Words || Natalie Duru
Before I am a woman, I am African, a Nigerian from the Igbo tribe.
One of the greatest fallacies I hear as an African in the diaspora is that feminism is unafrican. Unlike western or mainstream feminism, the African feminism movement solely highlights and addresses gaps that segregate or oppress the African woman within the continent. Historically, African women face gender based marginalisation as a result of suffocating patriarchy and male chauvinism, as well as the lasting imprint of misogynist traditions brought about by European colonisation, which marginalize them in both the private and public sphere. This is coupled with celebrations of ideologies that rob them of their entitlement and render the African woman voiceless.
It’s been long established in Igbo society that a woman is not considered “whole” unless she bears a male child. Her worth is also measured on her marital status and women are deprived of property rights in her fatherland as it is believed she would get married and even then she has no property entitlement in her husband’s land. Whenever I speak about my feminist stance to an Igbo elder I am always ridiculed and told that feminism is a westernized continuation of imperialism, or western culture has influenced me. On the contrary, the fight for women’s rights dates back to pre-colonial times, whereby West-African women like Yaa Asentewa, Princess Amina, and the Igbo women who led a riot to protest on injustices administered by colonial rule as well as the men in their own society in 1929. As a result of the revolt, more women were able to have leadership positions in their communities, and it also brought about social change and integration between women of different social classes . Amongst these women was my great-grandmother Olaedo a woman who challenged female circumcision at a time where it was an accepted practice and was adamant that none of her female children would undergo such ill practice. She was a woman who owned a land in a time and within a community that was against women’s development. She worked early mornings as a widow to ensure all her daughters were educated to a college level, so they could stand and provide for themselves instead of having marriage aspirations which would grant them a ticket for a comfortable life.
I first realized I was a feminist while reading ‘Purple Hibiscus’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – also an African feminist – during a family vacation to Nigeria. As a child, I was utterly confused as to why Igbo women were excluded from certain cultural practices like breaking the kolanut (Oji in Igbo) – a ceremony where a bitter nut which is presented in a plate by the host of a welcome party to the visitors being celebrated. Also, in Igbo culture women are not allowed the first pour out of a palm wine bottle (known as Mmanya Nkwu in Igbo) a traditional wine with the same significance as the kolanut but its rituals are performed through a liquid offering before each male elder pours into his cup. I found myself angry and extremely bothered because I grew up around assertive women; a contradiction to the cultural expectation of women as docile. My mother and grandmother don’t identify as ‘feminists’ they see their boldness as a norm, and perform feminism in the advocacy for women’s rights. They are vividly against cultural teachings that expects a female child to aspire to marriage and refuse to base their life choices on whether it will emasculate a man. In that same vacation, a guest said to me, “you don’t know our culture but remember with everything you achieve, if you don’t have a husband then you have failed in life because you will be lonely” he smiled proudly like there was anything humorous about the his statement laced with ignorance. Out of respect for the guest, who was an elder, I stayed silent, in spite of the fact that I was uncomfortable and disagreed with his words. I couldn’t help but ponder on whether other people around me based my worth on my marriage status, or if the same narrative would be pushed more towards me as I got older.
After reading her novel, I did more research and ended up watching YouTube videos of Adichie’ talks and I decided I was definitely a ‘feminist’. In that same timeframe I realized western feminism was exclusive and definitely did not take into account the issues faced by the Africa woman such as blackness and womanhood. Western feminism continues to be considered the normative experience of all women, and when a black woman’s experience is portrayed she is condensed into the category of ‘women of colour’ without acknowledgement of the broad and diverse struggles women of different races face, and the particular brand of misogyny and racism that black women face. This has made me hesitant in identifying as a “feminist” because while the gender pay gap affects me as a Nigerian-Australian, I also have to fight for my voice cultural in issues like entitlement as an Igbo woman.
My path as a proud African feminist was not only strengthened by the women in my life but also my father who had always told me from a young age that “your gender should never be a stumbling block” he would also say “women are taking over, in politics, education, medicine name it”. My father taught me my gender has nothing to do with chores, the same way I needed to learn how to cook so did my brothers. In the aforementioned family trip – palm wine was presented in front of a group of chiefs who had visited my family home to welcome us. I sat next to my father and asked why I could not have the first pour out of the palm wine bottle, I expressed how subservient I felt when women had to drink last and – to the shock of the elders – my father poured me a glass and allowed me to perform the traditional libation of invoking our ancestral lineage into the gathering with his guidance. That was a very liberating experience for me. I cherish my culture and I look forward to more African feminists rewriting our patriarchal narrative.