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«Feature Article Beyond Determinism: The Phenomenology of African Female Existence Bibi Bakare-Yusuf Introduction African feminism requires a ...»

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Feature Article

Beyond Determinism: The Phenomenology of African Female Existence

Bibi Bakare-Yusuf


African feminism requires a theoretical account of embodied gender differences that is

grounded in the complex realities of African women's everyday experiences. This theory

must specify and analyse how our lives intersect with a plurality of power formations,

historical encounters and blockages that shape our experiences across time and space. This

account must also recognise the concrete specificity of individual gendered experience, and how this connects to and is different from the experiences of others. We need a framework that enables us to examine what it means to be who we are, and at the same time encourages us to realise who we want to become. These requirements will provide the means to theorise the changing modalities of African women's existence, even as we recognise the different traditions and cultures that bind contemporary African women to other women in other times and other places. From this perspective, "culture" and "tradition" can be seen as unfinished projects that are continuously being transformed by cultural actors. In this way, we will be able to move away from deterministic propositions, Cartesian oppositionality and reductive notions of African exceptionalism.

As a theory which avoids making absolute claims about the world and social relations prior to its investigation, existential phenomenology meets many of the requirements for a theoretical exploration into African female existence. Phenomenology is, of course, not the only theory capable of furnishing rich and complex accounts of gendered experiences in Africa. But its emphasis on a situated and embodied theory of knowledge and experience, together with its rejection of dualisms, including the privileging of the mental over the physical, subject over object, and culture over nature, makes it useful for exploring how particular social subjectivities are constructed, as well as for liberating possibilities of existence.

Because phenomenology is a philosophy of beginnings, I want to turn to some of the questions Simone de Beauvoir poses in the opening pages of her seminal work, The Second Sex. She asks: "What is a woman?" and "How does one become one?" Here, I do not intend to repeat de Beauvoir's responses to these questions, or deal with the shortcomings in her arguments (see Heinamaa, 1996; Moi, 1992; Mackenzie, 1986). Instead, I recast the questions she asks in the light of lived African experiences, with a view to investigating the meanings of sexually differentiated bodies and clarifying how "embodiment" produces and affects our experience of the world. I am aware that some have argued that the current interest in de Beauvoir is unwarranted and has little relevance for African women (see Arnfred, 2002). Yet, de Beauvoir's existential philosophy of women's incarnated, situated experience is more relevant now than ever before, given the tremendous social changes and cultural fluidity characterising African societies. Returning to de Beauvoir's questions does not mean becoming locked into uncritical, metaphysical essentialism or universal humanism;

rather, it involves understanding and articulating the complex ways in which African women have been subjugated and have struggled to discover new identities and viable modes of existence.

Before investigating how phenomenology can provide an alternative to existing accounts, I critically outline some of the ways in which African and Africanist women theorists have analysed women's identities. Over the last twenty years, a variety of approaches have sought to address the political implications of sex difference in Africa. For simplicity's sake, I will distinguish between those approaches that draw attention to hierarchical differences between men and women, and those that stress their socially equivalent and complementary status. In the case of the former, African women are sometimes seen as defined only by the dominance of male subjects in patriarchal systems. In contrast, theorists who argue that the positions of men and women are complementary challenge the relevance of the concept of "patriarchy" in African contexts, and stress that men and women have different but equal experiences.

African Women and Patriarchy

Many theorists have used the term "patriarchy" in African contexts to refer to the organisation of social life and institutional structures in which men have ultimate control over most aspects of women's lives and actions. For example, men have access to and benefit from women's labour more than the reverse. Male authority and power is located in and exercised through the extended family, a pre-capitalist unit of production which continues into the present time (Gordon, 1996: 7). Historically, the sexual division of labour was organised in such a way that women were (and still are) the primary caregivers, and were responsible for the bulk of food cultivation and/or processing. Women thus played central but emphatically socially subordinate roles in African society. Some claim that this central but inferior role is currently reinforced through the valorisation of motherhood. For theorists critical of patriarchy, women - both now and in the past - play pivotal reproductive and productive roles that facilitate patriarchal economic and political dominance.

Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (1985) makes this point when she focuses on Yoruba society, and argues that it is through the institution of marriage that women, who become properties in their husbands' lineages, lose all personal rights and self-identity. Women's loss is men's gain, as the institutions of marriage and motherhood further invest men's existing powerful positions in the kinship system and interpersonal relationships with wider political and economic meaning. For April Gordon, "formal political institutions and cultural norms typically accorded more authority, status, and control of wealth and other resources (including women) to men" (1996: 5). Thus, according to many who focus on patriarchy, African women are seen as instruments in overwhelmingly constricting systems of male dominance.

These theorists are not unaware of the abundant evidence of women's power and authority in pre-colonial religious, political, economic and domestic spheres. They often argue, however, that such power was highly circumscribed and subsumed by male authority (Afonja, 1990). Celebrated women of power and means, such as the Dahomey Amazons or the Iyalodes described by the Nigerian historian Bolane Awe, "were few and recognised … for a short time only" (Afonja, 1990: 204). The argument is that when female authority was celebrated, it was tokenistic, with some writers interpreting this as "an expression of inequality rather than equality" (Afonja, 1990: 204).

Despite the contributions to understanding oppressive power relations made by theorists who focus emphatically on patriarchal dominance, there are problems with some of their underlying assumptions. By equating sexual difference with male domination, some of these writers collapse two distinct categories into one. According to Iris Young, we need to make a distinction between sexual differentiation, as "a phenomenon of individual psychology and experience, as well as of cultural categorisation", and male domination, as "structural relations of genders and institutional forms that determine those structures" (1997: 26). Male domination may require sexual difference; however, sexual difference does not in itself lead to male domination. By collapsing this distinction, there is a danger of ontologising male power, and assuming that human relationships are inevitably moulded by tyrannical power relations. Moreover, equating sexual difference with male dominance can also obscure the ways in which both men and women help to reproduce and maintain oppressive gendered institutions. As Young astutely notes, "most institutions relevant to the theory of male domination are productions of interactions between men and women" (1997: 32). As a case in point, we only have to think of the pernicious institution of female genital mutilation, which is both defended and practised by many women.

An emphasis on crushing patriarchal dominance can also lead us to ignore women's power and active roles within particular systems of social organisation. For example, Llewellyn Hendrix and Zakir Hossain (1988) suggest that writers such as Ogundipe-Leslie can make their claims about women's inevitable economic and political disempowerment within their husbands' lineages only by drawing examples from patrilineal societies. In matrilineal or bilineal societies, women have more complex subject positions, as their productive and reproductive capacity is geared towards their natal clans, despite the fact that they are married to outsiders. Careful investigation could uncover the scope that women in these societies have for negotiating individual economic and political freedoms in relation to different families or lineages. Nevertheless, theorists such as Afonja (1990) claim that matrilineal systems provide little more than organising principles for connecting men across generations and space; any apparent power or authority women may have within matrilineal systems is merely symbolic and tangential to the formal power of men.

If we assume that women are automatically victims and men victimisers, we fall into the trap of confirming the very systems we set out to critique. We fail to acknowledge how social agents can challenge their ascribed positions and identities in complex ways, and indirectly, we help to reify or totalise oppressive institutions and relationships. Rather than viewing patriarchy as a fixed and monolithic system, it would be more helpful to show how patriarchy is constantly contested and reconstituted. As Christine Battersby (1998) suggests, patriarchy should be viewed as a dissipative system, with no central organising principle or dominant logic. Viewing patriarchy in this way allows us to appreciate how institutional power structures restrict and limit women's capacity for action and agency without wholly constraining or determining this capacity. By conceptualising patriarchy as a changing and unstable system of power, we can move towards an account of African gendered experience that does not assume fixed positions in inevitable hierarchies, but stresses transformation and productive forms of contestation.

"Dual Sex-Role" Systems Theorists such as Niara Sudarkasa, Oyeronke Oyewumi and Nkiru Nzegwu have argued that, while African societies may well have their own forms of inequality and stratification, it is wrong to suggest that sexual asymmetry is internal to African societies, or that gender, prior to European invasion, was an organising principle in these societies (see Sudarkasa, 1987;

Oyewumi, 1997; Nzegwu, 2001). Claiming that the organisation of social life in pre-colonial Africa was based on a "dual sex" system, they associate this system with complementary forms of power in the activities and roles of women and men. These often involved parallel rituals, monarchic structures, age-sets, secret societies and associations for the two sexes.

For example, among the Igbo, women farmers grew different crops from men; and among the Yoruba, female and male weavers worked on different looms to avoid duplication (Sudarkasa, 1987; Nzegwu, 2001).

According to Nzegwu, separate but parallel spheres allow each sex to control activities and address issues in ways that are beneficial to the entire community: "Women and men are equivalent, namely equal, in terms of what they do in the maintenance and survival of the community" (2001: 19). She therefore claims that power is distributed equally between the sexes, and that "women's sexual and reproductive capacities [do not] determine their second-class status" (2001: 20). For writers such as Nzegwu, therefore, equating sexual difference with sexual inequality amounts to a misreading of African social structures and the importance of the dual-sex organisation. The notion of "patriarchy" is consequently seen as an imported and imposed concept.

Those who explore the identities of African men and women in terms of the dual-sex system argue that the identification of hierarchical differences in such systems involves imposing European social categorisations on African contexts. They focus especially on the inapplicability to Africa of the public/private dichotomy as a basis of inequality between the sexes. In Western contexts, men's mobility and authority in the public realm, and women's subordination in the private, have led feminists to identify this dichotomy as a crucial basis for hierarchical organisation. For Oyewumi and Nzegwu, however, African contexts manifest little evidence of this dichotomy, as women's roles and activities (which might include, for example, long-distance trading, hunting or divination) encourage them to inhabit both spheres simultaneously.

Many have also stressed that the private and public spheres and the practices taking place in both spheres are not socially unequal or not seen as separate. Filomina Steady, for example, has stated that "the question of differential valuation between production and reproduction was not an issue" (1987: 7) because pre-colonial Africa was primarily a subsistence economy. For Steady, the social valuation associated with sex difference was based less on material power than on metaphysical and symbolic meanings. And like many others who have explored dual sex-role systems, Steady suggests that the symbolic basis for social valuation explains the supreme role accorded to motherhood in many African societies. The woman as mother is seen as an embodiment of the generative aspect of society, and is "equated with the life force itself" (1987: 7).

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