African feminists theorizing sexuality

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer piece originally written for the Sexuality Policy Watch in Brazil for their publication reflecting on a decade of Sexual Politics globally. 

In the past two decades, the field of gender and sexuality in Africa has grown exponentially.  This highly visible blossoming has taken place both in the formal systems of academia and institutional organizing but pertains to a much longer history of woman-authored African thought and oppositional cultural practice, which predates the name of “feminism”. As underlined by Kenyan scholar, Wambui Mwangi (2013): “Kenyan women have been laying their bodies on the line for years.”  This vast production of women’s activist and intellectual work openly contests the colonial and postcolonial constructions of African sexualities that were and remain central to the logic of domination and exploitation of the continent and its peoples, and creatively expands existing thinking on and interpretation of sexualities (Arnfred, 2011; Gatter, 2000; Helle-Valle, 2004; Mama, 1996; McClintock, 1995; McFadden, 1992, 2003; Oinas & Arnfred, 2009; Tamale, 2005).  This strand of feminist thinking and research markedly differs from intellectual views that  attempt  to address African sexualities from conventional report-driven, development oriented or demographic and health based approaches ( as exemplified by the reports produced by UN and other international institutions, such as FAO, 2004; Population Council, 2014; SIDA, 2005; WHO, 2013). A fundamental component of this feminist thinking addressing African sexualities is the the lesbian and feminist African voices who can now be heard sharply, illuminate dimensions of queer lives that are usually absent or concealed in these mainstream narratives and analyses. 

Several publications and research illustrate this strand of feminist thinking, one of which is the path-clearing labor performed in books and publications such as Feminist Africa on Sexual Cultures (2005), Subaltern Politics (2006); Body Politics and Citizenship (2009) and Researching Sexuality and Young Women (2012). Other  groundbreaking references, albeit in entirely different language, are to be found in the fictional anthology, Queer Africa (Edited by Karen Martin, Makhosazana Xaba) that was awarded the Lambda Literary Award for best LGBT anthology in 2014, and in the magisterial and inexhaustible many thousands of pages of the Women Writing Africa, which compiled a vast multigenerational collection of  African feminist writings.  One main contribution of these varied feminist academic and literary work is that it leaves behind the colonial and Western habit of incessantly framing African women and gender non-conforming lives exclusively through the lens of violence.

As noted by Muthien (2013), in Africa (as elsewhere in the world), the place and meaning of violence as a patriarchal tool of discipline cannot be minimized. It must be analyzed and contested as a major factor that increases the risk of HIV/AIDS infections, or the control of women’s bodies and lives. On the other hand, however, it is vital to also map and understand tactics used by women to escape these grips of violence and control, as for example, when queer women opt for heterosexual relationships and marriages or removing themselves from society, in order to survive.  

Not less importantly, African scholars, researchers, activists and artists have also emphasized the relations and pleasures of lesbian and queer lives. In reflecting on the trajectory of gender and sexuality research and thinking in institutions of higher learning in Africa, Bennett (2008), for example, highlights “the vibrancy, complexity and visibility of sexuality as a zone of pleasure” that characterizes this production. In the same wave  length,  Faith, a co-founder of the Kenyan organization, Minority Women in Action (MWA), explains that one of the original goals of the organization is “of course, to have fun  (Dearham, 2013).  This energetic and wholehearted ability to laugh, celebrate, play and revel sharply contrasts with conventional narratives of African sexual realities construed almost exclusively as “a terrain of assault, choicelessness and physical/psychological damage” (Bennett, 2008).   

This subversive and pleasant view of African sexualities is also reflected in “The Quilt”, a text woven by the collective of Renée Alexander Craft, Meida Mcneal, Mshaï S. Mwangola, and Queen Meccasia E. Zabriskie (2007) in which the authors describe dancing as a privileged moment of black African feminist friendship and life sharing. Its poetic and impassioned articulation of twenty-first-century black feminist ethnographies stands out as a particularly powerful contribution for energizing African feminist intellectual and political labors such as when these women say:  

[W]e each experienced  moments when our ‘profane’, leaky, curvy, mother/sister/daughter/macomère bodies, bound up in the polities of our national and ethnoracial identities, unsettled the ‘sacred’ spaces of our field sites and academies, often in unintentional and unexpected ways. (p. 55)

Another landmark bibliographic reference to be mentioned is Sylvia Tamale’s African Sexualities.  The volume focuses on the ethics, process and methodology of feminist research thereby contesting past and present power dynamics in knowledge production on gender and sexuality in Africa. With this line of thinking, in addition to paying careful attention to the social, cultural, ethical and economic contexts being researched, Tamale also provokes us when she asks: why should we engage at all in sexuality research?  The response is given by The Quilt collective when they declare that to research and write is “to bear witness”, but also by Meida (2007) when she insightfully asserts that: 

“The ethnographic narratives we document are interventions on both local and global scales. They are parables of importance, reflections for the local communities who made them in the first place as well as lessons for a global audience to bear witness to.” ( Meida, p. 66)

This concise  review  of  feminist and queer intellectual production on African sexualities cannot gloss over Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives (Wieringa and Morgan , 2005), a book that illuminated a variety of same-sex relations and practices amongst women in six culturally and linguistically diverse sub-Saharan African countries. The authors in the collection emphasize how these practices are deeply grounded in African cultures. The book also charts similarities, differences and ambiguities of these practices but also how they are socially perceived and reacted upon. The stories collected in the book speak to the vast diversity of queer women’s lives and relations in different contexts.  As the title suggests, these relations comprise a complex and colorful spectrum of affective partnerships that range from socially recognized and legitimate marriages between women (rooted in cultural traditions), to sanctioned bisexuality and what we may call transgender expressions. The book also shows that while some of these women live in relatively liberal communities, others are subjected to near-complete censorship. It also maps the strategies used by these women to cope with hostile environments, which sometimes require combining rigid performances of femininity and masculinity in public with fluid cross-gender practices in private. The multiple, non-uniform, non-dogmatic expressions and articulations of gender and sexual nonconformity that emanate from the book pages are compelling illustrations of subjectivities and life experiences that exceed the dominant institutionalized LGBTIQ categories, discourses and related politics. 

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