Documentation of women’s social activism and collective action in Africa dates as far back as the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, women in North Africa and the Arab world owned and published feminist journals in which discussions of gender, as well as religious and nationalist struggles, were featured prominently. These feminist writings were projected and intensified in the twentieth century by Arab women scholars and writers such as Nawal El Saadawi, Leila Ahmed, and Fatima Mernissi. Women’s insurgencies for social change have been encouraged and sustained by the capacity of many African cultures (the patriarchal contexts notwithstanding) to create spaces of female power in social and religious spheres. Colonial interventions and other forms of foreign intrusions and imperial hegemonies forced shifts in power distribution and gender relations that to a large extent placed women at a disadvantage. As internally induced inequities became complicated and intensified by externally generated structures of domination, African women’s fight against multiple colonialisms took different forms, with the refashioning of culturally defined strategies to meet new realities and challenges.
The women who engaged in these struggles for social change and survival neither forced a theory/practice oppositional paradigm nor imposed a particular label on their struggles. Attempts by scholars to understand, contextualize, frame, and name these struggles provoked heated debates and controversies in the last two decades of the twentieth century. At issue is the appropriateness and adequacy of the “feminist” label for African women’s struggles. Some reject the imposition of a foreign label on an African phenomenon. Others reject the ascription of the feminist label on African women’s insurgencies because they were not driven by gender-specific issues. It may be difficult to sustain the latter position, particularly in an environment in which gender-specific considerations are occluded by larger contexts of struggle. African women’s dissatisfaction with colonialism’s exacerbation of gender inequalities and marginalization of women could well have been the subtext of women’s participation in anticolonial struggles. The rationale, strategies, modalities, and contexts governing women’s social action in Africa are as heterogeneous and complex as the continent itself and cannot be adequately captured by a monolithic idea such as feminism; hence the use of the plural, feminisms, in the title of this entry.
The contextualization and theorizing of African feminisms emerged in the 1990s in response to the exclusions and inadequacies of second-wave Western feminism. If the 1980s was the decade of the women of color feminisms, the 1990s constituted the decade of African feminisms. Just as the women of color movement compelled Western feminist thinking and theorizing to liberate itself from the myopia of gender-specificity to broaden and intensify its context and texture by allowing other categories such as race and class to intersect with gender, African feminisms made further demands on feminism to expand its analytical horizon by incorporating other considerations such as culture, colonialism, ethnicity, and imperialism and, in particular, examining the ways in which these considerations intersect to construct and (re)produce “gender.”
The disagreement between two schools of thought— on the one hand those insisting that feminism is foreign to the African environment and on the other hand those affirming that feminism is indigenous to Africa—is primarily due to perceptions of Western feminism, particularly its packaging and what it has come to represent. Feminist ideals of equity and resistance to all forms of domination are indigenous to Africa and have propelled women’s social action for centuries.
African feminisms share certain features that mark their differences from Western feminisms. African feminism is not as exclusionary, in terms of articulation and gender participation, as Western feminism appears to be. In its articulation, African feminism is suffused with the language of compromise, collaboration, and negotiation; in its practice, it invites men as partners in social change. Motherhood and maternal politics are not peripheralized in African feminism; on the contrary, they have fueled feminist activism in many African contexts. African feminism is proactive, marks its specificities, and maps priorities that often go beyond the intersection of gender, race, and class to include the consequences of colonialism and its aftermath as well as the new order imposed by global capitalism. By locating African feminism solely as an oppositional moment in the scheme of things, one risks undercutting its scope, import, and significance. African feminism’s reason for being is not determined by its resistance to Western feminism. Rather, African feminism derives its impetus and meaning from its cultural and historical contexts. The attempts to theorize African feminisms that began in the 1980s are mindful of these contexts.
The 1990s saw the emergence of serious and concerted efforts by women writers and scholars from sub-Saharan Africa to conceptualize, contextualize, and theorize African feminisms. Included among these figures were Catherine Acholonu, Simi Afonja, Ama Ata Aidoo, Olabisi Aina, Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Tuzyline Jita Allan, Ifi Amadiume, Bolanle Awe, Ada Azodo, Calixthe Beyala, Gloria Chukukere, Helen Chukwuma, M. J. Daymond, Florence Abena Dolphyne, Akachi Ezeigbo, Aisha Imam, Mary E. Modupe Kolawole, Amina Mama, Patricia McFadden, Micere Mugo, Juliana Nfah-Abbenyi, Obioma Nnaemeka, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, Chioma Opara, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Mansah Prah, Zulu Sofola, Filomina Chioma Steady, Marie Umeh, and Zoë Wicomb. Resisting the maternalistic tendencies and imperialistic modus operandi of Western feminists, and interrogating the limitations of Western feminisms, African women scholars sought to name and theorize the feminisms unfolding in their environment in ways that would capture their specificity and uniqueness as well as their diverse meanings and dimensions—including womanism, African womanism, motherism, stiwanism, and negofeminism— although there are some who believe that the feminist label is adequate, and so new labels are not needed.
In the 1980s Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi came up with a concept/terminology, womanism, that she argued was more appropriate than feminism to describe African women’s engagement in social transformation. Ogunyemi claims that she came up with the terminology independently of the African-American writer Alice Walker who popularized the term in a publication that first appeared in 1983. Ogunyemi’s womanism, which morphed into African womanism in later writings, claims affinity with feminism but asserts its difference by expanding the boundaries of feminism to “incorporate racial, cultural, national, economic, and political considerations.” African womanism insists that the gender question must be reimagined in light of other issues that are peculiar relevant to African women in local, national, and global contexts, which, unfortunately, are not prioritized in Western feminism and African-American womanism. Mary Kolawole also argues for a womanism that is rooted in African values and is not concerned with some of the sexuality questions that are central to Western feminist theorizing. Indeed, lesbianism has no place in Ogunyemi’s African womanism or Kolawole’s womanism.
In the early 1990s Catherine Acholonu proposed motherism as an Afrocentric alternative to feminism. Acholonu’s motherism places motherhood, nature, nurture, and respect for the environment at the center of its theorizing. In 1994 Molara Ogundipe-Leslie introduced a new terminology, stiwanism (from STIWA—an acronym for Social Transformation Including Women in Africa), that is designed to discuss African women’s needs and agendas in the context of strategies fashioned in the environment created by indigenous cultures. Stiwanism insists on the participation of women as equal partners in the social transformation in Africa. At the end of the decade, Obioma Nnaemeka proposed another alternative, negofeminism (feminism of negotiation and “no ego” feminism), which captures central concerns in many African cultures—including negotiation, complementarity, give-and-take, and collaboration.
Attempts by African scholars and writers to name, contextualize, and theorize African feminism are colored and determined by the need to ensure its grounding in African cultural imperatives. Gender inclusion, not alienation, takes center stage in these theoretical frameworks that create the possibilities for women and men to become (African) womanists, motherists, stiwanists, and negofeminists. African women’s affirmation of the feminist ideals of gender equity and social justice and their interrogation of different aspects of feminist theory and practice has contributed significantly to expanding the boundaries of feminism and compelling numerous disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and applied sciences—from literature and human rights to health and peace/conflict resolution—to revisit their assumptions and interrogate their methods.
Arndt, Susan. 2002. The Dynamics of African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African-Feminist Literatures. Translated by Isabel Cole. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Cornwall, Andrea, ed. 2005. Readings in Gender in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Daymond, M. J., ed. 1996. South African Feminisms: Writing, Theory, and Criticism, 1990–1994. New York: Garland Publishing.
Nnaemeka, Obioma, ed. 1998. Sisterhood, Feminisms, and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.” Signs: Journal of Woman in Culture and Society, 11 (1985/86): 63–80.