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ALMA Reviews Blog: African Feminism in the 21st Century

African Feminism in the 21st Century: A reflection on Uganda’s victories, battles and reversals

By Josephine Ahikire

Published in 2014 in Feminist Africa, Issue 19: Pan-Africanism and Feminism, pp. 7–23.

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With her feature article in Feminist Africa, Women’s and Gender Studies scholar Josephine Ahikire of Uganda’s Makarere University provides valuable insight into the development of African feminist movements and knowledge production. Using broad categories of “victories and pitfalls” she explains what she considers some key aspects of African Feminism of the last thirty years (also beyond the borders of Uganda, despite the title of the article).

Ahikire, herself a central figure of African Feminism, is the author of Localised or Localising Democracy: Gender and the Politics of Decentralisation in Uganda (2007). She is the former Dean of the School of Women and Gender Studies (est. in 1991) at Makerere University, an Associate at The Nordic Africa Institute and a Member of The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). Last year’s prominent International Conference on Gender Studies in Africa in Kampala was organised by the School of Women and Gender Studies and chaired by Ahikire’s successor as Dean, Sarah Ssali. Overall, Ahikire has many years of theoretical and practical experience in the fields of (pan-/African) feminist theory and practice, cultural studies, gender and politics, and is deeply connected to other central figures and institutions of African Feminism on the continent and beyond.

In her article, Ahikire establishes an unapologetic and direct tone with the opening quote from Accra’s 2006 Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists: “Our feminist identity is not qualified with ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘howevers’. We are Feminists. Full stop.” (p. 7) She goes on to describe the immanent need to re-evaluate and re-assert the goals and aims of African Feminism in its forward journey through the politics of legitimation over the course of the last 30 years. In doing so she naturally details the achievements and missteps among the goals of African Feminism. Firstly, she finds victories within the field of African-based knowledge production, meaning feminist theories and practices specifically for, about and from African (based) scholars since the 1980s–1990s. She emphasises the relevant recognition of African scholarship vs. critical “conservative” outsiders’ voices, which might be missing crucial insights into the lived experiences of African Feminism. By citing research from Feminist Africa editor-in-chief and well-known Nigerian-British psychologist and feminist Amina Mama, she provides an example of such African (based) Feminist research from the turn of the twenty-first century. Ahikire writes about how Mama’s analyses in 1996 and 2005 revealed the growth and strengthening of a “feminist knowledge by and for Africa” increasingly formulated by African indigenous scholars, in distinction to  Western (feminist) philosophy, theory and methodology. She connects this to formations and developments of institutional spaces in the southern parts of the continent, such as the already mentioned African Gender Institute in Cape Town (and its journal Feminist Africa), The School of Women and Gender Studies in Kampala, as well as CODESRIA (and its globally received book Engendering African Social Sciences, published in 1997). These institutions (and their publications) served as important impulses of feminist scholarship. Thus, on the one hand, Ahikire introduces the reader to key players of (sub-Saharan) African Feminism, and on the other hand, she discusses a crucial aspect of African feminist knowledge production, namely its growing manifestation, legitimation and circulation within academic institutions in Africa. She finally summarises these developments with her assessment of the positive shift in academia (and among the public) from the question of why care about African Feminism to how to care about African Feminism. By this she means, for example, the developing acceptance and even embrace of gender as an analytical category in the social sciences and other disciplines.

From this, Ahikire then elaborates upon the manifestation and institutionalisation of feminism and the general development of the field. While building on examples such as the African Unions Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (“The Protocol was achieved, not given”, p. 12), she reaches a positive conclusion: African Feminism and gender finally seem to be a crucial component of discourses and politics on African development. Ahikire finishes her argument with what she considers to be a very relevant achievement of the many years of negotiations, disruptions and conflicts: the exposure and acquaintance of diverse groups of people (rural, urban, private, political, etc.) to and with feminist concepts and demands today. This means that while Feminism still (or once again) faces serious backlashes and challenges, the concept itself, its demands and ideas, cannot be “taken back” – it seems to be inevitably on the agenda of African politics and peoples.

Ahikire next shifts her focus to one of the “pitfalls” of African Feminism: the controversies that have arisen at the nexus of feminism and the concept of Gender and Development (GAD) theories and practices, which “has brought about a bureaucratic discourse in which development actors can hide without necessarily being accountable to women” (p. 17). By this she refers to GAD projects that originally offered “a handle for feminisms […] to simultaneously speak to the problems of development as well as to its gendered nature” (p. 16), but that over time lost their (original?) feminist force. The inclusion of women in development projects seemed to be efficient and convenient (for investors) rather than an important factor of practical social change or, for that matter, of feminist principles. Furthermore, the author criticises the decline of the concept of gender training. Having risen in the 1980s as a powerful tool to support women in development, gender training ultimately faced a de-politicisation extracted from feminist critique, even producing a diluted idea of gender, in Ahikire’s opinion. She highlights this tension between gender and feminism as she discusses gender activists who would rather not be associated with the “F-word” – a distressing but unfortunately universal phenomenon that is familiar to international feminist scholars.

Feminism and/or gender concepts face challenges not only in (sub-Saharan) Africa but around the world, often becoming an ideological façade and/or tool even appropriated by anti-feminist circles. Rather than accepting sexist or “watered down” language and concepts that take away from the core of feminist critique, Ahikire finally argues for re-politicising and reclaiming feminist thought and its language, clarifying appropriation and resisting the backlash against (African) Feminism, as exemplified in recent sexist legislation.

Overall, Ahikire’s article in Feminist Africa serves as an excellent introduction to the subject of African Feminism, and presents a direct and meticulous contribution to a re-politicisation of “th[is] ideological force that poses fundamental challenges to patriarchal orthodoxies of all kinds” (p. 9). The same applies to the journal itself, a significant platform for contemporary African Feminism of particular interest to international feminist scholars.


Reviewed by: Sophie Klischat


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Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe

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