African countries are slowly, but surely embracing feminism

by Suma Massaley, Contributor

My first exposure to feminism was my parents’ relationship. My dad was an extreme anti-feminist. He was very patriarchal and conservative in his beliefs and practices. I attribute some of his beliefs and practices to the fact that he grew up in a Muslim household where polygamy is encouraged. My mom, however, prevailed against all these standard societal norms and expectations. She was brought up in a society where male dominance fueled every aspect of her life, dating back to her dad who was a chief in his village and consequently married more than five wives. Even though Liberians are mostly Christians, some of us  uphold traditional practices that go against our Christian beliefs. For example, polygamy. Like many other African countries, relationships and marriages are polygamous. Africans have a number of different traditions, but a majority of those hail men as the head of the house, or as many westerners call it — the breadwinner. For over a century, men have been permitted to have multiple wives, while women were expected to exist in the confines of traditional gender roles.


Whenever feminism in Africa is mentioned, you usually hear the atrocities of female genital mutilation which almost instantly prevents people from wanting to gain knowledge on the vibrant feminist movement in Africa. Although there is little literature to buttress these claims, some argue that feminism isn’t a new concept in Africa. In fact, before colonialism, African cultures hailed women as leaders of their lands thus refuting the sense of male dominance in African societies. If these claims are true, then sadly, post-colonial times has created a society where women have been demoted to second-class citizenship and men’s helpers. However, although long forgotten, the history of gender equality and distortion of gender roles only supports the fact that these gender roles are socially constructed.


Growing up, I watched a lot of African movies. These movies made me see society as a predominantly male centered. Leadership roles were attributed to men while women were either queens, who only existed to smile and look pretty, either as maids or stay at home wives. In my utopia,  a queen would exert more power and carry herself as a leader but these female fictional characters fit neatly into subpar traditional roles, upholding the ideals that girls are second to men and if anything, they are sex objects meant to raise children. Moreover, councils and leadership positions were occupied by men and if a woman dared to speak up in the midst of her male counterparts, she’d be shunned and asked, “what do you know? You’re just a woman and your place is in the kitchen.” Concedingly, one could argue that the plots in these films may have been fictional but the narratives portrayed about traditional gender roles were very similar to our realities. And even if these portrayals were mostly fictional, they still influence the men and women who watch.


Like I mentioned earlier, my grandfather was a chief who married more than five wives. My grandmother was given to him as a prize when she was just 12 years old. In those days, child marriages hardly raised any eyebrows. Why would it? Even today, many women are still seen as prizes – something a man can own if he provides for her financially. Education for women was discouraged, restricting girls to actualize self-independence and self-esteem. The general notion was, Why pursue education when a man can marry you and take care of your needs? All you’d need to do is be a good wife and have kids. How hard is that?” The ridiculous truth has been, if a male provides for you financially, he literally owns you and it’s permissible for him to have concubines even though he’s married to you.


I remember this ridiculous way of living had a huge impact on my grandmother. Having lived all of her years sleeping with a man old enough to be her father and watching her mates take turns to her husband’s bed, she became accustomed. When my mom would complain about my dad’s infidelity and threaten divorce, my grandmother would be say, “at least he hasn’t married his girlfriend.” This just goes to prove how, once a woman has been brought up in a society that excuses men’s infidelity and graces her with a second class citizenship, it is almost impossible for her to want equality, rights and respect, or in other words — feminism. Slowly, the more you’re denied your humanity and equality, the less you see yourself as even deserving of it. Existing as a subordinate to your husband is not only accepted, but also welcomed.


However, present-day Africa can boast of many thriving feminists and prominent African women who have challenged the narrative about traditional gender roles. Almost 13 years ago, Liberia achieved something that America has attempted at and repeatedly failed. In one of the most patriarchal societies in the world, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected first female president of Liberia, thus altering societal expectations of women around the world. Also, if you’ve heard of the unmatched accomplishments Gloria Steinem, Rosa Parks and other prominent women of the second wave feminism in the U.S., you ought to know Africa’s own Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, the revolutionary Nigerian who’s shaking up the status quo and Winnie Mandela, the freedom fighter who epitomized women’s liberation in South Africa and around the world..

All of these women mentioned above have achieved some form of feminism. Be it pursuing equality, rising above societal standards or occupying positions predominantly occupied by men. These examples thus legitimize the concept that feminism may be achievable for the African woman but only if she surpasses certain circumstances. I believe that feminism is a universal quest. It is not only exclusive to women, but it also embodies society. Hence, African women can aspire to become feminists and rise against any form of sub-standards that inherently oppress them. But the overarching question is: Will society permit them to pursue feminism?

I ask this question with my mother’s life in mind. Like I mentioned, my father was the common version of the traditional African man. He wanted my mom to stay home, bear children, cook and clean. When my mom secured a job at the United Nations, he felt threatened and hastily pursued divorce. Why? because his social status as the head of the household would be invalid if my mom was earning more money than him.

Now, this constant battle to have women fit into their traditional roles isn’t unique to only my mom. Many African women are entrapped in marriages where they are forced to fulfill traditional roles as wives. This also isn’t to say these women do not have the agency to leave said marriages. However, the problem of financial independency persists.

For decades, women have been socialized to be financially reliant upon men to provide for them thus discouraging women from pursuing lives outside of their marriages. A female is born in an African setting is likely to grow up seeing realities through the lens of her parents. Her mother and father performing traditional gender roles. Her sisters getting married at early ages fostering that narrative that marriage is sole purpose of a womanhood. Now this isn’t to say that married women cannot be feminists, however, if society continues to uphold marriage as the sole achievement of a woman’s life, it only allows her to ignore the unending possibilities of achievement afforded to her as a person. That gender and its role do not define a person’s life and a woman, like man, is important to society. By changing the status quo, African women can come to realize their innate potential; one that does not revolve around their abilities to cook, bear children and care for their husbands. This limits the propensity for women to rely on men to acquire financial stability. If a woman can provide for herself, the idea of having a man in life is restricted to her own terms. Inevitably, she sees a man as a partner harboring the real meaning of a husband rather than a provider and head of the home. This head of the home narrative, is and has been alarming. I cannot emphasize on the need for women to align themselves with the realities of pursuing education and being their own head of the homes.


Moreover, all too important to African women’s quest for feminism is the role of African men. “We should all be feminist,” says Chimamanda Adichie. African men need to realize her roles in the global fight for equality. Men like my dad who are threatened by a woman’s ability to achieve her own independence plays a big role in the realities of women. An African boy who was courting me was utterly enraged when I told him I didn’t know how to cook. He then added, “as a real African woman, you need to learn how to cook. How do you expect your husband to eat?” When a friend of mine published a recent article about women’s sex liberation in Liberia and how men tend to shame women who challenge the status quo of taking control over their sex lives, a guy said, “western exposure has distorted our ability to act and be African women.”


I do feel like the quest for feminism in Africa is something that women, and men here in America can learn a lot from. Though women here too, are faced with the dangers of gender subjugation. Historically, in Africa, it has always been a lot more acceptable. The fight to make feminism  a movement that both men and women can actively advocate for means that systems and structures must be disrupted. Living in an environment where women are so used to second-class citizenship means that it’s even more difficult for some to even believe that they are worthy of equality. Simply acknowledging their worthiness has been a milestone, and something that should be celebrated as a step in the right direction.


To say the least, feminism is achievable in Africa only if women rise above the status quo or society, most importantly men can become feminist. The quest for feminism should be universal. Equality for all, not just men. We should all be feminist.