The Ministry Of Ideas: An African Feminist Manifesto

Decolonial African feminist thought is equal parts rage and radical care. It is a col­laborative and unbiased call to action that insists on justice, self-determination, and autonomy, building on the legacies of fore­mothers to create our lifelines for our future and the ones that come after us.

In the past year, the concept of ‘decolonization’ has faced strong pushback from the intersection of Big Tech, political interests, and conservative ideologies, reaching such proportions that Elon Musk, X’s CEO, described decolonization as ‘unacceptable to any reasonable person’, equating it with extreme violence and a violation of X’s terms of service. This reductionist rhetoric, particularly orchestrated to undermine campaigns against Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the designation of Palestinians as killable, disposable bodies, por­trays decolonization as genocidal hate speech. In this essay, I reflect on the critical significance of the de-colonial from my concrete ex­periences as an African woman of Yorùbá descent who did a brief stint of grassroots activism towards po­litical education, women’s research and documentation, and anti-sexual violence before moving to the US to pursue graduate education at the intersection of gender and sexual­ity studies and digital humanities. Here, my encounter with canonical American studies texts like John Locke’s theories of social contract came with a realization that Global North modernity was built on this basis: an agreement between ratio­nal individuals, transitioning from a state of nature into a collective body, where the right to punish is ceded to the state.Here, I must add that these thoughts I share here are collabora­tive speaking to/with foremothers, living and passed, and whose labour established the possibilities for counter-hegemonic feminisms and pockets of resistance to advance the stakes of an African feminist decolonial thought. My approach and thought specifically draw on the core areas that have driven my work and the directions of my polit­ical thought since I discovered the possibilities of a decolonial world sense. The very basic conception of decolonial feminism is built on a radical care approach to self-pro­duction and self-exploration—how we make sense of ourselves, and our relationship to our ancestors, land, and people. Nigerian gender scholar, Oyèrónke Oyewùmí’s work on Yorùbá knowledge systems in­sists that the modernity we have inherited is a product of history and culture, where the collision of time and space determined whose knowledge was imposed and whose knowledge was erased. The implication of this is that our modernity is hinged on coloniality that persists even after the phys­ical signifiers of colonialism are long gone. Exploring the historical processes behind colonization and white universalizing epistemolo­gies, Jamaican writer and cultur­al theorist, Sylvia Wynter, reveals the central imperatives behind the invention of man, that determine which bodies are acknowledged as human with boundless possibilities for social, creative and epistemic ex­changes. On the one hand, the basis of a God-given right to occupy and punish irrational godless individu­als was the charge driving the logic of settler colonialism across indig­enous lands from Abya Yala to conti­nental Africa. However, when the in­coherence of a rational/irrational binary became obvious, especially in the face of indigenous resistance, a state-led ‘degodding’ emerged that split the church and the state into two entities, even though religion remained a significant instrument for the institution of colonialism.The final invention of man, Wyn­ter contends, was motivated by a co­lonial difference big bang event that produced a system of signification that essentially meant the further down the brown spectrum you are, the less human you were. And so, to be human was to be white, to be brown was to be subhuman, and to be Black was to be animal—the very basis of the ideologies that drove the transatlantic slave trade and persist in the Global North framing of continental Africa till date. What emerged from this con­struction was the erasure and epis­temic disregard of existing truths of African as well as other Black and Brown bodies and mythology of dread at anything remotely Afri­can. Therefore, the outcome of over 500 years of trans-Atlantic slavery, colonization, and ongoing colonial­ity is that we have been compelled and socialized into privileging Eu­ro-American truths, and what we have as a result is a climate-defi­cient, hyper-individualistic world without empathy.When putting these in context, it underscores that the very attack on the word ‘decolonization’ is rein­forcing subhuman imaginaries and binding our bodies into ideological containment that is eerily similar to slave ships. Yet I am not lost on the irony that a white South Afri­can is one of the most intentionally algorithmically prominent voices in the battle against decolonization. My discussion in this article begins by exploring what a decolonial ap­proach to gender and sexuality can look like in a world prioritizing sin­gular truths, and finally, I explore a decolonial feminist approach to the digital and the very real effects of what Cognitive scientist and AI accountability activist, Abe­ba Birhane, amongst others have referred to as practices of today’s tech giants that mirror historical colonial exploitation of territories and resources.THE GENDER QUESTIONOyèrónke Oyewùmí offers a central argument in response to contemporary gender revolutions— Africans do not need to invent any­thing. Centring her deductions on the evidence within Oyo-Yorùbá that point to an inherent deference to seniority rather than gender and matrifocal namings of self and others ( Omo-ìyá), Oyewùmí argues for a need to turn to African cultural epistemologies as extant truths that break Euro-American feminist epistemologies. Essential­ly, Western feminist thought deeply centres on a rigid, universal idea of gender as the dominant system of classification based on sexual differ­ences, and the meanings and roles assigned to one and the other. With Oyo-Yorùbá culture, Oyěwùmí draws on the evidence in the lan­guage and the structure of social organizing to make the overarching statement: ‘Yorùbá don’t do gender.’ In primary school, we were often taught that the nuclear family is the smallest and most basic unit of the family. The nuclear family is that enclosed structure from which our understanding of political and moral agency is distilled: The man (the leader), the woman/wife/moth­er (the subjugated embodiment of reproductive and domestic labour, whom Oyěwùmí argues cannot be read independently of these mutually constituted labels), the children (boy and girl who grow up into a structure of gender sameness where the boy becomes the man and the girl becomes either the repro­duced woman/wife/mother or be­comes dissatisfied and agitated with this structure).

Oyěwùmí’s central argument is that the feminist figure that emerges from the dissatisfaction cannot see beyond the family as the ‘everything’ of her oppression, and because of that, she cannot see race or class as these exist beyond the realms of this structure. There­fore, the hyper-nuclear Eurocentric foundations of Western feminist thought alongside white colonizer logic disregard structures of many African societies, including what she describes as fluid, situational­ly-contingent relations that have lit­tle to do with human bodies or sex­ual differences; where a biological woman can be ọkọto an in-marry­ing biological woman or a biological man can be ìyàwó to his deity, and where everyone’s pronouns are in­herently non-binary: ‘òun’, ‘wọn’, ‘iwọ’ etc. I find Oyěwùmí’s argu­ments very subversive, especially for the alternative imagining that they offer us to dismantle the deeply rooted Eurocentric points of view and the NGO-developmental narra­tives claiming to transform Africa’s gender regression.

Yet I would argue that while some geographies of genderless­ness or more appropriately gender fluidity are evident in the very con­vincing instances that Oyěwùmí centres, in conversation with Nige­rian anthropologist, Ifi Amadiume and Ghanaian academic, Kwesi Yankah, there was nonetheless an overarching phallus signification, in the Charles Lacanian sense. The concept of a body with a phallus was a privileged signifier that sta­bilized discourse within a Yorùbá context where the body without the phallus was perceived as not whole—the only marginally stabi­lizing factors for women being class and seniority. In the specific context of my paternal family in Esa-Oke, in-marrying wives were called ‘eru‘, meaning slaves, lending insights into traditions of rigid patriarchal dominance.

After years of silencing and within the tensions and limits of wifehood, oral traditions passed through generations of wives reveal that a kitchen performance called eré obìnrin-ilé began that gradually refuted the subject-object relations of the Faniyi men and their wives, beginning a hundred years ago and continuing till date. Using music and performance as channels of economic empowerment, radical care, and joy, they refused to nego­tiate their presence but insisted on it and dictated how they were re­membered. To be part of that legacy of women refusing ‘subhumaness’ makes me proud beyond measure, and makes me recall the quote, ‘If they tell you, you are too feminist, show them who your mothers were.’ Othering at the level of language inevitably leads to othering at a deeper emotional level, and while Yorùbás might not do gender inso­far as situationally contingent refer­ences and non-gendered pronouns, Yorùbá did gender in its positioning ọkọas superior to ìyàwó, where even female ọkọis superior to female ìyàwó, and reinforced the idea of woman as lacking or incom­plete compared to man. What made Yorùbá the hyper-gendered culture and language it is today is expressed in Oyewùmí’s arguments: colonial­ity. The imposition of Victorian pa­triarchy in a system where women nonetheless found visible spaces to create alternative conceptions of self despite the privilege and au­thority assigned to men, meant that these alternative geographies were catastrophically disrupted. Men were assigned apical privilege even though they were read as animals, thus effectively removing African women from the political category of humanness and womanhood. It is at this intersection that African feminist and literary scholar, Mo­lara Ogundipe, would theorize the mountains inhibiting women in Africa as colonial oppression, tra­ditional/cultural oppression, back­wardness, men, colour/race, and herself. On the notion of sexuality, she tacitly wrote: ‘Africa does not know its sexuality.’

I have always deeply connected to the conceptualization of queer­ness in the Cathy Cohenian way of one’s relation to the state and by ex­tension colonial power. Therefore, I question what is rendered discreet, in the contemporary NGO broker­age that portrays Africa as a femi­nized and queer hell as opposed to the West as its heaven. I find in this the persistence of colonial language and tactics, reminiscent of colonial voyage writers like Gordon Sinclair, who caricatured a Sàngó priest as a ‘self-styled imp’ saying ‘mumbo jumbo’ to keep thunderstorms away, while dressed like a woman. These narratives have evolved to paint Africa as inherently backward and rigid, while positioning the West as the arbiter of gender fluidity and linguistic diversity which we now must audition to fit into, effectively erasing these expressions that exist­ed long before colonial encounters. Therefore, if we submit that to be Yorùbá (and a Yorùbá woman) is to already be queer, if we were to submit Amadiume’s evidence of female husbands and male daugh­ters and the institution of woman marriage in Igboland, it might not be farfetched to claim that to be Af­rican is to already be queer, especial­ly considering not just our cultural epistemologies but the historical processes that have removed us from Eurocentric political classi­fication, rendering us to the wild, which in the Taussig sense is the place where signification fails to exist.

However, in crafting our identi­ties out of this void, we were con­fronted by multiple tools of epis­temic violence: ethnography and anthropology, Christian coloniza­tion, laws, prisons, and guns. While there were nonetheless pockets of direct resistance against the totaliz­ing force of coloniality, the moderni­ty that we have inherited is colonial mastery in our relationship to our land, bodies, hair, language, history, and culture. The overarching ques­tion thus becomes: if the entirety of our modernity is deeply entangled not just in the political and econom­ic but also in social, ontological, and cosmological coloniality, then for whom is this modernity?

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