Identity, Erasure, and African Feminism

Identity is one of the most fundamental aspects of human existence.  Who we are makes a difference in how we present ourselves to the world and in turn how the world sees us.  Cultural narratives play a big part in shaping our immediate communities and more recently, the idea of a global culture is starting to look like a possible impediment even though we are yet to truly define what or whose culture that is.  

For at least seven years now, I have walked an internal journey that allowed me to accept feminist ethos as a necessary part of the human condition in which we find ourselves, a concept that allows us to articulate our pain, our isolation, and which gives us the language and tools to address oppression.  

On one part, it was easier to find my way to feminism because I am female bodied- meaning I was born with female anatomy, which seemed to automatically bear a pre-ordained script on how I should look, how I should dress, whom I should love or fuck, what I was allowed to do and so forth. Many women still bear this burden and have to fight a lifetime to not be defined by other peoples’ expectations for their lives and many pay with their bodies and lives if they diverge from this pre ordained script.

This is why feminism is still important and why it requires humanity’s full attention as a response to the status quo.  I have built communities, formed friendships, and established networks from this space, which has allowed me a great deal of privilege in the work that I choose to do, and the places I occupy.

Being female bodied alone, did not make me a woman. This is an inconvenient truth that I found out about myself when I started to pay close attention to the dissonance that I struggled with over the years, starting around the age of five, and heightening as I started puberty around the age of ten.  

As an adult, I have spent enough time reading about gender and sexuality, and theorizing about the legal struggles of sexual and gender minorities in Uganda and Africa yet nothing prepared me for accepting this truth for myself.

Having a female anatomy does not make you a woman.  

It is a privilege if your anatomy aligns with your identity, if your female anatomy aligns with your woman hood and this seems to be the premise for feminism generally and more so for African feminism, which now is synonymous with sisterhood.  This construct carries through the issues that are centered for feminist struggles, the narratives of identity that make up accessibility to knowledge, community, and even funding that is tied to those identities (especially cisgender heterosexual christian identity) which are privileged within the African feminist movement. This  facilitates the continued erasure of non-binary and transgender people within its ranks.

I do not identify as a woman, even though I am female bodied.  I have learnt that the medical term transsexual speaks to my experience of myself beyond any other description I have found in the sex I was assigned at birth and different still from the gender I began to accept as mine at the age of ten. My mind and existence aligns more with masculinity, a definition of manhood that does not neatly fit into the neat boxes that my immediate society accepts as male.  This internal anxiety manifests in many ways, mostly in behavior, in dress, and in other forms of expression.

Trans identity isn’t new, more so in Africa, where ancient Kemet understood gender as universal and agreed with the reality of mental gender as distinct from genitalia and sex. The idea that people can experience gender differently than what they were assigned at birth or that they can bear different chromosomal composition has been a part of African cultural diversity long before colonialism took its roots in the 18th century leading to criminalization of queerness in at least 34 countries.

We are yet to learn the true nature and extent of colonial violence, and the purpose served by erasing identities and policing bodies and sexuality.

African feminism still treads within this binary reinforcing the structural erasure endured by non-cisgender people who face similar and often deeper structural and physical violence under patriarchal capitalist imperialist oppression. Our approach to feminism has grown into an extension of gender studies.  

At its best, African feminism performs tokenism when it comes to gender diversity- making only symbolic naming of these varied identities. It recruits a few acceptable bodies from the umbrella group in order to give the appearance of practice of equality when it comes to gender identity and sexual diversity issues, without truly appreciating how interconnected these struggles are.


Noah Mirembe is an African transsexual man and ecofeminist

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