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Africa: African Feminism Past and Present

AfricaFocus Bulletin
April 10, 2017 (170410)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"On February 18th I lost my grand aunt - my grandmother really ... This incredible woman, May Kyomugasho Katebaka left us at the age of 97. We last met in 2014 when I visited her. She's a fierce woman. Fierce in her religion but also fierce in her knowledge of what she wanted from the world. And that is what moves me. Moves me every time one claims feminism is foreign and for the educated, un-african. She always came to mind when I met such arguments. I would tell myself that if only they could hear half her life story, then they would understand why I am such a rebellion." - Rosebell Kagumire (

"Today as ever, African female activists are reshaping not just African feminist agendas but global ones as well," wrote scholar Aili Mari Tripp in a March 8 article published in African Arguments. But this was only a small sample of articles and web features that have recently appeared highlighting different aspects of "African feminism(s)," as well as a host of new books by both famous and relatively unknown authors.

Among sources that have come to my attention in the last month, this AfricaFocus Bulletin features the overview article by Aili Mari Tripp, a reflection by Ugandan journalist and activist Rosebell Kagumire, several additional links to web features from the African Feminist Forum and OkayAfrica, and a listing of a selection of recent related books, from 2017, 2016, and 2015.

The article from March 8, International Women's Day, was the initial impetus for this Bulletin. But it is appropriate that the Bulletin comes only a few days after April 7 (Mozambican Women's Day), commemorated to honor the example of Josina Muthemba Machel (, who I was privileged to work with in Dar es Salaam in 1966-1967, a few years before her death at the age of 25 on April 7, 1971. [I don't know who wrote the Wikipedia article, but it is substantive and, to my knowledge, accurate).

Additional recent web references

African Feminist Forum, "Know Your African Feminists" and "African Feminist Ancestors" Accessed March 2017 - direct URLs: and

"Talking African Feminisms with Dr. Sylvia Tamale," Rosebell Kagumire blog, August 19, 2016

"OkayAfrica's 100 Women" Accessed March 2017

"Ghana: Women are the new face of telecommunications' players," Balancing Act Africa, March 17, 2017

"Malawi: Rural Women, Empowerment and Mining," Publish What You Pay, December 19, 2016

Eunice Onwona, "Karen Attiah Is the 'Warrior of Diversity' Channeling Journalism Into Activism," OkayAfrica, March 17, 2017

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

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Those who Defied the Odds, Those Who Stood True to their Beliefs Till the End

by Rosebell Kagumire

African Feminism, March 22, 2017 - direct URL:

On February 18th I lost my grand aunt - my grandmother really (English limitations) because in my culture a sister of my grandmother is my grandmother. Both have almost equal roles and space in your life.

This incredible woman, May Kyomugasho Katebaka left us at the age of 97. We last met in 2014 when I visited her. She's a fierce woman. Fierce in her religion but also fierce in her knowledge of what she wanted from the world. And that is what moves me. Moves me every time one claims feminism is foreign and for the educated, un-african. She always came to mind when I met such arguments. I would tell myself that if only they could hear half her life story, then they would understand why I am such a rebellion.

Grandma May always made it a point to tell us she got 'saved/born again' in 1949. Religion was at the centre of her life. She always told us had it not been for her selfless service in the church, she would have ended up like most women of her time. She was one of the few among millions of women at the time who could read. And that came through the colonial state where knowledge of the bible accorded one certain privileges.

Her life is an inspiration. She was married, briefly, and quickly figured out that married life wasn't for her so she dedicated herself to serving the church. Where she was married and even when she didn't have children of her own, she is known to have treated the kids she found in the home like her own. Of course this is something many women are required of by society and the conditions are often not on their side - women should have choices - but the love between her and her step children remained even when she was longer part of their family. That love was demonstrated till the end.

In my culture and many in Uganda still, unmarried and childless women are scorned upon but Grandmother May commanded a certain respect above all these. She managed to weave her life story, with a church as her shelter, to be who she wanted to be. Of course many would say she should 'have had a child at least' and god knows what other pressures she faced. All these little narrow definitions of what a woman's life should be according to society wouldn't dwindle her.

I loved her and she lived an exceptional life and didn't matter who accepted it. She was beautiful too and a deep deep soul. In many ways she was still traditional like I remember her asking me to always wear long t-shirts over my jeans - you know – not to show 'secret body parts' like we call it in my Runyankole. I usually laughed these off.

She is inspiration and the fact that her life in itself - some aspects probably weren't intentional - but she never followed the crowd. And that's enough to get me through this life. I thought in the spirit of women's history month, Grandma May fully represents the people in my life that shattered those expectations. To understand where we are going we must always look back for a lesson, inspiration and sometimes caution.

How African feminism changed the world

Aili Mari Tripp

African Arguments, March 8, 2017 - direct URL:

[Aili Mari Tripp is Professor of Political Science and Evjue Bascom Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the co-editor, with Balghis Badri, of Women's Activism in Africa (2017).]

Today as ever, African female activists are reshaping not just African feminist agendas but global ones as well.

One of the great fallacies one still hears today is that feminism started in the Global North and found its way to the Global South. Another is that universal understandings of women's rights as embodied in UN treaties and conventions were formulated by activists in the North.

International Women's Day, however, provides an opportunity to highlight the reality: that not only do feminisms in the Global South have their own trajectories, inspirations, and demands, but they have contributed significantly to today's global understandings of women's rights. Nowhere is this clearer than in Africa, where women are increasingly exerting leadership from politics to business and have helped shape global norms regarding women's rights in multiple arenas.

For decades, African activists have rejected the notion that one can subsume all feminist agendas under a Western one. As far back as the 1976 international conference on Women and Development at Wellesley College, Egyptian novelist Nawal El-Saadawi and Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi challenged efforts by Western feminists to define global feminism. In the drafting of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the All African Women's Conference was one of six organisations and the only regional body involved.

African women have also been influencing national gender policies for over half a century. In 1960, for example, Mail's Jacqueline Kizerbo had already developed the idea of considering the gender impacts of policies. It was only decades later that this idea – now commonly known as "gender mainstreaming” – gained international currency, particularly in national budgetary processes.

In key UN conferences, African women activists have been visible from the outset. Egypt's Aida Gindy held the first international meeting on Women in Economic Development in 1972. The Kenya Women's Group helped organise the 1985 UN Conference on Women in which African women brought issues of apartheid and national liberation to the fore. And Egypt's Aziza Husayn helped organise the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, which shifted the debate around population control away from a traditional family planning emphasis on quotas and targets to one focused on women's rights and health.

Additionally, Sierra Leone's Filomena Steady was one of the key conveners of the Earth Summit in 1992. Tanzania's Gertrude Mongella was General Secretary of the pivotal 1995 UN Beijing Conference. And African women peace-builders played a crucial role in the 2000 Windhoek conference, which paved the way for a UN Security Council Resolution encouraging the inclusion of women in peace negotiations and peacekeeping missions around the world.

Leading the world

Women in Africa have also set new standards for women's political leadership globally. The likes of Guinea's Jeanne Martin Cissé, Liberia's Angie Brooks and Tanzania's Anna Tibaijuka and Asha-Rose Migiro have all held top positions at the UN. Meanwhile at a national level, many African countries have made important gains in women's representation.

Rwandan women today hold 62% of the country's legislative seats, the highest in the world. In Senegal, South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique, more than 40% of parliamentary seats are held by women. There are female speakers of the house in one fifth of African parliaments, higher than the world average of 14%. Women have claimed positions in key ministries throughout Africa. And women have increasingly run for executive positions, with Liberia, the Central African Republic, Malawi and Mauritius all having had female heads of state. Moreover, these increases in female representation are taking place across the continent, including predominantly Muslim countries such as Senegal, where women hold 43% of legislative seats.

These new patterns are found at the regional level too, with women holding 50% of the positions at in African Union Commission, compared to just one-third at the European Commission. South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma meanwhile chaired the AU Commission from 2012 to 2017.

Women's strong presence in African parliaments has resulted in new discussions about strategies to enhance female political representation worldwide. Scandinavian scholars such as Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall even argue that the incremental model that led to high rates of female representation in Nordic countries in the 1970s has now been replaced by the "fast track” African model in which dramatic jumps in representation are brought about by electoral quotas.

Shaping the world

African women have also been pioneering in business. Aspiring young female entrepreneurs today have several role models they can follow such as Ghana's Esther Ocloo, who pursued the idea of formalising local women's credit associations and became a founding member of one of the first microcredit banks, Women's Worlds Banking, in 1979.

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, African countries have almost equal numbers of men and women either actively involved in business start-ups or in the phase of starting a new firm. And in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia, women are reportedly more likely to be entrepreneurs than men.

These changes are evident not only at the grassroots but, to an extent, at the highest levels. Female representation in boardrooms worldwide is very poor, but Africa's rate of 14.4% is only slightly behind Europe (18%) and the US (17%), and ahead of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Finally, a younger generation of activists is emerging throughout Africa today and redefining feminism from an African perspective. One sees this not only in the work of the African Feminist Forum, which first met in 2006, but also in the work of figures such as novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who issued a clarion call to women in her video We Should All be Feminist, adapted from her 2013 Ted Talk, in which she explores what it means to be an African feminist. Her book length essay by the same title is found on bookshelves in major cities around the world, and the Swedish Women's Lobby has given it to every 16-year-old in Sweden to help them think about gender equality.

Feminist discourse meanwhile has become commonplace throughout the continent on websites, blogs, journals, and social media. New feminist novels like Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya), Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda), and Americanah by Adichie (Nigeria) have offered new ways of imagining women.

There are clearly still enormous hurdles for African feminists to overcome in fighting for gender equality. But as they have over the past half a century, Africa's women activists of today are reshaping not only African feminist agendas in tackling these challenges, but global ones as well.

Books, 2017

[Thanks to Kathleen Sheldon in particular for most of these suggested books. Short quotes after each book are from the publishers' descriptions unless source is otherwise cited.]

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, 2017. "Adichie has partly written Dear Ijeawele to reclaim the word feminism from its abusers and misusers. Her advice is not only to provide children with alternatives—to empower boys and girls to understand there is no single way to be—but also to understand that the only universal in this world is difference." - Emma Brockes, The Guardian (UK)

Balghis Badri and Aili Mari Tripp, eds. Women's Activism in Africa: Struggles for Rights and Representation, 2017. "Drawing on case studies and fresh empirical material from across the continent, the authors challenge the prevailing assumption that notions of women's rights have trickled down from the global north to the south, showing instead that these movements have been shaped by above all the unique experiences and concerns of the local women involved."

Helene Cooper. Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 2017. "Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and bestselling author Helene Cooper deftly weaves Sirleaf's personal story into the larger narrative of the coming of age of Liberian women."

Linda M. Heywood. Njinga of Angola: Africa's Warrior Queen Hardcover, 2017. "Though largely unknown in the Western world, the seventeenth-century African queen Njinga was one of the most multifaceted rulers in history, a woman who rivaled Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great in political cunning and military prowess."

Kathleen Sheldon. African Women: Early History to the 21st Century. 2017. "The rich case studies and biographies in this thorough survey establish a grand narrative about women's roles in the history of Africa."

Books, 2016

Berger, Iris. Women in Twentieth-Century Africa, 2016. "This book introduces students to many remarkable women, who organized religious and political movements, fought in anti-colonial wars, ran away to escape arranged marriages, and during the 1990s began successful campaigns for gender parity in national legislatures."

Feldman-Savelsberg, Pamela. Mothers on the Move: Reproducing Belonging Between Africa and Europe, 2016. "[The author"takes readers back and forth between Cameroon and Germany to explore how migrant mothers—through the careful and at times difficult management of relationships—juggle belonging in multiple places at once: their new country, their old country, and the diasporic community that bridges them."

Hunt, Swanee. Rwandan Women Rising. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017. "[The author] shares the stories of some seventy women—heralded activists and unsung heroes alike—who overcame unfathomable brutality, unrecoverable loss, and unending challenges to rebuild Rwandan society."

Mgbako, Chi Adanna. To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa, 2016. "Well-written and elegant, Mgbako's research reveals the rise of African sex work activism and the ongoing trials and tribulations of organizing in the face of economic, social, and political adversity." - Aziza Ahmed,Northeastern University

Rhine, Kathryn A. The Unseen Things: Women, Secrecy, and HIV in Northern Nigeria, 2016. "The book is especially innovative in its rich detail about desire, pleasure and love, and the strategies men and women use to reconstitute relationships after testing positive for HIV." - Carolyn Sargent, Washington University in St. Louis

Scully, Pamela. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Ohio Short Histories of Africa), 2016. "A clear and concise introduction to the woman and to the domestic and international politics that have shaped her personally and professionally.” —Peace A. Medie, University of Ghana

Sylvanus, Nina. Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa, 2016. "[The author] tells a captivating story of global trade and cross-cultural aesthetics in West Africa, showing how a group of Togolese women—through the making and circulation of wax cloth—became influential agents of taste and history."

Books, 2015

Galawdewos, Wendy Laura Belcher, and Michael Kleiner. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, 2015.[Link below goes to 2018 concise edition.] "This is the first English translation of the earliest-known booklength biography of an African woman, and one of the few lives of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century."

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