A Response to Sheroes and Silencers: Navigating Power in Feminist Spaces

A tweet with a screenshot excerpt from the article Sheroes and Silencers: Navigating Power in Feminist Spaces appeared on my timeline last night. Alongside it, these words from the Twitter user:

“To the author of this text on @AfriFeminists I see you, I send you love and solidarity. You are not alone. Thanks for writing this.”

My interest was piqued and so I hovered over the hyperlink to get to the full piece. The author writes about feminism within academic spaces, but she could very well be speaking about any kind of institutional feminism. I want to make clear that I am not painting all forms of institutional feminism with one brush here.  Some spaces have been quite nurturing and generative for me, and many others. But while this holds true, many of us have also endured entrapping experiences within these institutionalised spaces that attract us, quite ironically, by promising us emancipation. 

By the end of the first paragraph of the essay, I had already made a few guesses as to who this person might be. I still don’t know who they are. But the fact that I could offer multiple guesses of their identity speaks, firstly, to the common nature of the issues raised and secondly, to the fact that many have endured them just silently and anonymously as the author has. 

A couple of years ago, I did an interview in which I spoke about the institutionalisation of feminist movement building. I noted that; 

“Feminist organisations often do what is considered “real” feminist work, and other feminists who are not within those spaces or who don’t have access to them tend to feel shut out, as you have to be in the right networks to get access to those spaces. For instance, I may be an accountant or stay-at-home mum and identify as a feminist.  But obviously, if there is a big feminist forum, you’re not going to invite me because I do not belong to any formal feminist collective or organisation.”

And then when these feminists are actually integrated into those spaces, you sometimes have experiences such as the following, again excerpted from an article I wrote;

“I recall once sitting in a global feminist meeting and feeling a deep sense of disembodiment because of this… Framed as a meeting of the “the global South”, the focus was heavily on South and Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American feminist interventions. And so too was the theoretical underpinning. One day during a tea break, a participant from rural Malawi with limited English-speaking capacity came up to me and asked me if she was stupid (her word) because she couldn’t fully grasp the often inaccessible and academic language that facilitators were using during the proceedings of the meeting. I reassured her that she was not stupid.”

But perhaps more isolating than this Malawian woman’s experience is the rejection one experiences when they are integrated into spaces but not deemed ‘feminist enough’ in the very environments that would claim to welcome them, and even be fighting for them. Kenyan feminist, Sheena Magenya, speaks to this in her important essay of a few years ago where she writes that:

 “There is an unspoken desire or requirement to be ‘allowed’ to feminist in a particular way. One can argue that this is how we work in Africa-that you need the permission of the area chief to open a kiosk at the intersection of Main Road and Chipera Avenue. But what this does, whether as protocol or not, is it sends a clear message that our feminism needs to look a certain way or it cannot belong.”

The anxious efforts the anonymous African Feminism author speaks of to please those within those spaces is not foreign to me; some years ago, I developed extreme anxiety from being engaged with a space that consistently made me feel inadequate in my feminist knowledge and practice. I know of too many others who have developed depression, anxiety and all manner of illnesses from similar engagements. The worst part of it is the lasting effects of those experiences; the loss of confidence and trust in one’s knowledge systems, one’s worldviews, one’s being.  

It feels like betrayal to proverbially air all this dirty laundry in public. Patriarchy never rests and there is always someone out to trash feminism and weaponise examples of its challenges. But where, I wonder, can people have these honest conversations without the curation (and sometimes even performativity) of high-level meetings? Many also fear sharing these experiences in more intimate ‘safe spaces’ because even those tend to not feel safe for full exploration and exorcism. After all, the author notes, responses to such sobering conversations often vacillates between “a condescending sisterly ‘love’, and an abrasive dismissal of those whose ideas are seen as ‘simplistic’.” These are simply two sides of the same coin; diversionary tactics from acknowledging that the foundation of a lot of our work employs the same systems of power, control and erasure that feminism stands against. 

So, how do we dismantle regimes of power that are oppressing and come out healthier as feminists? 

This is a question the author poses and something to continually ask and engage with. 

Between 2019 and 2020, I conducted a research project with the funder, MADRE, to better understand the challenges and opportunities for young African feminist funding. Many rich learnings came out of that experience. I used a quote offered by one of the respondents to conclude the report thus;

“We need to build solidarity, agitate for change, explore alternative sources of funding, find ways to disrupt, delegitimise and transform these unequal power relations. I think it’s even more complicated and nuanced when we apply the intersectional lens of being … African in a system that is set up, in many ways, to thrive from and advance global North (read neo-colonial) agendas and protect existing wealth and power inequalities, to the inherent challenges of African feminist organising including ageism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-sex work.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

I hope the anonymous author finds solace in knowing that there are many others of us out there with similar scars, questions and hopes. 

The conversation needs to continue. 


Fungai Machirori is a thinker and practitioner across many areas including feminism, digitality and cosmopolitanism. You can learn more about her at www.fungaimachirori.com

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