding food, clothing, popular and public cultures, memory, music and performance, etc.

Signe Arnfred, Nordic Africa Institute
Heike Becker, University of Western Cape, South Africa
Desiree Lewis, Cape Town, South Africa

Deadline for proposals, 15 Sept 2004

Proposals should include a title, abstract (approximately 250 words), name and institutional affiliation of the presenter/s. Proposals should be sent by e-mail, fax or post to:

e-mail: Signe Arnfred,,
fax: + 46 18 56 22 90,
post: The Sexuality, Gender and Society in Africa programme, the Nordic Africa Institute, PO Box 1703, 751 47 Uppsala, Sweden

Notifications regarding selection of proposals by Oct 1,
Deadline for final papers, 15 Dec 2004

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