African Feminism celebrated during Women’s History Month
By Mary Alice Miller
This year, several Black women’s groups celebrated Women’s History Month with events promoting programs of feminist activism. Barnard College hosted an all-day African Women’s Rights and Resistance Conference on continuing developments in African women’s feminist work. A documentary explored the suffrage movement in the Bahamas and the need to include women’s rights in that island nation’s constitution. And Black Women’s Blueprint took the rape of Black women in the United States to the United Nations.
The conference featured Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee who earned global acclaim for her role in leading the mass movement for peace and women’s safety that ended the Liberian 14-year civil war.
Emphasizing the need for intergenerational feminist activism, Gbowee said, “We got into activism because of our passion for what our societies were going to be. It was volunteer service. Young people need to be given the space to talk about their current issues while providing a platform for everybody to be heard and embrace the other.” She added, “Some of the stiffest resistance to the emerging issues of young African feminists will be from the older feminists.” Gbowee recommended that everyone encourage their mothers and grandmothers to tell their stories of activism and resistance.
Nigerian/British feminist activist Amina Mama, founding editor of the continental journal of gender studies, Feminist Africa, described the efforts against African feminisms from transcontinental Black Nationalism. “I don’t know Brooklyn but I can tell you that many in Harlem and across the African continent have utilized ‘pseudo-Nationalist’ discourse of what is acceptable for women. You see it now in other configurations in the LGBQI question [which is] irrelevant to the living conditions of Africans, irrelevant to the insecurity of people. The response from African people in power is ‘This is not our tradition.’ It is the conflation of patriarchy with nationalism. You see it with child rights. [It is] a means “to justify it and remove accountability,” said Mama. “This is rubbish,” Mama added, that activists and feminists have been doing “a lot of work redefining African culture.”
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, First Lady of the Ekiti State in southeast Nigeria, told of how she led a successful campaign to enact a Gender-Based Violence Prohibition Bill that her husband signed into law. She described her establishment of the African Women’s Leadership Institute which has trained over 6,000 women across Africa, many of whom now serve in senior decision-making positions as ministers, members of Parliaments, academics, civil society leaders and employees of international organizations. Adeleye-Fayemi was compelled to co-found the African Women’s Development Fund (the first Africa-wide grant-making fund which supports the work of organizations promoting women’s rights in Africa) after a Dutch donor held her proposal for a year then denied her grant request because he said that African women don’t need women’s rights, they need food.
Brooklyn-based Black Women’s Blueprint Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Sexual Assault hosted a parallel event with the United Nation’s annual Commission on the Status of Women. Designed for representatives from different countries, NGOs and local audiences who care about issues affecting women around the world, the U.N. parallel event addressed the issue of sexual assault against Black women in America.
Truth Commission seeks truth, healing, reconciliation and alternative forms of justice for Black women who are survivors of sexual assault, “understanding that Black women in America have needs that are different from other groups based on their position in society and how society views them and reacts to them, the history of the image of Black women in this country and how that is linked to sexual assault and how Black women’s bodies have never been seen as their own or as valuable,” said Salima Hankins, Director of Human Rights and Cultural Competency at Black Women’s Blueprint. “It impacts us today when we say we have been sexually assaulted. It impacts what programs we have access to, it impacts our vulnerability to be sexually assaulted.”
African-American women and women from the Caribbean and Africa who had experienced sexual assault and wanted to tell their stories came to the event to testify about their experience. “The main point was to address what they needed from community, from society and what systems they thought would have helped them in their process of healing or would have helped prevent this from happening to them,” said Hankins. “We want to explore ways we could draw on their personal experience to effect systematic changes. That is what the Truth Commission is about: uncovering these stories, getting healing for survivors and also making the personal political by taking these personal stories and transforming them into political action.”
The Schomburg Library partnered with the Bahamian-American Cultural Society to host a screening of The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the Bahamas (1948-1962). The documentary explores the unusual beginning of the island nation’s quest for majority rule through one person, one vote. Focusing on five pivotal women, filmmaker Marion Bethel tells the story of how one Bahamian politician lost an election, then came home and told his wife, “If women had the right to vote, I would have won.” With that inspiration, the women commenced a prolonged suffrage campaign. In 1962, women in the Bahamas got the right to vote. And they used it. By 1967, majority rule led to Blacks taking over all aspects of electoral life.
However, the struggle for Bahamian women continues. The 1972 constitution explicitly allows a Bahamian man to marry a non-Bahamian woman and automatically give her and their children citizenship. But that Bahamian man’s sister cannot automatically convey citizenship on her non-Bahamian husband or her children. In 2002, a constitutional referendum failed even though women are a substantial segment of the voting population. This year, another constitutional referendum will take place on the issue. Bahamian women are being encouraged to move past party politics and exercise their “one person, one vote” to elect representatives who will enshrine equal rights for women in their constitution.