African feminists reclaim twitter with #FeministWhilstAfrican

Communities are beginning to sprout online that are drawing us together, allowing us to have a host of conversations. One needs to only look at how the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN was trending in Kenya this August, as Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) ridiculed CNN’s coverage of Kenya ahead of President Obama’s historic visit to his fatherland.

We have come together as a continent with hashtags such as #IfAfricaWasABar, which allowed for a different take on the African continent and its varying identities in a fun and inclusive manner, and there was the contentious #SomeOneTellNigeria and #SomeoneTellSouthAfrica that had countries going to #Twar to protect their sovereignty and national identity.

Looking at these trends from a feminist perspective, one observes that while the trending topics are useful in challenging dominant narratives on Africa or individual states (such as such as #SomeonetellCNN), most of these trends remain largely androcentric and masculinist. Online campaigns have been important, as the Kenyan case articulated, but they seem to embody the patriarchal image created where strong men are called out to protect their country. In the social media age, protection of ‘weak mother Africa’ or ‘mother Kenya, mother Nigeria or mother Sierra Leone’ is now done via twitter wars against other outside individuals, institutions or countries.

It is against this background that the trending hashtag #FeministWhileAfrican becomes interesting, as African women reclaimed the twitter space in August to talk about what it is like to be a feminist and an African – a position often considered a contradiction. The hashtag originated on The Wide Margin, an African feminist thought journal launched online to celebrate their inaugural print issue under the same name. “It was birthed as the contributors and editors wanted to discuss what it might mean to be, or what we aspire to be, when we (Africans) call ourselves feminists” said founder Varyanne Sika.

The response from African feminists was overwhelming: 1,943,400 impressions were created, nearly 1000 posts, a reach of 971, 964, and over 300 twitter users meant that #FeministWhileAfrican was trending in several countries such as Kenya and South Africa. Women tweeted on everything from sex and sexuality, to tradition to engagement with family, to the daily conversations and confrontations they faced. Tweets tackled a whole host of issues.

This #FeministWhileAfrican hashtag has provoked interesting dilemmas, contradictions and compromises African feminists face in their everyday realities. The posts revolved around several themes that re-engage the African feminist theory initiated by a generation of African women academics and writers such as Ifi Amadiume, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Nawal el Saadawi, Fatou Sow, Obioma Nnaemeka, Ama Ata Aidoo, Molara Ogundipe, Nkiru Nzegwu, Chikwenye Ogunyemi, Sylvia Tamale, Amina Mama, Pat McFadden, Ruth Meena, Bolanle Awe and Zenebeworke Tadesse. This list isn’t exhaustive, many other male and female feminist scholars in Africa are advancing African feminist and womanist thought. These scholars’ reflections on African feminisms add to the black womanism scholarship advanced by African American sisters such as Alice Walker, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Audre Lorde, among others.

Other online commentators on what is an African feminism have previously engaged this discussion in ‘Yearning for an all-embracing African feminism’ by Deborah Frempong and defining African feminism. The #FeministWhileAfrican, along with other conversations such as #BeingFemaleInNigeria and #FragileMasculinity (SA), are interesting because they open the African feminist/womanist thought debate to a wider range and younger generation of women artists, entrepreneurs, activists, bloggers, workers and students. Sites such as Mon Pi Mon, Her Zimbabwe, SisterSpeak237, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African women and FeministsSAalso create African feminist spaces for reflection, providing African women online space to have important conversations.

I am cognizant that women with access to twitter and with time for social media are still the privileged few, but despite this I argue there is a need to celebrate and situate the discussions that ensued from this hashtag as a critical moment in the developments towards African feminist thought. In their introductory tweet, The Wide Margin argues that a particular African feminist thought, based on those who live in Africa, exists. As one-sided, simplistic narratives on Africa informed by Africa Rising show and resulting Afro-optimism debates, it is possible to see why the originators of this hashtag say, “We want to situate ourselves as feminists living in Africa.”

The tweets were gold:

A brief analysis of the main themes elicited by the #FeministWhileAfrican include: a reclaiming of feminism as African and appreciation of the unique experiences of African feminists living on the continent; a reaffirmation of the personal as political, more so for African feminists; a call to solidarity and an appreciation of the intersectionalities that define African feminism; the right to choice and bodily autonomy and the alienation experienced by African feminists who don’t conform to patriarchal expectations made on them in intimate relationships among others.

This analysis is not exhaustive. It is just the beginning of what could be larger documentation into African women’s feminist thought by the author. However, despite its infancy, this analysis shows that African women’s feminist debates exist and online spaces are providing an opportunity for African women to claim and articulate their experiences as feminists/womanists on the continent. The African feminists’ ability to maneuver and dominate the online sphere is commendable and it should be celebrated.

Njoki Wamai is an alumnus of the Africa Leadership Centre (ALC) and a Gates Cambridge Scholar studying a Politics Phd at the University of Cambridge. 

This was first published on This Is Africa.

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