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Yearning for an all-embracing African feminism

Does feminism in Ghana mean that the women who get most respect are either mothers or superwomen? Who will speak up for marginalised women – the sex workers, the lesbians, the sex positive? And is there a homegrown African feminism that will embrace us all?



When I began to call myself a feminist in high school, the general response I got from many of my friends was amusement. Who were feminists? Male­bashers? ‘Independent’ women? Why was it so necessary anyway? We were children of the middle class and our parents educated both girls and boys. Our playing fields were equal, and women had the ability to be whatever they wanted to be.

Of course my male friends were not sexist, they were better men than some of the ones in the real world outside our boarding school gates ­ the ones who did not think women should, or could, lead institutions. But if they shared some of these views, ‘that was how things were’. It wasn’t their fault, it was things that were the problem, or better yet, there was no problem. Maybe women cooked, men washed cars. Our roles were separate but equal, and sometimes women agreed with that too.

This was the confusing world I grew up in, where I was told I could be anything I wanted to be, but only if I adhered to certain standards. I could be ambitious, but within the confines of a particular kind of womanhood. Fast forward a few years, and my time in a somewhat radical liberal arts college has filtered the way I think about gender relations in Ghana. Being away from home means that I have not had to navigate adult life in Ghana, and this absence, in addition to my proximity to progressive politics, provides a deep contrast that rears its head whenever I return home.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection

It means that casual comments about women in Ghanaian society surprise me. I am, for example, unamused by any reference to cooking – still a fairly general expectation of women – and tend to support the dissolution of gender roles, believing that they do more harm than good.

I am against the idea of a man being head of the family and, much to my mother’s horror, also against what I have learnt about the supplementary, but important, role of women in families. I hate the policing of women’s bodies and their sexuality, being told what is appropriate to wear in order to maintain our ‘decency’. I want to talk about how our fear of the exposed female body is psychological and sociological, and should be reduced. I want to talk about the ‘patriarchy’ and about how feminism does operate out of a ‘lesbian consciousness’, to quote Audrey Lorde.


My search for African feminist icons has led me to Yaa Asantewaa, to the Aba Women’s riot; it has forced me to think about the power of Queen Mothers and the significance of Ama Ata Aidoo, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joyce Banda. Unsurprisingly, many African societies respect women committed to motherhood, paying homage to the sacrifices that mothers make. However, this respect is not spread evenly across the whole spectrum of feminine identity. The popular Ghanaian, and by wider margins, African culture that exists particularly among middle class populations, appreciates what I call the ‘virtuous, industrious woman’. This culture is largely supportive of the kind of superwoman that simultaneously heads businesses and runs a family.

I am appreciative of this brand of feminism in our societies, and I think it is right to celebrate motherhood and the achievements of revolutionary African women. However I also realize that this is not enough. On one hand, I am compelled to agree that we have a culture that celebrates women. On the other, I suggest that it is a culture that celebrates only certain types of women, women that easily fit into our notions of who a ‘proper woman’ is, on what she does, on how she carries herself. This celebration actively excludes sex workers, queer women, and women who express their sexualities and freedoms in ways that do not adhere to what is commonly accepted.

I want our feminism in Ghana to progress from the safety of ‘women’s rights’, to an ideological framework that actively confronts oppressive patriarchal systems on all fronts, because it has harmed female and also male bodies for centuries. I want our feminism to look like this, but I am afraid that this is extreme: Ghanaian women do not want this feminism, it is foreign, it is unwanted.

I do not feel protected by the kind of feminism that holds sway at home, and yet desire to find a feminism that comes from Africa itself. Many times, I am confronted with the fact that a major part of my knowledge about feminism comes from outside my own society, and does not always translate easily into my practice in Ghana. I worry that my major concerns with women’s rights are a function of my own class privilege, and recognize that the things I find important may not be at all important to many women because of our different experiences. This fear that my feminism is unwanted in my own home, produces a consistent dissatisfaction for me in both worlds; on my liberal college campus, a reminder that certain things do not work as easily in Ghana, and once at home, the feeling that the feminism I am used to is only useful in certain ways.

I realise that feminism manifests in different ways for different women and that, ultimately, it is not necessary for everyone to have the same priorities and concerns. I do maintain, however, that it is important to make sure that our differences intersect, rather than restrict. In thinking about the ways to promote a rigorous framework for the practice of feminism, there is the challenge to design something that is radical, and yet cuts across all the vast social categories that exist across Africa.
Is the popular feminism we are promoting one that boxes women in, or one that allows them to be different kinds of women? And most importantly, how do we make our work inclusive, especially for the marginalised communities in our societies, if our most popular form of female empowerment fails to embrace them?


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