Mainstream feminist writings on African women are a site within which the inability to understand even while observing and listening intently becomes clear. These works 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. 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.
By Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome
Based on the concept of Western Feminist Evangelism, developed earlier by the author in a paper titled: “What Women, Whose Development?...." in Oyerónké Oyewùmí, ed. African Women and feminism. NJ: Africa World Press.
I begin this paper by drawing on two definitive experiences. I am a mother of two boys, five and sixteen years old, and from 1989 until very recently, I was a freelance interpreter/translator of Yoruba. Listening and interpreting are central to both experiences. I turn first to the relationship between me and my children. If I cannot listen to them, if I cannot interpret the deeper meanings of the thoughts/feelings/emotions that 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 do communicate 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 five year old has not given up on me. He’s bent on making me live up to the higher standards that he expects. He’s 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, 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, 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 loving, a mother may be totally committed to listening to a child, nevertheless, the mother is the superior party.
I move quickly to the other aspect of my experiences that I choose to focus upon. As an interpreter/translator, my most exciting and challenging jobs were those that involved simultaneous interpreting from Yoruba to English and vice versa for criminal proceedings in US Federal Courts. Here, in order to do my job well, I have to become almost invisible. Regardless of the profundity and power of my thoughts, I dare not let them interfere with a clear and impeccably accurate back and forth interpretation of the communication between the principals. My job is only well done when I suspend my assessments, judgements, and moralization on the merits of the case. My job is to interpret without prejudice or favor. I even swear a solemn oath to this effect. If I decide that I am more intelligent than the principals, and thus, editorialize, or put glosses on their communication, I am criminally liable. Is this what scholars do when they study Africa? Are they capable of genuinely listening and interpreting? Listening to others does not occur in a vacuum where the listener and those listened to are equal in all respects. The rules of the game in any such interaction may actually privilege one party over the others. Such rules may prevent one or some of the parties from exercising full participation in the discussions, and thus, deprive such a party from equality with those with whom they hold conversations. To the extent that one party has to become a non-entity in order to listen, understand and translate, true communication is retarded, or even prevented.
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 on the continent and its peoples? It is clear that most right-thinking people would answer, NO!. 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 are a site within which the inability to understand even while observing and listening intently becomes clear. These works 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. 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. 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 prevent them from enjoying sex, 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, or at the best, a selective deployment of history to show how barbaric and backward Africans are.
Reformist feminist evangelism emerges from the ideological, political, and economic hegemony of the West which 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." Oyeronke Oyewumi goes even further to question the utility of imposing concepts and categories that are derived from Western historical experience on African societies. 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, where Africans are thought of as benefitting from the contact with the West. 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." Western feminist discourse on female circumcision continues the colonial tradition of the enlightened Westerner, attempting to reform the "backward" populations of Africa. 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.
A second possibility on what would happen to female circumcision in the future is that it is a fact of life that practices which 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 their 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". 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 keep issues which they determine to be unsuitable out.
This paper considers 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. Intellectually, African women are considered either "pure children or incipient human beings in need of tutoring" due to their failure to meet Western standards, again, a replication of colonial standards of judgement (1988, 68). 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.
Finally, if it is 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"(1989, 1), 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. 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 the alternative courses of action, and mobilize for collective action where necessary. 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 paper is not used geographically to apply only to feminists in the West. Instead, it describes a mind set that has come to be shared worldwide due to 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. 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 for whom "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" (1981, p. 1). 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."(1981, 1) 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 due to the wrong-headed maintenance of harmful, outdated tradition. In this view, women as well as children are jural minors; and African societies have neither the capacity nor capability to offer 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 a vis women, is to 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 Yoruba 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. These are important relational principles which affect the conceptualization of power in society, 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 which exists only within scholarly imagination.
An additional flaw in Giorgis' work is the use of the entire continent of Africa as a 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" (2-3). These insights get lost however, in an analysis which 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 which do not always reflect social, political, and economic reality. The issue of female circumcision is over- sensationalized due to 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 our portrayals of them, we would 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." [1988, p. 5]. 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 usage of the terminology that has come to be the dominant one in discussions concerning African women's genitalia. This is the term "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 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 women's 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, for these societies are presumed to desire to butcher, mangle, deform, assault, and batter their women en-masse, an assumption that has not been conclusively proven, 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. 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. In the main, these attitudes and practices are made possible by three factors: Western hegemony in scholarly discourse; the character of the international system; and 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 all these arena, only one interpretation of reality is accepted as valid, the Western. It is assumed that only one group of people can successfully listening, observe, interpret and understanding - Westerners, or their adopted brothers and sisters from the marginalized lands in the world, of which Africa is part.
Essentially, my point is that Western feminists often attempt to fit Africa and Africans forcibly into theories and models which 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 acceptable as valid. Western feminists as it were, are presented as humanitarians who are helping their African sisters by bringing gender discourses to a higher level. The prevailing attitude seems to be that Western feminists have either solved these elementary problems that are thrown up by gender relations at an earlier historical period, or that like doctors in the itinerant medicine shows of old, they have what the Yorubas refer to as oògùn gbogboònÕe [the cure-all elixir]; the bag of tricks, from which they pull out remedies that can serve to cure all gender-related maladies that are suffered by their disadvantaged sisters in Africa.
The literature on Women and Development manifests all these traits. It grossly over-generalizes the condition of women in African societies, who 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 of 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 of the more recent examples 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." For this reason, Coquery-Vidrovitch directs her attention "primarily to understand why African women have lacked the leisure and often even the right to observe themselves." [1997, p. 1].
Professor Coquery-Vidrovitch presents her work as a serious scholarly effort which not only furnishes women's history, but "highlights a perspective: the history of the whys and wherefores of society from women's viewpoints." However, she falls short of fulfilling this self-imposed "noble" task by making misinterpreting 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. Making 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 Yoruba of Nigeria. In each of these cases, she is wrong. There are indeed male griots, in Sahelian societies, but female griottes also abound. There are Yoruba female specialists in oriki, as there are men. One need only visit one of the palaces of Yoruba traditional rulers to observe this. Indeed, one of the most famous and successful Yoruba akewi (oral poet/historian) in today’s Nigeria is a man, Olanrewaju Adepoju. He is not practicing in this tradition against the mainstream of history, but as very much a part of it. Even when trying to acknowledge the contributions of women in society, an effort at empirical accuracy is imperative. This is the minor point.
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 from 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 [13-14]. She also has in her second chapter, the title, "Slave Women", and the sub-title: "Was Every Woman a Slave?" [26-27]. 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, with the exception of the few elite women [34-44], the "free women" or prostitutes [117-135], and drug traffickers, who in her thinking, exhibit a great deal of entrepreneurship, chutzpah, and drive. 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."  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, and 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 unable to fend for their children otherwise. They usually leave their children home alone, under the 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, have the lowest possible return from their efforts in the drug-trafficking hierarchy, while facing an overwhelming proportion of the risk.
The analysis that led to the rejection of a blanket assumption that participating in the drug trade is an indication of women’s entrepreneurial efforts and “chutzpah" comes out of face-to face interviews with over 100 drug traffickers, men and women, as a freelance interpreter-translator for the US Department of Justice from 1989 to 1999. These men and women are called mules because they are in essence, used as almost as "pack animals" by higher-ups in the drug-trafficking networks that employ their services for a fee. They often have no idea who exactly owns the drugs that are packed in either balloons, or condoms, which they swallow. Were these drugs to burst open their intestines, they face instant paralysis, or certain death. They are often not told who exactly they are to deliver the drugs to. They are assured that the individual would recognize them, or meet them in a designated place, often, a cheap hotel room. They are given sums as low as $500.00 as deposits, and promised $1500 on their successful return to Nigeria after delivering the drugs. In what sense are these entrepreneurs?
Of course, there are entrepreneurs in the drug trade, and some of them are women, but often, they are not the ones that end up in jail. If they get arrested, they do not depend, as the mules do, on court-appointed attorneys, some of whom have been known to fall asleep in court. They hire skilled, highly-paid, articulate defenders who dazzle all in court with their erudition and expertise. The point of this discussion on how wrong Coquery-Vidrovitch is, is that scholars are wont to day almost anything about Africa and its people, and get away with it. This, I argue, did not start today. It has deep roots in Western scholarly and academic tradition.
A second troubling point on this quotation is that for a scholar of her stature, Coquery-Vidrovitch's work reveals a great deal of sloppiness. Are we to assume that all Nigerian drug traffickers are Yoruba, or that they are all women? Does her statement enable one to make a determination on these questions one way or the other? I would venture to assert that while she obviously made a valiant effort, her book is replete with similar careless assertions and lack of rigor.
By far the most troubling aspect of Coquery Vidrovitch’s work is the statement that African women have no concept of the self. Consider again the quote from the very first page of her book, where she sets for herself the following task: "primarily to understand why African women have lacked the leisure and often even the right to observe themselves." [1997, p. 1] "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." 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. 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 old hands at scholarly pursuits who also complain about a 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 which is based on the respect for the people that one is studying and listening to would come up with 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 Yoruba, there are names for hairstyles, àdìre ?lêko and onîko (batik and tie-dye patterns), aÕo òkè (Yoruba cloth that is woven on a loom). Yorubas 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 their actions are explained as being driven by their orí. The owó (hand) indicates that which we do with the labour of our hands, the sweat of our brow. So, although the orí is described as such: orí l’a fi ½mú ?ran l’âwo, tí a kì fi ½mú egugun; orí ?ni l’àwûre; (good and bad luck, and destiny are determined by the head/fate); the Yoruba also allow that àtélewó ?ni l’a fi ½tún àyànmó ?ni Õe (it is with one’s hands/work, that one transforms fate). These statements are not deployed selectively to apply solely to men or women. They apply to all. It is about time that global statements on what African women are or are not are 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 have 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. The resistance of 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. Given this increased attention to development issues and problems by multilateral organizations, it is surprising that the empowerment of women as construed by development experts is so elusive. Since development administration is so top heavy, one wonders if it were not possible that the focus of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have emerged to champion the cause of women is not to maintain a steady pool of victims in order that they can justify their existence.
One of the most significant consequences of the UN Decade is the focus of the Women in Development effort of the international governmental and non-governmental organizations on "the integration of African women in the development process." Beginning in the 1970s, many studies have recommended that development efforts should be directed toward rural women who are disadvantaged vis a vis rural men and urban women. Are we to assume that all rural women are marginalized, and all urban women, powerful? Are we to understand that women under the oppressive weight of patriarchy are all victims thereof? As one who is an African woman who comes from a long line of powerful women, I cast my mind back to my formative and contemporary experiences. Having listened, understood, and now, commencing to interpret, I observe that majority of the development efforts that are 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 which 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.
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 gainful 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 (4-10).
Secondly, when women's economic independence is acknowledged, it is often taken as a negative factor which indicates the shiftlessness of African men. Whereas women are essentially portrayed as beasts of burden, the men are portrayed as lazy and underemployed. The theoretical frameworks that emerge from this kind of analysis as characterized by Steady fosters "dichotomy, individualism, competition and opposition"(1979, 8). If these negative interpretations are all that we get out of the listening, understanding and interpreting project of Africanist, particularly by the Western feminist contingent, there is a need to rethink what constitutes good research, scholarship and activism. As we stand at the threshold of the 21st century, there is a need to focus seriously on identifying the beneficiaries of these research projects, scholarship, and activism. Were it the “marginalized" African woman, she would be better off than she presently is.
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" (1986, 6). However, 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 (12).
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 Berger and Robertson volume. Kettel begins her chapter by stating that her essay "is about cows and women" (47). 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 (47). This is amazing, especially given the focus of Kettel's analysis as stated below:
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 (48).
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 which 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 to 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 Africa cannot claim to have answered the essential question of the social construction of the concept. What we have so far are akin to groping around in the dark, and this ought to be acknowledged.
It is clear from historical record that in Africa, the political arm of Western hegemony was established 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, promote, and perpetuate a class system which privileged the Europeans and disadvantaged the Africans in education, employment, place of residence, and 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 school as well as through the media to reinforce the other forms. By independence, the colonialists were able to ensure the maintenance of the structures of domination that they had constructed through their neo-colonial heirs.
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 is overdeveloped vis-a-vis society. This overdeveloped state, which is 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 which 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.
The understanding that the state is 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. 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 (1986, 9-10).
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 blocking of autonomous African women from the nascent ruling class. He also argues that it is impossible for women to attain positions of political power without being proteges 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 (1989, 48).
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 an account by Christine Obbo as an 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"(49). 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 which 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 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 the exercise of leverage on the part of the IMF and the World Bank which are forcing the SAPs through. Many studies have documented the deleterious impact of these programs on African women. However, the studies often insinuate that the responsibility for the negative ramifications of the SAPs ought to be laid at the door of 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 politics from the international in a manner that does not understand that the drive toward globalization is being finessed 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 to be 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, whether 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 in The New York Times by A.M. Rosenthal, and television and radio commentaries. The focus of such reports is the misery, powerlessness, and marginalization of African women. A report in West Africa on the situation of African women by Enid Buchanan 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? (1993, 1070).
Buchanan's answer is that this situation resulted from the heavily male-dominated nature of African society, where:
the educated and professional woman, no matter how capable, in never considered the equal of her male peers and colleagues. She may be admired, humoured, tolerated... and if she plays her cards well, she might even make an inroad in her field of activity. But too often, it will be because of "favour," rarely because of her capabilities. It is only in the outside world that she can really shine and be appreciated for her professional value. This explains the number of outstanding women in the international forums (1993, 1070).
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 democratic 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. In May 1977, the percentage of women in the French National Assembly was just 6 per cent. No French woman has risen to the level of Gandhi and Thatcher. No women in the US have either.
Patriarchy is alive and well all over the world. However, we must bear in mind Joyce Gelb's aforementioned study which acknowledges in a study of feminism and politics in Britain, Sweden, and America that there are systemic and cultural differences which 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. The commonalities 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 which cannot be reduced to patriarchy, powerlessness, or false consciousness. Women's agency is also implicated as a cause. My point is that the assumption of African women's ignorance is not a viable analytical tool. To make a truly comparative analysis of the state of the world's women, It would be more accurate to acknowledge that the absence of women from decision making positions is generalized, and 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.
There is a tendency to attribute class inequalities as well as the inequalities between men and women solely 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 forcefully 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 according to Western feminist theory? She is a construct of the imagination of Western scholars 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 which emerges out of the ideological hegemony of Western feminist scholarship. This hegemony results in a distorted view of the world which has a powerful hold on the characterization of the African woman. In this sense, research has become an instrument of domination. 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 as the cause of such inequality. Colonialism and the imposition of the capitalist system on the rest of the world by Western imperialist countries is the most logical causal factor. 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, class, 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 means of production; the prestige deriving from the bearing and socialization of children; seniority; the exercise of ritual power and authority; and wealth, which may be inherited or achieved individually.
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. (1979, 7).
There is no allowance for female power not granted by men in Western feminist thinking. Instead of a nuanced approach which recognizes multiple variations in the situation of women, women are presented as a jumbled mass of sameness.
According to the theoretical framework and argument presented here, like women all over the world, some African women are powerful, influential, intelligent and capable; some lack power and influence, and others are more powerful than most men in their society. Most studies, however, look for the "dog bites man" kinds of cases to reinforce the dominant thinking in the West about the inferiority of Africa and her women.
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. For Enid Buchanan, African women "are always owned by someone. Generally father, family or husband." 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. (1993, 1070).
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. As Hicks argues, "Qualifying a given problem as social does not make it so. Infibulation (the most extreme form of female circumcision) is a case in point. ... [for] the vast majority of the female population in infibulation-practicing societies, not being infibulated would be the social problem" (1993, 1).
Koso-Thomas, a Sierra-Leonean medical practitioner, in a book directed at devising a strategy for eradicating female circumcision, makes the typical Western feminist mistake in evaluating the arguments proffered by societies that practice female circumcision (1987, p. 5-9). She rejects the arguments that she enumerates, stressing "the ignorance factor" as being in large part responsible, together with "mystical and ritualistic factors" (12-14). To buttress her points, she makes the following statement:
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The eye that finds the normal female genitalia ugly has been conditioned to this perception. Even in those very rare cases in which enlargement of the clitoris and labiae occur, to the unbiased mind the enlarged organs are never objects of disgust or embarrassment. (10).
But in truth, standards of beauty are only acceptable to Koso-Thomas if they comply with what she believes they ought to be. 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 are 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 we get to questions depend on the questions we ask, which depend on our perspective. 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 which 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. This approach to Africa is problematic because one cannot assert correctly that even within one country, all ethnic groups observe given practices or even that all parts of one ethnic group do. Circumcision for instance, is not practiced by all Yoruba-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 two-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 apart African societies. 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.
Secondly, the following suggestion, by Patricia Hill Collins, is useful: "Black feminist thought consists of specialised knowledge created by African-American women which clarifies a standpoint of and for Black women. 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 the other. My appeal to African scholars and activists is to eschew uninformed cosmopolitanism. Uninformed cosmopolitanism is here defined as the proclivity to be uncritical about the acceptance of 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 their societies to forge ahead and create bodies of knowledge that are not only socially relevant, but liberatory.
The duty of an intellectual is to not only record phenomena, but to find hidden meanings, and expose them. According to the Yoruba, aabo oro l'a nso f'omoluwabi, t'o ba d'enu e, a d'odindi. The words represented by the acronym, FGM 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 which identifies, pinpoints, 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 FGM 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. There is presented this universalized picture of commonly experienced patriarchy, 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 should be mirror images of one another. I am convinced that they are not. If my mother, brother, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandfather, uncles, and myself all share the same oriki-orile, [the epic poetry with which the Yoruba honor individuals, both great and small. Each family has its own distinctive oriki. It provides an insight into the past ancestry, inspires, is an example of the skill of Orature]. Contrary to the work of Karin Barber in the book Oriki..., these poems are recited, and studied by both men and women. Skill and expertise in this genre is not a function of gender, but one of learnedness being affected by intellectual capacity, and quality of training. While for Barber, oriki is a woman's genre, 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, ekun iyawo, or brides' lament is only recited by young women. 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 Yoruba brides of today, regrettably have no idea that ekun iyawo exists, and where they do, their Christian ethics often generate a condemnatory response rather than warm embrace. This discussion of oriki is relevant to that on female genital surgeries in at least two respects. First, it illustrates my points that social practices often die a natural death, even without overt external intervention. Second, it underlines the tendency for 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 that come from abroad. The indoctrination, that is 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 exchange of ideas with feminists from the West that does not privilege Western-originated ideas, but problematize them. To the extent that this is done effectively, feminism as a movement, and indeed, feminist theories will be enriched, and 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 are faced from situation to situation. The reality of being equal, a superior or subordinate, of being powerful or weak are all relevant to the listening, understanding and interpreting project. The skill, adroitness, and intelligence that is brought to bear are imperative in order that a scholar negotiate the experience reasonably well. The call on all scholars who study Africa to ask of themselves, How does one listen? What does one listen to? When does one listen? are all questions on 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. Their responsibility as good interpreters demand that they are as committed to accuracy as a parent who cares deeply about ensuring that their offspring become a the good person, while at the same time, ensuring that they interpret the world accurately to their offspring.
The question of understanding, and what constitutes its properties is an essential one. Obviously, one ought not assume that once you have your Ph.D. and a little bit of experience in Africa, you can say just about anything on the continent and its peoples. As right-thinking people, most of us answer, NO!. Why then does Reformist Western Feminist Evangelism on African women thrive? Western hegemony in scholarship and in the academy still reign unchallenged. Most other parts of the world thus far, only respond to it. Until the hegemonic stranglehold of the west on other parts of the world is torn out, root and branch, we will continue to misunderstanding and misinterpreting Africa in the Western academy. The challenge for African scholars is to challenge and destroy hegemonic rule that parades itself in the garb of the selfless evangelizing mission of those whose only aim is to help they who cannot help themselves. 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.
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This paper was presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 11-14, 1999.