There are few things more detrimental to the shared African cause than separating the liberation of women from our overarching fight for agency, wealth, and power. Those who perceive women's rights as a threat or distraction are victims of colonial political infrastructures that continue to exploit our people.
Colonial class structures have led the continent down a rabbit hole that has normalized ostracizing, separating, and suppressing women's liberties. As long as societies across Africa continue to degrade women, there will not be strides towards emancipation. As Audre Lorde said, the master's tool will never dismantle the master's house.
The liberation of African women must be a collective effort to decolonize the structures that create imbalances in society. This first order of freedom struggle is not a new concept. Activism and blueprints from the past show us that every battle to liberate women is another step forward in the war that we can only win together.
The first step to deconstructing oppression that uniquely affects African women is to become cognisant of underlying socio-economic class dynamics. Once this is understood, we can begin to dispel feudal environments stemming from capitalism and neo-colonialism.
Ostracising a group of people based on justifications of nature (sex, skin colour, hair type, etc.) is the basis of colonial rule. When this occurs between sexes, it fosters a primitively patriarchal society – turning women into an object of exploitation for labour-power and consumption for her biological reproductive capacity.
As the idea of male domination permeates into the infrastructures of a nation, society strays further away from genuine emancipation and deeper into class exploitation. Within the fight against class struggle, ignoring the African woman's battle is to lose the war already.
Leaders such as AmaXhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, Muhammadu Buhari, Robert Mugabe have indoctrinated views that confiscate the economic, environmental, and political relevance of the African women. We've seen this in Mugabe's comments that women cannot be par with men due to marriage and pregnancy, Sigcawu's insinuation that women's mental capacity is unable to take on a nation's problems like men. These comments reinforce the idea that the fight for a better society and liberation of African people serves no place for women. It is a disservice to a nation's progression to believe in such a false sense of male dominion.
This mentality is sadly rampant and endorsed by influential leaders who uphold these patriarchal views for decades. These views oppress women; therefore, they oppress us all.
Class is an entity of individuals bound together by specific interests by which they serve and protect. Men who believe that they are the sole warriors for liberation, emancipation, and a better society, fulfill a patriarchal class structure. This colonial mindset is no different from the feudal systems used to determine men ruling over other men based on family origin, birth, or some divine right superior to others. One basis of this oppressive state was used to oppress others of different skin colour, leaning on nature as a form of justification to uphold the idea of whiteness. This is a colonial rule. It is apartheid.
Thomas Sankara from the land of upright men, Burkina Faso, was revolutionary in his understanding that men and women working together are the antidotes to overcoming oppression. He encouraged Burkinabé people to empower women as a way forward to true liberation. In his Political Orientation Speech of 1983, he said,
"Our revolution is in the interests of all the oppressed and all those who are exploited in today's society. Therefore, it is in the interests of women since the basis of their domination by men lies in the system through which society's political and economic life is organized. By changing the social order that oppresses women, the revolution creates the conditions for their genuine emancipation."
All men need to understand Sankara's doctrines – standing on his ancestral shoulders because "the future demands that women be liberated, and the future, everywhere brings revolutions. If we lose the fight to liberate women, we will have lost all right to hope for a positive and superior transformation of our society. Our revolution will then no longer have any meaning."
During Sankara's leadership, he was adamant about unifying all aspects of society, eliminating class dynamics. He did so remarkably with the Union of Burkina Women (UFB), a union that empowered women to be involved with the country's mechanisms waging towards a socialist environment. He amended the constitution to require that the president have at least five women in their ministry. He advocated for women's education, demolishing forced marriages, preventing genital mutilation or any physical and mental oppression onto women. He worked to celebrate women's existence and dedicated International Women's Day (March 8) as a day to swap gender roles, forcing husbands to give their wives half of their paycheck.
Sankara revealed the duality in which African women are often oppressed by men and then by class exploitation. An excellent example of this is Nwanyeruwa Oleka Okpo and the Aba Women's Riot of 1929. The battle was against patriarchal class suffocation but also a bigger war against Nigeria's colonial rule. Another example is the market women of Lome's revolt that arose from men failing to consider women's interests and concerns. Under Togo's French colonial rule, they tried to regulate, tax, and remove the marketplaces' culture, which were primarily the woman's domain.
Women are often and almost always subjugated to a proletariat class and then politically ignored. Under this form of exploitation, the ruling class can remain in power, despite making up only a small percentage of the population.
According to UN Women, over 2.7 billion women globally are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. Of 189 countries assessed in 2018, 104 still have laws preventing women from working in specific jobs, 59 countries have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace, and in 18, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.
Within the labour market, African women are still restrained more than their male counterparts. The labour force participation rate for women aged 25-54 is 63 percent compared to 94 percent for men.
In 114 countries, women make up 40% of the workforce. If women make up such a large majority of labour work globally, why are they oppressed? This current predicament of African women mirrors the establishment of class struggle in the colonial-era where the 1% ruling-class created a change in productive forces to separate and exploit the 80-90% peasants and agricultural labourers for more capital gain. Women are vital in keeping the family together, sustaining the environment while at the same time, society guarantees that they will be marginalized and ignored.
Oluwatoyin Salau is a recent and powerful example of the women at the forefront of the war, fighting for the humanity of us all and yet are marginalized and ignored. Salau was a leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement, an organization that was founded by women who gathered to advocate against systemic targeting and killing of African-Americans. However, the same women spearheading the movement became warped in a lineage of class exploitation that keeps them doubly oppressed and overlooked.
Sankara mentioned that "Subjugated, the woman goes from a protective guardian who exploits her to one who dominates her and exploits her even more. She is the first to work and last to rest.[…]Given this foundation of alienation, the intrusion of predators from afar encourages the isolation of women making their conditions more precarious." (Sankara, 1987).
Salau was 19-years old, advocating for the generations of Africans in America. She was sexually assaulted rather than being offered support, aid, or protection. After confiding in a male counterpart, he also assaulted and murdered her. Salau died as an activist and a revolutionary woman. She understood the first part of her struggle but was subjugated to the second part of that struggle in which she was dominated by male counterparts who are fighting the same war. Women like Salau continue to lead out in activism and the fight against injustice but fear for the duality of their oppression.
The #EndSars movement in Nigeria, Shut It All Down in Namibia, and Am I Next movement in South Africa is spearheaded by African women fighting within that dual oppressive state. The #EndSars movement addresses the corruption within the police force and its brutality towards civilians. Shut It All Down calls for an end to gender-based violence and law enforcement's tendency to ignore cases. Am I Next fights against the cataclysm of domestic abuse and crime against women that ruptured immensely under the Dop System during South Africa's Apartheid era.
Through women-focused activism, a nation can shift its awareness and forcefully remove the generational structures that tear down African people. Women at the forefront deserve to be liberated, but this can't happen as a woman-only revolt. It is a fight for collective progress. This unification is how Sankara led Burkina Faso into a state of progression with the UFB.
Sankara challenged people to think about how impossible it is to eliminate a system of exploitation while maintaining women's exploitation, who make up more than half of our society.
"The genuine emancipation of women is one that entrusts responsibilities to women, that involves them in productive activity and in the different fights the people face. The genuine emancipation of women is one that compels men to give their respect and consideration." (Sankara, 1987)
Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, is an example of a man in a powerful position that has taken strides towards standing on Sankara's shoulders. In 2016 Rwanda held a predominant women-led government where they made up 64 percent of the national legislature's lower house. This was the largest share of any country at the time.
We have seen how this illuminated the progress of equalizing the governing body within a nation, but women's emancipation and liberation do not stop at assigned seats. The placement of women in leadership roles must also lead to their agency, enabling them to make decisions. Women's liberation is not just a facelift. Emancipation is not reform; it is the abolishment of all initial oppression and class struggle.
Rwandan women face substantial obstacles when attempting to actualize their inheritance or land rights. Despite the Rwandan Women's Movement advocacy and their growing seats in legislation, their land laws do not offer them equality. A vast majority of Rwandan women remain subsistence farmers. Female-headed households, in particular, are among the most vulnerable to losing access to land. There must be a difference between showcasing equality versus demolishing a feudal structure that ostracizes women.
Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai shines a light on the oppressed women's duality and leaps into emancipation through her theory of Eco-Feminism. Eco-Feminism advocates for a social revolution that eliminates the ostracization of women that perpetuate stagnant colonial systems. It dissects the traditions that benefit power and class dynamics.
In definition, Eco-Feminism is a branch of feminism that sees environmentalism and the relationship between women and the earth as foundational to its analysis and practice. However, since women make up a vast majority of our labour markets and are struggling to sustain the environment due to long-lasting patriarchy and exploitation of their sex, it only makes sense to look at the scope of our economy from Maathai's perspective. In her Green Belt Movement (1977), Maathai advocated for what hand-in-hand development can look like when a nation's development includes women. An expansion of the work that Sankara strived to do with UFB. In her book Unbowed, she explains three pillars of Eco-Feminism that are a solution to just and stable societies.
"The first leg stands for democratic space, where rights are respected, whether they are human rights, women's rights, children's rights, or environmental rights. The second represents sustainable and equitable management and resources. And the third stands for cultures of peace that are deliberately cultivated within communities and nations[...]Unless all three legs are in place, supporting the seat, no society can thrive. Neither can its citizens develop their skills and creativity." (Maathai, 2008)
To interrupt and destroy an environment that oppresses women's livelihood, we must encourage one another to build up Maathai's three-legged pillars and urge African men to heed Sankara's teachings.
Men are not golden tickets into the emancipation of women, but they play an equal part. When they acknowledge their position in the class struggle and women's oppression, we are collectively pushed further into a positive social revolution that places humanity at the forefront.
Women's emancipation leads to the continent's rehabilitation and echoes outward into the world, where women of the diaspora remain victims to those same colonial structures. After all, the root of Africa's struggle is to abolish socio-economic systems that stemmed from capitalism and neo-colonialism. The real revolution starts with eradicating the oppression of women. On Sankara's shoulders, we understand that the African women's condition is at the heart of progress.
*The usage of African in the essay is refers all people of African descent, whether in North and South America, Europe, and other parts of the world. All Africans of the diaspora belong to the African nation and continent.