Does an African-style feminism exist?

Considered as a Western import that would go against certain African values, feminism seems to be a misunderstood concept on the continent. For many, it is a neo-phenomenon exclusively reserved for rebellious women who wish to live a Western ideal. However, struggles against sexism and patriarchy existed in Africa long before the conceptualization of feminism. Women, but also men, have fought with the objective of revealing the full potential of the African woman and giving her the place she deserves.

Feminism, understood as the fight against discrimination against women, is an ancient concept in Africa. Long before what the literature calls « the first feminist wave »[1] and which corresponds to the recognition of some rights, notably the right to vote for Western women in the 19th and 20th centuries, many African societies had already granted a real place of choice to women.

In Africa, from antiquity to the present day, powerful women have ruled kingdoms, been warlords and thus led armies. Ancient African women also had an economic and religious role. Let us quote for example the queens Ndeté Yalla of Senegal (she lived in the 19th century, from 1810 to 1860), Ranavalona III of Madagascar (she reigned from July 30, 1883 to February 28, 1897), the Akan queen still called the mother of the Baule people of Ivory Coast who lived in the 18th century and Ana Nzinga, a true national symbol in Angola who lived from 1583 to 1663. This list could be completed by influential women such as Efunroye Tinubu (1807-1887) in Nigeria and Nefertiti in the 14th century BC in Egypt. The responsibilities entrusted to these women were not survival roles but important roles in that they contributed fully and completely to the development of their respective nations.[2]

In Benin, the renowned Minon women, still called Amazons (17th to 19th century), were exceptional warriors whose « incredible courage and audacity » was recognized by the French invaders. And here again, history shows that some African societies entrusted political, national defense and security roles to women. Indeed, it was a queen, Queen Tasi Hangbè[3] (or Nan Hangbe), twin sister of King Houessou Akaba, who created the Minon corps of Dahomey; a Minon regiment that was considered culturally very sacred for the Fon people. In the same way, in the traditional Lebou societies of Senegal, the power of decision was exclusively the prerogative of women.

This set of facts, proven and documented, reveal that women had real political, cultural and economic power in ancient Africa. This is why Cheikh Anta Diop, in The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, states that « African societies were essentially matriarchal”.

In contemporary Africa, the place and role of women is also changing. In many countries such as Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), Guinea, Angola, Nigeria, etc., women were, as early as the 1930s, heads of institutions, major bankers and enjoyed the same social, economic and political rights as men. Many women were pioneers and occupied the positions of doctors, mayors, teachers or journalists such as Madeleine Ly, Marie Madoé Sivomey, Jeanne Martin Cissé, Sita Bella.

Far from the clichés of African men who would be in essence patriarchal, the defense of women’s rights in Africa has seen the participation of men and leaders of great renown. For example, President Sankara, whose name has come back into the news with the condemnation of Blaise Compaoré for his assassination, made it one of the essential elements of the popular revolution in Burkina Faso: « I speak on behalf of women all over the world, who suffer from a system of exploitation imposed by males. As far as we are concerned, we are ready to welcome all suggestions from all over the world allowing us to achieve the full development of the Burkinabe woman. In return, we share with all countries the positive experience that we are undertaking with women now present at all levels of the state apparatus and social life in Burkina Faso » said Thomas SANKARA in his book « The emancipation of women and the struggle for the liberation of Africa »[5].

The full participation of women in social, economic and political life is therefore not an act of compassion for Sankara but a categorical imperative for the political, economic and social evolution of Africa. He was convinced that revolution and feminism go hand in hand and thus took a series of decisions in order to make the Burkinabe woman more autonomous and more fulfilled. Sankara believed that « women cannot be left out of our revolution, and everything we do today is aimed at liberating them. But it is very difficult, because women are dominated by men who are themselves dominated. They are doubly dominated. » [6]

To do this, President Sankara will take new measures to guarantee equal pay for women and men, institute a men’s market day and introduce women into the highest decision-making bodies in Burkina Faso. This is proof that the fight to end discrimination against women has also been supported by men in Africa.

In the end, it is important to remember that the feminist issue in Africa is not a fashion, but a cultural issue. African feminism is ancient and did not wait for the current feminist movement, let alone the Western one. But while Africa has a feminist past so well anchored, great women chiefs of kingdom, great icons at the head of its defense, schoolteachers, doctors, we face a present where it is contested. Is this a regression in the Afro-feminist evolution? Is the question of the male badly posed in the current feminism? What can be done to correct this state of affairs? 

By Mario Aouga & Emyloïa Kpadonou

 [1] The first feminist revolution corresponds to a period in the history of Western feminism that goes from the 1850s to 1945. 
[2] To measure the place of women in certain African societies, one must realize that a Malian adage said « all that we are and all that we have, we owe it once only to our father, but twice to our mother ».
[3] Queen Tasi Hangbè succeeded her brother on the throne and ruled the kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th century, from 1708 to 1711
[4]Diop (Cheikh Anta), The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, African Presence, September 1982, 219 pages
[5]Sankara (Thomas), Women’s Emancipation and the African Liberation Struggle, Pathfinder, June 2008, 72 pages
[6]Thomas Sankara in an interview with the famous filmmaker René Vautier, in July 1984.