Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Leymah Gbowee, scholars and international social justice advocates discussed women’s rights movements in Africa during a symposium this week at Barnard College in New York.
Planned to coincide with the meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Barnard College hosted African Women’s Rights and Resilience, which covered key issues facing feminists and activists in Africa. Over the course of three panels, issues were raised about respect, understanding and collaboration.
In the first panel, Women’s Rights and Transnational Feminisms, all the panelists spoke about how Western feminists frequently make erroneous assumptions about African feminists.
Filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney said Americans often have the egocentric notion that they should export American feminism to Africa. She said to stop using the word “empowering,” as if African women need Americans to empower them, and give resources whether the work being funded matches American definitions of feminism.
“Reset our understanding of our role in the world,” said Disney.
Dr. Amina Mama, a Nigerian/British feminist activist, researcher, scholar and founding editor of Feminist Africa, a journal of gender studies, currently a professor of women and gender studies at University of California Davis, said her role in African feminism is teaching and writing. She emphasized the importance of challenging women who have resources and the position—herself included—to work toward women’s rights and human rights.
Dr. Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan feminist lawyer and academic, said the time has come to dispense with political correctness and go back to basics.
“Let us talk about things we only whisper about among ourselves,” Tamale said, adding that it is crucial to listen and try to understand complexities to create strategy.
The three panelists on the second panel, African Men and Feminisms, are not necessarily involved with gender issues in their work, but each expressed how he developed a feminist consciousness due to personal experiences and embodies that consciousness.
Samuel Doe, a senior policy adviser at the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, was the fourth of eight children and the first boy in his family. In his home, he didn’t see male and female, but when he looked at the world he saw huge disparities. He says that men have to reflect on the realities, step out of their comfort zones and engage in actions to break the shackles of women.
Mohamed Yahya, who works for the UNDP Crisis Prevention and Recovery, noted that privilege, including racial privilege or gender privilege, is usually taken for granted by the people who have it. He said educated African men fear the word “feminist” and don’t really understand it. Doe said women need to do a better job of educating men what feminism is.
Yahya said that he’s never seen a society prosper that fully discriminates against women. To create change, he said, enlighten men about the positive economics that can come by removing oppression of women.
From a young age, Kennedy Odede, a well-known community organizer and senior fellow with Humanity in Action, has talked with men at grassroots, village events about women’s rights. “Start talking,” is his advice.
“What we have tried to do in public, in our professional lives, is lead by example,” said Doe.
“Change comes because a few people take risks,” Yahya said. “Change comes by doing your small part. We all have an opportunity to bring change.”
The third panel, Intergenerational Organizing, examined the communication and conflicts between older African women who have been engaged in feminist activism for decades and young emerging leaders. The moderator, journalist Jimmy Briggs, posed the question: Where do you find spaces for multi-generational exchange?
The panelists concluded that there are virtual communities, such as Nigerian Feminist Forum and African Feminist Forum, as well as academic environments, but there needs to be more spaces with less structure to facilitate communication across generations.
Gbowee, currently Barnard Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice, said, “We got into activism because we were passionate about what our communities were going through.” When she became involved in the women’s movement she said there weren’t many spaces where older feminists could pass down their stories.
“If young women read the stories of older feminists, they wouldn’t try to retire them,” she said.
There is, at times, the notion that younger feminists should ask older feminists for permission to be engaged in activism. Hakima Abbas, director of programs at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, said young African women are not asking permission.
Spectra, an award-winning Nigerian writer, gender justice advocate and new media evangelist, said young feminists engage in activism beyond the traditional models of writing or speaking. There is creative activism through music, arts and theater that is raising consciousness, and she would like to see that affirmed by older feminists.
Young women are using the internet and social media to create and cultivate community.
Intergenerational conversation and collaboration are essential and so is transnational conversation. Gbowee said when Americans seek to connect with African feminists they are often looking for stories of misery rather than resilience.
“We must document stories of strength from our perspective,” she said. “Seek out women, document their stories. Don’t wait for donor funding.”
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, co-founder of the African Women’s Leadership Institute and the African Women’s Development Fund, who participated in the first panel, said these are topics African feminists have been discussing for many years.
“The critical importance of amplifying the voices of African women and allowing them to set their own agendas, and also how important it is to build alliances, have partnerships and build solidarity with feminists around the world,” said Adeleye-Fayemi.
“One of the recurring features in international development or global philanthropy has been assumptions around who has an understanding of what’s required for change to happen and who understands what it means to nurture change agents and to work with change agents as co-partners as opposed to being the ones coming with all the answers and all the solutions,” she added.
“What we are talking about is having processes whereby the knowledge and the context of different communities around the world be respected. Women in those communities know what the issues are; they know what the solutions are. What they need are relationships and partnerships that will enable them adequately a way forward that brings about transformation on a sustainable basis as opposed to quick fixes.”