African women have BEEN Feminist

Definitions of feminism first came from Western civilizations; a term deeply rooted in a history that didn’t include women who looked like me or my ancestors. I remember reading “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan in my undergraduate Gender course and being so confused, this was a book all about middle-aged white women who were tired of being housewives, unhappy with their plush lives, and unsatisfied with suburbia. THIS Friedan called “the problem that has no name,” the unhappiness of 1950’s white homemakers who apparently wanted more for themselves than a life of leisure and reproducing. I was concerned, and that’s when I knew there had to be a different sect of feminism. I knew there had to be more layers to feminism because there were more women in the world than white suburban housewives.

I remember calling my mom in Abidjan one day asking her to define feminism. It was mostly a joke, like when I ask her opinion on Kim and Kanye or H&M’s Versace line.  Asking her about things that she doesn’t think impacts her life breeds funny answers like, “Does Kim pay for my fuel? Is Versace in my family?” So when I asked her for her definition she surprised me by telling me the story of how she urged my dad to play a bigger part at home when they first moved to the US. She told him that he needed to help clean, and cook, and wash my older brother because that’s what good men did, they helped their wives.  She said even though her in laws saw her as emasculating my father, she stood her ground that helping your wife did not make a man any less masculine. My mother went on to tell me that my grandmother was a feminist; she fought with men for her space along the banks of rivers so she could fish for herself instead of depending on her husband. My grandmother was a single mother who happened to be married, so she worked hard everyday of her life to find the money to send my uncle to pharmacy school in Dakar and my mother to Paris. My grandmother knew that while my Grandfather was having children outside of their marriage, she had to be the one to provide, that was her role. My grandmother was a feminist, my mother is a feminist, neither is able to give you the long convoluted definitions that have confused the academic world for decades, but their strength and demand for respect and equality in a historically patriarchal society is their definition. 

As women of the diaspora, educated abroad, existing in many different worlds, its important for us to understand that our ancestors have BEEN feminists. Strong women who have triumphed over domestic abuse, single motherhood, colonization, war, all while carrying their communities on their backs. Senegalese writer Awa Thiam puts it so well when she says that “the Black woman of Africa suffers a threefold oppression: by virtue of her sex, she is dominated by man in a patriarchal society; by virtue of her class she is at the mercy of capitalist exploitation; by virtue of her race she suffers from the appropriation of her country by colonial or neo-colonial powers.”  With so many things against us, how could we survive without the strength to fight for equality, respect, and recognition? Even in the face of complete destruction and violence, we have fought for our voices to be heard, for our pay to be equal, for us to be recognized as vital parts of our societies. So, as the West continues to try to define Africa, and its women, in the paradigm of poverty, disease, and helplessness; its important to remember that while American and European white women were burning bras, our ancestors were raging against colonialism. They were becoming the first black women educated in their respective countries. They were fighting in civil wars. I mean lets be honest here, African women have BEEN feminists, lets not let academia confuse that for us.