Feminism shouldn’t be a dirty word for young African men and women

Bridget Boakye January 20, 2018
Student participating in the whiteboard campaign for feminism which came alive on campuses across the UK in 2013. -- Photo: WhoNeedsFeminism/ Facebook

A lot of young African men dislike the words “feminist” and “feminism”. While I understand why African men dislike the terms,  I believe the animosity stems from misunderstanding and lack of information, rather than non-negotiable discord.

So let me venture to bridge the gap.

The state of feminism among young Africans

A lot of young African men I work and interact with tell me they don’t understand why I call myself a feminist.
As soon as I use those two words – feminist and feminism – otherwise meaningful conversations stop dead in their tracks. These two words are the hardest, fastest breaks ever on the road to an accord between the two sexes.

Yet, on the occasions when tempers cool, disinterest softens, and the conversation progresses beyond the word “feminism” to actual principles and values, I find that our beliefs – those of young African men and women – are more alike than they are different.

So then why do we let the word get in the way of doing the work that matters? The work that is building an equitable society for all where equity means giving people access and opportunity to not necessarily the same things, but to what they need to lead a fulfilling life.

Should the word be a deal breaker?

There are two solutions to this problem: either I (we – for us who identify) stop identifying with the label of a feminist, or the African men I am often in disagreement with, adopt or at least become accustomed to the word so as not to automatically disqualify any argument I make because of it.

In fact, many of my African friends who are women have chosen the latter. They aspire to the same ideals about womanhood and anti-patriarchy that I do, but would rather not have any labels attached to their work or beliefs.

Among a variety of reasons, they don’t want to be shut out of meaningful conversations because of being a “feminist”, they don’t want to feel alienated from men and women who believe otherwise, and occasionally, they don’t want their identification with the term to push away potential mates.

For some young African men too, the latter – abandon the word altogether – would also be the more fitting solution. Feminism brings to mind one-sided or unfair behaviors by women, and often against men – ie. beliefs about women beating or killing men, women abandoning their homes, and women not loving or caring for them and their children. Some African and Black men I have spoken to vehemently believe feminism was specifically designed to tear the Black family apart.

But while I understand these fears, I contend that the word must stand.

Words as we all know them, not only have meaning, but connotation, history, and people. Terms come to encompass our ideas in ways our personal beliefs and ideals alone cannot communicate. For example, to say I am Black or African stands for so much beyond the color of one’s skin or where one is born; Black and African has come to embody the aspirations of generations of people gone and to come, their history, their beliefs, their wins and losses, and their trailblazers and architects.

Like feminism; pan-African, Africanism, woman, humanist, etc allows us to aspire for more than our own personal beliefs and struggles. Once the terms come into parlance and come to embody a school of thought and movement, they allow us to identify with people and history who once embodied those ideals and who will come to embody those ideals long after us. Moreover, these terms move us beyond personal struggles to look at institutional and structural issues that may or may not involve our own.

As with any movement or school of thought, there is a range of ideas and movements that fit within the larger body of thought, and still, feminism doesn’t have to look or mean the same to us all.

The History Beyond Us

But while many of us may not like feminism’s present connotation or manifestation as we negotiate with it in our virtual and physical realms, its history and legacy are things we can not ignore. To aspire to the ideals of a fairer and equal society without acknowledging that the fight started long before us, and with the blood and sweat of our ancestors before us is a travesty.

I identify myself as a feminist because of the history and legacy of the people, especially African and Black women, who have led, challenged, and fought for the rights I have – ie. voting rights for women in the U.S – , the ones I want – ie. end to violence against women, and the ones I don’t even know that I need. Women like the Dahomey Amazons, Yaa Asantewaa, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, among a plethora of others.

Although these women preceded the English word “feminism”, activists and scholars classify them as its forebearers, and by acknowledging and standing by the word, we honor and celebrate them, an important cultural tradition of Africans – where we respect, remember, and honor our ancestors.

Like many of us comfortably call ourselves “Africanists”, or “Pan Africanists”, knowing that we do not always agree with all manifestations of the word, or even display the purist and highest principles it espouses ourselves, so I do for feminism.

I leave below a brief history of African feminism, from writer, blogger, activist, Minna Salammi, of MsAfropolitan. I hope it compels you to dig deeper into feminism beyond its present-day complexities, contradictions, and misfortunes, and what we see on social media. May we see that we come from and are a part of something bigger than ourselves – something that connects us to the struggle and liberation of women all over the world.

If people are interested in the many facets of what feminism means to young Africans, I would love to delve deeper. Please send your questions, comments, and thoughts below so that we proceed.

Excerpt from A Brief History of African Feminism by MsAfropolitan:

As an interest group, African feminism set off in the early twentieth century with women like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, the Sierra Leonian women’s rights activist referred to as the “African Victorian Feminist” who contributed widely to both pan-African and feminist goals, Charlotte Maxeke who in 1918 founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa and Huda Sharaawi who in 1923 established the Egyptian Feminist Union. African feminism as a movement stems also from the liberation struggles especially those in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola and Kenya where women fighters fought alongside their male counterparts for state autonomy and women’s rights. African feminist icons from this period are women like the Mau-Mau rebel, Wambui Otieno, the freedom-fighters Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Margaret Ekpo and Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti among many others who fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy (often through protest). Modern African feminism was solidified during the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which resulted in feminist activism and scholarship spreading widely across the continent and diaspora. Since then the African feminist movement has expanded in policy, legislation, scholarship and also in the cultural realm. It has to do with grassroots activism as well as intellectual activism, ‘bread and butter’ issues such as poverty reduction, violence prevention and reproductive rights as well as with lifestyle, popular culture, media, art and culture. It’s about confronting patriarchal mythmaking on one hand, and with the other we are equally challenged with tackling racist stereotypes. It has to do with these seven key issues in African feminist thought.


Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: September 15, 2018


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