Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome
Listening and interpreting have the potential of either contributing to understanding, enlightenment, and mutual respect, or to misunderstanding, obfuscation, and disrespect. To demonstrate that what passes for listening and interpreting in many scholarly efforts to understand Africa falls in the latter category, I begin this paper by drawing on two definitive experiences. I am a mother of two boys, and from 1989 until 2002, I was a freelance interpreter/translator of Yorùbá. Listening and interpreting are central to both experiences. I turn first to the relationship between my children and myself. If I cannot listen to them, if I cannot interpret the deeper meanings of the thoughts, feelings, emotions they convey; if I cannot listen to the world and interpret it to them, I would have failed woefully. Listening, understanding, and interpreting are central to this relationship because, come hell or high water, my children are bent on communicating with me.
Over the years, they have communicated regardless of time, place, and circumstance. As a mother, I must confess that while being committed to listening to my children, my capacity to do so is often sorely tested by what for them may be irrelevant pursuits; thinking, brooding, reading, studying, writing papers, grading papers, attending conferences, delivering papers, sleeping. My younger son has not given up on me. He is bent on making me live up to his higher standards. He is quite adept at expressing himself. I constantly hear from him: Mommy, are you listening to me? Did you see this? What do you think? You’re not really looking at my work. You didn’t look long enough. I am always quick to apologize and to demonstrate intense, focused attention. At this point however, my teenager has given up on me. He understands by now that he is the only intelligent being in a universe of fools. Guess who fools number one and two are? Yet I listen. When my young genius permits, I even make my feeble attempts to interpret the world to him. Is this the kind of listening and interpreting relationship that scholars of Africa engage in when they interact with the continent? Is this the skill that is brought to or even needed in scholarship?
A parent-child relationship is one that ought to be loving, but as I see it, it cannot be a relationship of equals. I have even disabused my teenager of the notion that we can be friends. As I explained it to him, a mother is superior to a friend in dedication, love, and commitment to the child’s success. A friend may shy away from telling the truth for fear of losing a friendship, but a good mother owes it to her child to be frank, while loving, particularly in a child’s formative years. A mother owes it to her child to be firm while remaining committed to listening, interpreting, and understanding. It is one of the most serious jobs any human can have. Done well, it produces a compassionate, strong, balanced child who is an asset to the whole of humanity. The point here is that the relationship between mother and child may be a loving one, a mother may be totally committed to listening to a child, nevertheless, the mother is the superior party. A superior-subordinate relationship has no place in the interaction between African peoples and the scholars that study them. The history of the Western world is replete with the expression of the privileged position of the Westerner as long-suffering parent, and the people dominated as children.[i]
While many assume that we have progressed beyond that primitive stage of false superiority, I argue that many explorations in listening and interpreting continue to be projects of domination. I also argue that such projects ought to be resisted, challenged, and rejected. No scholar is superior to the subject that he or she studies. No scholar can fully engage in work without depending on the subject for information. Such information constitutes knowledge, and a scholar may interpret accurately or misinterpret. There are various other life experiences that I can draw on to give an idea of the eternally shifting meaning of interpreting and listening. As a sister, daughter, teacher, friend, spouse, colleague, different listening and interpreting skills are brought to bear. Is one to be literal or metaphoric? Is one to be nuanced or otherwise? Is one an equal, a superior or a subordinate? Does one have power or not? These issues are all relevant to the listening, understanding and interpreting project. Negotiating the experience skillfully and adroitly, and intelligently is crucial to being a good person. I daresay, it is imperative for a scholar to negotiate the experience impeccably. However, I call on all scholars who study Africa to ask of themselves, How does one listen? What does one listen to? When does one listen? These are all questions related to the larger question, who is a good listener? A related question is how to interpret? How much of the culture, language, preconceived notions, socialization of the interpreter ought to be taken into consideration? Should an interpreter assume that the interpreted plays no role whatsoever in whatever interpretation they choose to give? What is the responsibility of a good interpreter? A last question that I raise is one on understanding. What constitutes understanding? Ought one to assume that once you have your Ph.D. and a little bit of experience in Africa, you can say just about anything about the continent and its peoples? Why then does what I call Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African women thrive? I argue that it thrives because even the most well intentioned listener and interpreter may be hobbled by the inability/unwillingness to understand. It thrives because being committed to listening does preclude the exercise of power. Listening and interpreting may very well be instances of relational power. I hasten now to discuss the concept and a few of the ramifications that emerge from its effects on listening to Africa, effects that contribute in no small measure to the misunderstanding and misinterpreting of Africa in the Western academy.
Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism
Mainstream feminist writings on African women tend to portray African women as confused, powerless and unable to determine for themselves both the changes needed in their lives and the means to construct these changes. [ii] Thus, Western feminists, acting like superiors who hand down valuable knowledge, define the relevant issues for African women, how these issues ought to be promoted and pursued and what the end result should be. In this sense, Western feminist discourse on African women, which is characterized by what I call reformist feminist evangelism, replicates the missionary evangelism exhibited by the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century colonialists, missionaries, anthropologists, and sundry adventurers when they explored, brutally "pacified", Christianized, and colonized Africa. It was these Europeans who invented the notion of Africa as the Dark Continent, and the African as the exotic antithesis of the enlightened, progressive Westerner. This invention continues to permeate religious and secular thought alike and remains pervasive in contemporary Western thought.[iii] It will be interrogated and problematized in the following paper. The critique is both ontological and epistemological. There are striking parallels between the activities of contemporary feminists and the colonialist missionaries in Africa. I draw attention to just two. First, both groups actively prospect for converts through widespread proselytization that rejects all other sources of knowledge as illegitimate and inferior. Second, Western trends, phenomena and ideologies are idealized as both modern and desirable. Indeed, they are presented as the only pool from which viable solutions to human problems should be drawn. In this spirit, it is then possible for practices such as polygyny continue to be drawn out as a symbol of male domination in feminist literature. It also becomes possible, as has been done in recent times, to cast female circumcision as an imposition by men on women to keep them celibate, to own them as just so much property, all this without any deep exploration into the cultures concerned to discern the reasons why people do what they do. There is also a great deal of ahistoricity involved in many such explorations.
Reformist feminist evangelism emerges from the ideological, political, and economic hegemony of the West that privileges all things Western. The assumption is that Westerners, whether feminist or otherwise, are better able to apprehend and interpret reality than Africans. Better yet, that they have listened to the Africans, completely understand them, and are now interpreting what the Africans are incapable of verbalizing themselves to the world. This assumption only continues in the colonialist tradition of the past, while posing as a sisterly gesture from woman to woman. To the contrary, in an exploration of the possibility of equality in sisterhood among women, Nkiru Nzegwu makes a convincing case for the impossibility of dialogue if one uses Western mono-sex categories of thought in investigating indigenous societies. [iv] Oyeronke Oyewumi goes even further to question the utility of imposing concepts and categories that are derived from Western historical experience on African societies. [v] These critiques emphasize the impossibility of dialogue between a hegemonic West and subordinate African world-senses. It is then not surprising that African cultural practices are historically portrayed in a manner that totally dehumanizes Africans by portraying an image of people without any capacity to conceptualize and articulate the reasoning behind their “brutal” social practices.
Some of the clearest evidence of Western feminist evangelism in contemporary scholarship is found in the discourse on female circumcision. Like the encounter between Africa and the European invaders from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, contact with the West is perceived as a way for Africans "to evolve from their frozen state to the dynamism of Western civilization." [vi] Western feminist discourse on female circumcision continues the colonial tradition of the enlightened Westerner, attempting to reform the "backward" populations of Africa.[vii] Thus, the crucial question in the debate on circumcision is conceptualized by mainstream feminist theorists as involving right versus wrong, and civilization versus barbarity, continuing the colonialist effort to interpret indigenous African culture, and thereby, dominate it. Yet this effort at understanding is seriously limited by an absolute abhorrence of the otherness of the subject and a striving for sameness through the imposition of a conception of human civilization which is exclusively Western.
Many feminist arguments on female circumcision automatically assume that women subject themselves to this procedure only at the insistence of males, thus ignoring the likelihood that for some women, this is a choice regarding the manner in which they want to treat their bodies, and that for others, it is just one of the manifestations of socially accepted norms. In this sense, the decision taken by African parents to circumcise their daughters is no different from the prevailing assumptions within the dominant culture in the U.S. that when boys are birthed, they are circumcised. From my experience as the mother of two boys who were born in the United States, this is an assumption that is so normalized that when a woman gives birth to a boy in the hospital, she is immediately asked whether she wants him circumcised. When the woman responds positively to the hospital's inquiry, how informed is she about the implications of her choice? How knowledgeable is she about what she has chosen, and why? The point is that choices are made in societies on the basis of the assumption that individuals do not have to 're-invent the wheel' on problems that have been resolved and normalized. It is precisely because social norms differ in specific times and places that what constitutes solid, well-considered and sensible choice is eternally contestable. Comparative analyses of various African societies on why some choose female genital surgeries and others reject it are thus necessary. Opponents and supporters of female genital surgeries in Africa must also engage in debate that incorporates the critiques of the opponents and rationale of the supporters. If the goal is eradication, appropriate strategies must be jointly devised. These strategies will work best if a new hegemonic consensus emerges within communities and societies which practice these procedures; where people delve into social constructions of identity such that powerful alternatives are constructed. To date, this has not been done. Scholars and activists of Western and African derivation have engaged in top-down attempts and very sterile debates on practices which remain little understood.
Another possibility on what would become of the practice of female circumcision in the future is that it is a fact of life that practices that are of limited utility to a society are bound to wither away. The task for abolitionist activists and scholars, then, is to find productive ways of speeding the process along. How this is done is as important as what is being done. In contrast to African social practices, Western mutilations, which take the form of elective cosmetic surgery, are touted as a sign of women's liberation. In fact, these practices seem sane only when viewed against the background of culture and society. Although it is highly unpopular to say so, the same can be said of social practices in Africa. Acknowledging that Africans exercise choices such as these, however, is frowned upon and condemned through what Schattschneider refers to as the "mobilization of bias". [viii] Applied to scholarly discourse on female genital surgeries, this is a process where the more powerful determine prior to public debate what the relevant issues are and disallow issues that they deem to be unsuitable.
This chapter proposes questions that will illuminate the mobilization of bias in feminist theorizing on female genital surgeries: Who has the capacity and knowledge to speak on the issue? Is objective analysis on this subject possible? Are the questions being asked relevant? How best can the subject be studied? Answering these questions is facilitated by applying Mudimbe's critique of missionary discourse on Africans to feminist scholarship on African women.[ix] Intellectually, African women are considered either "pure children or incipient human beings in need of tutoring" because of their failure to meet Western standards, again, a replication of colonial standards of judgment.[x] Hence, the overwhelming majority of writings and discourse on African women fail to acknowledge the reality informed by the multidimensional nature of African women in terms of both their experiences and the articulation of their goals. Women's objectives and policy preferences from pre-colonial times to the present and their struggle to shape their own destiny are ignored in favor of a sensationalized presentation of the abuses to which they are subjected.
If it were possible, as Joyce Gelb did in a comparative study of feminism and politics, to "demonstrate how differences in British, American and Swedish feminism relate to systemic and cultural differences" it is inevitable that the forms and the expressions taken by women's struggles in each African society will differ from the other, and that these struggles will not replicate the experience of Western women. [xi] Most feminist scholars and activists have refused to acknowledge this basic fact and have continued to churn out studies that present African women as nothing but a compendium of problems.
The thrust of my argument is that African women, like any other group, are able to articulate their needs, evaluate alternative courses of action, and mobilize for collective action where necessary.[xii] Sometimes they have even successfully changed the course of history. If the objectives and policy preferences of women are not studied as part of a dialectical historical process, feminist scholarship will forever be damned with the curse of unidimensionality, and all avenues to the production of new knowledge will be blocked. The complexity, which exists in real- life situations, an essential component of any human situation or condition, will go unrecognized.
The term "Western feminists" in this chapter is not used geographically to apply only to feminists in the West. Instead, it describes a mindset that has come to be shared worldwide because of the hegemony of the West in scholarship and in the production of knowledge. In this sense, some African scholars are also Western feminists in their consciousness, approaches, and recommendations.[xiii] For example, there is very little difference between mainstream Western feminist thought and that found in the Economic Commission for Africa's 1981 study by Belkis Wolde Giorgis, who states that "patriarchal family structures assign women a subordinate role in the household and community. Women's subordinate role is maintained by cultural practices designed to control women's reproductive capacity. One such practice is female circumcision."[xiv] Giorgis essentially claims the victimization of African women by society thus: "Left out of the new structures or remaining marginal to them, women are victims of traditional practices that are often harmful to their well-being and that of their children."[xv] Like many feminist analyses, Giorgis contends that African women are treated no differently from children, and, moreover, that children in African societies are not nurtured but subjected to abusive treatment because of the wrong-headed maintenance of harmful, outdated traditions. For her, women as well as children are jural minors; and African societies have neither the capacity nor the capability of offering them equal protection of the laws or conventions. She loses sight of the central point of gender analysis, which is that gender is socially constructed. Of course, there is considerable inequality between men and women. This is incontrovertible. To argue however, that all men stand in a position of privilege vis-à-vis women would be absurd. Clarity is important. Women are not an undifferentiated mass. Quite apart from class cleavages, there are degrees of hierarchy that are manifested in socially specific ways between individuals, men and women alike. To illustrate this point, in Yorùbá society, a younger woman is not equal to an older one. A wife is not equal to the daughters of the house or family into which she marries. Younger wives are not equal to older wives. A poor man is not equal to a wealthy woman, and neither is a poor woman. A woman who is a chief has more power than a woman and man who are not. [xvi] These are important relational principles that affect the society’s conceptualization of power and the capacity to exercise power. Understanding them facilitates the explanation of why people make choices and how to structure incentives such that the process of change is accelerated. It is also crucial to recognize that African societies differ so markedly, depending on the issue area; thus, comparative analysis of these several societies is more fruitful than globalization of an African reality that exists only within scholarly imagination.
An additional flaw in Giorgis' work is that she takes the entire continent of Africa as one single unit of analysis, leading to the gross conflation of many dissimilar situations. In spite of these flaws, however, she offers some valuable insights: first, on the issue of the causal factors responsible for the definition of Africa's socio-economic structures, and second, on the analysis of the struggle between Western women and their "desire to perform a civilizing mission and African women's desire to define their own ways and means of struggling against oppressive structures and building alternatives.” These insights get lost however in an analysis that replicates the same problems that Giorgis identifies so accurately.
To reiterate, reformist feminist evangelism is regressive as well as sterile. Countless studies are churned out on helpless and hapless African women. They do not always reflect social, political, and economic reality. The issue of female circumcision is over-sensationalized because of the need of some to play a messianic role. If scholarship is to be meaningful, it is only as a quest for knowledge, a portrayal of reality that is as accurate as possible. If African women cannot recognize themselves in scholarly portrayals of them, we have failed as scholars. According to Mudimbe, "Anthropologists, sociologists, and theologians from foreign Churches have been studying us for many years ... We have become a fertile field for the kind of research that will enable a person to write an 'interesting' thesis and obtain an academic degree... It is therefore not surprising that we do not recognize ourselves in their writings." [xvii] This time-honored tradition continues today, making it impossible for one to recognize anything remotely approaching the reality in the scholarly, journalistic, and popular depictions of African women in the overwhelming majority of Western works, feminist or otherwise.
In this work, I reject the use of the terminology that has come to be the dominant one in discussions concerning African women's genitalia. The term is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Instead, I use the term, female genital surgeries. The usage of the term, “FGM”, is rejected because there is an overt assumption tied to it that the African societies that practice these procedures deliberately set out to disfigure their women. Indeed, the practice of female genital surgeries has been identified as the ultimate signifier of African male dominance and female powerlessness.
Several groups have emerged within the boundaries of the African continent and in the West that assert their commitment to the eradication of “FGM” This terminology is problematic not only because it emerges from an assumption that the intent of societies in which these procedures are practiced is to control women by wreaking violence on them, that these societies want to butcher, mangle, deform, assault, and batter their women en-masse, is an assumption that is yet to be conclusively proven. It is, I daresay, an assumption that has not emerged out of a successful listening and interpreting project, making misunderstanding and its by-products the only logical conclusion.
The terminology female genital surgeries is also preferable because if the intent is to eliminate these practices, serious scholars must move away from sensationalism and headline-grabbing and endeavor to make thoughtful enquiries into why they persist. Doing so would facilitate the engineering of appropriate, relevant, and lasting solutions. In this regard, Esther Hicks' study of infibulation in Islamic Northeastern Africa exemplifies a sensible, even-handed scholarly approach.[xviii] Unlike most studies of female genital surgeries, Esther Hicks recognizes that for some societies, the practice of infibulation is the norm, and the reasons why it is normative can be subjected to serious scholarly inquiry. From Hicks perspective, female genital surgeries are but one of the ties that bind the community; one of the mechanisms through which the communities have chosen to define roles and identities. To the extent that this is true, it is essential to undertake clear-headed gender analyses that clearly explicate the nature and form of patriarchy and other forms of hierarchical relationships in these societies. When this is done, structural institutions within communities will be understood more concretely. It becomes clear that women within them have power, agency, and make choices on how to treat their bodies, albeit within the constraints of existing institutions. It is this power and agency that must be deployed in culturally specific ways to assert new understandings of identity. In turn, these new understandings yield worthwhile changes in social relations.
Reformist feminist evangelism reveals the hallmarks of the traditional evangelist mission, which, for Mudimbe, is characterized by a "holier than thou" attitude, proselytization, ethnocentrism, and imperialism. [xix] In the main, these attitudes and practices are made possible by three factors: (i) Western hegemony in scholarly discourse; (ii) the character of the international system; and (iii) the colonial origin of African states, which defines the nature and form of the contemporary state. Thus, the production of knowledge has been internationalized to such an extent that at conferences, in courses, and in scholarly debates on women, one observes a remarkable degree of convergence. In this arena, only one interpretation of reality is accepted as valid - the Western one. It is assumed that only one group of people can successfully listen, observe, interpret and understand - Westerners, or their adopted brothers and sisters from the marginalized lands in the world, of which Africa is a part.
Essentially, my point is that Western feminists often attempt to fit Africa and Africans forcibly into theories and models that cannot be reasonably applied. The focus thus far has been the inability of the continent and its peoples to achieve progress and advancement in a manner that replicates the historical experience of the West. The Western feminist desire to "reform" and "uplift" the African woman is couched in seemingly innocuous phrases such as "sisterhood is global". Sisterhood appears to be global, however, only to the extent that Western feminists can dictate the acceptable standards by sharing the "good news of great joy" with women in other parts of the world. The first part of the news is that women are oppressed by male domination and, patriarchy. The second part is that their Western big sisters will help to set these “powerless” and “voiceless” women free. The third part concerns gender. Clearly, for the concept to be meaningful, it must be socially constructed, but only the West's construction is accepted as valid. Western feminists are presented as humanitarians who are helping their African sisters by bringing gender discourse to a higher level. The prevailing attitude seems to be that Western feminists have either solved these elementary problems that are provoked by gender relations at an earlier historical period, or that like doctors in the itinerant medicine shows of old, they have what the Yorùbás refer to as oògùn gbogboònse (the cure-all elixir); the bag of tricks from which they pull out remedies that can serve to cure all gender-related maladies suffered by their disadvantaged sisters in Africa.
The literature on Women and Development manifests all such Western traits. It grossly over-generalizes the condition of women in African societies. Women are described as oppressed, downtrodden, and immiserated. African women are treated as an undifferentiated mass of humanity. Neither class nor status is taken into consideration. Even where there are attempts to grapple with the implications of class and status, African women are viewed as objects of history rather than as active agents of change. The result is the conceptualization of feminine gender in Africa as a disability across the board. When this scholarly depiction is juxtaposed with the situation of living and breathing women in Africa, its one-dimensional nature is revealed, and the question as to whether Africanist scholars are able to listen, understand, and interpret becomes relevant.
In order to put the spotlight on the tendency to present the feminine gender as a disability, I take one example of the negative scholarly depiction of African women, particularly by those who consider themselves to be the "friends" of the African women. One such individual is Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, a respected French historian of Africa, who has now turned her hand, as many have done recently, to women's studies. For Coquery-Vidrovitch, African women are impeded from developing a sense of the self because they remain the quintessential "beasts of burden." "They are so overburdened with tasks of all kinds that they hardly have time to bemoan their fate or even to wonder about it. Their image of themselves remain cloudy." Following this reasoning, Coquery-Vidrovitch directs her attention "primarily to understand why African women have lacked the leisure and often even the right to observe themselves."[xx]
Professor Coquery-Vidrovitch presents her work as a serious scholarly effort that not only furnishes women's history, but "highlights a perspective: the history of the whys and wherefores of society from women's viewpoints."[xxi] She falls short of fulfilling this self-imposed "noble" task however, in providing misinterpreted evidence. A few examples are instructive. In the first place, she attributes only to women, or men, some of the roles that are generalizable to both. She makes the mistake of locating the role of oral historian as the exclusive preserve of men among the Sahelian peoples of West Africa, and of women among the Yorùbá of Nigeria.[xxii] In each of these cases, she is wrong. There are indeed male griots, (oral historians) in Sahelian societies but female griottes also abound there as well. There are Yorùbá female specialists in oríkì, (praise poetry) as there are men. The most damning critique of Coquery-Vidrovitch's work is that she continues the negativities that she so vociferously critiques.
Her accounts of women's oppression are ethnocentric to the extreme. A few examples will suffice. Directly following her assumption that African women are overburdened, Coquery-Vidrovitch uses the characterization "Beasts of Burden" as a subtitle in her first chapter, giving the case of the Tswana as an example.[xxiii] She also uses her, "Slave Women", as the title of her second chapter, and: "Was Every Woman a Slave?” as the sub-title.[xxiv] In these sections of her work, as well as in many other respects, Coquery Vidrovitch presents a beleaguered African woman who is unable to help herself, in contrast with the few elite women, the "free women" or prostitutes[xxv] and drug traffickers, who in her thinking, exhibit a great deal of entrepreneurship, chutzpah, and drive.[xxvi] Consider for example, the following statement:
Currently, Yoruba women's adventurous spirit has led some of them to exercise their talents in overseas trade. In 1991, in Britain, of 267 women arrested for drug trafficking, 81 were Nigerian.[xxvii]
Taken at face value, this statement not only implies that women who go into drug trafficking are doing so out of some higher-order motivation. The element of panache is emphasized, without considering that the personal histories of these women, as told by themselves, reveals that they are driven into being mules in the drug trade, by poverty and desperation. Many of them give reasons why they became couriers as being otherwise unable to fend for their children. They usually leave their children home alone, under the loose supervision of magnanimous neighbors, because they expect to be back within a brief period of time. Many speak of having lost spouses, or having been separated from their spouse, and thus, having no other recourse. Many of them, rather than being smart entrepreneurs, receive the lowest possible return from their efforts in the drug-trafficking hierarchy, all the while facing an overwhelming proportion of the risk.
I reject the blanket assumption that participating in the drug trade is an indication of woman’s entrepreneurial efforts and chutzpah as a result of face-to face interviews with over 100 drug traffickers, men and women, as a freelance interpreter-translator for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1989 to 2002. These men and women are called mules because they are in essence used almost as "pack animals" by higher-ups in the drug-trafficking networks who employ their services for a fee. They often have no idea who exactly owns the drugs that are packed in either the balloons or condoms they swallow. Were these drugs to burst open in their intestines, they would face instant paralysis, or certain death. They are often not told who exactly they are to deliver the drugs to, yet they are assured that the individual will recognize them or meet them in a designated place, often in a cheap hotel room. They are given sums as low as $500 as deposits and promised $1500 on their successful return to Nigeria after delivering the drugs. In what sense are they entrepreneurs?
Of course, there are entrepreneurs in the drug trade, and some of them are women, but often they are not the ones who end up in jail. If and when they are arrested, they do not depend, as the mules do, on court-appointed attorneys, some of whom have been known to fall asleep during court proceedings. They hire skilled, highly-paid, articulate defenders who dazzle all in court with their erudition, eloquence, and expertise. The point of this discussion is that scholars are wont to say almost anything about Africa and its people and get away with it. This practice, I argue, did not start today. It has deep roots in Western scholarly and academic tradition.[xxviii]
Are we to assume that all Nigerian drug traffickers are Yorùbá, or that they are all women? Does her statement enable one to make a determination on these questions one way or the other? By far the most troubling aspect of this work is the statement that African women have no concept of self. Consider again the quote from the very first page of the book, where the author sets for herself the following task:
primarily to understand why African women have lacked the leisure and often even the right to observe themselves…. They are so overburdened with tasks of all kinds that they hardly have time to bemoan their fate or even to wonder about it. Their image of themselves remain cloudy.[xxix]
From what Professor Coquery-Vidrovitch tells us, women who are overburdened with numerous tasks lose an essential part of their humanity. They are neither able to relax, nor are they able to complain about their predicament. These women then lack a sense of the self. But is this a condition that is peculiar to African women? How does the good professor know this? As a young scholar on the tenure track, the condition that she describes covers the state of my existence. I have spoken with those who are old hands at scholarly pursuits who also complain about the relentless time crunch. Are we all lacking in a sense of the self, or this is a condition that we reserve for people whose minds are not trained in Western/Westernized institutions of higher learning?
An approach that acknowledges difference but is based on the respect for the people whom one is studying and listening to would produce a very different analysis. The oral tradition, the processes of daily life, and the interaction between women and among all people within the various African communities show the exact opposite of the depiction that we get from Professor Coquery-Vidrovitch’s book. In artistic expression, the use of language, couture and dress, African women and men name the things that they do in language that is rich and indicative of a fuller understanding of the self and one’s connection to the community and nature. Again, among the Yorùbá, there are names for hairstyles, varieties of fabric and numerous batik and tie-dye pattern. Yorùbás have enough greetings to cover almost every human activity. The individuality of both women and men is not sacrificed to the corporal whole of the community. This is seen in the philosophical and ideological deployment of concepts such as the orí (head, meaning inner essence) which is understood as an indication of the workings of fate in human life. A person, male or female, is absolved of conformity when his or her actions are explained as being driven by their orí. These statements are not deployed selectively to apply solely to men or women. They apply to all.
It is about time that global statements defining African women be informed by explorations in listening, understanding, and interpreting that recognize the errors of the past and correct them.
Western Feminist Hegemony in Development Theory and Practice
An impressive number of studies has emerged in recent times to argue for the inclusion of African women in the development process. The UN Decade for Women is an important watershed for the advent of these studies. However, the hegemonic project that undergirded development theorizing and praxis became clear during the conferences that commemorated the decade. It was obvious that the ideals and norms of Western feminism were the new standards by which feminists from other parts of the world would be judged. Resistance from Third World feminist delegates to these conferences underlined the inappropriateness of the assumption that identical development standards can be fashioned for all women at all times in all parts of the world. Development administration is so top heavy, one wonders if the focus of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have emerged to champion the cause of women is to maintain a steady pool of victims - to justify their existence.[xxx]
One of the most significant consequences of the UN Decade is the focus of international governmental and non-governmental organizations on "the integration of African women in the development process." Beginning in the 1970s, many studies recommend that development efforts should be directed toward rural women who were disadvantaged vis-à-vis rural men and urban women. But are we to assume that all rural women are marginalized, and all urban women are powerful? I observe that the majority of the development efforts directed at women suffer from the fatal flaw of manufacturing victims where there exist powerful, vibrant, active human beings. When women's activism, power, and control over their lives is not acknowledged, these efforts create victims. Awa Thiam's critique of mainstream feminist thought as applied to Black women is instructive in this regard. Looking back into the decade of the 1970s for variables that imperil the equality of women, she argues:
Four aspects seem to be particularly striking in their implications for women. The first is the frequently misguided nature of attempts to integrate women into development; the second, the straitjacket which global capitalism has placed on African development via the IMF and its structural adjustment policies; the third, the potential but unfulfilled role of the state in contributing to the transformation of gender relations; and the fourth, the deepening class (and other) divisions emergent amongst women themselves.[xxxi]
The drive to integrate women into development was revealed to be totally misdirected when it became obvious that women had always been integrated in a multiplicity of occupations and had never been precluded from employment. For Baylies and Bujra, the efficacy of many of the measures supposedly introduced to ameliorate the condition of African women such as "income-generating" schemes and agricultural innovation were also questionable.[xxxii]
Second, when women's economic independence is acknowledged, it is often taken as a negative factor that indicates the shiftlessness of African men. Whereas women are essentially portrayed as beasts of burden, the men are portrayed as lazy and underemployed.[xxxiii] The theoretical frameworks that emerge from this kind of analysis, as characterized by Steady, fosters "dichotomy, individualism, competition and opposition."[xxxiv] If these negative interpretations are all that we get out of the listening, understanding and interpreting project of Africanists, particularly of the Western feminist contingent, there is a need to rethink what constitutes good research, scholarship and activism.We need to focus seriously on identifying the beneficiaries of such scholarship, activism, and research projects.
Colonialism and the African State
Another example of the inability to listen, understand, and interpret is to be found in the Africanist discourse on colonialism and the state. For example, in the introduction to their edited volume on women and class in Africa, Berger and Robertson contend that: "Colonialism not only exacerbated inequality, but ultimately turned over mechanisms for extracting wealth to new African [male] ruling classes."[xxxv] Nevertheless, Berger and Robertson state that the essays they collected hesitate to blame African women's deprivation solely on colonialism and capitalism and support the Western feminist argument that the household as well as the international economy is a prime locus of women's oppression. ... household here must be more broadly defined to include household relations of production, which may be manifested in productive work done outside the home, thus blurring the public-private distinction. [xxxvi] This statement reveals curious reasoning on two counts. First and most troubling, Berger and Robertson assume that the household mode of production is separable from the capitalist system within which it operates, and also that the household mode of production as it exists today represents pre-colonial African socioeconomic systems held constant over time. Both assumptions are problematic, as indicated in Kettel's study in the same volume.
It is instructive to consider Kettel's chapter in the same volume, as she begins it by stating that her essay "is about cows and women’.[xxxvii] The insight revealed in Kettel's analysis into the nature of social relations among the Tugen of Kenya is limited by a sensational introductory statement that clearly categorizes women as being no more important than cattle, cattle and women being just so much male property.[xxxviii] This is amazing, especially given the focus of Kettel's analysis as stated below:[xxxix]
I suggest that research on gender relations among the East African cattle-keepers has been biased, not by insensitive male chauvinism, but by a "received view" on the significance of property in social life, by the assumption that differential rights in property are inevitably associated with differential rights in society. This interpretation .... results from our attempt to understand social relations based on gender from the vantage point of developed capitalism, and thus with an ethnocentric set of assumptions of power in society and in the household. It has caused us to read the present into the past and to assume that the male dominance which is characteristic of so much of present day life in this context is an enduring feature of social reality that has somehow survived untouched by the impact of colonial rule .
Kettel understands the erroneous Western feminist tendency to assume that observed forms of social relations in contemporary Africa exist exactly as they did in pre-colonial times. However, she is wrong when she puts women and cattle in one and the same category. To casually throw around depictions that reinforce the reduction of women to men's property is to accept that women have absolutely no agency. If indeed they do not, why? Have they always lacked agency? How and when did they lose their agency? These are relevant, appropriate, and legitimate questions that must be addressed.
It is important that we be clear about what is, and is not characteristic of pre-colonial gender relations. The scholarship that exists to date has not answered these questions conclusively. Thus gender analysis in or about Africa cannot claim to have answered the essential question of the social construction of the concept. We have been groping around in the dark, and this ought to be acknowledged. It is clear from historical record that the political arm of Western hegemony was established in Africa during the "pacification" and the subsequent colonization process, when the European state form was imposed on Africans. This process was violent and brutal. After its consolidation came the elevation of things European to the stature of the ideal, and things African came to be renounced. The power and weight of the state was used to maintain, to promote, and to perpetuate a class system that privileged Europeans and disadvantaged Africans not only in education, employment, and place of residence, but in all spheres of life. Political hegemony supported and concretized economic hegemony, and ideological hegemony was dispensed through the efforts of the missionaries in church and in school as well as through the media. By independence, the colonialists were able to ensure that the structures of domination they had constructed through their neo-colonial heirs would be maintained.
Besides its cultural and intellectual implications, one of the most enduring structural legacies of the colonial period in Africa remains the imposition of the state through a massively violent and destructive effort. If there was ever a valid argument for the universalized oppression of women, the agency that has been most responsible is the state, which is modeled on its Western counterpart. In both its colonial and post-colonial forms, the African state has discriminated consistently against women. The post-colonial African state, continuing the colonial assault, has done a lot of violence to women's struggle for equality, equity, and justice. Alavi, in his study of Pakistan and Bangladesh, argues that the colonial state was created with an agenda of dominating society, thus, with its strong bureaucracy and military organization it was overdeveloped vis-à-vis society.[xl] This overdeveloped state, built on the culture and thought of the colonizer, then dominates post-colonial society through the use of compulsion and violence. Ake similarly argues that the reality of the state falls short of its idealized form, and for women, this is especially true. The facade of what the state ought to be covers numerous ills. The state is an instrument of domination that retains its colonial characteristics; as such, it guarantees the rule of law only for the bourgeoisie. Essentially, the state remains an arena of class struggle.[xli]
Understanding the state as an arena of class struggle explains the practice of tokenism in all former attempts to join the bandwagon of "integrating women into development" both in the West and in Africa. These integrationist attempts have largely benefitted the bourgeoisie, both male and female. To the extent that female members of the bourgeoisie have more privileged access to the state and have not used their advantages to press for gender equity, one cannot attribute the condition of all women to a universal experience of patriarchy. Experiences of patriarchy are mediated by class, status, and degrees of hierarchy. For Robertson and Berger, commenting on the effects of the colonization of Africa, foreign domination, with its extension into neocolonialism, has introduced new class cleavages into African societies, sometimes onto a relatively egalitarian base, sometimes into previously stratified social structures. [xlii] While earlier patterns of inequality usually intensified during the colonial period, new class systems also have developed in accordance with changing forms of capitalist penetration.
Many of these processes of social transformation have been detrimental to women. Their previously dominant role in food production has often been overlooked or ignored in the process of developing new crops and farming techniques, yet there have been fewer opportunities for them in newer capitalist enterprises than for men. This has left disproportionate numbers of women in economically precarious positions at the lower levels of the socioeconomic scale. In an attempt to explain the interaction of state, class, and gender in disadvantaging African women, Fatton accurately attributes African women’s lack of power to the prevention of autonomous African women from wielding power in the nascent ruling class. He also argues that it is impossible for women to attain positions of political power without being protégés of powerful men. In Africa, the construction of ruling class hegemony has the effect of conflating male power with class closure. Women are not totally excluded from the ranks of the ruling class, but their quest for status and wealth depends inordinately on aligning themselves with powerful men. In the absence of such alignments, women tend to withdraw from the public arena to build their own parallel and independent spheres of survival. The emancipation of women is thus linked to the struggle against ruling-class hegemony; it requires both a feminist and a class consciousness.[xliii]
While conceding that African women deploy conventional and unconventional strategies in struggles against male dominance, Fatton is uncritical about the origin of male dominance, and he sweeps aside Christine Obbo’s account as insufficient defense against male dominance and class oppression. Drawing heavily on Parpart’s earlier study on Kenyan women, Fatton reduces all achievements by African women to their dependence on "their father’s and/or husband’s social status." Such reductionism is neither accurate nor supported by empirical evidence. Clearly, patron-client relations in Africa do not affect women exclusively. In more contemporary times many Africanist scholars ignore the adverse consequences of economic programs that are advocated by multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These programs are the most recent incursions from the West against the autonomy of the African state. Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) introduce policies that complicate the livelihood struggles of people in most African countries. One of the predominant goals of SAPs is to promote the spread of global capitalism by opening African economies to market forces and, by implication, reducing the influence of the state on the economy. The vulnerability of African countries to the vagaries of the international market forces makes them susceptible to IMF and World Bank exercise of leverage in forcing the SAPs through. Many studies have documented the deleterious impact of these programs on African women:[xliv] however, the studies often insinuate that the responsibility for the negative ramifications of the SAPs ought to be laid at the door of the African states. To argue thus is to be blind to the hegemonic project of the West that is directed toward integrating African countries more firmly into the world economy. It is to separate domestic from international politics in a manner that does not understand that the drive toward globalization is being harnessed by Western countries that are acting in defense of their corporations. No African State will be allowed to act in a manner that considers autonomous development as a primary goal. Women are victimized by the fallout of this policy, but the state is the first casualty. Having no power of its own, the African state cannot defend its people. When it signs on to the commitment to create one single global system under the present arrangements, it is in essence signing on to its dedication to the marginalization of all its people, male or female.
The depiction of African women as powerless is not limited to scholarly works. Media reports fortify and support scholarly ideas. Cases in point are several opinion pieces by A.M. Rosenthal in The New York Times, and television and radio commentaries.[xlv] The focus of such reports is the misery, powerlessness, and marginalization of African women. A report by Enid Buchanan in West Africa on the situation of African women asked : Why is there such a short flow of women, the likes of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, on the leadership scene in Africa when they are so manifestly numerous on the major international forums? African women's presence and influence in senior policy and decision-making positions in their Governments or parliamentary representation is surprisingly negligible. Why? she asked.[xlvi]
Buchanan answered her question by attributing this situation to the heavily male-dominated nature of African society, where the educated and professional woman, no matter how capable has never been considered the equal of her male counterparts and colleagues. She might be admired, humored, and tolerated.... and if she played her cards right, she might even make some inroads in her field of activity, but all too often, it would be because of "favor," rarely because of her capabilities. It was only in the outside world that she could really shine and be appreciated for her professional value. This explained the number of outstanding women in the international forums.[xlvii]
But one wonders how many women of the stature of Gandhi and Thatcher exist in India and Britain, respectively, and how many exist in industrialized countries throughout the world. Switzerland became a democracy in 1848, but Swiss women have only very recently become enfranchised, yet Switzerland is not pointed out as a country which sits on its women.[xlviii] In May 1977, the percentage of women in the French National Assembly was just 6 per cent.[xlix] No French woman has risen to the level of Gandhi or Thatcher. No woman in the US has either.
Patriarchy is alive and well all over the world. We must bear in mind Joyce Gelb's aforementioned study of feminism and politics in Britain, Sweden, and America which acknowledges that there are systemic and cultural differences that shape the nature of Swedish, British, and American politics and feminist responses thereto. This is a reinforcement of the need to conceptualize gender as socially constructed. Commonalities and differences among African societies exist and must be taken seriously. Some have female genital surgeries in common; others do not. Those who practice these surgeries do so for different reasons that cannot be reduced to patriarchy, powerlessness, or false consciousness. Women's agency is also implicated as a cause. To make a truly comparative analysis of the state of the world's women, It would be more accurate (i ) to acknowledge that the absence of women from decision-making positions is generalized, and (ii) to trace that generalization to the internationalization of the Western state through colonialism. Although there were pre-colonial African states, the colonial state provided the foundation for the contemporary African state. The gender bias of the African state is at least partially traceable to its colonial origins.[l]
There is a tendency to attribute class and gender inequalities inequalities to the persistence of tradition in the face of modernity. However, the inequalities observed in contemporary Africa have deep roots in the continent's colonial history and cannot be studied solely as a product of its pre-colonial past since that past has co-mingled with colonial inputs. The colonial period was one of state creation, when state power was forcibly imposed on Africans by the colonizing Europeans. Both African men and women were disadvantaged by this process, losing status, property, and power. Since the colonizing Europeans were products of Victorian culture, the subordination of women to men was the norm. This norm was imposed on African society. Wage employment was restricted to men, as were the limited educational opportunities that existed and the authoritative positions in African society. The codification of "native law and custom" also privileged male over female sources of knowledge. It is no wonder that contemporary African women are lacking in decision-making positions, just like their Western counterparts. They are all part of the same world system.
In contemporary Africa, the neo-colonial state is the manifestation of all that was wrong with its colonial predecessor. It has neither lived up to the social contract between African nationalist leaders and the people in the anti-colonial struggles nor succeeded in producing its own nationalist agenda independent of the powerful and influential ideas within the world system on the political, economic, and social responsibility of a state to its people; thus, its agenda reveals a tacit compliance with external interests rather than domestic desires.
Conceptualizing and Studying African Women: Reflections and Suggestions
Who is the African woman, that is: according to Western feminist theory? She is a construct of the Western scholars’ imagination made possible through the misapplication of Western models to African social life. Given the portrayal of these fictional beings in feminist thinking, it is understandable that African women are classified as "the wretched of the earth." How did the African woman of Western feminist thought come about? She is the product of voluminous research that emerges out of the ideological hegemony of Western feminist scholarship. This hegemony results in a distorted view of the world that has a powerful hold on the characterization of the African woman. In this sense, research has become an instrument of domination. [li] The invention of the African woman as victim is almost inevitable, given her origins in the racial, cultural, and class biases of Western feminism.
Contrary to these analyses, there is evidence that African women held important political, economic, and social positions prior to the imposition of colonialism. It seems likely then that the nature of the colonial and post-colonial state is the most significant variable in determining women's inequality. Moreover, if we accept the assertion that women are disadvantaged all over the world, we have to look to causal factors that are generalizable worldwide. Colonialism and the imposition of the capitalist system on the rest of the world by Western imperialist countries is the most logical causal factor.[lii] Contemporary social, political, and economic systems are necessarily shaped by the imposition of capitalism and colonialism and cannot be taken as unadulterated depictions of pre-colonial African life.
Contrary to the negative portrayal of Africa and its women, I argue that African women are multidimensional in terms of their status and class, and their involvement in politics, social life, and the economy. This conceptualization enables one to understand the existence of powerful as well as powerless women in all spheres of life, and that is the starting point for more meaningful research on the global nature of sisterhood among women. The means through which women gain influence include the ownership and control of the means of production; the prestige deriving from bearing and socializing their children; seniority; and through the exercise of ritual power and authority; and wealth, which may be inherited or achieved individually.[liii] Examples abound of the power and prestige of African women. Despite the setbacks they suffered under colonialism, oral tradition suggests that they continued to play an important role in society. To quote Steady on pre-colonial Africa:
Since production was primarily for use,... the question of differential valuation between production and reproduction was not an issue. The basis for valuation of reproduction was more metaphysical and symbolic than purely materialistic. As a result, a woman's role in reproduction often received supreme symbolic value, since it strengthened the human group, ensured continuity of life, and became equated with the life force itself. The bond between the mother and child surpassed all other bonds and transcended patrilineal rules of descent. In patrilineal societies, the structural position of women as those who perpetuated the patrilineage served to modify the undue male control made possible by the strong corporateness of localized patrilineage groups.[liv]
The idea that women are dependent first on their fathers and then on their spouses, along with the idea that they depend on the influence of powerful men to propel them into politics, indicates that women are considered jural minors.[lv] For Enid Buchanan, African women "are always owned by someone. Generally father, family or husband."[lvi] African women can only be owned in the sense of being chattels when considered from the ethnocentric position of the Western scholar. The studies which indicate the autonomy and command of African women over their lives and resources remain overshadowed by the ones which stress negative variables. Some of the more productive studies reveal complementarity among men and women in pre-colonial African society: women as well as men hold positions of power and leadership in all spheres of life. Other studies indicate that contemporary African women have some control over their own fate, though much more needs to be done. The underlying assumption in most studies on African women is that these women are impoverished, downtrodden, and oppressed as a result of their ignorance. To quote Buchanan once again :
Given the present situation and status of the African woman, (as legal minors) the promoters of African women's rights will have a hard uphill struggle to attain their objectives. The obstacle in their paths will be, not only the societies that relegate women to their present inferior position, but the very women themselves, who unenlightened, are obstinately resigned to their situation.[lvii]
Unfortunately, ignorance and lack of enlightenment are neither useful nor productive as analytical categories. To attribute the persistence of these conditions to the ignorance of the African women is to take an arrogant stance of being more capable than they of apprehending and interpreting reality.
If African women cling to their traditions and practices, they have to be approached as sentient, rational beings and studied using the same standards as those used in all other studies, not as exotic carry-overs from a dim and brutal past. Moreover, if and when there is a shift from this preoccupation with negativity, more useful studies will emerge which avoid the gross over-generalization and under-specification that exists in much of the literature thus far. These studies will offer a more balanced, multi-dimensional depiction of African women.
The studies of the 1970s are a carryover from the historical tendency to underestimate the extent to which African women were productive members of their societies. In response to the critiques of these studies, present studies tend to overestimate women's ability to generate income under the adverse conditions that are the consequence of SAPs. As with all adverse situations, some individuals profit, but the livelihood of the overwhelming majority is threatened. These individuals are both male and female. The assumption that gender equality will ameliorate the situation of working class women is erroneous, because women join the labor force under the same exploitative and alienating conditions as men. Structural constraints often cause a perpetuation of these same conditions by women.
In contemporary Africa, the study of women's responses to SAP is a salient issue precisely because it demonstrates the ongoing struggles of women with ideological, political, and economic inequality. In studying women's responses to SAP, it is possible to analyze the struggles of women to make meaning out of their lives, grapple with difficult socio-economic problems, contest onerous state policies, and make change in their lives. Women's responses necessarily differ according to the objective situation faced, and depend on the opportunities and constraints arising from their class and regional situation. For scholars interested in other issues, the caution is that objectivity is well near impossible, especially in situations where another culture is being studied. The responses to questions depend on the questions asked, which in turn, depend on the perspective that initially informed the questions asked. Our perspective is informed by our socialization and cultural biases.
Following are some crucial questions to ask with regard to Africa: Do the Western feminist models apply? Do African women believe that they are under the oppressive weight of patriarchy? Is circumcision a symbol of men's control of women's sexuality for men's pleasure? To avoid over-generalization and the reification of any given experience, research should focus on the multiplicity of ideas that exist among African women, ideas that are necessarily informed by the diverse cultural differences that exist among African ethnic groups. This is a gargantuan task that cannot be undertaken, as has often been done in the past, by studying one group or a fraction thereof and assuming that what is observed applies to all Africans. Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, for example, conducted studies in Egypt, the Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya, but talks quite authoritatively about Africa as a whole.[lviii] This approach to Africa is problematic, because one cannot correctly assert that even within one country, all ethnic groups observe given practices or even that all parts of one ethnic group do as well. Circumcision, for instance, is not practiced by all Yorùbá-speaking people within Nigeria. Neither should scholars take whatever is observed in Africa as representative of tradition, as though its peoples have been frozen in time.
The task ahead is three-fold. In the first place, the feminist contention that gender is socially constructed must be taken seriously. Doing so necessarily involves the recognition that multiple fabrications of the concept are inevitable. It cannot be reduced to an essentialist, unproblematic definition, and its consequences will differ with variations in time and space. As a first step, then, studies of African women must be clear on the differences that set African societies apart. Of course, biases cannot be totally ruled out, since individual perspectives are shaped by experiences and socialization; but when generalizations are made, they must have a clear eye on reality.
In the second place, the following suggestion by Patricia Hill Collins, is useful: "Black feminist thought consists of specialized knowledge created by African-American women which clarifies a standpoint of and for Black women. 59 In other words, Black feminist thought encompasses theoretical interpretations of women's reality by those who live it". The implication of this recommendation for studying African women is that the inequality and oppression experienced by African women cannot parallel those of their sisters in the West. Thus, more African women must use their specialized knowledge to construct their own theories. These too would reveal multiple perspectives, since there is no unified, indivisible African viewpoint. To enrich the cross-cultural debates among all feminist theorists and erode the presumed Western monopoly on knowledge, Africans in the self-conscious examination of their individual societies must build theories that are not mere replications or confirmations of age-old Western constructions.
The third point is that sisterhood, properly conceptualized, should not be oppressive. It ought not to be a relationship of domination; the privileging of one sister over another. My appeal to African scholars and activists is to eschew uninformed cosmopolitanism, which is here defined as the proclivity to be uncritical about accepting theories and ideas from the West; and worse, combining this with the wholesale rejection of African social mores as primitive, ignorant, uninformed, brutal. When this is done, African scholars are not only identifying with the oppressor; they are complacent, but active participants in the re-colonization of their own people. Our most important task is to self-consciously understand our own societies on their own terms, to "decolonize" our minds from the insidious influence of Western thought, in order to fully apprehend the reality as it is in our societies. African scholars, having been immersed in Western culture, being educated in Eurocentric institutions, particularly on the continent, are all skilled and knowledgeable in Western modes of thought, analyses, assumptions, axioms, and principles. The new research project is that they must become equally-skilled in African bodies of thought, which, I argue, have been taken for granted by African scholars, who have vigorously participated in denigrating and delegitimizing them. The beauty of good theory and activism is that the human knowledge pool is broadened, and deepened. The West has as much, or even more, to learn from African societies. African scholars owe it to themselves and to their societies to forge ahead and to create bodies of knowledge that are not only socially relevant but liberatory.
The duty of an intellectual is not only to record phenomena but to find their hidden meanings, and to expose them. This idea is aptly captured by the Yorùbá saying: ààbò òrò l'à nso f'ómolúwàbí, t'ó bá d'énú è, á d'odindi. The words: "Female Genital Mutilation" can thus, not be taken at face value. Words, as some feminists have convincingly argued, can empower or silence. Ironically, they do a lot of analyses that identify and pinpoint instances of women being silenced by patriarchal structures of domination. However, women of color and radical feminists make it easier to demonstrate the intolerance, and or patronizing attitude that mainstream feminism exhibits toward non-white and radical feminists. White feminists, it is argued, were complicit or at least tacit in their support of white patriarchy's oppression of women of color and radical feminists. In like manner, Western feminists and activists have used the words" Female Genital Mutilation" to silence those who may hold contrary opinion. The feminist research project and feminist social engineering has as a goal, the normalizing of all women. This universalized picture of commonly experienced patriarchy is presented, but when this is coupled with the conceptualization of gender as socially constructed, a duality is inserted in feminist thought, creating a fifth column in the corpus of feminist works. where each concept erodes the other's meaning. If patriarchy is universalizable, all women's experiences would be mirror images of one another. I am convinced that they are not.
Contrary to the work of Karin Barber in the book Oriki..., both men and women recite and study these poems. Skill and expertise in this genre is not a function of gender, but one of learnedness being affected by intellectual capacity, and by quality of training. While for Barber, oriki is a woman's genre, and one of the few areas that they control, or are allowed to control, Oriki to the contrary, has both male and female experts. One may argue that there are given corpus of oriki where there is a gender-based division of labor. For example, ekún ìyàwó, (brides' lament) is only recited by young women immediately preceding their nuptials. The question is: what does this symbolize? It symbolizes most importantly, that there are social norms on desiderata, and thus, people, both male and female conform. Change however, is inevitable. Unfortunately, it is not always positive. Many Yorùbá brides of today, regrettably, have no idea that ekún ìyàwó exists; and where they do, their Christian ethics often generate a condemnatory response rather than a warm embrace. This discussion of oriki is relevant to that on female genital surgeries in at least two respects. First, it illustrates that social practices often die a natural death, even without overt external intervention. Second, it underlines the tendency of even the most careful and respected experts to read societies to which they are outsiders, wrong, despite spending quite a few years observing the "natives." Outsiders do not have to be those who come from abroad. Indoctrination, an integral part of the education of most African scholars, pushes them toward unseemly cosmopolitanism and homogenizes the perspective of scholars in a very remarkable way.
For African scholars who consider themselves feminist, there ought to be more of an exchange of ideas with Western feminists that does not privilege Western-originated ideas, but that would problematize them. To the extent that this is done effectively, feminism as a movement and, indeed, feminist theories will be enriched. Then, we can talk about the possibility of engineering sisterhood. In the introduction, I alluded to the possibility of an eternally shifting understanding of interpreting and listening. In daily life, all reflective individuals find that each interaction with another calls for different listening and interpreting skills. The choice between being literal or metaphoric, between being nuanced or otherwise can be faced from situation to situation. The reality of being equal or unequal, a superior or subordinate, of being powerful or weak are all relevant to the listening, understanding, and interpreting project. The skill, adroitness, and intelligence brought to bear are imperative in order that a scholar negotiate the experience reasonably well. All scholars who study Africa should ask of themselves: How does one listen? What does one listen to? When does one listen? These are all questions to provoke and encourage scholars to develop good listening skills. The related question on how to interpret relates to how much of the culture, language, preconceived notions, socialization of the interpreter interferes with the listening, understanding and interpreting project. Scholar-interpreters cannot assume that the interpreted plays no role whatsoever in whatever interpretation they choose to give. Until the hegemonic stranglehold of the West on other parts of the world is torn out, root and branch, those in the Western academy we will continue to misunderstand and misinterpret Africa. The challenge for African scholars is to destroy hegemonic rule that parades itself in the garb of the selfless evangelizing mission . To rise to the challenge, we must plumb the depths of African societies to create a body of work that responds to the needs of Africa and Africans.
[i]Such representation is to be found throughout colonial history. Examples abound, particularly in the anthropological literature of various colonial projects. For some evidence on the case of the United States, see Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America; (Boston: Little, Brown and Company), 1993. Also see for Africa, Basil Davidson, Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation State; New York: Times Books, 1996. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; (Washington, DC: Howard University Press), 1982. For India, see Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism; (New York: Routledge), 1997. For a general discussion and critique of colonialism, see Jurgen Osterhammel, Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview; Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 1997. Robert Yound, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction; ( Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers), 2001. Zack- Williams,Tunde et al.(eds) Africa in Crisis: New Challenges and Possibilities, (Sterling: Pluto Press), 2002.
[ii] For representative examples, see below.
[iii]If one considers the thought of the forefathers of Western Philosophy, Psychiatry, Government, Classics, as well as others too numerous to mention, it is clear that like Hegel, they conceived of Africa as having no history before its contact with the West, and of Africans as perpetual children. See Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism;. (NJ: Princeton University Press), pp. 3-8. For more discussion, see V.Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, (Bloomington: Indiana University), 1988, pp. 1-23; on Psychiatry as a colonizing project, see Françoise Vergès “To Cure and to Free: The Fanonian Project of Decolonized Psychiatry” in Gordon, Lewis R., Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renée T. White, eds. Fanon: A Critical Reader; (Oxford: Blackwell), 1996, pp. 85-99. For various other disciplines, see the balance of the same book. The same construction of the colonized as naturally and intrinsically uncivilized, and thus, in need of upliftment, nurture and improvement as is used with Africans, was used by the English in Ireland, during the rape of the New World, and in India. See also, Ronald Takaki, op cit. pp. 24-76; Osterhammel, op cit., especially pp. 95-112.
[iv]See Nkiru Nzegwu, “Gender Equality in a Dual System: The Case of Onitsha,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, vol. 7, no. 1, 73-95, 1994. Also see Nkiru Nzegwu “Philosophers’ Intellectual
Responsibility to African Females,” American Philosophical Association (APA) Newsletter, 130-135, November 1996.
[v]Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse. (MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). See also Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women In Defense of Themselves; (NY: W.W Norton, 1999).
[vi] Mudimbe, pp. 67, 76.
[vii] Like colonial discourse, these reject the pre-conceived notions of European superiority and African inferiority of the colonialists and the proliferation of studies that reinforce these notions. See for example, Lilian Passmore Sanderson, Against the Mutilation of Women; (London: Ithaca, 1981) 1-12; Olayinka Koso-Thomas, The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication; (London: Zed, 1987 ) 1-14, Fran P. Hoskens, Female Sexual Mutilations: The Facts and Proposals for Action; (Lexington, Mass: Women’s International Network News, 1979, 2nd ed.). For additional insights see Antonazzo, Monica, “Problems with Criminalizing Female Genital Cutting,” Peace Review, Vol. 15 Issue 4, pp. 471-477;
Dec 2003; Easton, Peter; Karen Monkman; and Rebecca Miles “Social Policy from the Bottom Up: Abandoning FGC in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Development in Practice, Vol. 13 Issue 5, pp. 445-458; Nov 2003; Cook, R.J.; B.M. Dickens; and M.F. Fathalla, “Female Genital Cutting (Mutilation/Circumcision): Ethical and Legal Dimensions.” International Journal of Gynaecology & Obstetrics, Vol. 79 Issue 3,
pp. 281-287 Dec 2002.
[viii] Elmer Eric Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America; (Texas: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).
[ix]Mudimbe asks similar questions p. 64.
[x] Ibid, 68.
[xi] Joyce Gelb, Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective; (Berkeley: University of California, 1989, p.1).
[xii]For example, the actions of Nigerian women in Aba and Abeokuta during colonialism were informed by the fact that Nigerian women drew upon the sources of power that they had in precolonial times.
For a discussion of the role of Nigerian women in the anti-colonial struggle, see Nina Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900-1965; (Berkeley: University of California, Institute of International Studies, 1982). For a number of studies which concentrate on studying Hausa women and their role in society in the 20th Century, see Catherine Coles and Beverly Mack, Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century; (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1991).
[xiii]See, for example, Koso-Thomas, op cit. She credits Fran Hoskens for making her aware of the importance of the issue of female circumcision and takes an approach that is no different from Hoskens’ in Female Sexual Mutilations, p. xi.
[xiv] Belkis Wolde Giorgis, Female Circumcision in Africa; (Addis Ababa: UNECA, African Training and Research Centre for Women and AAWORD), 1981, p. 1.
[xvi] Ibid, 2-3.
[xvii] Mudimbe, op. cit., p. 5.
[xviii] Esther K. Hicks, Infibulation: Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa; (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction), 1993.
[xix] Mudimbe, 64-83; Tsenay Serequeberhan, ed. African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (New York: Paragon House), 1991.
[xx] Catherine Coquery- Vidrovitch, African Women: A Modern History; (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1997), p. 1.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 2.
[xxiii] Ibid, 13-14.
[xxiv] Ibid, pp. 26-27.
[xxv] Ibid. , pp. 34-44.
[xxvi] Ibid., 117-135.
[xxvii] Ibid., p.100.
[xxviii] See the works of Basil Davidson, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Mudimbe, and A. Adu Boahen. African Perspectives on Colonialism; (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1987 for analyses of the historical roots of this phenomenon.
[xxix]Coquery- Vidrovitch, op. cit., 1997, p. 1.
[xxx] See Cheryl Payer, The World Bank: A Critical Analysis (New York: Monthly Review Press), 1982. Also see Robert L. Ayres, Banking on the Poor: The World Bank and World Poverty (Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1984) for some critiques of development administration.
[xxxi]Quoted by Carolyn Baylies and Janet Bujra, “Challenging Gender Inequalities.” Review of African Political Economy No. 56: 1993, p.4.
[xxxii] Baylies and Bujra, op. cit., pp. 4-10.
[xxxiii] Coquery- Vidrovitch, op cit., 13-15; 26-27, 1997.
[xxxiv]Filomina Chioma Steady, “African Feminism: A Worldwide Perspective.” in Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Sharon Harley and Andrea Benton Rushing, eds. Women in Africa and the African Diaspora (Washington, D.C.: Howard University),1979 p. 8.
[xxxv] Robertson, Claire and Berger, Iris, eds., Women and Class in Africa, (New York: Africana), 1986, p. 6.
[xxxvi] Ibid., p.12.
[xxxvii] Kettel in Robertson and Berger, Ibid., p. 47.
[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 47.
[xxxix] Ibid., p.48.
[xl] Hamza Alavi, “The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh in H. Goldbourne, ed. Politics and State in the Third World (London: Macmillan), 1979.
[xli] Claude Ake, “Manichaean Dialectics: The State Project and its Decivilizing Mission in Africa,” Paper Presented at The Brookings Institution. (n.d.)
[xlii] Robertson and Berger, op. cit., pp. 9-10.
[xliii] Robert Fatton in Women and the State in Africa, 1989 p. 48.
[xliv] See Baylies and Bujra, op cit. for an overview; see also, Review of African Political Economy, #56:1993.
[xlv] See A.M. Rosenthal’s columns in various issues of The New York Times.
[xlvi] Enid Buchanan, “Women: Struggle for Change” West Africa 1993, 1070.
[xlviii] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens and John D. Stephens, Capitalist Development and Democracy;(Chicago: University of Chicago), 1992 pp. 48, 85-87.
[xlix] The New York Times May 28, 1997, p. A1.
[l] This was the most significant point made in Women and the State in Africa, op cit.
[li] See Filomina Chioma Steady, op.cit. p. 4.
[lii] Ibid. pp. 7-8.
[liii] See Nina Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized; Bolanle Awe, ed., Nigerian Women in History; P.K. Uchendu, Nigerian Women: Past, Present and Future; Filomina Chioma Steady, Catherine Coles and Beverly Mack, “Women in Twentieth Century Hausa Society,” in Coles and Mack, eds. Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century; (Madison: University of Wisconsin); 1991 3-26.
[liv] Steady, op. cit. p. 7.
[lv] See Coles and Mack, Hausa Women in the Twentieth Century, op cit.; Bolanle Awe, ed., Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective (Lagos, Nigeria: Sankore/Bookcraft); 1992.
[lvi] Enid Buchanan, “Women: Struggle for Change” West Africa 1993, p. 1070; For a critique of this idea, see Niara Sudarkasa “The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies.” in Women in Africa... op cit., p. 25.
[lvii] Ibid., p.1070.
[lviii] Patricia Akweongo; Evelyn Sakeah; Abraham Hodgson; and Rofina Asuru; “Inconsistent Reporting of Female Genital Cutting Status in Northern Ghana: Explanatory Factors and Analytical Consequences,”
Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 34 Issue 3, pp. 200-211; Sep 2003; Kinyanjui, Rosemary “Hidden Cost of Rejecting Female Genital Mutilation [FGM].” Transformation, Vol. 19 Issue 1, pp.72-77; Jan 2000; Nyangweso, Mary, “Christ's Salvific Message and the Nandi Ritual of Female Circumcision,”
Theological Studies, Vol. 63 Issue 3, pp. 579-600; Sep 2002; Slanger, Tracy E.; Rachel C. Snow; and Friday E. Okonofua, “The Impact of Female Genital Cutting on First Delivery in Southwest Nigeria,” Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 33 Issue 2, pp.173-184; Jun2002; Snow, R. C.; T. E. Slanger; F. E. Okonofua; F. Oronsaye; and J. Wacker, “Female Genital Cutting in Southern Urban and Peri-Urban Nigeria: Self-Reported Validity, Social Determinants and Secular Decline,” Tropical Medicine &
International Health, Vol. 7, Issue 1, pp. 91-100; Jan 2002; Yount, Kathryn M. “Like Mother, Like Daughter? Female Genital Cutting in Minia, Egypt.” Journal of Health & Social Behavior, Vol. 43 Issue 3, pp. 336-357; Sep 2002; Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into Female
Genital Circumcision in Africa (Binghamton: Haworth Press, 1989) 1-46; Compare Lightfoot-Klein’s social problem approach with the factual approach by Hicks in Infibulation, op cit. See also Time, US News and World Report’s sensationalized coverage of the Oluloro case, which is also reported by Timothy Egan in “An ancient ritual and a mother’s asylum plea,” The New York Times, March 4, 1994; WBAI New York Pacifica Radio’s special programming on International Working Women’s Day, 1994 and the eve on “Female Genital Mutilation” and A.M. Rosenthal’s columns in various issues of The New York Times. For representative examples, see “Fighting Female Circumcision,” April 12, 1996; “The Possible Dream,” June 13, 1995; “Female Genital Mutilation” December 24, 1993; “Female Genital Torture,” November 12, 1993.
59.See for instance, the work of bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston (Mass: South End Press), 1990; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment;. (NY: Routledge), 1991; Toni Cade Bambara, The Black Woman: An Anthology; (NY: Penguin), 1970); Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf; CA: Pacifica Tape Library, 1978.
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