Tales of the lionesses: the third African Feminist Forum

Date: November 3, 2010
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Where does feminism fit in our narrative of African experience? What is the vision of Africa’s ‘lionesses’- feminist thinkers and doers? Jessica Horn reflects on the opening of the third African Feminist Forum

An old proverb advises that until the lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter. In the complex history of Africa hunters’ stories are always audible, not least in the powerful and persistent narratives of a poor, undemocratic and largely failing continent. We   increasingly hear the lions’ stories, through the celebrated actions and words of Africa’s men- writers, politicians and civil society leaders, and their satirical critiques of the hunter’s tale.   Now it is clearly time for the lionesses to roar.

From 21- 24 October 2010, close to 180 feminist activists from all African sub-regions will meet in Dakar, Senegal for the third African Feminist Forum. The forum this year focuses on the theme of communities, connecting discussions about women’s citizenship, state accountability, the market, the environment and our individual roles as activists. It is an ambitious intellectual task, but not one that daunts this particular group of women. Among the sessions is a rigorous analysis on the impact and strategies to address religious fundamentalisms, and the reactionary use of culture to entrench gender inequality. A debate between feminists who have occupied or are running for political office promises to be electric, exploring the accountability of elected women officials to women as a constituency. These dialogue sessions are complemented by practical workshops on sustainable energy and using communication technologies for feminist activism.

The African Feminist Forum (AFF) itself was launched in November 2006, when a group of 120 African feminist activists from 16 countries met in the Accra, the bustling capital city of Ghana.   As we gave it life, we also carved out our own place in social movement history, founding the first ever Africa regional platform of self-identified feminist activists, strategising around an agenda of social, political and economic transformation beyond NGO projects and international development goals. Since then, sister forums have been founded in Uganda, Senegal and Nigeria while activists in Tanzania have included Forum goals into an existing national feminist platform. The multiplier effect lies in these national forums, which extend the reach of the Forum across the region. The vibrant national Ugandan Feminist Forum hosted the second regional Forum in Uganda in 2008.

On joining the African Feminist Forum, members agree to uphold a basic set of feminist principles articulated in the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists. The Charter functions as both an ethical framework and a practical tool for assessing personal and institutional ethics and articulating a minimum set of principles on which unified activism is based.   Significant among them is the embrace of feminist identity with no “ifs, buts or howeversÀ, referring to the tendency of some to chose the ‘opt out’ clause of culture, religion or, worse still, ‘Africanness’ when it comes to discussing issues that lie at the faultlines of the battle between progressive and reactionary visions of African society: sexuality and sexual rights, reproductive rights and a critique of religious influence on secular governance.

Gender, gender
The struggle for women’s rights remains a critical concern of our times. Actors as diverse as the UN Security Council and Goldman Sachs are starting to recognise that gender equality and women’s rights remain not only a moral imperative but a pragmatic priority for development and peace. Curiously, as the equality agenda gains mainstream prominence, the terms on which it was first tabled – ‘feminism’ and its target ‘patriarchy’ – appear to have been demoted to footnote status, if mentioned at all.

The African continent has certainly made groundbreaking moves towards women’s equality. Notable among these is Rwanda’s place at the top of the world in terms of women’s representation in parliament, and an African regional human rights mechanism that sets an international legal precedent on access to safe abortions, and includes protections around women in conflict and HIV/AIDS. Liberia was home to the first all-women peacekeeping force thanks to the efforts of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ‘s government. Still, by many counts gender inequality remains status quo, a fact suggested by statistics as much as the daily narratives of compromise and outright violence faced by Africa’s women and girls.   Why? As African feminists would argue, it is because our societies remain defined by patriarchal power relations, or, put differently, our lives are still directed at fulfilling men’ s collective interests.

With development and human rights dilemmas as complex as those facing the African region, creative, dedicated and dare we say it, radical thinking about solutions are in order. It is in this radical re-reading of Africa’s liberation agenda that the African Feminist Forum plants its flag. It is a political project that calls for a democracy of the heart and not just the ballot box, alongside a genuine willingness to make space for everyone’s participation in society and redistributive mechanisms to ensure that we all benefit from state resources. The forum draws in both the marginalised and the mainstream amongst us to break bread and knock heads on the question of transformation. As Forum member and veteran of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle Margaret Dongo aptly advises, “we don’t need a gun- we need brains nowÀ.

Transforming leadership
To return to the subject of lions. While the male lion’s mane incites our admiration, it is actually the lionesses in a pride that bring in food and ensure survival of their species. Although easy comparisons between the natural and social worlds are dangerous, it is perhaps ironic that even among lions, men get all the credit.

Indeed, even within the African feminist movement we are not always duly in awe of the company we keep. Amongst us are women who directly challenged President Charles Taylor and rebel leaders in Liberia to agree to peace talks and to follow them through, women who pushed for the African Union to develop its Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa and to retain progressive and precedent setting language around reproductive rights, women whose robust critique of religious fundamentalisms has helped challenge the introduction of homophobic legislation in Uganda and Nigeria, women who led the call for fair treatment of the alleged victim in the rape trial of then South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma, women who have risked their lives to document abuses by rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, women who campaign against slavery in Mauritania, and women who founded regional grantmaking institutions that direct resources to African women’s rights. As the lionesses tales are told, we will begin to complement the global ‘roll call’ of notable African men with names of women such as Leymah Gbowee, Katana Gégé Bukuru, Ayesha Imam, Aminetou Mint El Moctar, Pregs Govender, Sylvia Tamale, Fikile Vilakazi, Prudence Mabele, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Hope Chigudu, Kaari Murungi, Hilda Tadria, Mary Wandia, Faiza Mohammed, Muthoni Wanyeki , Coumba Toure and Iheoma Obibi. And indeed the list goes on.

Democratic visions

In October 2010 the Ibrahim Index on African governance released its annual figures.   The statistics show some improvements in development indicators alongside notable steps backwards in many states around the rule of law and respect for human rights. While democracy from ‘above’ may be stalled or in some cases receding in African states, democracy from ‘below’ is certainly flourishing and expanding through the efforts of spaces such as the African Feminist Forum. What the latter calls for is not just a democracy of the ballot box, but a democracy of the heart; a genuine willingness to make space for everyone’s participation in society.

The goal of transforming patriarchal power relations, ending violence against women, and constructing egalitarian societies may well sound utopian. However in a region marked as much by disparities and political violence as by visionary change, these transformative goals become very much a strategic necessity. Indeed, in the words of one ‘lioness’, Tanzanian feminist activist and publisher Demere Kitunga,   “in this era of ‘no alternatives’, feminist ideology and politics [may be] the only viable alternative paradigmÀ.   And indeed, she might be right.

This is the first in a series of articles reflecting on African feminist thought and activism, the impact of religious fundamentalisms, and the role of the African Feminist Forum.

Publisher: 50.50 Democracy
Year of Publication: 2010

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