Saturday, September 11, 2004

Prof. Micere Mugo on Sexist Assaults at the Intellectual Plane

False Accusations Used to Silence Intellectual African women(Zimbabwe Mirror, Harare, Thursday, December 21, 2000)

( Professor Micere Githae Mugo is a Kenyan scholar, feminist,socialist, veteran political activist, poet, playwright and community organizer who currently teaches at Syracuse University in New York State. She was forced to flee Kenya in 1982 and has been a Zimbabwean citizen since 1984. The piece below first appeared in the Zimbabwe Mirror on Thursday, December 21, 2000 as a rejoinder to a piece by someone called Vimbai Chivaura. At that time Prof. Micere Mugo had her own column in the same publication.)

SEXIST assaults are not perpetrated at the physical and psychological levels alone but at the intellectual plane as well. The article (paper piece, not body part!)on "Gender in Africa is different from the West," written by Vimbai Gukwe Chivaura and published in The Zimbabwe Mirror of 15-21, 2000 qualifies as a good example of a sexist intellectual assault.

A detailed response from this column is, therefore, called for since a mere "letter to the editor"would be too sketchy to address the issues that he raises. In any case, I suspect that the said article (not the organ!) could be a veiled punch to the writer of the sexist diary entries. One does not need to somersault over any geometrical theorem to make this out. For one, my column frequently uses feminist theory to elucidate some of the experiences recounted.

Needless to say, "feminism" is a "dirty" word among overt or closeted male supremacists, add patriarchal cultural chauvinists. Propaganda around and false accusations pointed at "feminism" are often used to silence intellectual African women. Even worse, the demonization of feminists is used to divide women and to intimidate all who would use the space that feminism offers for the interrogation of patriarchal injustices against the female gender.

This demonization deliberately dislocates not just the meaning but also the global locale of the feminist struggle, confining it to the West. This is mischievous in that, ideological labels aside, African women have struggled against gender-based oppression since time immemorial. At no time have they have ever needed the West to tell them that they are oppressed. I will soon cite examples of such struggles, but first, let me address (or"undress") other attempts at silencing.

Since this column on sexist episodes started, I have had interesting and varying reactions from different people. A lot of women have expressed their admiration of these humble efforts of "talk back" against sexist abuses. Several young women have actually either written to me, or telephoned, or paid me a visit to thank me for speaking out on their behalf. Five young men (all of them in their teens and twenties) have also written to me saying how much they enjoy reading the episodes as well as identifying with the concerns that the entries highlight. These categories of my readers also tend to comment on the creative writing devises employed, including inventive vocabulary and sense of humour, among other literary qualities. There ends the catalogue of my admirers.

A different kind of readership, however, seems to be either uncomfortable with, or offended by, or dismissive of the episodes. This category of my audience mainly constitutes of mature men who raise rather interesting and revealing objections. Some of them accuse me of being "angry" and say they are baffled by it. In fact one such objector said he was disappointed in me and had not thought I was "like this," or some crazy statement to that effect. It is as if the assaults encountered are supposed to be comic strips. Others have "accused" me of sounding like a"feminist,"as if feminism is something to be ashamed of. Yet others have been upset with me saying that my column is an attack on "African culture", as though "African culture"=sexist assaults, the material offenses that the column "attacks."

I say: all these are direct and indirect attempts at silencing.

So, me, I have ignored them as Kenyan English would put it. Time is of essence and I need to get on with the job at hand.

However, the article(oops!) referred to above requires a response.

Why so?

Unlike the exchanges mentioned above which were private,it has gone out to the public as open debate.

Let me begin by defining "feminism", the offending term, since its meaning seems to elude a lot of patriarchs.

Rhonda Reddock, an African Caribbean woman scholar, positions feminism within the Africana literary tradition. She provides one of the best definitions on feminism in African Caribbean Women Writers. She describes it as the awareness of the various forms of oppression directed against women on account of their gender; the ability to understand the sources that breed the injustices and the commitment to the struggle for overthrowing them. These are not her exact words but the paraphrasing captures the thrust of her position. One could add flesh to this skeleton definition but for present purposes it will suffice.

Now, some of the sources of oppression alluded to in this definition are: socio-econo-political systems that feminize exploitation; certain institutions/social structures that cultivate oppressive gendered practices and anti-women socialization by these patriarchal constructions-mostly male.

Oppressive systems,institutions and structures include the following: colonialism, neo-colonialism, capitalism, imperialism; patriarchy; certain forms/aspects of religion/religious practice; enslaving cultural norms and practices, etc.

None of these structures/institutions/practices-culture included-should be too sacred to be taken to task when/if they perpetrate the disempowerment of women, or any other human being, for that matter. This position is against the grain of patriarchal and fundamentalist thinking, which treat culture as a sacred cow. The attitudes explain why criticizing oppressive cultural practice translates into "bashing." To be fair to the author of the article (excuse me!) there are feminists who would discard "African culture(s)"in toto.

However, the majority of Black feminists have been so instrumental in challenging Western cultural imperialism that it is a complete fallacy to depict all who subscribe to feminism as agents of ideological and socio-cultural disruption. If the writer of the article (!) had read Recreating Ourselves by Omolara Ogundipe (former Ogundipe-Lesley) for a start, this would have become evidently clear.

Black women in Africa and the Diaspora have been at the helm of interrogating Western and bourgeois constructions of feminism, giving the concept cultural specific renderings. The result is that we now speak of feminisms. We have Black feminism, African feminism and even so-called "Third World feminism." There may be contestations around these concepts, but that is a different matter. For instance, there are Black women who would rather not identify with the term "feminism." Instead they use "womanism," "Africana womanism" and others. Alice Walker, first coined the concept "womanism" in her famous essay entitled, "In My Mother's Garden" where she argued that Black women define the female gender in a culturally as well as politically unique way.

Anyhow, the point being made is that talking of "feminism" or feminists as if they constitute homogeneous entities is to expose a lot of ignorance about debates within the movement in general. Beyond conceptual differences, culture, class and race also enter introducing even more complex dimensions to the "conversation." In Feminism is Global, Ama Ata Aidoo argues that if struggling for gender equality is at the core of the feminist struggle, her Ghanaian foremothers were feminists. In other words, whatever our African foremothers may have called "feminism," we know that they lived its essence. They did not have to consult the West either in order to fight for women's rights.

Accounts of these struggles by both male and female scholars, but more so by the latter, abound. In Destruction of Black Civilizations Chancellor Williams provides an account on Queen Anne Nzinga of Angola, her gendered struggles with a brother for the throne and her abolitionism, which highlighted the plight of enslaved women. Angela Davis'work Women, Race and Class narrates how Sojourner Truth, an enslaved Africana woman (and many of her Black sisters), turned White feminism upside down while asserting theirs. In When and Where I Enter Paula Giddings, another Black scholar, catalogues numberless struggles to purge feminism of its White constructed definitions by Black feminists in the 18th-20th centuries. Ama Ata Aidoo's fictional shero in-Anowa, a title drawn from the shero's name, is modelled on an actual Ghanaian woman. The book is set in 18th-19th century Ghana. Anowa did not learn her "feminist" behaviour from the West. We also have the late Flora Nwapa's Efuru. Flora Nwapa used to make it clear that the fictional Efuru was based on a real life Ibo woman's profile from the early nineteenth century. I can assure readers that Efuru's prototype never went to the West to learn some of her"feminist" rebelliousness even though contained within cultural parameters.

The frustrating thing about debating with anti-feminists (or is it feminist bashers?) is that in most cases they are completely ignorant of what feminism entails. For certain, you will be lucky to meet one who has read a single line of a feminist text. So, how does one debate with contestants who are uninformed? As bell hooks (sic. lower case letters) once asked: women speak, but does anyone hear them? Through our writing and orate texts we are naming our identities but some people obviously think they know better than we do.

Insulting as this is, nobody/nothing will stop us-not even culture if/when it proves enslaving. Many feminists are well grounded in their cultures but theirs is not a museum, or arrested, or frozen culture impounded at fixation point; nor is it in the style of what Ali Mazrui calls "negritude gloriana." For them, culture is neitherabsolute, nor static, nor unchangeable. It is alive, mobile and agile. Human beings create, recreate and revolutionize culture according to their needs. Progressive women will thus maintain a vibrant debate with African culture till it yields their full human potential.

Lastly, I am frankly at a loss to understand the case that the article (this word, oh!)was trying to make in the section on "Gender in Shona culture."

The bottom line is: leaving idle intellectualizing and theorizing on culture aside, who really mothers and "fathers" children on the continent of Africa?

Who bears the brunt of this immense responsibility?

Rhetorical question!

To all African(a) women out there mothering and "fathering" our children:

Struggle on!

The road to the future is yours!

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