Panel 22

“We must all be feminists”: Confronting feminisms from African points of view

Panel organiser: Catarina Martins, University of Coimbra, Portugal

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The recent call for a universal rally around the feminist cause by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls to mind the old endeavor of creating a global sisterhood by different feminist waves from the North. These have been persistently contested by non-white, non-European women, who criticize western feminism for its own racist and colonial tendencies that obliterated and oppressed the Women of the Rest when formulating feminist agendas for the West – and (imperialistically) for the Rest as well. Thus, African feminism in particular insists upon the “decolonization of gender”. African feminists question the heart of feminist epistemologies and activism from the North and do not hesitate to deeply criticize the supposed base of a global sisterhood, namely the idea of “universal” notions such as patriarchy or gender as sources of oppression (even when their socially constructed character is acknowledged).

If “we must all be feminists”, at least the “how” of the “feminists” we must be still has a lot to be debated. We wish to start with the idea that feminisms from the North participate in the coloniality of power that has generated several epistemicides, actively producing subjects and knowledges from the South as non-existent. Our intention is to question the conceptual and theoretical pillars of hegemonic feminisms, deconstructing their affiliation in western modernity. This questioning must cross disciplinary borders and encompass fundamental notions, such as “gender” and “patriarchy”, but also “power”, “emancipation”, “knowledge”, “work”, “production”, “value”, “Public / private”, “love” and “sexuality”. This panel intends to create an interdisciplinary and broad dialogue between feminist thought from Africa and the North, in which African standpoints should be analyzed by feminists from both “sides” as a pretext for a common critical revision of feminist conceptual frameworks and the creation of ampler solidarities.

Approved abstracts Panel 22

1. Nomadic subjectivity in the novels of four African women writers: Americanah, We need new names, Woman at Point Zero, and Your name shall be Tanga.

Author: Siphiwe Ignatius Dube (University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa)

In her chapter regarding the relationship between her nomadic theory and feminist concerns about difference entitled “Transposing Difference,” Rosi Braidotti offers up the concept of nomadic subjectivity as another tool for thinking about the kind of feminist subjectivity peculiar to the contemporary world. This presentation argues that the concept of nomadic subjectivity is a useful tool for women writers in Africa as they explore the relationship between identity as resistance and subjectivity as agency in the context of a post-colonial Africa. Braidotti argues that “the multiple locations of devalued difference are also, though not at the same time, positive sites for the redefinition of subjectivity” (2012, 30). This presentation argues that the four novels of Adichie, Beyala, Bulawayo, and El Saadawi give literary articulation to Braidotti’s argument above, while also positing, in their own way, responses to the political materiality of difference faced by women in the diverse African continent. As such, these novels’ engagement with nomadic subjectivity offers gendered constructive narratives that not only open up new locations in the spectrum of liberation struggle discourses, but also construct new identities of resistance for women writers writing in a context still very much informed by labile patriarchal discourses of power.

2. The global black hair industry and marketplace in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Author: Julie Iromuanya (University of Arizona, USA)

The politically voiceless, economically visible, and racially indeterminate Middleman Minority of Edna Bonacich and Pyong Gap Min hardly comes to mind when scholars envision women of Africa and the African Diaspora. Still, if we consider the ways the global black hair industry acts as a mechanism for work, production, value, agency, and mobility, then we would be remiss if we did not include a discourse on the black hair industry; for it alternately critiques, challenges, and participates in binary conceptions of race, socioeconomic class, and citizenship. Further, while the traditional Middleman Minority subsumes the female identity under that of the male head of the family, the global black hair industry, largely established, fueled, and energized by black and African women, centralizes the female. Like many industries with a commanding economic force, black hair, as an industry, acts both within and without the bounds of the patriarchal state, macrocosmically, and the male head of the patriarchal family, microcosmically.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, while concerned with her protagonist’s mediation of the “Americanah” identity—the repatriated immigrant “with odd affectations, pretending to no longer know” home—also presents a unique observation of the ways that black hair and its commerce are also attendant, if not central, to notions of feminist ideology, both African and western, advocated by Adichie in her feminist treatise We Should All Be Feminists. In my paper, I seek to illuminate the questions that Adichie raises in Americanah regarding the centrality and alterity of women, who, like traditional Middleman Minorities, act as consumers and producers within a market that is both deeply entrenched in the racial, political, and economic framework of the larger patriarchal society, while also operating with a great deal of autonomy.

3. Performance and female coalition building: Indigenous feminist praxis and racialized geographies

Author: Sidra Lawrence, (Bowling Green State University, USA)

“Why is equality only for white women?” The Regional Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection says this, challenging the perceived demarcations between western and African feminist agendas with which the Ministry struggles. In Ghana’s Upper West Region, women articulate their goals, agendas, and priorities in myriad ways that often do not coincide with the national and international development protocol that structures policy.

For Dagara women on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso, equality is not an articulated priority for women without formal educations. Here, discourse on equality denotes a western feminist praxis that is considered transgressive for women of lower class positions. When Dagara women employ such positions they are dismissed as behaving like white women. Mediating this regulation, Dagara women articulate their positions in creative ways voice progressive goals while negotiating cultural parameters. The result is a transnational feminist praxis that relies upon indigenous performance traditions as a primary mechanism to enhance women’s life experiences, opportunities, and goals. These non-oppositional modes of resistance are often found in song and dance performances in all female social spaces through which women share strategies of mediating development agendas by which they are asked to abide.

In this paper I utilize a Dagara feminist framework to theorize the ways that Northern feminist agendas are universalized through development narratives. I address how globalized notions of progress fail to account for the myriad ways that women organize and create meaning in their lives, especially regarding social change in areas where notions of tradition are complex and often contradictory. Using examples from ethnographic research conducted in Dagaraland from 2008-2016 I explore how local feminist praxis, as evidenced through performance, contributes to broader theorization about transnational feminist models.

4. Decolonizing gender – perspectives from West-Africa

Author: Catarina Martins (Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal)

My argument starts from the post-colonial theory’s assumption that western modernity and colonialism created abyssal lines that rendered Other ways of living invisible and caused epistemicides. My aim is, thus, to contribute to recover some of the epistemologies of a South that must be understood as a metaphor for all those whose subjectivities, world views and social practices were produces as inexistent by a hegemonic epistemology from the North.

Also, my paper wishes to corroborate the call for a decolonization of feminisms made by feminists from the South and particularly from Africa. Using African theoretical proposals and models of feminist intervention and through a brief balance of what I think must be accepted by European feminists as a challenge to self-critique I intend to question how and to what extent feminisms from the North may have participated in the coloniality of the power that generated such epistemicides. I will discuss some of the conceptual pillars of hegemonic feminisms in order to evaluate their affiliation in the root paradigm of colonialism – western modernity, starting with the very concept of gender, but extending to other notions such as power, public / private, emancipation, intersectionality, etc. I will use as a focus some of the results of my work in progress about the Yewwu Yewwi movement from Senegal, which is important to understand women’s movements and their feminist thought in a West-African Islamic context

5. Adichie in Sweden. African women writers, social media and cosmopolitan feminism

Author: Paula Uimonen, (Stockholm University, Sweden)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies’s book We should all be feminists (2014) has become well known among Swedish youth. In December 2015 some 100,000 copies of the Swedish translation Alla borde vara feminister (2015) were distributed for free to Swedish senior high school students. In a country that prides itself as being at the vanguard of feminism, it is perhaps not surprising that students get to learn about feminism at the age of sixteen. But it is somewhat surprising that feminism is introduced through the voice of an African woman writer. This paper discusses Adichie’s We should all be feminists in terms of cosmopolitan feminism. Focusing on the content as well as circulation of the book, including its various digital mediations, the paper argues that Adichie is advancing a more global and inclusive form of feminisim, a truly cosmopolitan feminism, which both builds upon and departs from earlier constellations. While Adichie’s cosmopolitan feminism articulates a rallying cry for universal rights and equality, it provokes counter reactions of racist antifeminism, as evidenced in some social media commentaries. Adichie’s literary production can thus be related to some of the most promising and problematic social forces at play in our digitally mediated world.

This paper is part of my new research project on African women writers, which will be based on fieldwork in Ghana and Tanzania. This project is part of a larger research programme on Cosmopolitan and vernacular dynamics in world literature (2016-2021), coordinated by researchers at Stockholm University, Sweden. See (web site in progress) or

6. Interrogating Chimamanda’s ‘We must all be feminists’ and locating Gikuyu feminisms within an African feminist epistemology

Author E. Njoki Wamai (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom) and

Oyeronke Oyewumi (2005) has argued that research on gender in Africa has often taken cues from western theoretical concerns, concepts, problematics and methodology. Gender in Africa has been received as an area of scholarship without critical interrogations that decolonise the study from western feminist underpinnings. The gender and development paradigm in the 70s and 80s particularly hindered research on African feminism. Hence, African feminism is today often overdetermined by a functionalist anthropology and developmentalist anthropology, which limits possible gender discourses to emerge from below according to Desiree Lewis (2005). The Gikuyu are the most populous ethnic group in Kenya. The group was initially founded on a matriarchal culture that has since been eroded by patriarchal traditions arising from generational changes internally and the colonial-christian encounter. However, some interesting cultural practices I intend to discuss in this paper have remained and others have been adapted overtime providing everyday forms of resistance by ordinary to hegemonic patriarchy and western forms of feminism that ignore these local practices as feminist and revolutionary. Such practices include Kamweretho, the transfer of female names to their children as surnames and land inheritance. This paper is part of a larger research project that is situating Gikuyu feminist practises within the feminist debates that are decolonising African feminism.

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