In 1981 Filomina Chioma Steady boldly proclaimed that black women, particularly those from the African continent, were the original feminists. In her now classic anthology, The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, Steady argued that “true feminism” stemmed from “an actual experience of oppression, a lack of the socially prescribed means of ensuring one’s wellbeing, and a true lack of access to resources for survival” (36). In her mind, feminism was simply a reaction to oppression, one that resulted in “the development of greater resourcefulness for survival and greater self-reliance.” Two years later the budding Sierra Leonean anthropologist delivered a powerful keynote address on African feminism at a research conference at Howard University organized by the Association of Black Women Historians (Terborg-Penn 1996, xix). This lecture provided the analytical scaffolding that would frame intellectual discussions about feminism in Africa for years to come. In the essay that grew out of this address, Steady (1996, 4) noted:

African feminism combines racial, sexual, class, and cultural dimensions of oppression to produce a more inclusive brand of feminism through which women are viewed first and foremost as human, rather than sexual, beings. It can be defined as that ideology which encompasses freedom from oppression based on the political, economic, social, and cultural manifestations of racial, cultural, sexual, and class biases. It is more inclusive than other forms of feminist ideologies and is largely a product of polarizations and conflicts that represent some of the worst and chronic forms of human suffering. . . . African feminism is, in short, humanistic feminism.

In the thirty years since this essay was originally published (i.e., 1987), scholarship on African feminisms has grown tremendously and is now being taught at universities across the world. In African countries such as Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, and Morocco, women’s and gender studies courses, as well as departments and even schools, have become relatively commonplace. Both guest editors are products of this momentum, having earned graduate degrees from African universities that specialize in African feminist thought.1 Both of us now teach in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, and we are both deeply committed to the intellectual and activist work that Steady first described. As codirectors of the African Feminist Initiative, or AFI, we seek to promote the study of African feminist thought, as well as the history of African feminist activism, within the U.S. academy. In addition, we also strive to create equitable partnerships between scholars and practitioners of African feminism based in North America and Europe and those based on the African continent. This special issue of Meridians represents one such partnership.

Like the “true feminism” described by Steady in 1981, the African Feminist Initiative emerged out of struggle. It grew out of the recognition that African studies—at least within our university—was not a hospitable place to engage in feminist work, nor was women’s, gender, and sexuality studies attentive enough to scholarly issues concerning women on the African continent. Instead of trying to work within the confines of an existing set of structures, the two of us decided to forge a different path, to create a new space where we could promote the type of scholarship that had been so critical to our own intellectual development. Because we had the good fortune of working at a university with no fewer than seven scholars who shared similar academic interests, we had the critical mass to make such an initiative successful. In April 2015, with generous start-up funding from the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, we launched the AFI.

The African Feminist Initiative is an intellectual collective of sorts. In addition to the two codirectors, it has an internal steering committee and an external advisory board. The former comprises Penn State faculty members with an interest in the field, while the latter consists of leading African feminist scholars from around the world.2 We also have a broad network of affiliates, both scholars and activists, who are involved in the work of the AFI and our mission. Membership is free and open to anyone with an interest in African feminist research, teaching, or activism. We hope that with the publication of this special issue, we will be able to expand our network even further.

Collaboration is central to everything that we do. During our launch event in October 2015, for instance, a number of students from Penn State worked closely with a group of students from the University of the Western Cape to stage a production of the award-winning play Reclaiming the P Word, which was created by students, faculty, and staff of the Gender Equity Unit at UWC to counter cultures of sexual violence. The director of the Gender Equity Unit, Professor Mary Hames, accompanied six of her students to the United States. Over the course of several days, the South African students met with their American counterparts, sharing stories and discussing how they would adapt the play for an American audience. The students ultimately staged two joint productions of the play before packed houses of more than four hundred people. They also gave a public presentation where they discussed the role of art in activism and how the play helped to foster transnational feminist solidarity.

One of the things that we wanted to do with the AFI was energize interest in African feminisms on campus. The play certainly helped to garner interest in the work that we intended to do, not just among faculty members and students but with members of the community as well. In an effort to highlight the rich diversity that is African feminisms, we have also sponsored a series of public lectures, panel discussions, and film screenings. These events nurture our local community and also provide African feminist scholars and activists with a venue in which they can share and get feedback on their work. Another way that we have tried to support our colleagues, especially those on the continent, is through our African Feminist Residency. This initiative offers visiting scholars and artists a quiet place to work on their own projects, away from the bustle of everyday life. Thus far we have hosted two feminists in residence and have at least two more lined up for next year. Some of our residents are self-funding, while others receive support from the AFI.

We have tried to increase awareness about African feminisms through the curriculum as well. Over the past few years, we have developed two graduate courses, African Feminisms and Gender and Islam, and as an undergraduate course, Women, Gender, and Feminisms in Africa. As the African Feminist Initiative continues to grow, we hope to increase the number of course offerings. At present, Penn State offers several dual-degree PhD programs, which allow doctoral students in fifteen disciplines to earn a second PhD in either women’s studies or African studies. In the future, we hope to offer a dual-title PhD in women’s studies and African studies, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship in African feminisms. Our ability to carry out these initiatives will depend on the administrative structure of our university in the coming years.

The recent passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela reminds us that we must never take for granted the contributions of our elders. In an effort to preserve the history of African feminisms, in terms of both intellectual production and activist endeavors, the AFI created an oral history project. Whenever guests of the African Feminist Initiative visit Penn State, we ask if we can interview them about their work and their relationship to feminism. Through these in-depth conversations, we have learned a great deal about the history of the field and the events that have inspired some of its most influential actors. In the near future we plan to post audio and/or video files of these interviews to our website so that they are widely accessible. Sharing this knowledge and disseminating this history is one of our major goals.

Another way that we share knowledge is through our listserv, which now has numerous subscribers in Africa and beyond. Members regularly post fascinating questions and comments about African feminist research, teaching, and activism, which often spark spirited exchanges. One such exchange began after one of us sent an email to the group with the standard feminist greeting, “Dear sisters, dear friends on the AFI list.” In response, we received a most thought-provoking email from one of our earliest members: “Thank you my dear Gabeba and Alicia for adding me onto this list. However, it’s interesting to see how feminist = woman = sister for many of us! I wonder how someone like me [who identifies as genderqueer] might survive and stay nourished in this space. I will remain hopeful .” The addition of that complex emoticon at the end of the sentence, that open-ended ending, provoked an important and necessary transnational conversation about solidarity terms and global “sisterhood.” One of our board members, Margo Okazawa-Rey, offered to facilitate a discussion on this topic using Zoom software. We readily agreed, and several days later twelve participants spanning numerous time zones on both sides of the Atlantic gathered in virtual space for our first African Feminist Dialogue. This technology allowed those of us with very different modes of communication and bandwidth to find one another—some of us by phone while commuting in city traffic, some of us from our offices in South Africa, Nigeria, and North America. It rendered our voices hearable across the different realities and long distances that often make this type of work challenging.

The conversation allowed us to reflect on the feelings of solidarity, community, comradeship, friendship, affection, and wordless connection that the word “sister” has held for many of us, despite existing debates about assumed meanings of the term. After an hour, the conversation showed no sign of ending. Another one of our board members, Charmaine Pereira, therefore proposed a new name that we could use in the interim to signal all of the meanings of our traditional greeting, but one that was not gendered in the old binary ways, namely, “AFIists” (i.e., members of the African Feminist Initiative). Many of us have begun to use that term as a new form of solidarity. Moreover, because the dialogue was such a vibrant intellectual mode of exchange, we decided to host one on a monthly basis. Both the listserv and the dialogue series have allowed us to expand the AFI far beyond our own university.

Hosting international conferences and workshops has also allowed us to foster greater collaboration among scholars and activists based in different parts of the world. Our first workshop took place in March 2016 and focused on human rights and subjectivity. In September 2016 we hosted a much larger conference on the state of the field of African feminisms. Then, in May 2017, we organized a smaller conference in Fez, Morocco, on African Muslim feminisms. At each of these gatherings, we invited participants from numerous African countries and at universities throughout North America and Europe. Non-African scholars have also been encouraged to participate, although we have consciously privileged African voices and experiences. We have also put great stock into mentoring graduate students and junior scholars, not only inviting them to our events but also helping them to revise their essays for publication. In this special issue, we are proud to feature some of their work alongside that of more established scholars and activists.

Despite these accomplishments, we have also been compelled to learn from our mistakes. One of the most painful lessons took place in August 2016, when three of our members participated in the Decolonizing Feminisms conference at the University of the Witwatersrand. We initially envisioned this as an opportunity to launch the AFI on the African continent. We were excited about the work that we were doing and wanted to share it with the world. However, our panel faced serious criticism. Some aspects of the critique were merited, such as our not taking care to sufficiently ensure that our invitation to feminist scholars did not come across as a hunger to draw feminist students from the continent to North American universities, and appearing to think that we could “do” African feminism better than those on the continent. One feminist scholar from Latin America contested our not distinguishing our initiative from neoliberal interests in “inclusion” and “diversity” that view African scholars as raw material for a metric of inclusiveness. Although none of these criticisms reflected our actual goals or intentions, we were greatly disappointed and realized that we needed to talk about our work in a different way. Indeed we learned that we needed to think very carefully about the relationship between scholars based in Africa and those who form part of a significant new diaspora in northern universities, and how we might engage in productive and equitable partnerships. We have also come to realize that generational differences affect how we think about feminism and what our priorities should be. What is interesting to a midcareer scholar in the United States is not necessarily important to a college student in South Africa, so we have to find ways to engage in dialogue across multiple nodes of difference. This is the challenge, and the opportunity, for the African Feminist Initiative in the coming years.

○ ○ ○

Tsitsi Jaji is one of a formidable cohort of African feminist literary scholars who have earned acclaim in multiple genres, ranging across critical scholarship and creative writing. Jaji’s poem “And They Didn’t Die” is an homage to her mother. It draws its title from the famous novel of the same name by Lauretta Ngcobo, one of the great “ankestors,” to use Jaji’s resonant formulation from her collection Beating the Graves (2017), of African women’s writing. Facing impending motherhood, the speaker contemplates her own transformation from daughter into “becoming Mother.” The poem maps the borders between what “we cannot know” and “how it has always been,” unshaken and yet without certainty.

Memoir has been one of the transformative avenues of feminist writing. In her personal reflection “Creating the Archive of African Women’s Writing: Reflecting on Feminism, Epistemology, and the Women Writing Africa Project,” Abena P. A. Busia returns us to the genesis of one of the great achievements of the African feminist literary canon: the four volumes of Women Writing Africa, which Busia edited along with Tuzyline Jita Allan and Florence Howe. This massive task centering women’s intellectual work in African epistemologies and archives took nearly two decades of devoted, complex, and challenging work, and Busia’s memoir provides crucial insight into the making of a publication which has been central to teaching, knowledge making, and reading African women’s writing since its publication.

The African Feminist Initiative would not be a success without the wisdom and generosity of our advisory board members. Charmaine Pereira has been actively involved in feminist politics on the continent for many years, coordinating the Initiative for Women’s Studies in Nigeria, guest-editing special issues of Feminist Africa, and serving as an active member of the African Feminist Forum. She joined our board in 2017, after attending two of our conferences. Her thoughtful questions and insightful comments undoubtedly moved our deliberations to a much deeper level. In her essay “Beyond the Spectacular: Contextualizing Gender Relations in the Wake of the Boko Haram Insurgency,” which she first presented at one of our conferences, Pereira examines some of the ways in which women and girls are made visible, or invisible, through various spectacles of violence. She argues, “While the forms that sexual and gender violence have taken during the insurgency are particularly egregious and thus distinct from those previously recognized, it is also the case that continuities in terms of gender and sexual violence predating the insurgency, in times of ‘peace,’ have been normalized.” For this reason, she suggests, we must be attentive to the continuities and discontinuities that mark gender relations in contemporary Nigeria.

Fatima Sadiqi, a leading feminist scholar from Morocco, is another advisory board member who has contributed immensely to the AFI, participating in a panel discussion on African Muslim feminisms at Penn State in April 2016 and then helping us to organize a follow-up conference on the same theme in Fez. In her scholarship and activism, Sadiqi has worked hard to ensure that North Africa is part of African studies and not simply an extension of Europe or the Middle East. Her work bridges feminist networks in the North with those south of the Sahara and allows us to think critically about what African feminist solidarity really means. In a fascinating interview, “Reflecting on Feminisms in Africa: A Conversation from Morocco,” Aziza Ouguir, one of Sadiqi’s first doctoral students, encourages her former mentor to reflect on feminisms in Africa today.

When several members of the AFI attended the Decolonizing Feminisms conference at Wits University in August 2016, we had the opportunity to hear a fascinating paper on African sex worker activism by Ntokozo Yingwana, a first-year South African PhD student. Her essay, “‘We Fit in the Society by Force’: Sex Work and Feminism in Africa,” draws from compelling research she conducted with sex worker advocacy groups using body maps to explore what it means to be a sex worker and a feminist. Yingwana’s embodied methodology allowed her participants to grapple with practices of exclusion and savior discourses that they encountered from other feminist groups. It also allowed them to theorize their own relationship to dominant feminisms and devise a definition of feminism in which sex workers’ experiences of gender, labor, and sexuality were central and substantively engaged.

The third World Conference on Women, which took place in Nairobi in 1985, marked the end of the UN Decade for Women. While African women had been active participants in the previous Mexico City and Copenhagen conferences, this represented the largest gathering of women in the history of the United Nations. Many of the more than fifteen thousand women who participated in the conference, as well as the parallel NGO Forum, were African. It therefore served as a catalyst for women’s mobilization throughout the continent. To give readers a sense of this historic conference, we have included excerpts from the International Women’s Tribune Center compendium, Decade for Women Information Resources #5: Images of Nairobi, Reflections and Follow-Up July 1986, published one year after the conference.

Abosede George’s contribution, “Saving Nigerian Girls: A Critical Reflection on Girl-Saving Campaigns in Colonial and Neoliberal Eras,” examines how the media (and various concerned others) have framed certain categories of Nigerian girls as victims in need of saving. When she presented this paper at our first major conference in September 2016, the fate of the Chibok girls, abducted by Boko Haram in April 2014, was largely unknown. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, or #BBOG, was a powerful call to action, but it was not the first time that outsiders had taken an interest in the fate of Nigeria’s most vulnerable. As George brilliantly illustrates, #BBOG was largely reminiscent of an antihawking campaign that targeted young female street vendors in the early twentieth century. Both campaigns “relied on a gendered notion of imperilment that centers the image of the youthful female body threatened by sexual violence from male aggressors in order to inspire salvationist impulses in their respective audiences.” She suggests that in both cases, distant audiences were more receptive to the rhetoric than those who lived nearby. The latter were more likely to push back against the portrait of vulnerability that undergirded both campaigns.

From its inception, the AFI has aimed to be a hospitable space for activists, policymakers, practitioners, artists, teachers, and scholars. It is in this context that we welcome the work of Anne Moraa, a Kenyan activist and editor, who has developed materials for a girls’ magazine about menstrual health. In her essay “Smoke Is Everywhere, But No One Is Running: A Kenyan Activist Speaks Out,” Moraa shows that to address the challenges girls face on entering puberty takes serious political, artistic, intellectual, educational, and cultural labor. Statistics show that girls’ encounter with menstruation often catapults them out of education. However, Moraa’s approach goes beyond the technocratic solution of simply providing menstrual materials. To her, the challenge emerges when one talks to the girls themselves. She writes compellingly about what girls say about their bodies in a culture that often teaches them not to speak. Her essay provides an invaluable perspective from a literary activist.

In “Gender and (Militarized) Secessionist Movements in Africa: An African Feminist’s Reflections,” Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué proposes a new analytical framework to explain women’s multifaceted participation in secessionist movements in Africa. Using historical and contemporary examples from across the continent, she convincingly demonstrates that African women have supported male-dominated secessionist movements in various ways in order to garner social and political power. Contrary to popular opinion, these women are not passive bystanders but important political actors in their own right. When Mougoué presented a preliminary version of this work at one of our conferences, her native country of Cameroon was embroiled in a fierce secessionist struggle. Through her careful analysis of the crisis, she helped us to understand why a feminist analysis of secessionist politics is so crucial at this historical moment.

Through her work as an editor of award-winning collections such as Queer Africa: New and Collected Fiction, Makhosazana Xaba has become one of the leading forces shaping literature, as well as gender and sexuality activism, in South Africa today. As a poet, she documents the intimate and bodily pursuit of liberation in a complex world where war has transmuted into more dispersed forms of violence. Interestingly it is in quiet retrospect after saying goodbye at the conclusion of their time together that the “three women” of her poem reflect on the “joys of sisterhood,” a line recalling that great feminist novel The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. Afterward the women step into “freezing raindrops-filled winds” as “midnight approaches” but return in their reflections to what it means for women whose realities diverge and divide to grasp onto “the single holding thread: the warmth of sisterhood.”

Selina Makana thoughtfully reflects upon the predicaments and promises of African feminist ethnography. Makana is a Kenyan scholar who researches women and war in Angola. In this compelling essay, which she initially presented at one of our conferences, she discusses what it is like to be both an insider and an outsider in the field. She describes this delicate balance as the “ebb and flow of the fieldwork process,” something that she sees as akin to waves in the sea. Makana argues that African feminist researchers “must take questions of identity seriously in order to create nonhierarchical relationships with our research partners.” Her essay pushes African feminist ethnographers to consider carefully the implications of doing fieldwork at “home.”

Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, Robert Mugabe, finally stepped down in November 2017 after the military seized power in a “non-coup.” In “Finding Women in the Zimbabwean Transition,” Chipo Dendere provides an African feminist reading of this highly anticipated political transition, as well as the early months of the new regime. As an activist scholar, she keeps her finger on the pulse of contemporary politics and reflects on life for women “in the trenches.”

Since this issue is about the state of our field, many of the contributions pivot between questions of beginning and contemplating future paths. Toni Stuart, one of the most powerful of the younger generation of poet-teacher-performers in South Africa, writes in her poem “my mother’s trousseau” about the delicate inheritances between mothers and daughters. In the poem, nothing in the speaker’s and her mother’s lives is easy or can be taken for granted, and therefore everything in the poem, though “fraught with frayed dreams,” gains a sheen of tenderness. The speaker’s description of her mother’s trousseau is threaded with the words “not” and “no,” defining this treasure chest against the expectations that it cannot fulfill. Despite what it does not have, the speaker gleans from her mother’s trousseau some crucial lessons: “learning to leave,” “unwrapping [fear] from my skin,” and “how to breathe . . . on my own.” This is an unforgettable poem about the inheritances and losses that pass between mothers and daughters.

Black feminist poetry and performance have become a vibrant space of artistic and activist expression around the African continent. Msia Kibona Clark’s essay “Feminisms in African Hip Hop” extends a growing corpus of critical work on this powerful cultural form. The essay maps the complex relation of female artists to masculine dominance within hip hop and also to mainstream feminism, giving an original and vivid dimension to her analysis. The powerful resonance of hip hop lyrics and culture among both female and male fans, especially youthful ones, means that feminist emcees could potentially reshape gender conceptions on the continent, though Clark also notes the backlash the artists encounter for transgressing narrow codes of respectability. Clark’s analysis draws on a broad archive of 324 songs, as well as vivid interviews with artists, and her immersion in hip hop culture in the United States gives a compelling comparative aspect to the essay. Themes such as heteronormativity, a focus on material realities, and patriarchal dynamics in the African hip hop scene make this an illuminating study of African culture.

In this compelling personal reflection about the logic of care at work in practices of language, love, and marriage among the older black women of their family, Neo Sinoxolo Musangi creates an African lexicon for belonging in which to be black and queer and feminist in Africa. The essay “Homing with My Mother / How Women in My Family Married Women” offers several lessons in method: conducting crucial historical work by “thinking with, and against, this archival record,” while also turning firmly toward the contemporary and “what it might mean to be both African and queer, in the here and now.” By pointing to the accommodations that the English language demands of African experience, the essay in turn insists on recognizing the intricate African epistemologies at work within practices of “woman-to-woman marriage” that Musangi proposes can “potentially enable us to rethink community formation beyond kinship and family ties.” This erudite essay draws on a range of intertexts from across the continent and diaspora to theorize an embodied practice of relation that “does not take politely to ‘direct translation.’”

Finally, Patricia McFadden draws on forty years of scholarship and activism to reimagine African feminist epistemologies and practice. In her manifesto “Contemporarity: Sufficiency in a Radical African Feminist Life,” McFadden confronts the failures of neoliberalism not solely as political and economic policies but also as an impediment to the imagination. She therefore turns to “new sources of creative imaginaries” as a crucial feminist tool. Understanding her own life in Swaziland as such a source, she generates a radical theory and practice of sustaining the self “through ecological balance, a respectful interaction with nature, and nonmarket practices of sufficiency.” McFadden reflects on ways of living that often elude theorizing because they are practiced far from urban centers and are unconnected to forms of consumption. Such lives are often by necessity attuned to living ecosystems from which they produce sustenance within a grounded community. From her experience of such a life, and her position within it as a radical intellectual, she crafts a feminist manifesto of “contemporarity.”

As the essays in this special issue show, African feminisms are not only diverse in their various forms but are also in vibrant and sometimes tense relation to one another around topics such as sexuality, national policies, and transnational solidarity. Yet instead of being a disadvantage, such diversity actually spurs innovative and politically radical approaches in the field. The multiplicity of feminisms theorized in this issue allows us to challenge patriarchal ideologies and structures on myriad fronts, both on the African continent and beyond. From our inaugural conference on the state of the field of African feminisms in 2016 to the publication of this journal issue, we have been inspired and humbled by the writings of scholars, activists, artists, policymakers, and teachers who make up our community. As we continue to flourish and grow, we eagerly anticipate the conversations that are yet to come. We hope that you, our readers and AFI members, will join us in these discussions as we further map the rich terrain that is African feminisms today.

Notes

1

Gabeba Baderoon was involved in discussions that led to the formation of the African Gender Institute (AGI) in 1996. During her years as a research fellow and PhD candidate, she played an active role in the AGI, including in their seminars and publications, such as the AGI Newsletter and Feminist Africa. In 2002 she was an associate of the AGI, where she worked on her doctoral project on representations of gender and Islam. Alicia Decker earned a master’s degree at the School of Women and Gender Studies (SWGS) at Makerere University and a PhD in women’s studies at Emory University. Both the AGI and the SWGS offer formidable models for bridging the gap between the academy and activists in effective ways. That said, both spaces have also faced the neoliberal turn in African universities, for instance, with the AGI’s integration into a larger entity at the University of Cape Town, leading to questions about the future direction of women’s studies and feminist training in African institutions. The African Feminist Initiative has drawn heavily from these continental models and has enjoyed a generous and receptive relationship with many stalwarts in these spaces.

2

For a complete list of current steering committee and advisory board members, as well as information on all of our initiatives, please visit the AFI website: http://afi.la.psu.edu/.

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