Global Feminism: the distortion of the White, Western Lens

Part 1: Female Political Leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Eleanor McKelvey, National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)

In the developed world, we often see Africa depicted through a series of reductive clichés -

war-torn, resource-deprived, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden.

We are encouraged by the media to think of a homogenous landscape of desperation; rather than a continent with as much political, social and cultural diversity as any other.

The status of female political leadership in Africa rarely receives attention from the western media; and yet whenever we do decide to take a fleeting look into African women’s affairs, we often construct a narrative that adheres to this same set of clichés.

For a start - making sweeping conclusions about “African feminism”, and treat the continent as a singular unit, is meaningless and lazy. Research published in 2018 showed large variation between African countries’ gender political gap – a term used by the researchers to compare women’s political engagement to men’s according to a number of indices (attending community meetings, voting and campaigning…). Whereas women participate in politics at 65% the rate of men in Benin; in Mozambique women show 15% more political participation than men.

According to the research, there were some interesting factors that could be used to distinguish countries with the highest and lowest gender political gaps. For example, the gap was typically larger in former French colonies, where women participated at 75% the rate of men, compared to 85% in other countries. The researchers posited that this may be a remnant of the imposition of French culture onto colonies; French women didn’t get the vote until 1945, and France strongly promoted the adoption of “traditional” nuclear families and gender roles within its colonies.

Although colonialism has undoubtedly had an effect on the status of women’s political affairs in Africa, it is foolish assume that Africa should mimic Western experiences of gender politics by any other means. Academics used to believe that we could best understand how to improve rates of female political representation by studying Nordic countries. In Nordic countries, (which have historically been leaders in gender equality) gradual and incremental changes in policy have been used to create more female-friendly societies. However, the idea that governments need to go “slow and steady” with policy has recently been turned on its head– in African countries, we have seen that it is possible to rapidly and substantially reduce the gender political gap by the adoption of electoral quotas. These quotas legally/constitutionally require that a certain percentage of seats be held by women. In countries like Senegal, quotas have increased beneficial legislation for women and their political engagement.

 As it stands, 25 out of 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have constitutional/legal quotas, or governing parties that have voluntarily adopted gender quotas. Countries that have recently experienced conflict are more likely to have quotas, and on average have twice as much “woman-friendly legislation”. The aftermath of war often provides opportunity for major constitutional shake-ups, particularly if large numbers of men have died in fighting. Women also have found it easier to demand access to gender equality if they have been recruited into fighting forces during war.

However, whilst war may create circumstances permissive to the advancement of women’s political power, this favourable environment is not sufficient. The fact that Western journalists and academics tend to focus on the impact of war on women’s political involvement is an extension of our tendency to brand Africa as a war-zone or a place of political turmoil.

 As journalist Minna Salami pointed out in an article written for The Guardian, African women’s activism has had a pivotal role in the advancement of female political leadership.

“The main reason Rwandan women MPs find themselves in the majority is the country’s organised women’s movement. Women such as the late feminist champion, Judith Kanazuke, and the organisation she spearheaded…ensured through active mobilisation that equality became a top priority in the post-conflict constitution.” Salami says.

In fact, although it rarely goes acknowledged in the West, African feminist campaigners have made global waves when it comes to gender advancement, and have been doing so for decades. For example, take the Kenya Women’s Group which helped organise the 1985 UN conference on Women, or Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo who developed the concept of “gender mainstreaming” (considering the gender impact of policies).

Here in the developed world, we like to don our white saviour cloaks and talk about how we can empower African women. We need to remember that feminism is not a white and western invention, and that our understanding of women’s affairs in Africa will undoubtedly lack nuance.  Given the way that Islam is portrayed by the Australian media, it may surprise you to find out that many of the African countries with political gender quotas have large Muslim populations.

Furthermore, whilst it is true that certain African traditions abuse women, from our distant cultural experience, we cannot yet begin to understand the complexities of the relationship between tradition and feminism in Africa. In the words of Ghananian lawyer and politician Betty Mould-Iddrisu “Traditions need not hold us back – they can be catalytic…[while] some aspects of African tradition attempt to keep women silent, subordinate and second-class citizens;.. many others uphold the dignity and sacred respect for womanhood.”

We should be prepared to accept that Africa is complex (infinitely more so than this article has the scope to portray), but this complexity should not scare us away from engaging in women’s political advancement in Africa. The best way we can do this is by enabling African women, rather than deciding or speaking for them. By opening our ears to African feminism, we can also help to learn a thing or two about gender equality ourselves.

A great resource for taking a more in-depth look at African feminism -