This piece is the first of an ongoing series talking to fierce African feminists that inspire us. In this piece, we talk African Feminism with Jessica Horn from Uganda. Jessica currently works as the Director of Programmes for African Women’s Development Fund and acts as the AWDF liaison with the AFF Working Group.
AF: With ‘feminist’ being such a contentious label privy to societal backlash, why do you claim it?
JH: I claim feminism as a political home, and feminist as a political identity because I believe the feminist proposition that the root of injustice in our world and in the lives of women in particular lies in patriarchal power and its friends racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…and that in order to transform the world we have to challenge patriarchal power. Whenever you challenge unjust power there will be backlash. But I believe in the possibility of justice for all, and for full choice, full happiness, full opportunity and lives free of violence in these gendered bodies we live in. I believe freedom is possible. Anything you believe in is worth fighting for.
AF: What has shaped your understanding of feminism?
JH: My parents have a politics situated in leftist/socialist and post-colonial/liberation thinking. My mother is a feminist and she raised all of us on a steady flow of feminist critique-in the kitchen in the living room and in relation to our lives. To me that was normal-this mother-teacher from the Ruwenzoris in Western Uganda explaining critical theory as we ate. That was my foundation. I have always been ‘Third Worldist’ and left in my feminism. In university I was part of feminist activist groups and also searched for African feminist writers-its there that I first found Amina Mama, Ayesha Imam, Sylvia Tamale and the materials produced by the African Gender Institute. http://agi.ac.za That started me off on a connection to African feminist theory and to co-creating and organizing with African feminists including these incredible women of my mother’s generation.
AF: Is there such a thing as ‘African Feminism’? If so, what does African Feminism mean to you?
JH: Of course African feminism exists! What else do we call feminist thinking and practice produced by Africans? I know there have been many debates on what to call the politics-feminism, womanism, stiwanism..,I don’t get too caught up on language-after all Africans speak so many languages. What matters is the intention of the politics. When am engaging political ideas I ask: Is it about women’s freedom, rights, full choice and a transformation of gender power relations? Does it question patriarchy as the legitimate way to structure our lives? And is it Africans that create and articulate it with reference to their realities? Yes? Then its African feminism!
AF: How do you respond to those who say that Feminism is ‘un-African’?
JH: I say “oh, so you want to say that Europeans have all the good ideas eh?!” To label a political view you don’t like as ‘unAfrican’ is usually a last ditch effort to silence people. All it is is saying that you don’t belong because you want to challenge the unjust status quo. There are so many African feminist movements, initiatives, activists, from every African country, in the diaspora… its a bit hard to deny at this stage of history that African feminism exists.
AF: What issues are African Feminists tackling?
JH: African feminists are engaging in all areas of life and I think that it’s beautiful. From law courts to literature to farming and the need for self-determination in agriculture, to street art to architecture, to health, politics, challenging fundamentalism and supporting peace-building.
I currently work at the African Women’s Development Fund www.awdf.org -a regional grant maker supporting women’s rights activism across the continent. From that vantage point I know that African feminists are thinking about everything that affects us. I also know that international development priorities and agendas set by others can limit the scope of what feminist organisations in particular end up focusing on. (For example there is minimal investment in African feminist cultural and artistic production). However African Feminist thinking and independent organising remains broad.
AF: Do you think African Feminists have a common agenda? Do they have to have a common agenda? Why or why not?
JH: There are certainly issues that all African feminists support- preventing and responding to violence against women for example. There are many African feminist movements and feminist platforms and networks and there is synergy and common agendas that people work on. Feminism is a powerful political movement precisely because it considers all domains of life-private and public; and also acknowledges agency in defining our own politics and priorities. I hope African feminist remains diverse in its focus-we need work on all fronts.
AF: What issues do you think African Feminists have successfully advocated for? What remains? What is required in advocating for said issues?
JH: Arguably every legal and policy change supporting women’s rights in Africa the post-independence era has happened due to advocacy by African women’s rights activists-including self-identified feminists. The Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) was lobbied for by African feminists, and it has some of the most progressive legal language in the world. African feminists were part of activism to bring an end to civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia. African feminists have also led solidarity with LGBTI rights activists against rising homophobia, and have been brave in demanding an end to impunity. There has been a successful voicing and recognition among many that women have the right to freedom of movement in public space. This remains a battleground but there are more people who are on side in defending women’s right to use public transport, to walk in the street without a man- these seem like simple ideas but in fact they are fundamental to women’s autonomy. In the movement that arose around the HIV/AIDS epidemic African women have been central in demanding policy focus on care work, on holistic strategies that address sexual and reproductive rights and health and not just narrowly focus on HIV, and also on how critical economic independence is for women living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. What remains? Most struggles. In fact our work is a process of constant contestation of patriarchal power and constant re-making of our work in the vision of transformative feminist justice and equality.
AF: How does the work you are engaged in currently contribute to that?
JH: I have always worked with others, and see any feminist work that I do as a contribution to collective struggle. I currently work in a fund- and so my formal job is to help guide investments that we make at AWDF in women’s rights organizing across the Africa continent. Feminist work needs resources! We recently launched a futures initiative www.awdf.org/futures producing the first ever regional futures trend analysis focused on the future of African women, and also developing future scenario stories that help open a conversation about possible futures and what we can do to encourage the good- and avoid the bad. As part of my job I also oversee planning and sustaining of the African Feminist Forum www.africanfeministforum.com and its activities as AWDF is the host of the AFF. I also see my job as holding space for the diversity of African women and African feminist struggles and helping encourage our critical thinking around what works- around what strategies and modes of intervention we need to tackle different feminist challenges. We have a lot to document, to analyze and to learn in order to keep our practice rigorous- and also in order to just acknowledge how much ingenuity and brilliance exists in African feminist organizing, and helping share this with others. Before working at AWDF I helped set up and manage an initiative AIR www.airforafrica.org. We began by documenting African feminist approaches to emotional wellbeing and mental health with a particular focus on reconceptualizing trauma. The documentation that we produced was groundbreaking, enabling practitioners- the doers- to have a chance to sit and actually take stock of the tremendous innovations that they have developed in responding to the violence and dispossession that frames many women’s lives particularly in the context of war, migration and extreme economic marginalization.
Beyond my formal work I am a part of African feminist communities and there we share care, sustain each other, provide resonance, feedback, connections in order to advance the broader vision of what we do. I host an event called The Love Mic – which provides space for creators and a broader public to voice and think about revolutionary love and the power of love to transform our world.
AF: What do you think is African Feminisms contribution to the global feminist movement?
JH: For much of history African feminisms have articulated a more collectivist feminism-not just grounded in individual liberation as is common in Northern liberal feminism, but a vision of freedom linked to all of us being free, as well as our economies and political lives de-colonized and autonomous. In recent years-and particularly with the individualistic focus of social media we are seeing more ‘lone ranger’ African feminists- less connected to feminist communities or movements, and also in turn more focused on individual /personal feminist agendas. However in broad terms this collectivist vision remains. In addition African feminisms have been active in linking economic and gendered oppression and considering economic justice and autonomy as feminist issues. In the face of the use/abuse of religion and culture to prop up patriarchal agendas, African feminists have also elaborated sophisticated positions on how culture is used to oppress but can also be used to enrich and liberate.
AF: What is your feminist utopia?
JH: My feminist utopia begins in our bodies, as our first and last home, as the only thing that is ever really ours-as the space that life is made real. My utopia is a world where we all live free, healthy, pleasurable, agented lives in our own bodies. It requires political, economic, social and cultural systems that enable embodied freedom for all. Oh and there must be art too. Lots of it.
AF is grateful to Jessica for taking time to share with us. Jessica is a feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. You can find her at http://www.stillsherises.com and via twitter @stillsherises.