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Let us focus on African women’s agency, not just their oppression

The fight to stop violence against women in Africa must diverge from the dominant Western feminism that implants alien perspectives and methods into an African struggle, writes Jenn Jagire. Jagire urges Africa’s feminists to regain agency and ‘deEuropeanise’ African feminism, avoiding perpetuating neo-colonial mentalities and development models that see Africa's women as victims rather than the drivers of their own destiny.

Much has been advocated about the violence meted out against women by their husbands or intimate relations. However, it must be appreciated that, somehow, women have always tried to speak out against violence, or helped each other to fight against spousal perpetrated violence. For example, in the past, there have been communal songs coined about violence against women and their efforts to overcome violence. Such songs praised women’s resistance to spousal violence.

Activism for women’s causes must be based on local people’s experiences, not foreign experiences that overlook the successes of local women. The much-loved over-emphasis on African women’s failure and disaster is done from a Eurocentric perspective which insults our dignity as Africans. It is worth noting that the present day type of patriarchy in Uganda was exported from Britain during the colonial era. Colonialism was violent in many ways.

On the other hand, in talking about African satirical communal songs, there are songs recorded about women fleeing wealthy but violent husbands and settling for more humble ones. For example, in present day Tororo District in Uganda, there is a song about Nola (which was not her real name) who left a rich man, Opondo (let’s suppose it was not his real name either), who owned much property to go to a man who had reeds for a bed. The communal song stresses that the woman’s decision was probably because of roasted meat or some potion from the humble man. The bottom line is that it was that woman’s initiative to take an appropriate action that enabled her to escape violence.

This is powerful evidence for the success of an individual woman from the community in fleeing a violent partner. She did not need empowerment made in London, though there is sometimes no harm in borrowing alien ideas. No one could persuade Nola to return to the wealthy and powerful, but negligent polygamist. Nola was free to choose her course of action and did not need to be taught about her liberation from a conventional feminist. Her unique experiences led her in making a decision in what to do with her life. She settled down with the poorer man who made her happy. We can argue that women’s capacity to think, plan and strategise their next move has always been salient. This brings us to the unacceptable concepts sometimes powerfully used by those determined to define African women as docile. African women are not docile, waiting to be liberated from the West.

Further, African women are not commodities, slaves or chattels, regardless of the marriage system involved. It is the demeaning of African marriage systems by activists with mistaken concepts who have thrown their culture out of the window, or seem to have undergone personality changes, that must be addressed. Activists, for whatever cause, need a lot of deEuropeanisation of their thinking. Europeanised Africans deny their African identity. If we do not deEuropeanise our minds, we remain mentally colonised; enslaved to serve foreign masters or foreign cultural interests. And if we are mentally colonised we perpetuate the recolonisation of Africa and Africans by the very people who had previously been kicked out. We might then do the work of the neo-colonialists even better, as they have really never let go of Africa and want to maintain some presence there with the aim of continuing to dominate. In fact, it is quite safe to say that colonialism is ongoing in many subtle ways. We could elaborate on this later, if there was room.

Lately, however, too much emphasis, from European perspectives, has been put on the oppression of African women as if they have never tried to do anything about it themselves. Too much focus on African women’s oppression sabotages the power of women’s agency. It is better to focus on what women can do for themselves, which is far more empowering.

African feminists should not behave like the ‘first or second wave’ of mainly Western or white feminists. You cannot empower women when you pose as some saviour coming from the outer space with some extraterrestrial powers, or a foreign vision. Such methods are geared towards encouraging a dependency syndrome among those being ‘emancipated’, in this case African women.

Wholly using only the law to sort out women’s problems is not enough. This is not to say that we don’t need laws or more legislation to protect women’s rights. These rights should be specific African women’s rights, not just Western women’s rights being universalised for all. Ugandan women parliamentarians could strive together with their male counterparts to make laws synonymous with African women’s values that reflect the Africanity of the women, their role in their culture, agency or their positive history, etc.

It is imperative that women’s organising starts from the grassroots, by grassroots women, and not necessarily Eurocentric middle class women organising African working-class or peasant women the way they want to. When middle class feminists intervene in the situation of rural African peasant women, for instance when they insist on using the law to separate families, the affected women may be ostracised in the community and their children may suffer rejection and gross emotional harm.

Grassroots organising should start with the grassroots women themselves. What about self-help projects, instead of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dominating whole procedures? The rural women may need a budget and social support from the authorities. I believe that African governments could still be relevant to their citizen women’s organising, and can discourage them from merely copying social movements from the West with alien values.

Not everything should come from donors. Donor funded projects are not independent; they have strings attached and benefit the grantees (those directly receiving the funds) who are exploitative, and/or the donors themselves more than the people being ‘helped’. The people being ‘helped’, in effect, become raw materials. Moreover, foreign funded projects propagate the agenda of the funders, with a power relationship being established. Altruism is forced dependence. Forced dependence enslaves.

Mediation then, rather than outright litigation, should work better for rural women when solving marital problems that sometimes end up in violence. This is not the only solution; there are others, but they might necessitate empowering the elders to intervene and advise the separating couples. Perchance they might realise better results. Among the elders are also women elders and parents whose advice to the younger women is still useful, though there is now a culture of ignoring elders’ advice.

On the other hand, hungry, poorly fed, tattered clothed or demoralised elders will have little interest in solving problems unless their own needs are taken care of by the society. Their advice may also be ignored.

Traditionally, after misunderstandings with spouses, women were allowed to return to their parents for sometime in order for the matter to be sorted out. A man whose wife has returned to her family (usually her extended family) will be forced to follow her there. When he follows her, there should be some sort of mediation and dialogue. Unfortunately, this tradition is being thwarted by over ambitious individuals who tend to ignore the traditional way of resolving disputes.

Moreover, women neighbours have sometimes helped or empowered one another during crises in the families. Some of this help has sometimes been informal and we can do more of that also, rather than engaging in measures which cannot bring about any healing, but rather will perpetuate divisions and confrontations with negative impacts on the society.

In the developed countries, where the law is supposed to protect women, it has often been found that, sometimes, over-dependence on the law, without room for flexibility, has led to further confrontations in families, with no hope for reconciliation and worse outcomes or consequences. With little or no community support, children from such families will themselves face serious challenges in life. Mediation should be tried. Professional mediators have sometimes succeeded in helping couples.

Again, in the developed world, it is not just the men who are violent towards women and children. Some violence can occur when mothers neglect their children. Some women who abuse alcohol or drugs are known to have collaborated with their equally abusive spouses to mistreat their children or step-children. This is especially common when the family is blended or reconstituted. The social welfare department has to intervene. Such neglect of children has sometimes been due to poverty or even the mental state of the parents. The welfare department or child protection unit would be mandated to take away the children to safer custody in an attempt to offer them protection from their abusive parents.

However, separating a child from parents also has some serious emotional consequences, as we have seen through adoptive methods. Adoptions do not always work well for the adopted, though they are legal and are sometimes necessary. That is why the larger society has to be involved in taking care of each other; women, children and men together. We should encourage community mothering, as it used to be or is still present in some areas, while teaching the children their culture and history in order to bring up the whole child who will be in control of their future destiny. Rigid laws borrowed from England that ignore African ways of life or of solving problems encourage individualism and Western-style patriarchy.

Imposing European or Western standards on a developing country might prove counterproductive because they will be met with a level of resistance due to cultural differences, the history of European oppression of Africa through colonialism and unsolicited ‘civilising’ missions from the West. This resistance should not just be wished away. It is in the people.

The West itself is not perfect. It has some unique social problems that must first be addressed at home before exporting solutions, especially to Africa. Nobody should deceive you to abandon your culture. You need it. Many of us might have to visit or live in the West before we appreciate our African cultures, languages, spirituality, etc. Western feminism, dominant as it is, should not be regarded as universal. There are many feminisms, including African feminisms.


* Jenn Jagire is a Ugandan writer based in Canada.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.