Letter to “Man-Africanists” on International Women’s Day

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The Pan-Africanist movement harbours some African men who conceal patriarchal attitudes. These “Man-Africanists” are cancerous to the advancement of the movement that needs to engage in developing new men who are genuinely anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, empathetic, connected to a radical political concept of self-awareness, and guided by an ethical sense of equality, justice and freedom for all.

Dear “Man-Africanists” in Africa and the global diaspora,

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2017, it is necessary for us to appraise the achievements of women globally and also re-evaluate their current oppressions. I will confine myself to some of the conditions facing the African woman both on the continent and in the Diaspora that manifest in “Man-Africanism.” But as an African saying goes, “no bird can fly without two wings”, for the future of our continent is also dependent on the much-needed change in consciousness of not only our women, but also our men. If we are to create a decolonial world and consciousness, in which all forms of oppression are eliminated, we need to deal with the fact that among the many “pitfalls” of the struggle for Pan-Africanism since 1945 has been sexism or patriarchy or what Nanjala Nyabola appropriately refers to as “Man-Africanism.

I will confine myself to patriarchy/sexism/male domination that continues to manifest in the current Pan-Africanist movement, but there are other Fanonist “pitfalls,” such as tensions over the question “who is an African?”; generational and ethnic cleavages; the extent to which Pan-Africanism as a concept has been supplanted in the last two decades by the terms “Afrocentrism” and the “African Renaissance.” The afore-mentioned are serious impediments to the advancement of Pan-Africanism in Africa and in the global diaspora in addition to neo-colonialism, capitalism and imperialism in their new configurations in the twenty-first century.

My position is that in seeking radical socio-economic and political transformation in Africa, the CONSCIOUSNESS of the Pan-Africanist intellectual must also be genuinely transformed to challenge patriarchy or sexism.

Patriarchy has to be reframed as an issue for everyone and not just “a women’s issue.” It is also an issue for men. As bell hooks writes, “Patriarchy has no gender.”[1]

Before I go any further, I think it is important for me to state that feminism is NOT a foreign imposed ideology on Africa and African women specifically. It is not un-African. Briefly defined, it “is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”[2] of BOTH men and women. In this definition and struggle, men are not the enemy. Yet, in popular culture and among some political movements claiming to be progressive or revolutionary, feminism is misunderstood. It is sometimes unconsciously or consciously perceived as distracting us from more important issues – whatever those more important issues are. bell hooks defines “patriarchy” thus:

“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”[3]

Put differently, “A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male-dominated, male identified, and male centred.”[4]  (italics in the original)

Patriarchy- or simply put, our male-dominated society-is taken for granted. Yet, male domination is accepted unconsciously even by most women that men are superior to women or that women are secondary, deficient, to be blamed and ultimately, are inferior to men. Patriarchy manifests itself in the unconscious way most men, and particularly male academics, are unconsciously conditioned to expect women to have ears and no mouth, or intolerance of a woman speaking as lengthily as a man. The unconscious belief is that men speak in paragraphs and women in a sentence. This is on account of the ingrained belief that men are the propagators of knowledge or information and women are conditioned to simply listen and be an audience to a male propagator of information. In such instances, such male academics possess very poor listening skills and often take up all the oxygen in the room for their huge egos and patronizing manner. It is only recently that “mansplaining” entered Wikipedia to define this phenomena that has long been in existence.

Equally important is that patriarchy is a system that intersects with other forms of oppression e.g. classism, ageism, homophobia or the dominance of heterosexism, imperialism and neo-colonialism – all of which are forms of domination, control and subordination. Such systems have become institutionalised and perpetuated and maintained in our society.  The term “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”[5] aptly describes the interlocking political systems of domination that are the foundations of our society and world.

Within academia, even the word “intelligentsia” and the concept of leadership in our “white supremacist imperialist capitalist patriarchal” world is largely implicitly androcentric and masculinist. Margaret Nasha, Botswana’s first female speaker of the National Assembly (from 2009-2014), wrote her autobiography entitled “Madam Speaker, Sir.” The title conveys the extent to which a male-dominated Batswana Assembly had to unlearn sexist conditioning and often slipped up when addressing Nasha in the National Assembly.

When people think of a leader, nine times out of ten it is a male leader or example that immediately comes to mind. Similarly, when one thinks of “intelligentsia” or a “public intellectual”, it remains a male figure who tends to come immediately to mind.  In our Pan-Africanist history there are examples of women who were a vital part of the Pan-Africanist intelligentsia and Pan-Africanist activists, such as: Ann H. Jones, Fannie Williams, Ella D. Barrier, Mrs Lauden and Anna Julia Cooper who all attended the London 1900 Pan-African conference. [6] In addition, other female stalwarts are Amy Ashwood Garvey who Tony Martin considers to be a lesser Pan-Africanist superstar in his book Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist and Mrs Garvey Number One; as well as Amy Jacques Garvey, Assata Shakur, Winnie Mandela and Miriam Makeba. They are often in the background in the depictions and narrations of the struggle for Pan-Africanism as Pan-Africanist male icons take centre stage.

 “The black man’s burden”[7]

A fundamental problem confronting Africa is that, with the formal withdrawal of the European powers, the conception of the nation-state and its institutions has been a masculinised one or the “man-nation,” [8] inherited from the former male colonial powers and embodying the aspirations for the nation in the male leader, as Robert Muponde contends. Consequently, the concept of nation-building and the state made African women invisible. The anti-colonial struggles perceived women and women’s movements as appendages of political parties and the state. The anti-colonial nationalist struggle also necessitated the subsuming of the interests of African women, farmers (the majority of whom are women); youth; trade unions etc  in the anti-colonial struggle. Hence, the burden of the African woman has been to re-construct definitions of the African state to envision a state and society that includes and advocates, via policy making,  the interests and needs of all African women.

Nyabola’s argues that:

“Man-Africanism is solidarity for the wealthy men whose power dominates Africa. It insulates power from criticism. It is not post-colonial ideology; it is not a critical theory or solidarity to protect Africans. It is used to justify systemic murder and humiliation of Africans, by Africans, because it cannot and will not be criticized from within or from without.”[9]

She is correct in arguing that “the possibilities of independence were squandered.” Furthermore, to cite Nyabola at some length:

“Pan-Africanism was kidnapped. Calls to unity were used to justify state violence and repression, to animate calls for blind loyalty to the state. Those who led us to liberation did not live to see it: so many of the intellectual architects of the independence struggle did not survive to see their theories tested. And so, only the core idea that there was a single African identity – and a male one – seems to have survived. Pan-Africanism had a “what” but no longer a “why.”[10]

The struggle for Pan-Africanism became trapped in the quagmire of territorial nationalism and African leaders became wedded to the artificially created and inherited colonial borders manufactured in 1884. The continued loyalty to those 1884 created colonial borders is responsible for the continued dismemberment of the African continent. The irony is that, as Shivji argues, “Pan-Africanism preceded nationalism by almost half a century.”[11]

I define “Man-Africanists” as those male Pan-Africanists who identify as Pan-Africanists and covertly harbour patriarchal attitudes and values which are expressed unconsciously and consciously in their relations with women they interact with and yet their vision of a new Africa remains fundamentally unchanged where it comes to those relations between men and women. Consequently, we need to develop a new revolutionary gender sensitive consciousness that eradicates patriarchy in all its covert and overt forms in order to transform our current socio-economic and political realities.

Where are the new Sankaras and Cabrals of our time?

The question, therefore, is: how do we create radical conscientized African men? How do we create anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, caring, conscious, empathetic men who will develop organisations and institutions that serve African people?

If we are to look at our history, the efforts of two radical feminist African men may inspire us. I use the terms “radical feminist” to describe Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara – though I am aware they did not use such terms to define themselves.

In the context of their times, I consider Cabral and Sankara to have been radical. By “radical” I take the definition given by the organic intellectual and activist, Ella Baker, who said in 1969:

“I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”[12] (italics mine)

Cabral was an agronomist by profession. In addition, he was an organic intellectual, a dialectician and also a military strategist.

In Cabral’s address entitled, ‘Our Party and the Struggle must be led by the best sons and daughters of our people’[13] given in 1969 to PAIGC combatants, there are a number of ethical and political principles he outlines that remain relevant to political parties,  social movements, and all African institutions could learn from such ethics.

Cabral identified patriarchal attitudes embedded in the views of some male militants within the PAIGC who resisted women taking up their responsibilities as a problem as well as the problems women faced. To cite him at some length:

“A particular instance was the occasional stubborn, silent resistance to the presence of women among the leadership. Some comrades do their utmost to prevent women taking charge, even when there are women who have more ability to lead than they do. Unhappily, some of our women comrades have not been able to maintain the respect and the necessary dignity to protect their position as persons in authority. They were not able to escape certain temptations, or at least to shoulder certain responsibilities without complexes. But the men comrades, some, do not want to understand that liberty for our people means that women as well must play a part, and that the strength of our Party is worth more if women join in as well to lead with the men. Many folk say that Cabral has an obsession about giving women leadership positions as well. They say: ‘Let him do it, but we shall sabotage it afterwards.’ That comes from folk who have not yet understood anything. They can sabotage today, sabotage tomorrow, but one day it will catch up with them.’ [14]

Cabral also castigated those male PAIGC commissars who preferred a woman to become a mistress instead of helping her to become a doctor, teacher or soldier, using the authority of the party to satisfy not only his own stomach but his lust.

Thomas Sankara gave an address to thousands of Burkinabe women on 8 March 1987 – International Women’s Day – entitled, “The Revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women.” Those words remain valid then as they do now.[15] Sankara urged that “the men and women of Burkina Faso should profoundly change their image of themselves.”[16] Sankara envisaged that the waging of revolution would indeed “establish new social relations” between men and women. It would also “upset the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both.”[17] (emphasis mine)

“Man-Africanists” need to “rethink” the nature of African masculinity in our society, for its present definitions are both oppressive and harmful to men and women. Harsha Walia argues: “Some male allies feel they are not capable of sexism; but simply believing in gender equality does not erase male privilege.”[18] As Chris Crass points out: “Far too often, activist men [and male intellectuals] support feminism in their public life and retreat into male privilege at home.”[19]

The growing field of masculinity studies should assist us in understanding social and cultural interpretations and definitions of how boys become men; what does it mean to be “masculine” and how this varies in different societies across time and space. Overall, there appears to be a “hegemonic masculinity” – that is the standard ideal against which all men are measured and which few measure up to in many African and Western cultures.[20] It is based on a binary and dichotomous thinking that is ingrained in Western thought i.e. black and white, good and evil, male and female, mind and matter etc. Such dualities are not equal but are hierarchical and often value-laden.

Masculinity embodies socially valued traits whereby men should aspire to be: strong, active, aggressive, dominant, competitive and in control. Femininity embodies the less socially valued traits of: weakness, passivity, irrationality, receptiveness, emotion, nurturing, and subordination.

These traits are not biologically determined but are socially and culturally constructed as the biological difference between male and female rooted in their genital differences. These socially constructed stereotypes or gender types are constraining and oppressive to both men and women and create a culture of domination. They create destructive stereotypes of the “angry black female” and males who demonstrate emotion as effeminate or “sissy.”

As bell hooks contends: “When culture is based on a dominator model, not only will it be violent but it will frame all relationships as power struggles.”[21] Furthermore, she writes, “Before the realities of men can be transformed, the dominator model has to be eliminated as the underlying ideology on which we base our culture.”[22]

Ultimately, “To offer men a different way of being, we must first replace the dominator model with a partnership model that sees interbeing and interdependency as the organic relationship of all living beings.”[23]

President Obama wrote a piece in August 2016 in Glamour Exclusive entitled: This is what a feminist looks like”. His piece would have had greater impact if he had written it in a men’s magazine rather than a women’s magazine. However, Obama did make the critical point that men need to work on themselves and he said that this may be the toughest of all forms of actions.

Some of the practical ways in which we can create a Pan-Africanist consciousness that challenges patriarchy is through bringing up our boys and girls differently, which is a long-term undertaking and by no means an easy one.

Harsha Wali states that: “Transforming gender roles is not about guilt or blame; it is about a lifelong learning process to effectively and humbly confront oppression.”[24] (italics mine) Revolutionary male feminists are made, not born, and therefore need to be created. There is no blue-print for this other than learning from feminist theory and praxis in the struggle to build Pan-Africanism and eliminate capitalism, imperialism and neocolonialism.

Ending patriarchy

How do we address working towards ending patriarchy? My proposals on the way forward are by no means exhaustive but are a necessary start.

First, we need to acknowledge patriarchy exist as a political and social system; it is a systemic problem and not one of identifying a few “bad apples” i.e. a few “bad” patriarchs.

Second, the arena of a “a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism [since] we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what they learn is negative,”[25] is necessary.

Third, we also need to train men and foster the attitude in men that they should be proactive in addressing patriarchy. Men need to have the courage to openly and at times privately challenge other men on their patriarchal/sexist ideas and practices whether in an institution (i.e. the church, mosque, trade union, school, university, etc.) or in the private realm.

It takes courage for such men to take action and make decisions that affirm an anti-sexist position, for it is going against the grain and usually there is ostracism among men who take an anti-patriarchal position by patriarchal men. These radical men who stand against patriarchy in their actions act as new role models for other men and boys. They embody a different kind of masculinity, an authentic humanity that has the courage to be critical in a way that seeks to genuinely change the behaviour of other men.

Fourth, we need to teach boys and men how to authentically communicate their emotions and listen empathetically to others. From an early age, few people encourage boys to express their emotions, and many try to encourage boys to hide them. Hence boys grow up wearing masks and mature into adult males wearing masks. In Western societies this mask-wearing is not only leading to an increase in mental health problems among men but also suicides. bell hooks conveys the damage of boys and men lacking in emotional literacy well when she writes:

“Unlike black females, who are given permission by sexist thinking to be emotional and therefore able to remain in touch with our feelings in childhood even when we are abused or taught to mask them to appear “strong,” black males are required by rituals of patriarchal manhood to surrender their capacity to feel. The soul-murdered black boy then has a much harder time recovering himself than the damaged girl has.”[26]

Revolutionary praxis must challenge the toxic impact of patriarchy not only in political movements but in institutional cultures. bell hooks writes:

“Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion.”[27] (emphasis mine)

Finally, if we are to reinvigorate the Pan-African movement to develop organisations and institutions committed to serving African people, we need new men who are anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, empathetic,  connected to a radical political concept of self-awareness, and guided by an ethical sense of equality, justice and freedom for all.

The great revolutionary Ché Guevara once said: “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Man-Africanists in Africa and the global diaspora, I have not given up on you.

* Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist living in London.


[1] Bell hooks, in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Thinking

[2] See Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks, p. 1.

[3] See ‘Understanding Patriarchy’ by bell hooks, http://imaginenoborders.org/pdf/zines/UnderstandingPatriarchy.pdf   accessed 23 June 2016.

[4] See Allan Johnson, The Gender Knot Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, p.2005, 5.

[5] See We Real Cool Black Men and Masculinity, by bell hooks, Routledge, 2004, p. 137.

[6] See http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Pan-Africanism-Feminism-and-Fin accessed 4 March 2017.

[7] See Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden and the Curse of the Nation State 1993.

[8] See ‘Mugabe and the Man-Nation: Two Views of Culture in the Construction of Masculinities in Zimbabwe’ by R. Muponde, in Mugabeism? History, Politics and Power in Zimbabwe edited by S. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 137-156.

[9] N. Nyabola, ‘Eulogy for Pan-Africanism: Long Live Man-Africanism’ in The New Inquiry, 23 May 2016.

[10] Ibid. Nyabola, ‘Eulogy for Pan-Africanism.’

[11] See Silences in NGO Discourse The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa  by I. G. Shivji, Fahamu Books, 2007, p. 9.

[12] Cited in Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement A Radical Democratic Vision by B. Ransby, 2003, p. 1

[13] See Unity & Struggle, p. 71.

[14] See Unity & Struggle, p. 71.

[15] See Thomas Sankara Speaks The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87, Pathfinder 1988.

[16] Ibid, p. 202. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid. p. 202.

[18] See ‘Challenge Patriarchy as you Organise’  http://beautifultrouble.org/principle/challenge-patriarchy-as-you-organi... accessed 22 August 2016.

[19] See Chris Crass, ‘Against Patriarchy: 20 Tools for Men to Further Feminist Revolution’ in http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/against-patriarchy/  accessed 19 August 2016.

[20] ‘Theorizing Progressive Black Masculinities’ by A. D. Mutua, in Progressive Black Masculinities edited by A. D. Mutua, Routledge, 2006, p. 12-

[21] Bell hooks, The Will to Change Men, Masculinity, and Love, Washington Square Press, p. 116.

[22] Ibid, p. 116.

[23] Ibid, p.117.

[24] Harsha Wali, ‘Challenge Patriarchy as you organise’ http://beautifultrouble.org/principle/challenge-patriarchy-as-you-organize/ accessed 22 August 2016.

[25] Bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody Passionate Politics, Pluto Press, 2000, p. 23.

[26] Bell hooks, We Real Cool, p. 137-8.

[27] Feminism is for Everybody p. 102.

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