As I revisited the talk, it occurred to me that I’ve not published it here on the blog by which it is inspired. The talk conceptualised three key stereotypical and limiting representations of African women in global media: “The Struggler”, “The Survivor” and “The Stereotype Empowered African Woman”. Read more about these in the transcript below.
In addition, I wondered, if these stereotypes speak to our representations in western media, how are African women depicted in African media?
That is another talk in itself. But I do want to point out two things. The first thing to say when it comes to African media is that dark-skinned women are regularly portrayed as beauty ideals and objects of desire, which is a refreshing and positive thing. That is, to the extent we should celebrate being objects of desire.
However, African media is extremely patriarchal and heteronormative. The outcome of most media portrayals is to connect women to domestic roles and glorify motherhood and wifehood. Even in otherwise progressive ads or shows, eventually the narrative leads back to the glorification of traditional female roles in some manner.
Marriage and motherhood are perfectly legit and joyous choices in a woman’s life but the fetishisation of conjugality and maternity prevents women from ascertaining personhood outside of these institutions, and in African societies these gendered portrayals uphold the legacy of patriarchy as women remain occupied with family life while men are responsible for public life.
They don’t only impact women, they also impact men who develop psychological handicaps toward women who may have other aspirations than marriage and motherhood.
The issue extends beyond the African continent. Despite progressive facades, we live in times that glorify conventional paths for women. Wherever one looks, be it celebrity icons, women’s magazines, royal families, or the infinite posts on instagram of “feminist” marriages and goddess-y, earthy pregnancies , the message is that marriage and motherhood are the most aspirational events in a woman’s life.
As they have always been.
To change the world, change your illusions – original transcript, slightly modified during presentation
As a child, one of the people that I feared the most was my dad’s mother, Grandmama. Grandmama was a typical Nigerian elder, a no-nonsense woman around whom even the unruliest of children transformed into beacons of good behaviour. Many Africans know a woman like my grandmother was. If not their own mother, they are likely to have a female family member who exudes power in a matriarchal way, which is not to suggest that Africa is matriarchal, no continent is, but many of its women behave in ways that may fool you into believing so. Grandmama was one of them. She was not unloving, however. She would often wrap me in her arms and tell me stories, even though her English was poor and my Yoruba was even poorer. The sheer memory of her warm, embracing eyes upon seeing her granddaughter still well mine up. No, she was not unaffectionate, but she was traditional, and the tradition in her house – which was also my house – since we lived together in a family compound for many years, was that elders were to be well-behaved around.
Mind you, it is not that I was an unruly child. By contrast, much like I still am today, I was what Jungian analysts may call an extroverted introvert, which in less complimentary-sounding terms simply means that I both loved the limelight and was terrified of it. In grandmama’s stentorian presence, I tended to shy away from attention.
On the other hand, one of the people around whom I sparked like a firework was Mummo, my Finnish grandmother. Unlike Grandmama, who carried herself in a self-assured, almost macho way, Mummo’s decorum was demure like that of many western European women of her generation. She was polite and did not like to take up too much space. She was firm all right, but not strict, and although she sometimes reprimanded me for behaving too wildly, I had Mummo wrapped around my little finger. My summer holidays with her were some of the most memorable and carefree days of childhood.
When I look back now, to why I five years ago launched my blog, MsAfropolitan, a blog about Africa from a feminist angle, and feminism from an African angle, I cannot help but think about Grandmama and Mummo, two women who in different ways had a huge impact on my life. In the wonderful book ‘Ways Of Seeing’ the author John Berger writes, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.”. As a child, I looked, and recognised that both my grandmothers were made of the same essence – what I think of as the woman essence. I recognised that although the worlds they lived in sometimes collided, the bodies they lived in as women brought them similar experiences. Through marriage, motherhood, and all those multifarious roles that are cast upon women, sometimes like a heavy cloak, and other times like a secret path to compassion, both my Nigerian and Finnish grandmothers lived lives marked by the struggles and triumphs of being female in a male dominant world.
But I recognised something else too, something which I found terribly disturbing. It was that the illusions that shape our world tell a story where a woman like Mummo may be considered empowered, beautiful, intelligent… while a woman like Grandmama could often not. As John Berger might say, before I could express it in words, I saw and recognised the ugly, ugly face of racism. After all, both my grandmothers’ lives were shaped by patriarchy albeit in different ways. Grandmama was the first of my granddad’s four wives, and all her children carried their father’s surname as children in patriarchies do: the same one, I might add, that I have inherited, to the amusement of many. When I’ve tried to trace her lineage, I’ve found out more about the men in her life, her father, her brothers, her husband, than about her. Mummo too grew of age in a world where there were strict rules, if unwritten ones, about appropriate female behaviour. Their triumphs were similar too: both my grandmothers worked, and both took great pride in doing so. Furthermore, in their lifetimes, a lot would change, Finland would fight a war against Russia, Nigeria would fight for independence from Britain, and in both cases women would rise and feminism would gain women rights: to vote, to drive, to work…
As I grew older, I began to feel a need to express what I already learnt as a child. At this point, although I’d been raised to cherish my heritage, I’d also become accustomed to the sense of lack that being labelled inferior, due to your race and gender, can evoke. I saw, and continue to see, representations of African women that did not reflect the reality of women like those in my family, or my friends, or my colleagues or myself for that matter. It started to become clear to me, that rather than the complex truth of African womanhood, global media was saturated with one-dimensional representations of African women. I identified three major stereotypes, ‘the struggler’, ‘the survivor’ and ‘the stereotype empowered African woman’. The first – the struggler – is the woman whom war, poverty and/or disease has rattled. In media images she is depicted as being in despair: weeping, shouting, grieving… The second – the survivor – is otherwise identical to the first only she has survived the struggle. In media images she smiles demonstratively to illustrate this point but we are always aware that harsh conditions still affect her life. The third – the stereotype empowered African woman – she is basically everyone else. She may be a politician, a policewoman, a baker or an artist, but representations of her always hint at someone who has struggled, survived—or comes from a lineage of women who have struggled, survived—and only then are empowered. An African woman is hardly ever just a woman, one portrayed doing mundane things: drinking a cup of green tea, crafting, relaxing, and above all, loving and being loved.
If the media projects these three stereotypes of African women, then white feminists and African men also contribute to upholding the myths. White western feminists have produced a lot of research about male oppression that ignores how sexism and racism work together. On the other hand, although we share painful histories of oppression with African men, as the cultural gatekeepers of African history and social theory, African male thinkers generally speaking, have not included struggles with sexism into “our” story of Africa. From both sides African women are made the worst colour a person can be – invisible.
The stereotypes ultimately serve to uphold one of the greatest illusions of our times, namely that Africa is a continent which little good comes out from, and, that women are a gender that do not contribute to shaping society. People’s illusions about African women blind them from the work of women like Adelaide Casely Hayford and Albertina Sisulu who shaped pan-Africanism far more than our history books record. Or women like the late feminist champion Judith Kanakuze whose work influenced not only the Rwandan political landscape but also the global one by pushing for the first gender egalitarian parliament in the world, and, Oby Ezekwesili, the Nigerian activist who inspired the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. People may know the hashtag but they don’t know about her or the other activists behind the campaign, yet her words have had a major impact not only in Nigeria but internationally, bringing overdue gravitas to the trafficking of girls and women and their situations in conflict areas. Perhaps one day women like these will be as readily known as, say, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Instead, when I tell people that I write an African feminist blog, rather than point to revolutionary African women they most often proceed to tell me about a humanitarian or development cause they are part of or have read about. Usually, it involves the three stereotypes. People are either helping the struggler, funding the survivor or photographing the empowered woman. Many manage to combine all three, simply by hearing the words ‘African woman’, they are triggered into thoughts about struggle, survival and empowerment.
Look, I am not suggesting that African women do not face major challenges. We come from the poorest continent in the world, one which has been subjected to inhumane invasions from outside. Traditions such as female genital cutting and girl child marriage are a grave concern for us in African societies. Furthermore, education is not an option for as many girls as it is for boys and the effects of maternal health care and domestic violence infringe on the progress of all African women.
Also, my intention is not to project the notion that there is a monolith called ‘white feminism’, or ‘African masculinity’, or even ‘western media’, because these are all diverse groups and each do some profoundly humane and important work. What I am saying is that it is hard to reflect on images of African femininity without feeling a deep sense of loss. It is not only that African womanhood is constructed in negative ways but that it takes African women a tremendous effort to not see themselves through the eyes of this distortion.
These are the things that motivated me in 2009 to walk away from a career as a project manager and become a writer. At this point, I had worked for glamorous publishers and design agencies in Sweden, New York and London and although I enjoyed the lifestyle that my career afforded, I decided to capitulate to the nagging voice in my head, which demanded that I wholeheartedly dedicate my time to expressing the things that truly matter to me. I was already blogging as a hobby, and my then blog was becoming increasingly popular. Yet, unemployed and with a mortgage to pay, I had only one chance to get it right or I would have to give up my dream quickly. I enrolled into a Masters Degree in Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London: I was going to learn everything there was to know about African feminism so that I could give the topic depth, nuance and my own, distinct voice.
I wrote what I longed to read: articles about topics that weren’t being discussed sufficiently, if at all or at least not in the way that I saw it. But my wish was not only to influence the narrative about Africa, or its women, but to emphasise that despite political and cultural differences, by and large, women in Africa are interested in similar things as all women: modernity, academia, politics, fashion, motherhood… Most of all, African women, like women everywhere, are engaged in the continued fight for equal rights with men.
And yet, if everyone but the African woman herself has told the story of African womanhood, resulting in biased, and worse still, unfavourable depictions, we – African women – must be held culpable for not adequately challenging them; of not “leaning in” to use contemporary feminist vocabulary. We have not spoken out against male dominant attitudes sufficiently boldly. We have not taken enough space to heal the piercing wounds of colonialism. We have not understood the urgency in shaping our world.
Which brings to me to the most important message of this talk. It is this: if you want to change the world, then change your illusions about the world. In other words, challenge what you know. Through my work, I’ve learnt that it is not the unknown that we are afraid of, as is commonly perceived, but rather we are afraid of changes to what we know. We are afraid that if we are curious enough, we might discover that things are not always what they seem to be. In fact, scientists have uncovered that the chemicals the body produces to defend itself from fear are produced when a person is curious.
It is not that people cannot imagine that African women are more complex than the general discourse implies, but that in a world where people have learnt to see Africa and its women in particular ways, if they learn to see them differently, they inevitably also learn to see the world differently.
I cannot describe the true meaning of living better than any of you can, but I can tell you this: the more illusions you have about other people, that is to say the more erroneous perceptions you have about the reality of other people’s lives, the less likely you are to find the meaning of yours.
We live in a rapidly changing world, and our lives are increasingly connected. What happens in Africa influences our lives here in England and what happens here influences people’s lives elsewhere. In these exciting but delicate times of globalisation, it is more important than ever that our inner worlds expand at the same pace as the outer world.
This is not easy work, but it is time for radical change. And this means that we ourselves must radically change. In mathematics, if you square a number, the number it came from is the root as if the square grew from it. And the symbol for a square root is called a radical. To change radically does not mean to do something extreme, it means to do something rooted in logic. And there is nothing more rooted in logic than a mind replacing misconception with fact.
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