The Modern African Feminist

This summer author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie released the very readable e-book “We Should All Be Feminists” in the U.S. and for international consumption in October. The e-book is an expanded version of her 2013 Ted Talk by the same name, rooted in Adichie’s experience as an increasingly vocal feminist and award-winning writer from Lagos, Nigeria. Adichie is decidedly nonacademic or overly intellectual in her writing about feminism, which makes it quite accessible. However, I wonder if popular American figures may be further ahead in introducing strong views on feminism into popular discourse than their African counterparts. Feminism is a term that is often associated with white womanhood among most laypeople and few well-known African figures have taken the time to publicly espouse their feminist leanings. Therefore, Adichie’s work is an opportunity to explore contemporary African feminism, as well as, its place within contemporary African culture.

Adichie is a respected fiction writer educated at John’s Hopkins and Yale. At thirty-seven years old she has been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant, several literary honors, had her second novel Half of a Yellow Sun adapted into a motion picture and her fourth book, Americanah, optioned for film by Kenyan-born Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. However, Adichie effectively came to popular attention after a segment of her Ted Talk “We should All Be Feminists” was sampled by American pop icon Beyoncé for her hit song “Flawless.” Beyoncé Knowles has often been a subject inspiration and criticism among black feminists in the U.S. However, the pop star’s sampling of Adichie’s words for her December 2013 album affirmed her feminist identity unlike before. In a July 2014 interview for Vogue when asked how Adichie feels about the sampling, she admits, “I’m so bored by this question, but I will say that I’m happy that my thirteen-year-old niece calls herself a feminist—not because I made the speech, but because of Beyoncé.”

Throughout “We Should All Be Feminists” Adichie provides several stories that illustrate her feminist awakening over several years, her contention with male friends over gender inequality, tales of women denying or even forfeiting their independence in order to please a man and what feminism may mean to the modern African woman. For Adichie, she accepts the standard definition of feminism as equal social, economic and political rights between the sexes. However, she also believes this understanding must begin in childhood for girls and boys. She also grapples with the erroneous idea of femininity and feminism as mutually exclusive—a common misconception.

Adichie’s e-book has been explored by some African blogs and American online portals, but few know what to say, mostly because feminism in an African context is an elusive concept for most. Missing from the discussion are the voices of self-identified African feminists who make it a point to weave their politics into their lifestyle. Dr. Achola Pala, a Harvard educated Anthropologist and former U.N. executive residing in Kenya, is the first African woman to write about African women’s land rights beginning in the 1970s. She has since done research on African indigenous women and pre-colonial cultural practices, as well as, the effects of colonialism on indigenous identity.

According to Dr. Pala, African feminism is simply a matter of looking at myriad issues from a woman’s perspective within specific African contexts. After reading Adichie’s e-book, Dr. Pala commented “I do believe there is a class issue [among women who give up their power]. It tends to be that middle to upper class [African] women deny their agency because they want to belong with their husbands to a particular class and portray their lifestyle as different from the rural or poor African. And when they do that they try to Africanize Victorian principles which were never liberating for the women in the Victorian age.” This is where that misconception that feminism negates femininity takes place. Plus the mistaken idea from Victorian mores that femininity is achieved by demurring to male dominance.

To her point, Dr. Pala has ongoing work exploring indigenous African feminism that predates colonialism and slavery. In a piece she wrote for the Women’s Media Center entitled “The Ground We Stand On” Dr. Pala expertly details that many ethnic communities across Africa had far better social, environmental, political and economic safety nets and positions of power for women. In the piece, she asserts gender based violence was normalized under colonialism and that Human Rights as a means to address sexism and violence against women is a Eurocentric paradigm rooted in capitalism, slavery and colonialism. Dr. Pala shows that “the ground we stand on” from pre-colonial Africa has underutilized best practices for modern African women’s rights. To her credit, Adichie mentions elder feminists within her community that pre-date the term “feminism,” which speaks to Dr. Pala’s point.

For younger African women in the diaspora, Adichie’s book may be quite timely. In fact, in the United States since 1980 the African immigrant population has doubled every ten years; something Founder and Executive Director of Diaspora African Women (DAWN), Semhar Araia knows very well. Originally from Eritrea, Araia is the founder of DAWN, a non-profit to develop and support the next generation of African diaspora women leaders focused on global African affairs. Araia, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a social activist, is very comfortable identifying as an African feminist. She points to her own upbringing in the U.S. as the child of progressive African immigrants. Having seen many women in positions of leadership as a child, she embodies what Adichie proposes as a feminist upbringing.

For Araia, “an African feminist is a woman who knows her worth and her value [and also] seeks to preserve and celebrate her African identity.” She also insists that “African feminism is truly global because we are global.” In this way Adichie’s ability to discuss sexism in Lagos and juxtapose that to how sexism manifests in America is a uniquely African feminist lens. This may also explain Adichie’s pop-cultural appeal in a digital and globalized age where many young African women travel throughout the world—Adichie’s original speech was in London and the book was completed in Lagos. Araia asserts, “Chimamanda is an author that many [diaspora women] have known since her first book Purple Hibiscus in 2003 [so] she represents the trajectory that we could expect for ourselves; that the African feminist voice has room and has a place on these global platforms.”

Dr. Filomina Steady of Sierra Leone and professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts coined the term “humanistic feminism” in reference to holding a broad perspective on gender equality. In a piece she wrote for the book Women in Africa and the African Diaspora (1987) entitled “African Feminism: A Worldwide Perspective,” Dr. Steady acknowledges the toxic and corrosive effects of racism in Africa as the source of an ecological approach to contemporary African feminism that includes race, class, gender, spirituality and sexuality. Similar to black feminists in North America committed to intersectionality like Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, or Angela Davis, Dr. Steady tells Urban Cusp, “every generation has to put their own stamp on feminism.” However, she affirms, a view that looks at multiple oppressions in key. Further, she believes that there are plenty of stalwart feminists to admire so popular feminist figures are not alone. However, Dr. Steady demurs to popular figure Kerry Washington over Beyoncé for her years as an openly identified feminist and commitment to stop violence against women. Like Adichie, Dr. Steady doesn’t speak of feminism in a vacuum, but as a worldwide value system, with specific regional interests and challenges.

African feminists have many different issues to contend with, but it seems there is a willingness to look across borders and history that does not translate to the American experience. Like most things American notions of gender equity are Amerocentric and popular discourse still shies away from intersectionality, except in black feminist circles. Furthermore, too few popular figures—in Africa and the U.S.—have outed themselves as feminist in word and deed like Ms. Adichie. What this e-book and thoughtful reactions to it tell us is that African feminists are willing to engage cross-culturally to discuss equity and unapologetically claim their rights. In fact, earlier this year Ms. Adichie and other Nigerian authors bravely took a stand against draconian homophobic legislation, a crisis that goes beyond Nigeria as manifest across Africa. So perhaps, a new generation of African feminists have emerged; women who seek equity for all.


Agunda Okeyo is a writer, producer, filmmaker and activist born in Nairobi and raised between New York City and the Kenyan Capital. She called New York City home for more than 20 years and proudly calls herself a Pan-African New Yorker. Okeyo understands and writes from a global perspective on politics, culture, film, and comedy. In 2015, she plans to publish her first book on her experience with systemic inequality in the United States, primarily critical of formal education.

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