Ifeoluwa Adedeji offers a note on feminism, female merit, and power.
The feminist movement is a strong one. It has acquired so much importance globally, owing largely to the work of popular women who stand at the center of their careers and have committed to speaking out about the plight of women in a world ordered by men. Indeed, different public personalities have taken note of this campaign for the place of the woman in society – and some have spoken about it.[i] It came as no surprise that when Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, derisively ‘displaced’ his wife on an international stage in Germany, beside Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, saying she “belongs to his kitchen, his living room, and the other room,” there was a public uproar. When Chimamanda Adichie, who gave the popular TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists,” also, recently had an interview with an international magazine where she clarified her role in Lemonade, the sixth studio album by American singer Beyonce, condemning the tendency to cast Lemonade as the event that ushered her into relevance and making a distinction between her feminism and Beyonce’s, there was a lot of response from Nigerians about feminism and what it means (or should mean).
It is important to look into the life of feminism as discussed in the academia, and an interesting place to start is radical feminism which has received a great deal of attention and criticism. In a Foreword piece, “Beware: Radical Feminists Speak, Read, Write, Organise, Enjoy Life, and Never Forget,” in Radically Speaking, Diane Bell and Renate Klein take on the challenge of laying out in simple terms what it means to speak radically about the place of women in society and the kind of ‘bashing’ that has followed closely. In their first conversation, they identify postmodernism as the major opponent that has to be addressed. “Post-modernism! If I hear one more person expound on her multiple subject positions…Radical feminists have always understood that race, class, sexuality, age are intertwined, but they hold fast to the identity of woman,” Bell says. Klein asks the most important question of all, the inquiry that this article attempts to address:
“That’s crucial. It’s the basis of political action. How can we speak if we are fragmented into so many partial and shifting identities? How can we engage in joint actions, if we are merely “thinking fragments?”
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, talking about the “third world difference” in Western feminist discourse in her article “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” has critiqued “the crucial assumption that all of us of the same gender, across classes and cultures, are somehow socially constituted as a homogenous group identified prior to the process of analysis.” This sameness of oppression, she says, has resulted in “an elision…between ‘women’ as a discursively constructed group and ‘women’ as material subjects of their own history…This focus is not on uncovering the material and ideological specificities that constitute a particular group of women as ‘powerless’ in a particular context. It is, rather, on finding a variety of cases of ‘powerless’ groups of women to prove the general point that women as a group are powerless.” Essentially speaking, Mohanty frames (white) radical feminism, in its strong belief in the category of woman, as postmodern.
Rather interestingly, radical feminists situate Mohanty in the post-modern framework which limits the ability to act by the “insistence that there are no subjects, with the consequence that woman has been virtually erased as the author of her own life. Women, reduced to an assemblage of texts and multiplicities of identities, no longer exist as a sociological category. From this perspective, women’s on-going multifaceted oppressions by men as a social class are deemed at best irrelevant, at worst non-existent. Thus, envisaging a feminist future is rendered impossible: woman disappears.” There is also a rejection of the claim that specificities are not recognized: “…despite the differences in personal background, geography, class, history, and culture, she is vulnerable because she is a woman.”
To begin to understand these accusations of postmodernism, it is important to ask: Is there such a thing as the category of woman or, perhaps to be politically correct, should we use women? This seems to be a very relevant question, especially since Mohanty urges that sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender. It follows that sisterhood cannot even be assumed on the basis of patriarchy, since patriarchy is constituted differently in different societies and should be understood within particular setups, nor can it be assumed on the basis of belonging to the same country or region, since there are differences in social class, education, access to healthcare, political power, etc. This relates to Mohanty’s notion of “ethnocentric universalism.”
I argue that, despite numerous differences, there is a category of woman and it is sound. Sisterhood may not be assumable merely on the basis of gender, but it is certainly plausible on the ground of the reality of patriarchy as an organized system of domination and ‘colonization’. The fact that patriarchy is constituted differently and the oppression of women occurs in different forms in different societies, a distinction which I think is also important, does not nullify or water down the bigger fact that there is such a thing as patriarchy and the oppression of women which most women, Western or non-Western, house wife or general manager, can identify with. Hillary Clinton may have been able to contest for the ‘presidency of the world’, Angela Merkel may be taken as the symbol of the end of feminism, and the Hausa woman of Northern Nigeria may be addressing religious representations and educational limitations; none of these women is free from patriarchy and oppression and they must battle the form in which the monster appears to them every day. The monster appears in different forms to different people. But it’s the same monster, called patriarchy.
Having established the category of woman as all-inclusive in spite of noteworthy differences, we should now turn to the area of action. Once, I have attended a conference at The Electoral Institute, Nigeria where a paper on women in Nigerian politics was presented. A good part of the question and answer session focused on whether affirmative action/quotas or merit is the way out. I think the choice is between institutionalizing change in an organized, institutionalized system and leaving the situation to discretion and choice. I will choose the former, because it is naïve to think that female merit cannot be sabotaged, reasoned ‘out of place’, or rendered insignificant in the grand scheme of ‘issues’, especially in a world where reasoning itself is the creation of a male hegemony.
[i] There is a compilation of what men like Barrack Obama and John Legend have said about women’s rights and equal relationships in #MenFor5050, a campaign on iampurple.ng.
Ifeoluwa Adedeji is a masters student and research assistant in the African Studies Program at Ohio University, and an alumnus of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He tweets at @TheIfeAdedeji and blogs at ifeadedeji
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Africa@OHIO or the African Studies Program of Ohio University.