Prof. Oyeronke Oyewumi­ on Culture, Erasure of Women’s Achievements and the Modern Man

The 60th gathering of All African Peoples was recently hosted by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana under the theme Revisiting the 1958 All-African People’s Conference – The Unfinished Business of Liberation and Transformation. For four days researchers, unionists, scholars, political activists and students met to discuss Pan-Africanism today, challenges of African peoples with neo-colonialism and imperialism as well the journey of women’s liberation movement. I caught up with Nigerian feminist scholar  Prof. Oyeronke Oyewumi­  who presented on Pan-African epistemologies for knowledge. We spoke about African women’s movements and what young women can learn from her generation. She’s a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University with a wide range of expertise in gender and race, feminism and social inequality.

Prof. Oyeronke Oyewumi­. Photo by Rosebell Kagumire

Question: We are here sixty years after the first conference was convened, what has this moment meant for an African women?
OO: I like to put things in larger frame as a gender scholar before we focus on women.  What has those 60 years meant for Africa? And I wonder because we are at a moment in history where there are so many negative and threatening things going on. For example climate change has been singled out as specifically having an immediate impact on Africa and African women because of their vulnerability. What control does Africa have about this climate change? What power for do we have 60 years later? It is a window to start grappling with Africa’s vulnerability and powerlessness and it seems to me there’s the inability of our leaders and we the followers to grapple with many kinds of problems facing us. So I think what African women as a group represent is an example a symbol of Africa’s vulnerability sixty years after independence. There’s violence against women as an offshoot of the general violence in the society. The kinds of resources that are necessary for making a life in this day and age elude so many women. We talk about access to education and I concur with that however, I immediately ask the question, what sort of education do we want if we have spent the last 60 years having a particular kind of education that has not changed the extent to which we have been able to get autonomy whether as women or as Africans in the larger frame. We haven’t gained enough power to control the most important things affecting us. Then I think we must question education whether for women or general population. Content of education, what are we going to give women, children, all Africans so we can use that education to transform our lives our societies and the continent.

We have to lead, period!

Question: African women are not only vulnerable, we know many who have done a lot to transform societies. So on historising women’s contributions and challenges, as a scholar what do events like the death of Winnie Mandela, and the minimisation of her contribution, it is evident 60 years after independence the contributions of women are still minimised. How do we address this?
OO: Winnie Mandela mother of the nation, her contributions were minimised, she was marginalised but she has not been the only one who has been treated this way. Just this morning we listened to a presentation in which a young scholar didn’t seem to realise the role of women in the Mau Mau movement (Kenya anti-colonial movement)and the violence they suffered at the hands of the colonisers as women, not even as prominent women but as a larger group of women. It is a problem and I think the only way that is going to change is for women to take the bull by the horns. Highlight ways in which some of these historical women haven’t been recognised. We need to highlight that and women have to lead. We have to lead, period!  The continent is in deep trouble and women must be at the vanguard of all of kinds of struggles. And we must document the ways in which women contribute.

I don’t like culture as a way of explaining anything today on this continent

Q: Young women are facing push back from society, some already say but we have already given you space, what more do you want? Do you still have to sing gender equality? What specific ways does our society still marginalise women?
OO: It is the question of the challenges we face as a result of this construction of African culture, as violent, oppressive of women in particular. And when it is viewed in that way then men, real men don’t want to take responsibility for all their negative things they are imposing on women in the name of culture. I don’t like the word culture because it has been used so negatively. I don’t like culture as a way of explaining anything today on this continent because what I see is what I call cultures of impunity that colonisation represented because if you remember colonisation it is about taking away your sovereignty and the colonisers did whatever they wanted and so they did lay out these institutions that were not responsive to the colonised.  As a result today we have all sorts of cultures of impunity from the the top down. And men now have this notion that their families are their properties and they can do however they want, whatever they will and they want do this and couch it in the name of culture. We must never accept. Nobody’s culture!

Q: Culture changes and as you said modernity itself is patriarchal and capitalist, we see old systems reproduced even when we claim to be progressing. How much has the structure changed?
OO: We must emphasise the pathology called the modern man. When you think of modern, it is women they associate it with but when you think of what has happened as a result of colonisation of this continent it is that men have garnered all sorts of resources that were not even traditionally in the hands of men or women, these were collectively owned things. But now one man will take it and take it for himself. May be we need to turn the tables and talk about the modern man, and the modern man is a pathology.

Q: Recently we saw more African leaders attending the China summit than the UN. What do you make of current moves by newer players like China and economic and political impact, the added new neocolonial pressures? Where does this place African women.?
OO: We are supposed to stand behind men who themselves don’t know whatever power they have or they are not able to use it to assert themselves but one thing that is so clear to me is with regard to Africa at this moment is that without unity, there’s no freedom. Especially in regard to the Chinese, no one country can negotiate anything with China. We have to come together as a continent because singly we are being picked off here and there…I think one of the greatest things we need to work on this continent and Nkrumah knew it 60 years ago with pan-Africanism, we have to come together as a unit in order negotiate. Whether it is climate change or neoliberal economies, capitalist economy, whether the emergence of China and China’s interest in our resources, we need to come together as a whole unit.
And women must lead because women bear the brunt of all this. For example on of the things I was reading about in terms of how women bear the brunt we have seen on the continent that in places where Chinese workers have been, there are now all these mixed race children abandoned by Chinese workers who leave the country after their work is done. They leave the children for the mothers, who will take care of them? That’s a good symbol of the vulnerability of women even as we look at larger issues when it comes to abandonment of these children, additional responsibility for these African women whom the fathers of the children have left is a great metaphor of the situation in which Africa finds itself with China.
Q: Any for advice for you women who are increasingly self identifying as feminists trying to navigate the world and also improve their knowledge?
OO: I feel for young women especially because this is a very difficult time in the lives of Africans especially young women. We need to provide more access to resources but even when they go to school, one of the things women are facing, many women want to get married but there seems there’s no access access to marriage. When I say this it is not that it has to do with the fact that men are rejecting them or whatever, I am also looking at the men. If we did our research quite well we can see that the rate of marriage has decreased because of poverty and inability of people to start families. So those things especially hinge on women because many women at some point want to have children so the issue is the whole question of the family in Africa and how these young women are going to negotiate the real problems they face. However we can de-stigmagtise a lot things that have been stigmaised especially when it comes to religion. Christianity, modernity and this whole idea that you have to be married before you can become a mother. Collectively as women we need to do something different, we need to support each other. Support the young ones, even as we transition and deal with the whole question of what sort of families do we want because the families are the most basic unit.

Top five reads for young women?
1: My book- The Invention of Women- Oyeronke Oyewumi­
2: Kikuyu women and the politics of protest: Mau Mau- Tabitha Kanogo
3: Irua Ria Atumia and Anti-Colonial Struggles Among the Gikuyu of Kenya: A Counter Narrative on Female Genital Mutulation –  Wairimu Ngaruiya Njambi
4: Unbowed – Wangari Maathai
5: Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture- Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu
Rosebell Kagumire is a writer, award-winning blogger and Pan-African feminist. She has expertise in media, gender, peace and conflict issues. Find her on Twitter @Rosebellk

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. She has expertise in media, human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues, feminist liberation movements. She received the Anna Guèye 2018 award for digital democracy, justice and equality by Africtivistes. She is the co-editor of a book: Challenging Patriarchy: The Role of Patriarchy in the Roll-Back of Democracy. Rosebell has expertise in human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues. Her writing appears in international media like The Guardian, Al Jazeera and Quartz. Rosebell was recently recognized by Avance Media as one of the100 Most Influential Women in Africa for 2021 edition.

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