Women Kings, Invisible Reigns Decolonizing Western Feminist’s Interpretation of African Women’s Experiences

The Mandinka word for King is Mansah. Unlike its English counterparts, Mansah has no implicit or explicit gender. Instead, a speaker must take the extra linguistic step of adding the male or female adjective to the word to assert and specify the gender of a Mansah. Mansah Keh translates to male king or male leader. Mansah Musso translates to female king or female leader—female king, to reiterate, not queen. I come from a land of women kings. I speak a language that recognized their reigns and power long before an English-speaking tongue ever uttered the word feminism.

The perception of African women by non-Africans often stems from misguided interpretations of their lived experiences. In an age where African women are at the forefront of socio-political movements, technological innovations, and medical breakthroughs, flawed notions of what it means to be an African woman still undermine female African achievement. In a recent interview, Melinda Gates, the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said ‘access to contraceptives is the greatest anti-poverty tool we have.’

Although she expressed these views in the context of her passion for working with African women, there is some danger in suggesting birth control as a significant development tool. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donates millions of dollars in humanitarian aid in African countries every year, yet its co-founder seems to believe that a lack of access to birth control lies at the centre of the poverty problem, and that access to contraceptives is the most prominent solution to reducing poverty levels.

Using birth control to shape humanitarian aid policies is a recipe for disaster that will manifest in the form of wasted aid money. This is a point that Zambia-born economist, Dambisa Moyo, raises in her book, Dead Aid. In the book, Moyo challenges the current model of providing foreign aid to Africa and offers a roadmap for financing development that actually guarantees economic growth. She states that ‘the net result of aid-dependency is that instead of having a functioning Africa, managed by Africans, for Africans, what is left is one where outsiders attempt to manage its destiny and call the shots.’

Moyo argues that foreign direct investments in the African market, the utilization of microfinancing practices, and improved accountability in business practices and public governance will serve as a better means to ending poverty on the continent than aid packages. This argument and suggested alternatives to the current aid ‘industry’ were not entirely well-received. Philanthropists like Bill Gates, Melinda’s husband and co-founder of the Gates Foundation, went as far as saying that Moyo ‘didn’t know much about aid and what it was doing in Africa.’ Canadian academic and social scientist, Dimitri Faille, described Moyo’s belief in the good nature of the free-market economy as ‘naïve.’

While Bill Gates and Dimitri Faille do not speak for the West, they are examples of the powerful voices that represent the foreign aid industrial complex and Western spaces of academic discourse. Their deliberate dismissal of an African woman’s, analysis of a topic in which she holds a doctoral degree in, is exemplary of the many challenges African women experts face when going up against the aid industry and other systems that are entrenched in Western norms and values. It is important to note that Western philanthropist and academics are not the only ones who have condemned Moyo’s book and arguments against aid programmes. She has faced criticism from African economists as well as African’s who work within the aid and development sector. These criticisms range from refuting Moyo’s claim that robust foreign direct investments would fill in the financial gap left behind by an abrupt stop to foreign aid, to more general critiques about a lack of clear analytical rigour and evidence for her assertions. Where these criticisms of Moyo differ from that of Gates and Faille is that they do not put Moyo’s legitimacy, knowledge or authority over the topic of her book into question. Instead, they engage directly with the text and refute her arguments from the perspective of peers rather than as the arbiters of her expertise or the validity of her voice. The subject of aid and the management of development funds continue to be a contentious topic in Africa, but today the stakes are higher than ever before.

In the past three years, four African countries have peacefully toppled dictatorships and ushered in new democracies. The smallest country on the continent, The Gambia, headed this wave of new democracies. Led predominantly vigorous organizing by women’s groups and youth organizations, the people of The Gambia ended President Yaya Jammeh’s twenty-two-year regime through the nation’s historic 2016 elections. Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and, most recently, Sudan followed suit.

While things are far from perfect in these new and transitioning democracies, they each have the potential to establish an economic environment ripe for foreign investments. According to Ahmed Derbali, Lilia Trabelsi, and Mohamed Habib Zitouna, economists who studied the effects of the Arab Spring in North Africa on the Foreign Direct Investments in the region, ‘Countries in transition are often a source of opportunities for international growth for foreign companies. They offer new markets opened to the world.’

From the World Investment Report, Foreign Direct Investments in Africa have increased by 11 per cent to 46 billion dollars in the past year and are expected to continue to increase. This prospect for lucrative investment deals exists amidst the greater environment of the modern scramble for Africa, where former colonial powers, the United States, China and Russia are all vying for economic and socio-political influence on the continent. These complex dynamics have the potential to be a launching pad for Africa’s place in the international arena or to create the perfect storm to anchor the continent in a sea of civil unrest, and economic dependence on foreign countries. A decisive step needed for the first of these two scenarios to occur will be the recognition of the value, and agency of more than fifty per cent of the continent’s population: African women.

The World Economic Forum describes African women as ‘a powerful and untapped economic force.’ It goes on to describe gender mainstreaming efforts of the international community as ‘well-intentioned’ but ‘too often focused on surface-level changes while the architecture of inequalities and patriarchal neoliberalism remains intact.’ Dismantling this architecture will inevitably require the recognition of the voices of the women it adversely affects.

Erasing Our Voices

The dominant narrative of Africa that is legitimized by platforms of intellectual discourse and general knowledge dissemination is often not written by Africans. Such narratives, moreover, tend to hold sway over modern analyses of Africa’s social, cultural and political contexts. This phenomenon is apparent in many ‘well-meaning’ social justice and development initiatives, and projects that continue to rely on a singular narrative of African womanhood and omit the voices of the subjects of their research.

An example of such omissions in well-meaning projects is a 2015 country profile of the Gambia that covered Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Published in 2015 by 28 Too Many, a non-profit dedicated to ending FGM in the 28 African countries where it is still practiced, the profile begins by asserting that ‘The women of the Gambia perform the challenging roles of wives and mothers, food producers, income earners and are the stalwarts of their families and communities; this is despite the fact that a majority of them have been subjected to FGM.’

This description of Gambian women as wives, mothers, food producers and the vague title of income earners without specification of the professions Gambian women hold, while not incorrect, is one-dimensional. It lacks the nuance and context needed to fairly analyze the complexities around the practice of FGM and the lived experiences of Gambian women. This description further plays into the narrative of African women as figures who lack agency and are perpetually subjected to injustices. It omits the fact that in the Gambia, the practice of FGM is almost exclusively planned, facilitated and perpetuated by women.

Taking the added step of demystifying the practice as something that women are ‘subjected to’ and explaining that the subjugation is done by other women, would have shifted the narrative from one of victimhood to a more accurate analysis of a cultural practice. The report continues with a description of the traditional seclusion period Gambian girls experience after they undergo FGM. It states that ‘The first and last values (of seclusion) are taught through the pain of the initiation ritual, though training for pain endurance starts before initiation when young girls’ hair is plaited /braided (a painful process that they are taught to suffer in silence). Physical punishment is considered socially acceptable in Gambian society, which also includes wife-beating.’

The suggestion that the pain of hair braiding is somehow related to a greater societal acceptance of physical punishment such as wife-beating is a far-fetched assertion. Hair braiding is, indeed, an integral part of Gambian culture. The practice plays a key role in many traditional ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and FGM/ initiation ceremonies. However, it is not a social marker for an entire country’s acceptance of violence against women and young girls. Nowhere in this profile is it mentioned that in The Gambia, braiding styles can connote a woman’s age, tribe/ethnic group, and social class. Instead, the profile omitted this piece of information that would have, again, demystified a cultural practice and rendered context to the hair braiding before FGM ceremonies the author mentioned. By omitting these key pieces of information, whether intentionally or through neglect, the author of the report perpetuated the singular narrative of the oppressed or subjugated African girl/woman.

Creating the Third World Woman

In the context of women’s rights initiatives and movements, there is a palpable bias when even western feminists analyze and write about the experiences of African women. Riddled with glaring omissions and cultural relativism, the narrative of African womanhood as written by western scholars is presented in a mystified gyre of pity and a perpetual need for a saviour. Anchored by hubris and western exceptionalism, these narratives lack nuance. As Chandra Mohanty discusses in her essay, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, such narratives are based on dull assumptions of an inherent societal problem within African contexts. As such, these western scholars make little to no engagement with the African subjects of their work or the underlying reasons behind the problems that they claim to be solving.

Mohanty explains that within these inherently flawed western feminists texts, a monolithic ‘third world woman’ emerges. Her image, viewed through a lens of colonization, will invariably imply a structural hierarchy of power and a discursive suppression of autonomy. This third world woman’s lived experiences are analyzed, judged, and commented upon from point of reference that only upholds feminist interests as they have been articulated in the West. Time and time again, the ‘third world woman’ is written into a corner that leaves no room for context or nuance. From this corner created by western feminists emerges the image of the dutiful wife, the child bride, the mother, and the perpetual victim.

However varied, the image of the third world woman is static. She is the formidable linchpin that guides so much of western feminist literature on Africa. This image exists within the framework of a dutiful African step-mother, who is docile in her nature in Mary Hoffman’s children’s novel Boundless Grace. The same static portrayal of African women exists in more robust pieces of western feminist literature like Women in the Third World: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Issues which describes the African women being ‘held behind’ by obstacles ‘deeply rooted in Africa’s history and patriarchal culture.’ Such literature drowns out the autonomy and strength synonymous with womanhood in many African cultures.

Like many other unfortunate products of colonialism, the way in which the West writes about African women has found its way back to Africa and in the post-colonial work of African academics, musicians, and visual artists. As a result, the archetype of the third world woman can be found in many of our most celebrated pieces of literature and art. She exists in Okonkwo’s dutiful wives in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Her presence is palpable in the many ‘queens’ in Fela Kuti’s lyrics and personal life. She is often nameless and depicted with a baby on her back and a jar or basket on her head in countless paintings by African artists.

Feminism on the Continent

At its core, feminism is not a uniquely western concept. Some variation of feminism and the general struggle to recognize women’s agency and autonomy has existed in Africa since the dawn of history. Just as former colonial masters have a rich history of female leaders and monarchs, Africa has a host of powerful historical and contemporary female leaders and monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I of England and Isabella of Spain are two formidable forces in European history. Their names are etched in most world history lessons. However, the names of Yaa Asantewaa and Njinga Mbandi rarely appear in the same world history discussions. But modern African feminists are creating a space for the discussion of these formidable monarchs and so much more.

Today, African feminist scholars, activists, artists and politicians like Joyce Banda, Nawal El Saadawi and Simphiwe Dana are at the forefront of using activism and creativity to amplify the voices of women on the continent. Feminist organizations such as the African Feminist Forum and the African Gender Institute are also creating a space for academic work and discourse around gender equity on the continent. It is important to note that there is no singular ‘African feminism’. Just like anywhere else in the world, a general consensus of what feminism is and what the movement should look like does not exist on the continent. Also similar to other parts of the world, there are still very palpable tensions between so-called religious or traditional beliefs and feminist movements. These tensions manifest in both the public and private spaces. They take shape in comments around what a married woman’s duties to her husband and household are to more public discussions around sexual abuse by religious leaders. African feminism is not a monolith and it is not clear-cut.

The West rarely depicts its own feminist history and present movements in a monolithic paradigm. Instead, you can find numerous accounts of first, second, and third waves of feminism in academic papers and other scholarly texts. There are stark differences in the discourse around feminist movements from one Western country to the next. Even when countries share a continent such as Mexico and the United States, there is rarely any overlap between the narratives of each country’s respective feminist narratives. In the case of Africa with 54 countries, each with its own distinctive history and cultural practices, a single thread narrative is often used to describe the feminisms that exist on the continent. However, renditions of African women and their experiences as written by African feminists differ significantly from the narratives their western counterparts write. African feminist writers’ works tend to be more nuanced and often specific to national, regional, class, and even tribal boundaries. This measure of specificity provides context to the societal challenges African women may face while providing an honest perspective on their experiences. By writing through an authentic and indigenous cultural lens, African feminists are actively dismantling the image of the oppressed woman created by the West.

When categories of oppressed women are described through a Eurocentric lens, the systems within which they live are defined on a scale based on Eurocentric norms. These analyses fail to highlight their own privilege and the inherent flaws within Western norms. They also dismiss power shifts between the Global North and Global South, which are often the underlying factors behind gender inequity in the developing countries at the centre of these analyses. Such writings reinforce the misguided belief that women from countries such as the Gambia’s experiences of feminism are either simply not evolved to the extent of that of the West or are in fact a product of western influence. This perspective homogenizes the experiences of women in African countries and perpetuates a singular and universal image of the ‘third-world woman’.

We see the third world woman manifest in images of the veiled woman, the powerful mother, and the obedient wife, tropes popular in western literature, academic studies and philanthropic projects. In the case of Africa (as written by the West), the third world woman exists in a perpetual need of pity. She exists with no cultural or historical context within western scholarly discourse. These literal and figurative images are at the centre of many country condition reports about the status of African women in Africa. Such reports like the 28 Too Many report on the Gambia hold a dangerous power in defining the experiences of women in Africa and the rest of the Global South. African literature, films, music, and the traditional art of storytelling continue to play a major role in dismantling this flawed narrative of African women and solidifying a nuanced idea of womanhood in Africa.

Reclaiming Our Voices

While you can find problematic threads of European imported stereotypes in old Nollywood movies, early post-colonial literature and music, there is now a profound shift in how we tell our stories. Recent literary phenomes such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer beautifully depict strong and dynamic female characters who are not shrouded in the physical or literary cloaks of oppression. Films such as King of Boys, in which the female protagonist is antithetical to the third world woman, have found success in Nigeria and other African countries. These recent novels and films tell a fundamentally different story of what womanhood looks like on the continent. They tell stories that are varied, ever-evolving, and in no way simple or singular.

African womanhood is also present in African American and Afro-Caribbean traditions and literature. In Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, W.E.B. Du Bois cites the value of black women as pillars in America’s black communities, the effects of their sacrifices, and the culmination of their dreams by saying: ‘To no modern race does its women mean so much as to the Negro nor come so near to the fulfilment of its meaning. Today the dreams of the mothers are coming true. We have still our poverty and degradation, our lewdness and our cruel toil; but we have, too, a vast group of Negro blood who for the strength of character, cleanliness of soul, and unselfish devotion of purpose, are today the peer of any group’.

African womanhood as a lived experience and a symbolic ideology has withstood the trials of time. It has survived slavery, colonialism, and the continuous flawed portrayals rampant in Western feminist discourse. At a time when African women are no longer asking for seats at Western tables of discourse, their points of view and perspectives hold the key to ushering the continent into an equitable, socio-politically stable and economically prosperous future. Any company or organization looking to invest in Africa or do development work will have to include and engage the continent’s ever-growing force of women. Such inclusion and engagement cannot exist in a paradigm that is devoid of respect and nuance.

It is impossible for African women to recognize themselves in mirrors framed in Western standards and colonial power dynamics. Although distorted images of us persist, women like the raging Fire Woman in Homecoming or the Sky Mother and Maji in Children of Blood and Bone work to combat this image by their very existence in our literature. These stories serve as a means of breaking the inaccurate mirror the West continues to hold up for us, in hopes of using the shards to create and control an honest depiction of African womanhood.

Unlike the figurative ‘third world woman’, women kings exist in Africa. They take the form of presidents, a record number of members of parliament, business executives and ruling monarchs. Their reign has always existed within the complex social fabric of the continent. Needing no stamp of legitimacy, they continue to thrive⎈