Mariama Ba was a renowned feminist, author, and advocate for women’s rights in her home country of Senegal, Africa, and globally. After attending and thriving at the French École Normale postsecondary school for girls, Ba became a teacher and education inspector for many years. Ba went on to write two novels: So Long a Letter, originally published in 1979, and Scarlet Song, published in 1981. Both novels are critical of polygamy in African life and examine the various ways in which women deal with similar situations, celebrate sisterhood, and demonstrate that there is no right or wrong way to be a feminist. Mariama Ba’s texts demonstrate clear criticism of the polygamous society she grew up in and the abuse of religion by some men to further their agenda. Ba’s essay, “The Political Functions of Written African Literatures,” describes her belief that a writer should be political and serve as a critic of surrounding society and misogynist practices. Mariama Ba’s personal life clearly influenced her written works, a topic that has been thoroughly examined in much of the scholarly literature that has been written about her. Ba did not try to define feminism. Rather, she understood that it is different for every woman and is a reflection of background, culture, history, and religion. Ba believed it was her mission as a writer to be a voice for the most vulnerable members of society. Ba was a leader in emerging global feminism and created written works that discussed topics that cross cultural barriers and demonstrate the unity of humanity.
Souad T. Ali
Buchi Emecheta (1944–2017) was a Nigerian writer, born in Lagos to a seamstress mother and a railway worker father. Emecheta’s early ambition was to get an education, like her brother Adolphus. Orphaned early in life, a scholarship to a coveted high school gave her the opportunity she wanted. Married at sixteen to Sylvester Onwordi, she joined him in London in 1962. Their marriage soon ended because of Onwordi’s physical and mental abuse. By the age of twenty two, she was a single mother with five children. Her first novel, In the Ditch, published in 1972, chronicled the struggles of Adah, who represented Emecheta’s own alter ego, in raising children in the slums of London. Overall, Emecheta published over twenty books, which frequently centered on a black woman’s experience. Many of her novels revisit the same themes and draw inspiration from her life. There is perhaps no other African writer in whose works their own biography is centered as much as it is in hers. Her work illuminates her life while her life informs her work. Her life and fiction feed one another to the extent that her novels are often referred to as “fictionalized” accounts of her life. Although Emecheta was a symbol of the modern African woman, she rejected being called a feminist. If she were to be called a feminist, it had to be “feminist with a small letter ‘f’.” A term she would have accepted for herself as well as for her strong female characters would have been Obioma Nnaemeka’s “nego-feminism,” a feminism of Africa, of negotiation, and a no ego feminism.
African feminist thought refers to the dynamic ideas, reflections, theories and other expressions of intellectual practices by politically radical African women concerned with liberating Africa by focusing women’s liberation, and as such cannot be easily defined or captured. However, the conditions out of which Africa’s feminist movements form, and the intellectual labor that they carry out in the pursuit of women’s rights and freedoms can be explored and discussed. African feminist thought is the potentially limitless product of movements that are themselves constantly in the making, succeeding in changing the conditions of their formation by their very existence. African feminist political thought can be traced to the world’s women’s movements that formed in the context of transnational liberal and emancipatory political discourses of the late 19th and 20th centuries of European empire. Out of these liberal emancipatory reformist, international labor, communist, socialist revolutionary, and Pan-African Diasporic and African nationalist movements were all formed. However, following the flag independence of over fifty nation-states, women who joined the anti-colonial freedom movements have had to pursue further struggles in independent nation-states, because Africa’s new states often hesitated or reverted to conservative patriarchal views when it came to extending freedom and equality to African women. It is as citizens of new nations that 20th century African women have formed independent feminist movements that continue to demand freedom, equality and rights, for example, by seeking freedom of movement, political representation, educational and economic equality, and perhaps most commonly of all, freedom from sex and gender-based violence. Contemporary publications and writings by African feminists are the primary sources consulted here, because of the need to correct the spurious mis-representation of African feminism as “un-African,” a position that hinges on the definition of feminism as exclusively Western. This view is advanced by conservative African men and women who seek the restoration of pre-colonial cultures, as well as in some of the early scholarly literature on the subject. African feminism is a radical proposition: it refers to the liberatory political philosophies, theories, writings, research and cultural production, as well as the organizing work of the transnational community of feminists from Africa. These respond to objective conditions of global systemic inequality that have led African women to resume the struggle for freedom and liberation. African feminists in 2019 identify with earlier generations of women freedom fighters but enunciate visions of a future in which the women of Africa will be afforded human rights and freedoms, on a continent liberated from a global neoliberal capitalist system that continues to marginalize the vast majority of the world’s peoples and exploits natural and human resources to a degree that now threatens planetary survival.
The intersecting histories of African women artists are often found in three historical categories: traditional/classical, modern, and contemporary. As historical categories they mark the transitions in conceptualizations of gender, race, and class. Treated as a linear progression of history, these categories may, on the one hand, be useful in understanding the radical impact of imperialism and colonialism on African societies and specifically African women and their creative practices. On the other hand, however, they obscure the intricacies of intertwined creative practice, separating urban and cosmopolitan art forms from rural, localized ones, drawing more attention to art that circulates in market-driven international exhibitions, making it harder to comprehend and account for nuanced historical narratives of African women artists. Furthermore, the hangover of hypermasculine colonial bureaucratic structures not only displaced African histories but more specifically silenced gendered perspectives on art and creative practice in general. The modern African nation, though liberated, confined women to colonially constructed gendered spaces. However, through nationalist ideologies the figure of the woman—or at least as male artists generally portrayed her—came to symbolize rebirth and the rising nation. This artistic rendition of women did not materialize into the formal recognition of the work of women artists, making it possible to declare that “African women artists remain unknown to the Western world,” as art historian Freida Tesfagiorgis states. This is affirmed by the sparse literature on African women artists and analyses of their work. There are more resources about internationally recognized contemporary women artists than there are about modern women artists or women whose work has been foundational in the so-defined traditional category. These categories, then, are indicative not only of the gaps in art history but also of the incongruent methodological approaches to how that gendered history is constructed. In this article, these categories are used loosely to reflect on gender and creative practice in Africa.
The Tunisian Bchira Ben M’rad (1913–1993), a feminist for some, a reformist for others, was a significant figure in Tunisia in the first half of the 20th century in the struggles for women’s education, for a more balanced relationship within the married couple, and against colonialism. Her participation in these struggles was shaped both by her own personal experience as well as by the then social, cultural and political context of Tunisia and its region. Bchira Ben M’rad was the first Tunisian woman to request official recognition for a women’s organization, the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia (l’Union des femmes musulmanes de Tunisie, or UFMT), which she founded in 1936 and headed until 1956, during the period when Tunisia was a French colony. The refusal by the authorities to award official recognition and the excuses they offered in defense of their refusal provide an insight into the complex relations between the French colonial power and the Tunisian authorities, headed by the Bey, as the debate over women’s rights, including the right to form women’s organizations, became an increasingly profound societal issue. It was only in the early 1950s, in the years just before Tunisian independence was achieved in 1956, that the UFMT obtained official recognition.
Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015) was a sociologist, writer, feminist, and activist, and above all a free thinker and an avowed humanist. She was committed to dialogue, dismantling all sorts of boundaries, whether between East and West, South and North, women and men, rural and urban, illiterate and educated, activism and academia, as well as that between fiction and scholarly writing. Her work is multifaceted, intersectional, fluid, and organic. In her scholarly writings Mernissi was concerned with identifying and critiquing the different structures that intersect to oppress women, ranging through colonialism, nationalism, patriarchal interpretation of Islam, capitalist development, and imperialism. She was also dedicated to shedding light on subaltern women’s agency, amplifying their voices for the hearing of decision-makers and development planners. She significantly contributed to the emergence of “Third World feminism,” fostering pan-African and transnational feminist solidarity. Credited as one of the founders of “Islamic feminism,” she inspired Muslim women all over the world to advocate for women’s rights from a faith-based position. At the end of her life she identified as a Sufi, committed to fostering civic bonding and synergy between civil-society actors, intellectuals, and ordinary women and their communities, always struggling against elitism and egoism. Mernissi wrote over sixteen books, edited a significant number of volumes, and authored numerous articles. Some of her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages. She directed many writing workshops and was the founding member of numerous research groups and organizations. Mernissi was also the recipient of prestigious awards, among them the Prince of Asturias Award in 2003 and the Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands in 2004. The Guardian ranked her among the top 100 most influential women in the world in 2011. Another recognition—that of which she would perhaps have been most proud—is the acknowledgment and love ordinary women and their communities, with whom she mixed and worked for decades, continue to vow for? her after her passing.
Fadma Ait Mous, Kmar Bendana, and Natalya Vince
The 20th century witnessed the emergence of individual women as political actors, women as a category of political and social actors, and women (or “the woman question”) as a theme for political action across North Africa. This history is both intertwined with, and for a long time has been overshadowed by, that of colonialism, nationalism, and postcolonial state-building. Without being linear or homogeneous, the stages and processes of making women visible and extending women’s rights have been similar across Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria: increasing access to education, the emergence of pioneering female “models,” the mobilization of women as a group in the anti-colonial struggle, postcolonial state feminism and then a shift towards women speaking, writing and organizing themselves as women. Specificities of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan history have also given rise to distinctive features in the history of women and the writing of the history of women in each country. These include the long history of male feminist thought expressed in Arabic in Tunisia, the mass participation of women in armed struggle in Algeria, and the reformist feminism, based on women reinterpreting religious sources and history, which originated in Morocco.
Boutheina Ben Hassine
This article is a review of the dynamics of the evolution of feminist movements in Tunisia starting in the third decade of the 20th century. These movements took advantage of the influence of the Nahda movement in the 19th century, which prompted the Arab world to modernize education and to involve women mainly in vocational education. The executives of the patriarchal society encouraged polygamy, while the French Protectorate and the Catholic Church targeted Tunisian women as a means of spreading French culture. In the 1920s, the national focus was on the education of women and encouraging their presence in the public space. When journalist Tahar Haddad wrote in favor of abandoning the veil, many nationalists (including President Habib Bourguiba) refused his idea, as the veil was seen as a symbol of Tunisian cultural identity, one transmitted specifically by women. This controversy over the veil is considered the beginning of Tunisian nationalism. By the 1930s, Tunisian women were no longer a central object of polemics and political discussion. They created new feminist associations: The Muslim Women’s Union of Tunisia (1936–1955), the Union of Tunisian Women (1944–1963), and the Union of Tunisian Girls (1945–1963). These associations worked within Tunisian society to help women overcome poverty, economic doldrums, and war, and they participated in Tunisia’s war of independence. Meanwhile, President Bourguiba focused on women in the struggle to modernize the country following independence. The achievement of personal status on August 13, 1956, was a revolutionary event in Africa. The National Union of Women of Tunisia became the machine of President Bourguiba, the “supreme fighter,” to educate women, control birth rates, and build the image of the Tunisian nation. Several women, including Radhia Haddad and Fathia Mzali, were involved in implementing this Bourguibian policy. But this policy led to difficulties—essentially, Bourguiba’s eventual return to a conservative and patriarchal model. The economic crisis of the 1970s deeply affected women, especially female workers in the textile industry. Intellectuals created the Tahar Haddad Club as a response to the hardening of the political regime and the Islamization of society. University women mobilized to create the Association of Tunisian Academic Women for Research and Development (TAWRD), with the motto of equal opportunities for men and women. After Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demolished the Bourguibian regime, he instituted a feminist policy to gain political legitimacy. He encouraged women ministers to promote women’s rights in the Ministry of Social Affairs. Ben Ali’s policy also redefined the prerogatives of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children. His quest for legitimacy over his predecessor led him to undertake a major reform of the Code of Personal Status (CPS). The Ministry of Women, Family, and Children put more attention into studies and research on women by creating the CREDIF (Center for Research, Documentation, and Information on Women). But all these measures did not prevent Ben Ali’s regime from being fascist. The 2011 Revolution has been of great benefit for women’s rights, despite the rise of religious conservatism and radicalism, because it allowed parity in electoral lists and criminalized violence against women. Feminist associations doubled in number and multiplied actions for equality. More recently, from 2014–2019, the president of the republic, Beji Caid Essebssi, created a committee to enact laws on equality in matters of succession.