The departure point of contemporary African feminist thought can be traced back to the 1980s, when Global South scholars and activists committed to bringing to the forefront the standpoint of women living in post-colonial contexts. As First and Third World feminists began to debate in UN conferences, the need to unveil the effects of geopolitical inequalities on women’s lives became evident. In her study of women’s movements in the Global South, Jeniffer L. Disney stressed the aims of deconstruction of the Western discourse and construction of ‘feminisms grounded in the histories, cultures, and experiences of women from the Third World’ (2008, 27). In effect, the early 1990s saw the spectacular growth of literature and scholars analysing these processes (Ahikire 2014). In this sense, numerous scholars link the heterogeneous roots of African feminism to a history of colonial and post-colonial struggles and encounters with other narratives, such as the Western. The Nigerian scholars Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónké Oyèwùmi represent the latter trend, questioning the applicability of Western theories to explain African realities. Both argue that Western colonisation presupposed the category of gender as the principal, universal organising principle of any society; an assumption that disrupted previous local systems of social organisation and mounted the burden for women in the continent. Making use of her analysis of Yorubaland society, Oyèwùmi (2003) illustrates how other power relations based on categories such as seniority or lineage could better explain the social fabric of certain societies in the continent. Similarly, Amadiume analysed such power structures to shed light on the fluidity of gender in pre-colonial societies (1987). Both criticise the imposition of gender discourse, which depicts the ‘woman’ as an essentialised, and fixed category universally subordinated to ‘men’. Such perceived overfocus on women subordination and male privilege may partially explain the rejection of many women who, both in academia and civil society, do not see themselves represented by a ‘foreign’, ‘radical’ discourse focused on ‘fighting battles against men’ (Atanga 2013, 303). In this line, earlier scholars such as Gwendolyn Mikell offered a comparison of these trends in Africa and the West:

‘The African variant of Feminism grows out of a history of a female integration within
largely corporate and agrarian-based societies with strong cultural heritages that have
experienced traumatic colonisation by the West (…) Western women were
emphasising individual female autonomy, while African women have been
emphasising culturally linked forms of public participation (…) The slowly emerging
African Feminism is distinctly heterosexual, pro-natal, and concerned with many
“bread, butter, culture, and power” issues.’ (4,1997).

Such statements have been interpreted in a myriad of ways. Disney translates her description into terms of ‘practical (bread and butter) gender needs and strategic (culture and power) gender interests’ (2008, 30). On the contrary, the Ugandan scholar Josephine  Ahikire considered that Mikell’s ‘essentialising’ and ‘conservative’ perspective robs the critical aspects of the scholarship and activism of the continent, which pursue ‘more audacious and radical agendas, especially in the fraught arenas of sexuality, culture and religion’ (2014, 8). These opposing views reflect the controversy about what ‘African feminism,’ or rather ‘feminisms’ are; a debate that also permeates identity and movement-building concerns. The celebration of the African Feminist Forum constituted an attempt to dissipate these doubts. Beyond the aim of revitalising the cause across the continent, this convening pursued to tackle such a lack of theoretical clarity and ‘connect the practice of activism to our theoretical understanding of African feminism’ (AFF 2006, 13). Inspired by such an event, Ahikire draws a definition of African Feminism in its pluralism and diversity, emphasising its simultaneous ‘philosophical, experiential, and practical’ nature:

‘Feminism is a myriad of various theoretical perspectives emanating from the
complexities and specifics of the different material conditions and identities of
women, and informed by the many diverse and creative ways in which we contest
power in our private and public lives (…) At the same time, it is possible—and
strategically necessary—to re-conceptualise “African feminism” as an ideological
force that poses fundamental challenges to patriarchal orthodoxies of all kinds. The
point of departure here is that the feminist struggle on the African continent
represents a critical stance against the mainstream of patriarchal power’ (2014, 8-9)

In effect, this point of departure is generating new platforms of knowledge-creation and dissemination. Academic journals such as Feminist Africa are now sharing their space with youth-led digital initiatives such as African feminism or The Wide Margin. Similarly, new spaces are being created to discuss and promote movement-building efforts across the continent, addressed in the next blogpost.