After being immersed for at least two years in editing and writing a report on violence against women, thinking about violence led me back to an excerpt captured in CAL’s Feminist Disruptor handbook. The excerpt references a multitude of feminist thinking and theoriziing African women’s lives and their sexuality by deliberately leaving behind the Western habit of framing African Women and gender non-conforming people’s lives exclusively through the lense of violence. It is easy to fall into the same trap, the same constricting framework which confines us to thinking about our lives within structures of violence, because many feminist activists’ work involves unceasing grappling with violence, and because women and gender non-conforming people, are steeped in violence.
Yet we still can frame our lives outside of violence even though violence against women is woven into the fabric of society. One way is by illuminating the dimensions of African women’s lives that are usually absent or concealed in mainstream narratives.
One in every three women globally, has experienced intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in their life. This and other staggering statistics, don’t seem to be improving at a fast enough rate that could convince us that the next generation of women might be less exposed to violence. In fact, any progress made towards eliminating violence against women is quickly undone by the spike in violence against women due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and by climate change which also leads to more violence against women and girls. Violence in general increases in pandemics because there’s a breakdown of social infrastructures which worsens the already existing weaknesses in society. There are several cases where surges in violence against women and intimate partner violence have been linked with crises. A few examples include the 2014 Ebola outbreak where women and girls were left even more vulnerable to violence and rape, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti when many women experienced increased violence incidents in the various camps. Yet we still can frame our lives outside of violence even though violence against women is woven into the fabric of society. One way is by illuminating the dimensions of African women’s lives that are usually absent or concealed in mainstream narratives.
“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, and 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…” (Sika & Okech, 2019).”
I’m drawn to art when thinking about how we frame our lives, because art often reflects life. African women in art, including filmmakers, fiction writers, and musicians often lead the way in revealing and celebrating, or at least attempting to do so, the full dimension of African women’s lives. Filmmaker Rosine Mbakam from Cameroon said about her film “Two Faces of a Bamikélé Woman”, that she started to write a portrait of her mother because she was missing her, her documentary film captures her mother simply being and sharing her thoughts and feelings about life in the present and in the past. Rosine is motivated by her desire to be free from western cinema and to make her films in different ways that are not colonized by other [western] forms of cinema. These types of films exemplify illuminating the varied dimensions of African women. Unfortunately, access to such films is not easy, one has to search deep, have access to film festivals or access to rare screenings to watch such films.
In addition to filmmakers, African women musicians are particularly powerful in their full display of visual ingenuity, power in their lyrics and their dance, beauty in their bodies and their spirits and the joy they spread to other African women. At CAL, Sampa the Great is often on heavy rotation on many a playlist. One comment under Sampa’s videos reads “Sampa the Great makes me feel like a strong independent black African woman, and I’m an Asian man.” Sampa the Great is among a long list of African women musicians who exude great power in uplifting, entertaining and inspiring joy. Art is part and parcel of the project of framing African women and gender non-conforming people’s lives in ways that aren’t exclusively about violence, instead, in ways that are joyful, beautifully creative and extremely talented.
Feminist activists, particularly those who are organized into formal institutions, are missing opportunities to build a feminist future with the group of people who particularly specialise in imagination
The work of building a feminist future where women are free from violence has to include actively imagining a world which we can start to visualize now even as we challenge and fight against the oppressions women face. Imagination is however stifled when we keep seeing more of the same narratives that portray African women solely in frameworks where they’re suffering the consequences of living in patriarchal oppressive society. Exploring the different frameworks of articulating the full dimensions of African women, is an important active rejection of oppression which should be included in our activist toolboxes. The work of imagination is incomplete without artists. Feminist activists, particularly those who are organized into formal institutions, are missing opportunities to build a feminist future with the group of people who particularly specialise in imagination. We can certainly do more and do better than minimizing our work with artists to designing reports and posters. There are often calls to broaden and deepen our cross-movement work which allow us to learn from each other and improve our strategies, in these processes we can also think about how violence against women can also be fought by framing African women’s lives in varied ways.
Muthien, B. (2013). Queering borders: an Afrikan activist perspective. In S. Ekine & H. Abbas (Eds.)s. Queer African Reader (pp. 211-219). Oxford: Pambazuka Press.
Sika, V., & Okech, A (2019). African Sexual Politics: A Pan-African Lesbian Perspective. In Corrêa, S., & Parker, R. (Eds.) Sex Politics: Trends & Tensions in the 21st Century – Contextual Undercurrents. Available at http://sxpolitics.org/trendsandtensions/uploads/volume2-2019-09052019.pdf