Perspectives #01/2021: African Feminisms Across Generations

Throughout the history of social and political movements in African societies, generations of women have, in one way or another, worked to oppose patriarchal domination, laws and practices in the pursuit of gender equality; advocating for their equal participation in all aspects of social, economic and political life. Despite this tradition of women-centred and anti-patriarchal organising, it is only in the last few decades, partly due to efforts to entrench women’s emancipation and gender equality in development goals, that feminism in Africa has evolved as an explicit ideological and political concept.


African feminist movements have, over the ages, grown parallel to feminism(s) in the global North and have often contested the space in order to establish themselves on the terms of African women and in response to the needs of African people. Where older generations of feminists had been wary of the label “feminism”, the younger, Afropolitan generation exhibits less ambivalence towards taking up an explicitly feminist cause. Chimamanda Adichie’s call that “We all should be feminist” illustrates the attitude of a new generation of feminists in and for Africa.

As the articles in this publication reflect, various forms of Afrocentric feminism have emerged over time and represent steady inroads in the advancement of women’s rights, and sexual and gender rights more broadly, in Africa across generations. These diverse yet interconnected forms of feminism have led to the adoption of laws, policies and treatises on women’s rights and gender equality with regard to, among others, representation and participation in political office and access to healthcare, education and the economy. Emphasis has also been placed on addressing sexual and gender inequality from the perspective of power relations, articulating a philosophy and politics that not only advocate for substantive equality between men and women but also challenge the heteronormativity of the post-colonial state.

This draws attention to the need to contest traditional gender roles and divisions of labour as well as to advance fundamental structural change for women, and for sexual and gender minorities, to be full and equal actors in development processes in Africa. Despite the eclecticism and diversity of African feminisms across generations, and notwithstanding their many achievements, gender oppression – and sexual and genderbased violence, in particular – remain stark realities for women and for vulnerable groups on the continent, where many face multiple and intersecting barriers to economic, political, social and legal equality. Attaining true gender democracy and equality also means pursuing an African decolonial dialogue around the issues that steadfastly impede the attainment of gender justice in African societies.

This edition of Perspectives is a collaboration between the Gender Focal Persons (HBF staff members who serve as resource persons on gender issues) from our four offices in Africa and the Africa Division at our head office in Berlin. The idea for the edition was born out of a strategy to collectively develop an approach to genderrelated political goals that is rooted in feminist realities, thinking and narratives specific to the African continent. The need to reflect on, analyse and document the evolution of African feminisms emerged out of this. This edition aims to do just that by highlighting the histories of women’s anti-patriarchal struggles in Africa and the various forms of feminist action that African activists have taken up to address both persistent and new threats to women’s rights and gender justice. It also aims to reflect on lessons learned from African feminist practices for current and future generations across the region.

The result is a wide range of articles from African feminists who, from diverse perspectives and a range of regional vantage points, engage with the topic of African Feminisms Across Generations. The articles draw on the various histories and features of antipatriarchal struggles, approaches to these struggles, and their implications for intergenerational feminist thinking and activism in the contemporary African context. The edition commences with a critique of post-colonial freedoms by Furaha Joy Sekai Saungweme which explores the common thread of patriarchy that runs from the liberation movements against racial oppression to post-colonial times. The article questions why women, as critical catalysts for change in the struggle against colonialism and in the fight for the attainment of rights in post-colonial Africa, continue to live under conditions of oppression linked to persistent institutional and structural inequalities.

Dr Barrel Gueye and Dr Selly Bâ provide a historical perspective on women’s activism as they explore and compare three waves of feminist evolution in Senegal. While these waves share a common goal of fighting against male supremacy, each has a unique character, ideology and strategy to address the challenges of the times. The authors argue that each wave of feminist activism has contributed positively to women’s status in Senegal while also facing specific obstacles and limitations to enabling fundamental change in the lives of Senegalese women.

Another perspective from Senegal is that of Dr Fatoumata Keita, who reflects on the development of feminist ideas through the writings of four women authors. Dr Keita argues that, although written from different times and contexts, the authors’ texts offer teachings that can inspire and enrich current feminist debates, not only in the Senegalese context but across the globe.

Two conversational articles, one from South Africa and the other from Nigeria, turn the focus towards key debates within present-day feminist movements from a cross-generational perspective.

In the first, a conversation between Mase Ramaru and Elsbeth Engelbrecht explores the complexities of intergenerational feminist relations and how to think through possibilities for intergenerational solidarities.

The second article is an interview by Monika Umunna with Nkoyo Toyo and OluTimehin Adegbeye that explores feminism and gender rights activism, past and present, and how different generations assess one another’s struggles and achievements. The interview engages with some of the ideological tensions between older, more traditional women’s rights feminists and a younger feminist generation that speaks to issues of intersectionality, religion and queer rights and the importance of forging alliances across these tensions.

In her article, Wanjiru Nguhi asks the provocative question of whether we can imagine a feminist future within religion, interrogating the patriarchal nature of Christianity and its implications for African feminism and feminists.

Bernedette Muthien provides a historical account of the power of oft-overlooked matricentric indigenous societies and how their practices are claimed by indigenous feminists in struggles for post-patriarchal egalitarianisms.

Njeri Kabeberi’s article reflects on the lives of five courageous feminists from southern and eastern Africa whose lives bear testimony to the power of feminist, anti-patriarchal struggles in Africa across the span of 300 years.

In the final article of this rich collection, Nothando Maphalala focuses on the place, power and problematics of Motherism as a basis for feminist action in contemporary African feminism.

We hope that the reflections, insights and analyses presented in these articles by African feminist scholars, researchers and activists will stimulate further thinking on African-centred perspectives and inspire feminist action for the social, political and economic betterment of women and marginalised communities across Africa.  

Paula Assubuji

(Former) Programme Manager, Cape Town office 

Selly Bâ

Programme Officer, Dakar office

Nicola Egelhof

Project Officer, Africa Division, Berlin office

Caroline Kioko

Programme Coordinator, Nairobi office

Claudia Lopes

Programme Manager, Cape Town office

Monika Umunna

Programme coordinator, Abuja office

Melanie Judge (Guest editor)