Representing or Appropriating? Reimagining Voices of African Women

I have to confess that I have always been slightly irritated by the assumption that as an African, privileged to have been to school and with a job, I cannot or should not be speaking for ‘rural, illiterate, poor woman from somewhere in Africa’. This has been an ongoing question in all my professional life as someone who is female, feminist, African and has managed to have a long-term career based on a passion for women’s rights. 

My career has put me in a lot of arenas where it is often believed that because of who I am perceived to be, I cannot really be speaking for women and in some ways, implying that, I am actually appropriating the voices of women who do not have access by being in spaces where they ideally should be.  ( interesting that this same question always seemed a preserve for African women).   

I first became aware of this early in my career – attending a workshop, and faced with the persistent question, “where are the women from Africa”?  The implication even though there were indeed very many African women in the room, for a conference in Africa, on African women’s rights, the African women in the room are ‘privileged’ and cannot be representing or representatives of the underprivileged African women. As I moved up the ladder, the questions were still the same but slightly more nuanced, “why are you speaking about women from this country and not your birth country” even though you are working in the country that is not your country and so on and so forth.

Photo by Maria Salamanca from Flickr used under Creative Commons

These questions then got me thinking. As a Feminist who has always believed her voice was authentic, not just to demonstrate the political is personal (the first rule of feminism that I learned at the Akina Mama wa Afrika in 1997), but one that felt that in speaking about patriarchy and its dismantling, I speak not just for myself but on behalf of all women (as a collective who suffers one form of discrimination or not purely on the basis of sex), whether present in a room or not, whether even accepting of feminism/patriarchy or not, and whether African or not, I started to think about voice and appropriation.  

Who exactly are the ‘real African women’ and who, if at all, should be speaking for them? How can privileged African women speak on behalf of less privileged women, and if they do so, are they not also guilty of what we accuse White Feminists of doing, i.e. speaking on behalf of African women without living their experiences?  And the most important question, how can women’s voices be represented without being appropriated? 

My first response to questions about the validity of speaking for others was that I was not speaking for other women as much as I was speaking for myself as an African woman (apart from the obvious annoyance in which I always responded to those questions).  And to go on to explain that patriarchy burdens all women and men one way or the other, and that to dismantle it, one has to fully understand how it affects one’s life. 

While some African women might have better incomes and education, we all still face the similar ceilings when ti comes to career progression, political representation and opportunity to define our States and governments in the ways that we want. Also, in ways in which we negotiate our personal relationships and boundaries and public spaces access and safe. 

As women, regardless of status, we constantly live in fear of violence, in our homes, in public spaces and highly exacerbated during conflicts and displacements.

With such experiences, all African women have the right to speak about marginalization, discrimination and oppression without claims of appropriation because we are speaking for ourselves as much as speaking for those who do not have the platforms we have.  And in doing so, hopefully, opening opportunities for more women to have those platforms to speak for themselves.

One other thing I have heard, this from some female and male politicians and bureaucrats is that only privileged African women want ‘rights, sexual autonomy, public sector reforms, power to negotiate relationships, including the right to marry or not’, and that poor and rural women only want ‘economic opportunities’, and that by speaking about rights, we are subverting what majority of women want, and using our spaces to change ‘African culture’.   

Unsurprisingly, we are losing ground, facing increased backlash to women’s rights while the number of global and national initiatives that exist at all levels and in all institutions about some form of ‘economic empowerment’ for poor African women keep increasing. Using this logic, poor women cannot possibly see sexually abused as an issue, don’t mind being treated as inferior to men and so with limited opportunities for education, jobs.  And even further this kind of arguments kind of posture around women as not being interested in defining how they want to be governed or if they would like to govern themselves.  

It has been harder to challenge this ‘economic empowerment’ notion, even among well-meaning ‘women and gender activists’ – having increased income seems like a solution to all challenges that women face because let us face it when most women are interviewed, they will speak about their immediate needs – ability to feed their families, reduce their productive and reproductive burdens – very critical needs for their day to day survival in the grinding poverty caused by poor governance, displacements etc. that they often find themselves. They are not likely to interrogate economic systems and inherent bias and interests, and how public policy is not often an objective space, consistent with the needs of most of the population.  

And that for women (and men) to be truly economically empowered, that they need to reconstruct access, power and privileges. How do you as a feminist respond to those needs that are purely symptomatic of bigger problems in balancing with the longer-term need to restructure society without accusation of ‘appropriation’?  

All women’s experiences are valid and representational, even if only from the perspective of one woman. But to make major changes and achieving equality, I do agree as many women as possible, looking at intergenerational and intersectionality must be at the table – we have to play the number game. The more women and their diverse voices and experiences are represented, the more it changes for women (and men). 

If 50 per cent of people in government are women, and responsible for making decisions, and if the 50 per cent women make decisions in their self-interest, that is 50 per cent of the population with power to make decisions based on individual lived experiences as women that eventually lead to changes that will benefit all women.  

Until women are equal in number and influence to men who make decisions in all spaces, including in personal spaces, then we cannot be accused of appropriating women’s voices.

All of the women’s voices, and especially, African women’s voices are important and critical. I speak first for myself, as a woman, feminist, African and in doing so, hopefully, will represent millions of others who share my experiences. 

I look forward to the day when all women would have the spaces and opportunity to speak for themselves, and collectively agree on our power to make positive changes – yes, I am speaking of rights, sexual autonomy, freedom from violence, including sexual violence, to challenge status quo, albeit as we acknowledge our different experiences as women.  We should speak for those who are not able to present but we should never forget that we also speak for ourselves.    

Feature photo from Akilah Workshop 

Funmi Balogun

Funmi Balogun is a Nigerian feminist writer.

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