Recently, I saw a tweet from a person who wondered if being rude comes with being a feminist. And if the panel on the conversation on, “End of Politeness: African Feminist Movements and Digital Age” at the Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa in Addis Ababa last month was anything to go by, the answer to that tweep is a big fat YES.
The panel composed of feminists from across the continent leading several movements and campaigns online, Lugain Mahmoud presented on the #50WomenCampaign in Sudan, which is demanding for equal representation of Sudanese women in government structures after the revolution. Beatrice Mateyo the Executive Director Coalition for the Empowerment of Women and Girls (CEWAG) in Malawi brought in first hand personal experiences of how states deploy old colonial laws to suppress women’s expression both on and offline in Malawi.
Naana Akosua Hanson, a writer, actress, activist and director Drama Queens, a non-profit theatre organization captured the current movements within Ghana and West Africa. Selam Mussie a gender and media consultant in Ethiopia took us through the changes that are happening or not happening in the ‘new’ ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
The panel was a great opportunity to engage on women’s online freedom of expression, barriers being broken, communities created and for feminists to share their experiences of using the digital space for activism. The conversation captured the experiences and lessons by African feminists across the continent. It also highlighted the work young Africans are doing and have done to create platforms to be heard online, the advocacy tools they have employed and backlash they have suffered. African Feminism editor Rosebell Kagumire, curated this panel
On rudeness, Kagumire used the story of Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan feminist scholar who is currently serving a jail term for the ridiculous charge of cyber harassing President Yoweri Museveni after taking activism to Facebook. Using radical rudeness Nyanzi has criticized the dictatorship and also led a campaign on sanitary towels for under-privileged girls to remain in school, a campaign promise that the government refused to deliver on.
Given the social conditioning of women, rudeness is considered outside the norm to the extent that loud women were labeled witches. “It is annoying that in 2019 we are still talking about gender equality and why women and girls deserve rights. I am happy to be called a witch alongside all the women who dared to stand up for themselves against social norms,” Mateyo declared.
Many women’s movements have started and thrived on and offline because everyday women are forced to exist in a world that treats women’s rights like a suggestion. Lugain Mahmoud spoke about the repressive laws in Sudan giving the example of the Public Order Law under which up to 40 women would be arrested for not being dressed “modestly/decently”.
“In Sudan, women and women rights’ defenders have long been oppressed. We cannot ask nicely for our rights, it is time to speak out loud,”
This is only a glimpse into the long line of women whose freedom of expression is policed by repressive laws on and offline on the African Continent. Mateyo’s place on that list was secured for holding a placard during a protest against gender based violence with words translated to mean, “having a vagina is not a sin”, for which she was arrested and charged under Malawi’s colonial penal law for the offense of insulting the modesty of a woman. She says that until now she doesn’t know the woman whose modesty she insulted.
The long, discriminatory and oppressive arm of the law which seems to disappear when women are seeking for accountability for femicide, rape and other atrocities is the reason why feminists are pushing back with radically rude language. The use of art and theatre to start conversations on “taboo” topics was centred by Naana Akosua. She also spoke about the Ghanaian movement- Pepper Dem Ministries which started as a hashtag in 2017 and does advocacy for women by engaging in issues that in their words are “uncomfortable and unpopular in our social-cultural space”, like consent and sexuality They started out by speaking out for a victim of revenge pornography.
The work feminists do across the continent, on and off line, isn’t without cost. Mateyo shared her own experiences and reflections of what it takes to engage politically with feminism.
“I have lost two husbands to feminism”, Mateyo said to the room to which women across the room responded, “two husbands lost you.” “Society attaches a woman’s value to her ability to find and keep a man, losing two has a social cost,” she added.
Nancy Houston, the young feminist behind the anti femicide campaign in Kenya under #TotalShutDownKE spoke about her love-hate relationship with campaigning online, “As much as the digital space gave us a platform to organise the campaign, I don’t appreciate the abuse I have had to suffer at the hands of the trolls”, she explained
When women in South Africa started naming and shaming men who had raped them or their friends during #AmINext?, Twitter timelines were full of threats of defamation and slander suits. Those threats remained even when an account was created for women to anonymously share because abusers.
Lugain Mahmoud re-echoed the cost to the women of Sudan who dared to be part of the revolution. On 3rd June women were raped and murdered by soldiers. “Online violence is an extension of violence offline. They were raped by soldiers and then blamed as having sought for it by being out at 4 am,” she narrated.
Fresh out of this event, I was sharing with a friend the frustration I feel with how the church protects abusers of women and it got heated. Then I realised how much this feminist gathering had brought to the forefront and began on this piece.
Rape has always been used as a tool of war, to remind the opponent of who holds the power. Patriarchy is not repackaging its oppression. Femicide is not polite, neither is revenge porn that punishes the victim, the adamant lack of representation or any of the many ways patriarchy offends women’s existence.
So while I listened to the panelists answer why “End of Politeness” I thought, “the answer is simple- the fight for our lives is war”. In the words of Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, “I say fight, because the battle for our freedom was not some polite picnic at which you arrived armed with your best behavior.”
Komusana Fionah is a feminist lawyer and blogger. She is a 2018 Tuwezeshe Akina Dada fellow under Akina Mama wa Afrika’s African Women’s Leadership Institute. Find her on Twitter @komusana