‘Feminism’ has often been seen as a Western concept, but African women are increasingly redefining it to suit their own purposes. – Aili Mari Tripp
Being feminist does not always mean subscribing to a certain type of epistemology. It is also an assumption of one’s claim which gives meaning and strength to the concept: changing women’s conditions changing the power relationship between men and women, promoting their rights and gender equity. – Fatou Sow
I am a feminist. Over a decade ago, when I first moved to the US, and encountered feminism head on, I would never have identified myself as a feminist. The young, mostly white college-aged women who were the first feminists I interacted with directly marched to a beat that left me standing stock still, unmoved. Their feminism was antagonistic – our way or the highway – and unappealing given my conciliatory Zimbabwean sensibility. One of the sticking points that came up time and again in thinking about my feminism, as an African woman who has come into adulthood abroad, was whether marriage is inherently oppressive.
Today, young African women challenge the continued existence of a narrow-minded interpretation of feminism. Instead, they acknowledge a diversity of feminisms that are context specific and multi-faceted. The idea that feminists who choose to marry are inauthentic or betraying the women’s movement is part of mainstream or radical feminism. This type of feminism emphasizes the need for women to separate themselves from men and institutions like marriage, which are believed to give men privilege over women.
But in my experience of African feminists, not only does this particular understanding of feminism not resonate, but it is also problematic because it presents marriage as an innately antagonistic space that must be avoided at all costs. In reality, marriage can be a liberating, intimate and private space for women to express their sexuality and adulthood, especially in repressive societies. Feminism that faults women for choosing to marry perpetuates the idea popular in patriarchal mass media of feminism as anti-male.
I decided to have conversations with African women to get their perspectives centered on one question: Can feminists be married? Who better to ask about marriage and feminism than a self-identifying feminist? Before I continue, I should state at the outset that this article’s treatment of marriage bears a heteronormative lens, which assumes heterosexuality as the norm. It therefore does not take into account many feminists whose sexuality and/or gender identity precludes them from the straight-oriented institution of marriage as well as other women such as commercial sex-workers, who may not be considered ‘marriageable’ by society.
Full disclosure, my conversations took place with women drawn from my circle of friends and is therefore decidedly biased and likely not generalizable. I am a 34-year-old Zimbabwean woman who moved abroad as a teen. Though single, I believe that marriage is as valid a choice as not marrying. While all my post-secondary education was in the West, I believe that my parents’ insistence on equality between their children, regardless of sex, and my secondary education at an all-girls’ boarding school in Zimbabwe, were key elements in moulding my views of feminism. For this article I was deliberate in seeking out women whose lives align with my own understanding of feminism.
The women range in age from 30-37 years, two are married, one is divorced and the remaining two are single but envision marriage for themselves in the future. Additionally, two of the women regularly question power dynamics and gender relations in their professions, the other three women advocate for women’s rights through volunteer work. The guiding questions for the individual conversations – one in person, three over the phone, and one via Skype – were:
How do you define feminism, specifically, what does feminism mean to you?
What’s your response to the question “Can feminists be married”?
Defining and Living Out Feminism
I understand feminism as a movement to challenge patriarchy, specifically, women’s subordination. And so feminism’s assumed conflict with marriage within the movement is not surprising. Marriage is one of the most recognized ways of organizing society into a sanctioned space for biological and social reproduction, where carrying on the family name and passing down values and other related rules and regulations are predominant activities. Marriage has also been and can be, the site of disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women. It can be an arena in which women are abused by their husbands and in-laws for real or imagined infractions, or simply because in their womanhood, they are considered inferior. For these reasons, feminists rightly question marriage and the unequal power dynamics it can foster.
Before I got into their answers, it was important for me to have each woman define what feminism means to her in order to be able to answer the larger question around marriage. I also wanted to try to tease out individual perceptions about gender inequality. Here is what they said feminism means to them:
Feminism is not a theory; it’s not something you get from what other people have written… It’s what you live every day. [M]y theory of feminism means having a selfless approach to other women, a level of love that goes beyond the usual boundaries of class, race, and even education status. – Itumeleng K, 34 (Botswana/South Africa)
My ideology on feminism is that human beings are human beings… [t]hey should be given the same opportunities regardless of sex. – Win F, 34 (Zimbabwe)
When I hear the term feminism I think of strength, intelligence, striving for harmony. [Feminism] is the ability to work with women and men to move the agenda of improving the lives of women, and men for that matter, forward. – Yassin J, 31 (The Gambia/US)
From their responses I noticed that for these women, feminism is an individual, conscious interpretation influenced by personal experiences of a world in which the subordination of women is common. Their answers highlighted for me the importance of human relations that are anchored in dignity and the recognition that we live in an interdependent society where women and men must collaborate in order to achieve social transformation that recognises and upholds the rights of women and girls. Yet, Sandra K, and Chipo M’s responses show the tensions, sensitivity to judgement, and self-consciousness around defining feminism for themselves.
When we’re fighting for women’s rights and the girl child, is that feminism? Feminism in the African context is not looked at kindly especially by men and perhaps I’m a product of that in sometimes not wanting to call myself a feminist. – Sandra K, 37 (Zimbabwe/US)
In talking to a male friend from Zambia about feminism, he told me…’You are a woman who supports other women and calling yourself a feminist is extreme’. Definitions are what they are but I am a feminist! Chipo M, 31 (Zimbabwe/US)
Can feminists be married?
So, can feminists really be married? For these women, marriage need not be a negative experience. In fact, marriage can be desirable for various reasons including being challenged in one’s own understanding of feminism.
I always wanted a family and to get married. The hardest thing for me as in the way I define myself as a feminist was learning to be accepting [when I got married]. I went through a culture of being independent – girl power- but a significant moment of shock [in] getting married was accepting that it’s ok to have someone who wants to be there [for you], someone you can depend on. That was another lesson in feminism.
But as articulated by Win F and Sandra K, marriage is a negotiated space in which compromise is vital, as is skill in manoeuvring male ego and sometimes-warped ideas of masculinity to get desired outcomes.
I do not want to deny my wholeness because I want to buy into marriage, yet for marriage to work, you need to define where and when to apply feminist ideals. – Win F
In order for a feminist to have a successful marriage then we need… to [re-define the idea] of gender roles as tools to oppress us. Gender roles can be functional when looked at from the place of having an organised unit. Ultimately you need to be with a man also fighting for human rights. – Sandra K
This, to me, signifies our keen awareness as young African women of a reality in which many men in our potential partner pool have learnt and accept their own superiority and may push back or shut down in the face of overt challenge. It should be noted, however, that many women are also burdened by their own egos and presumed entitlements as ‘daddy’s girls’ and ‘empowered’ women when interacting with their ‘equals’, particularly their partners. Specifically, women can sometimes feel they deserve preferential treatment based on complacence in their supposed specialness bestowed by their fathers (daddy’s girls) or superiority from being enlightened women.
As shared by my informants, what needs to happen then is a constant state of self and spousal management in order to make marriage work. One of the respondents, Win F cautions: “We need to be wise in applying feminist ideas and not diminish our husband’s role. We need to be savvy in using knowledge and passion around feminism to get buy-in.” Similarly, and somewhat controversially, Sandra says,
“… [I]n marriage women actually exercise their power because men are in fact fragile. Maybe I’m generalising but I can theoretically say women have power but exercise it in a clever way playing on fragility of men’s egos.” Based on Win F and Sandra’s statements, it appears that some African feminists value, negotiate, and often have to engage in subversive actions in order to achieve our feminist goals to see the kind of world we strive for.
In the course of my conversations with my friends there was agreement that the argument that feminists who marry are sell-outs who are ‘sleeping with the enemy’ is a simplistic point of view because of the diverse experiences of young African feminists. These young women may have had an initial theoretical entrance point into feminism but over time they have developed their own understandings of feminism, even questioning that which was originally presented to them as the feminist ‘commandments’. Therefore when marriage is presented as being akin to ‘sleeping with the enemy’ they heartily reject the implied guilt of all men in subjugating women.
In the end, marriage as a choice is not a zero-sum game and the loss of the independence of a single lifestyle is made up for with the discovery that interdependence in partnership is in itself a fulfilling experience and opportunity for growth.
Read Part Two of this article next week.