Understanding Female Agency

Several explanations are used to define agency;

“an individual’s  (or group’s) ability to make effective choices and  to transform those choices into desired outcomes”
“a dialectic of freedom and constraint”
“how women even within oppressive structures undertake little acts that help in subverting or changing the terms of the debate, or lead to transformative change in their lives or their children’s lives”
“women’s experiences of making the most of their situation, in the following ways: her ability to rise above the situations she is pressed with; participation in the community; assertion of identity; and how she continues to survive and make changes for herself and her immediate environment and community”

It’s been well over two months since the last post on Africanfeminism, perhaps giving the impression that this site was slowly dying away. However, in an expression of some form of agency, i chose to take a virtual break and keep my online presence to a bare minimum. In our times of high online interactions, it felt liberating to break away and contemplate offline. Anyways, now i come back re-energized and curious to explore a concept that i have become quite  enamored  with these days.
“Understanding Female Agency” will be the theme for my focus in 2012 as together with my loyal readers and new visitors, we contemplate what agency means in various aspects of women’s lives.
I invite those of you who may be similarly fascinated with this concept to contribute a piece on expressions and manifestations of female agency in Africa.
Lastly, i want to thank all my readers and contributors from 2011 for having  joined in the exploration, for the feedback and for the support. Here’s to another year of sharing perspectives.
~ ~
Love & Light

  1. Dear all, Hi
    I accidentally discovered this website last time while doing some reading on ECX and Dr.Elleni specificaly. I was really facinated and motivated with what she has to share with all of us. As a gender expert i always ask myself what we ”educated Ethiopian women” are really contributing toward creating feminist activism ? I always want to build or join a strong network working in the area. That was why i subscribed for African Feminism. After some time i was pleased to read the topic ‘understanding Female Agency’. I had participated in an international workshop on similar topic. so your article might help me to refresh my memory on agency and help me to think about sharing it with others. Thankyou.

    1. Thanks for sharing your ideas clearly. The Work is always pragmatic, well researched whilst putting important and pertinent issues in a witty manner. KEEP GOING….

  2. Female agency in advertisements
    I’d like to start by thanking and congratulating AfricanFeminism for focusing on the interesting and worthy topic of understanding female agency for 2012.
    I would like to give my two cents on the matter on the area of female agency in advertisements as I found it a very thought provoking and useful topic to engage with. Nowadays, it is very common to see the 1990s and 1980s portrayal of women in the media and advertisements being criticized scathingly for suggesting that women are supposed to be dependant on men, motherly and sexually passive. And as a result of this criticism, media and advertisements have naturally changed the way they portray women for the most part (at least in the western media). They have begun representing women as empowered and independent members of society. Laudable and progressive as that might appear, a closer look is needed before celebrating this change as a good thing. My skepticism about this ” change” is grounded on the fact that, the way I see it, really the inherently sexist and chauvinistic character of female representation in the media and advertisements has not changed. Compare the following two ads for example: One, an ad that tries to sell cars by splashing a half naked young woman all over it, and, two, an ad for a push-up-bra with a woman wearing only a cleavage-enhancing bra with the slogan: ‘I can’t cook. Who cares?’ situated between the breasts.
    There is no way the ad for the car would escape criticism for sexually objectifying women (I am hoping). As for the ad for the bra, I am betting that many would think that it is a progressive representation of female sexual agency in the sense that it is negating the age-old stereotype that women are supposed to be homemakers and thus should know how to cook. And such ads are engineered by marketers knowingly and anticipating a positive reception of such sentiments by a post feminist society. But, look closer; is it really a change for the good? I don’t think so. All this change did is replace the ” women must cook” stereotype with a stereotype that ‘a woman’s sexy body is far more important than any of her other feminine skills or attributes”. I personally don’t think that is a change for the better. The feminist push to change the way women are portrayed in advertisements has been high-jacked and brutally misappropriated by the advertising industry. And that really pisses me off!!! Under the guise of enhancing female sexual agency (challenging the thinking that women are passive sexual objects at the mercy of their male counterparts’ libidos), today’s advertisements still perpetuate the degrading and chauvinistic thinking that the most valuable asset of a woman is her sexiness and thus she should do everything in her power to be sexy. The trick or the genius in today’s advertisements is that they don’t tell a woman that she should buy this bra or those stilettos because a man wants her to, no no no!…that is completely sexist, who cares what a man wants, right? But, it instead they tell her a completely different thing, that she must buy these things to show that she is an independent and sexually active woman, while achieving the same goal in the end, the goal of convincing women that being sexy should be a priority. Notice how there is no contradiction, no difference, between what I want and what men might want of me? But I see through the smoke and mirrors, and refuse to be tricked into thinking that these new adds are any better than the old ones that we bash for being sexist. I know there are many of you out there that feel the same way and so I urge you to keep expressing your skepticism about female sexual agency in ads as it stands now because if we don’t and this trend continues, there will come a day when our daughters will feel the need to walk around naked all because they have been brainwashed into thinking that doing that shows that you are independent.
    Melhik Abebe Bekele

  3. Dear all
    This is the journal I compiled after the workshop on Agency and Embodiment, in 2009. Thanks, Billen for initiating me to participate.
    Agency and agents in feminist theory
    Key words: animality, performativity, human and animal realtion, co-creation, techno-scientific practices
    summary:performativity; shows how animality is a doing or becoming co-creation of behavior in that of animality of humanness and the relationship between the two. It emphasizes in explaining how both human and animal can conjointly be engaged in reconfiguring the world, and why our theorizing must reflect that complexity (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.167).
    Animality usually is connected to gender, race or sexuality, uniqness, and human to non-human segregation while performativity and animal agency is working away from these oppositional meaning of animal/human and toward a more inclusive one. It is interested to show Intersection of feminist theory and studies of human and animal relationships. performativity also illustrate the themes of person -observer writing personal observation about animal performativity in a given scientific experiment (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.171).
    Animals are more meaningful to human animals beyond what human beings gives credit for these non human animals. For instance when we look at representation rat performativity and animal agency these specific animals has meaning to human beings. Rats have been in our history carrying pandemics others on the contrary in laboratory hidden from view producing medical and pharmaceutical wonders together with scientists (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.171)
    At the same time these animals are, erased linguistically and materially when we need to name them and acknowledge their contribution. They are given numbers and stand as model for humans, their uses and death looks acceptable so we need to recognize the fact that these animals are dying to ease our pains and make our life longer. They have gone standardization and scientists are trained to deal with their behavior so rats play important role in creating the knowledge and the scientists. Another way of seeing in natural science is appearing, which seems to permit animals a greater agency (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.172).
    Agency on the other hand leads to rethinking causality where productive materialize effect of relationship and power, contradictory discursive demand, matter of intra-acting, enchantment, not an attribute of subject or object. In agential realism subject: can’t be site of agency- no stable existence rather its character of performativity that opens up the possibility of agency. So intra-action reformulates causality and opens a space for material-discursive form of agency which is agential realism. It is a matter of intra-acting and enactments well as the possibilities and accountability entailed in refiguring material discursive apparatuses of bodily production, including the boundary articulations and exclusions that are marked by those practices (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.174).
    Relevance to feminism: Agential realism and performativity shows the need to give attention to complex relationships between human and other animals as well as material discursive apparatuses in knowledge production. The implication of performativity and agential realism for feminism is the need to give attention to complex relationships between human and other animals in its theorizing. Agential realism also helps to take advantage of the scientific knowledge production in the natural sciences and accountability mechanisms, bring these ethical issues to the forefront of feminist theorization (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.168 and 176).
    Then comes the role of non-human animal in biological sciences in the era of modern patriarchal power, disciplinary power, feminist theory and human /animal studies may enrich each other theoretically using notion of performativity to theorize gender. Feminist theory could benefit, from sustained analysis of ‘animality’, how humans and animals mutually engage. It also show why human/animal performativity matter to feminist science studies/ or human/ animal studies by bringing the agency of matter and biological bodies since these biological bodies are the one really interacting with the social world materially (Lynda et.al, 2004, pp.177).
    Still performativity must not it is not only engagement with social world or it focuses only on relationships it includes the human, the animal and the conjoint hybrid. on the contrary it can also generate disorder , can change research methodologies and approaches. It also put in question which one is an active agency in different political context and beliefs. It denies the universality of agents depending on the context, social or economical, and to whom i am accountable for.
    Applicability:‘we are all matter, and we all matter’ works for me coming from Africa where the culture and discourse is highly attached to animal and animality. Animals have important place in any poor African or let us say Ethiopian woman. These animals are source of social, economical and political prestige and meaning to people where people are respected with the number of cattle they have.
    For example Donkeys have two meanings in woman’s life in Ethiopia one they are means of transportation in rural areas and have meanings in income generating or in helping women from their daily burden of work. on the other hand donkeys are usually in popular culture are associated with woman like ‘woman and donkeys are for sticks, they need to be punished if they have to move’. so as a feminist and advocate in a country like mine there is a need to be informed by theories of performativity. at the same time when we think of animals in scientific laboratories we need to ask ourselves, what if they were not there for us?can we imagine a world of science and its achievements without them? What choices do we had? What the world could look like without them in our life, health, age, and beauty? In order to answer those questions we need to be ready to acknowledge and bring them to the forefront of knowledge production. If we the feminists don’t take the initiative to do that who will be?
    In conclusion human / animal relation, domestication and laboratory animals tell us animal as apart and different and the imposition of human power is displayed. But performativity can help us to challenge separation of human/ non-humans. In a way allow animal agency, participation and performativity both in reality and in knowledge production.

  4. I think about agency a lot in the context of my research on violence against sex workers in Addis, and it will actually be a chapter in my dissertation. I see sex workers as exhibiting agency when they negogiate for better pay, when they steal from clients or apply a combination of meekness and agression to thwart off violent clients. I also think some sex workers’ decision to sell sex because it pays a lot more than other employment as a form of ageny, as is their ability to provide for their children by selling sex.

  5. Your blog has just made my day! Glad that I stumbled on it just as you announce that you will continue blogging and furthermore on something as imperative as female agency.
    Thanks also for the link to my site

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