Kenya: We're Feminists And Proud of It

The East African (Nairobi) COLUMN November 28, 2006 Posted to the web November 28, 2006

L. Muthoni Wanyeki Nairobi

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The World Social Forum will be here in January next year. Kenya has no idea what is about to hit it - thousands upon thousands of activists from different social movements all around the world.

This is a good time to reflect on the nature of contemporary social movements in Africa.

We live in the age of externally funded non-governmental organisations. And these NGOs are staffed, in the main, by professionals with social interests who may not be interested in mass mobilisation and organisation of the kind seen in our past.

The African women's movement is not exempt. Here in Kenya, recent events call into question the commitment of the individuals involved in women's rights as well as the kinds of organisations we have chosen to carry the women's rights agenda forward.

WE HAVE SEEN ETHNIC AND POLITIcal partisanship result in a failure to agree on a host for the fund to support women candidates.

And we have seen attempts by female politicians to take over the leadership of two organisations working on women's political participation. Last week, the first ever African Feminist Forum was held in Accra, Ghana. Bringing together over 120 participants from all across the continent, it addressed the changed state and societal contexts within which African feminists work.

Two quotations framed the Forum. From Nigerian-Ghanaian? Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi: "This is not a forum for feminists if, feminists but, feminists whatever. This is a forum for feminists period." And from Dr Bene Madunagu, Nigeria: "I am a feminist by choice."

IMPLICIT IN THOSE STATEMENTS were two ideas. First, that becoming a feminist is a process of reflecting on values and how to bring them to life in our individual lives and our political and professional work in the interests of all women. Second, that that phrase "all women" implies seeing, understanding, defending and advancing all diversities among us - of class, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

But the notion of "African feminism" itself brings us to the slippery slope that Dr Sylvia Tamale of Uganda talked about - "Culture is a double edged sword." We must therefore speak from and act upon our cultural and religious perspectives in a manner that does not play into the old contestation about cultural/religious relativism and instead, as Fatou Sow of Senegal urged us, contributes to universalism. And we must also begin to engage with the issues that are difficult for us - the beginnings of African lesbian activism on the continent, for example, should be celebrated as well as engaged with to inform ourselves about the African feminist politics embodied in that activism.

Finally, as Jessica Horn of Uganda reminded us, in the words of the African American poet, June Jordan, we must remember that: "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Meaning that no one will do the work we need to do except us. Which means that we have to take responsibility for mobilisation and organisation from the bottom-up.

There were several Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans at the AFF, all of whom are involved in women's organisations doing important and useful work on issues ranging from gender budgeting to violence against women in situations of armed conflict.

As Kenya and the East African region prepare for the coming of the WSF, it remains to be seen how they move the discussions at the Feminist Forum into the women's movements here. To help understand and address the kinds of disturbing internal conflicts seen recently that so compromise the women's rights agenda.

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