Though it’s still seen as a peripheral movement in Africa, Afro-feminism communities are flourishing online. In the latest “Femisphere” series, Avital Norman Nathman speaks with three leading African feminist bloggers about the growth, triumphs and challenges of the movement—and why they refuse to be silenced.
Lesley Agams, 46, is a feminist lawyer who was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989. She has been providing legal support services to victims of domestic violence since 1997. She runs a family law center in Abuja and is building a women’s legal defense trust fund to support women’s public interest litigation. She is also working on her first book. The MzAgams blog is a personal journal about life as an African feminist and her work as a women’s rights lawyer, social entrepreneur and writer.
Located: Abuja, Nigeria
What topics do you find you write about most frequently?
Divorce, matrimonial causes, child custody, sexuality, gender roles, violence against women.
How has Afro-feminism informed what you write/focus on?
That’s a difficult one. I’m not sure Afro-feminism informs what I write or focus on. I write about my lived experience, I write to inform Afro-feminism. There is a diversity of Afro-feminist experience, and I write about my own experience and that of the women I work with. We’re the women who live the life to be observed by the theoreticians and the theorists in the ivory towers (hopefully), and I merely display our lives for scrutiny. I’m a storyteller, not a philosopher or intellectual. I hope my stories about everyday women living everyday lives inform the intelligentsia and the policy makers. I hope my stories resonate with other ordinary African women. I hope they identify and learn something from the stories I tell in my blog. I hope they say ‘Aha! I felt that, thought that, did that, said that, too.’ I hope my insights help them come to their own insights. What Afro-feminism does is validate my type of feminist energy and gives it a safe space to flourish.
Have you found that blogging/Twitter/the Internet in general help the reach/impact of African feminists?
Yes, online platforms have helped me reach more African feminists. Twitter especially so. The last time I met or engaged with so many Afro-feminists from all over the world was at an African feminist forum in 2006! I started exploring feminist theory in 2001 while working in a semi-urban town in southeast Nigeria. Even with Internet it was difficult to connect and network with other African feminists, and they were thin on the ground where I worked. My growth was slow; my ideas developed pretty much in isolation, but it made me focus on Igbo-Nigerian feminism before broadening my worldview, which was good. Africa is incredibly diverse; we can’t assume our observations in one location can apply across the continent, so it helps to study distinct groups. The Internet means we can share our insights, compare notes, identify cross-cutting issues, appreciate our differences. Social platforms also give flexible time and space in which to get to know one another’s ideas in a way that would be impossible between sessions at a three-day conference. While some people say they aren’t comfortable building relationships online, I am–especially professional relationships.
What challenges have you experienced as an African feminist?
Some of the more obvious challenges are that feminism is still seen as a fringe movement in Africa and it has inherited much of the worn-out, negative, combative image of western feminism, which is one reason there is so much effort to define a uniquely distinctive brand of Afro-feminism. Another challenge is feminism isn’t accessible to most women; it tends to be all very intellectual and academic. It’s not a ‘street movement’ like it was in the West and in the U.S. In Nigeria and Africa, feminism is still a dirty word, seen as a thing that educated or ‘acada’ women preach, and associated with cultural erosion by purists who insist that female submission and male dominance were normative in Africa. I see stereotyping as a pitfall. When you’re asked if you’re a feminist, an affirmative answer can sometimes lead to sexual harassment because some men seem to think the freedom feminists want is sexual freedom. Sometimes they think it means you’re a lesbian and they suggest threesomes. Of course the most obvious pitfall is the ‘it’s not Africa’ refrain. You just have to have your facts ready. I must also mention the imperialist/post colonialist/revolutionary/leftist trap–“wait till after the socialist revolution before you start the women’s revolution.” And the religious fundamentalists who quote divine scripture to justify female repression.
How do you ensure that your voice/opinion/story is heard within Western/American feminism?
I’ve lived my entire adult life in Nigeria. My primary struggle has been to speak. There are elaborate social structures that brutally silence women and children; at home, at school, at work, in your community, in the media. I struggle to speak my truth, to retain my values, to speak my mind, my reality. I was constantly told my views were minority, exceptional and problematic. I was taught not to question authority, which usually meant male authority. I struggle to articulate my thoughts and feelings through all the layers of social and religious inhibitions and restrictions I was taught as a girl child. I rebelled until I found my voice as a feminist and a space to speak.
Now I try to ensure that my voice is heard by my Afro-feminist sisters. I’m not trying to speak to white feminisms just yet. My primary audience is my African sisters, to share ideas with, define strategies and make decisions with. I believe we Afro-feminist sisters must speak to white feminism as a group, as a community, not as individuals. White feminism drowned out our voices with their privileged access to the media. I’ve heard their stories, I want to hear from my African sisters and not just the ones with Ph.D’s. Before the internet I mostly heard what white feminism and their black students had to say about me and about us. Now I can hear what my African sisters say about me and about us and compare our experiences, our priorities and our needs and articulate those when speaking to white feminisms. Maybe then when we speak in a loud voice together they will actually listen to us.
More African Feminist blogs to check out (please add your favorites in the comments!):
Photo courtesy of Lesley Agams.