Society, as always, has its uncountable excuses on how women must act, coupled with the usual anthem of ‘how to woman’. However over the years, we have seen; ‘how to feminist’ and in more recent times, ‘how to feminist whilst African’. To identify as ‘woman’ and as ‘African’ for many, men and women alike, sparks a load of expectations.
Several platforms have been formed to not only enable feminists across the continent to connect, but also provide a safe space to communicate on best practices and share experiences. One such platform is a collective called Feministing While African, the brainchild of Chenai Chair, Research Manager in Gender and Digital Rights with the World Wide Web Foundation and Martha Chilongoshi, a Zambian journalist with interest in good governance, technology and gender equality. AF caught up with Chenai to get more insight about why such platforms are an essential part of feministing and womaning in these times.
EB: What is Feministing While African (FWA) all about?
CC: The purpose is to being connecting African feminists and providing a group with community standards based on feminist practices. People can share frustrations, learn from one another and build on their ability to feminist while African. The platform is open to all those who identify as womxn, those at varying levels of feminism and has a diverse geographical representation of African feminists.
EB: What is the best thing about being an African Woman?
CC: The resilient spirit of being an African woman passed on from generation to generation makes it amazing to be an African woman. As an African woman, I live a bold and vibrant life while at the same time knowing I live in a world where regardless of your education, skin tone or ability to speak well, you are always second-guessed and have to work 10 times as hard at taking up space. It is from there where being an African woman means building resilience to occupy and build new spaces; answer the clarion call to work together to collectively address the struggles we face; and having mutual respect because you know the struggle is real and there is so much more power in standing together.
EB: Working with women across the continent, what common challenges have you come across?
CC: Patriarchy, regardless of the position you occupy, continues to play out across the world and affects women differently. I continuously see the idea that women share similar experiences of poverty, inequality and unemployment; therefore, you have a one size fits all approach in developing solutions. This takes away issues of race, location and access to resources. I also find that women’s agency is often overlooked in the decision making spaces in particular when you do not have the tools that allow for you to “fit in”. And even when you do fit it in, one must always deal with the second-guessing and recognise that the power at play may not be favourable to you. Referring to the digital technologies space which I occupy, we see skewed internet access and use in favour of men, gender bias and discrimination with data-driven technologies and lack of representation in innovation and policy making perpetuate and create new inequality. Gendered issues continue to be an ‘oh and let’s add gender to the mix’ mainly a binary sex approach in addressing issues.
EB: In what ways can we better contribute to the fight for gender equity? (‘we’ being non-gender specific)
CC: A recognition that we exist at different intersectionalities that therefore shape our different experiences would be a good starting point. Once we acknowledge these differences, incorporating them into our work (developmental work) would help to seek the best-fit approaches to addressing equity. Focusing on the structural patriarchal issues as well, would help in understanding that no one really benefits from this system – map your privilege and help to dismantle the system from there.
Most of the time I hear people say the system will never change, but I believe it will because I am a product of a system being chipped away at. Even as feminists, the principles of reflection and care within our work means we develop strategies to fight for gender equity that recognises our own privilege and acknowledges the need to work collaboratively for the greater good.
EB: When did you realise you were a feminist?
CC: I might have been 12, having travelled to a relative’s house. One of my brothers was instructed not to take his plate to the kitchen because that was the role of women. I was 12 and distinctly remember asking why? Why was I expected to serve his needs? At that time feminism was not something talked about in an African household, and I definitely did not have the words, but I was exhibiting the traits. When I was introduced to feminism in university, I realised that my anger at that which had been dismissed as me being lazy was more to do with the injustice of girls being ascribed roles and treated differently from boys.
EB: What is the biggest challenge your country is facing now, and how are you handling this?
CC: I am a diasporic feminist, living in one country and yearning the progress of another, it’s difficult to answer. So will do my best and respond to the country I have called home in the last ten years. In South Africa, gender-based violence is one of the biggest challenges that womxn face. In this space, it has really been about amplifying the work of others to address gender-based violence and build on the understanding of how this manifests online. There is more awareness of being a woman in this country, and knowing your life could end violently. However, there are amazing feminist movements in South Africa that have worked towards having gender-based violence recognises as a critical issue needing redress. That actually is the privilege of being in South Africa and seeing a movement of people uniting to address this issue.
As women, we continue to face numerous challenges, but networks like these help to lessen the individual burden and create capacity building by connecting womxn to each other no matter what level they may be in their feminist journey.
EB: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting women’s organising and what opportunities do you see coming up?
CC: COVID-19’s impact on women’s organizing has been the need to make sure gender issues are not an add on to current policies. There have evolved feminist responses seeking to hold governments accountable to the solutions they put forward showing that women will not be excluded in the solution development process. As I am engaged in the policy space, the emerging regional and global feminist platforms and resources assessing #COVID19 responses have been useful to keep track of what issue is being prioritized and what needs to be acted upon. The challenge, of course, will remain mobilizing and supporting communities without internet access and access to food and health services. These usually require going into these communities. It will be crucial to follow up to the extent to which permits to support these communities are granted and the adequacy of government responses.
EB: How it will shape the future of the African women’s rights struggle?
CC: It’s a pandemic that has required the world to sit up and reflect on the way in which we have been working and highlighted existent inequalities. For women’s rights movements, it’s highlighted the structural inequality that we have been fighting for and challenges responsible parties to develop better safety nets to support women. As movements, it also has meant we have to be innovative in our organizing and make use of technology in the best ways that we can. The future means increased reliance on tech and working collaboratively with women organizing within the tech space.
EB: What have you learnt from running the platform FWA during this time?
CC: My lessons in moderating FWA has really been the value of creating a safe space and letting it run on its own in a time full of unknowns. As part of the admin team, the community guidelines we developed have ensured that the group serves a purpose of learning, sharing, caring, being seen and being heard. I personally have been amazed at how we laugh, cry and rage together as African feminists connected by technology. The platform has enabled people to connect on varying topics so it’s been amazing to see the collaborative approach by feminists. I have also learnt of the ongoing responses to the pandemic from everyone’s country and disciplinary background. Its really been a time of conversation that reminds you that the need to dismantle the patriarchy carries on.