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Nobel Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee Leads Symposium on Women in Africa

Nobel Peace Laureate and Barnard Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice Leymah Gbowee promised attendees a “naughty day.” And the March academic symposium was indeed filled with frank, enlightening dialogue: panelists didn’t hold back in expressing frustrations and concerns on subjects related to African Women’s Rights and Resilience, the title of the all-day event.

Held just days after International Women’s Day and coinciding with the meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the symposium featured distinguished scholars and activists who addressed issues facing feminists and activists throughout Africa. The Gbowee Peace Foundation USA, Barnard’s Africana studies department, the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), the consortium for interdisciplinary studies, and the Barnard’s president's office sponsored the event.

“The women’s movement in Africa is very vibrant,” said Gbowee. “We have successful women there who fight for social change and a really active community at the global and national level.    “The media seek out stories of suffering, but ignore realities of strength,” she added. “It is important to attempt to correct some of the myths and misconceptions about the strength of the African woman.”

All three panels—Women’s Rights and Transnational Feminisms, African Men and Feminisms, and Intergenerational Organizing—addressed issues of collaboration and working collectively toward the future.

“They were all really great panels. I especially liked the first one because these are professors and documentary filmmakers that we’ve gotten the opportunity to read and watch,” said Thando Mlambo ’17, a student in Gbowee and Professor Tina Campt’s feminist theory colloquium. “It was really interesting to have them discuss transnational feminism and how that applies in the African context.”

Campt, director of Barnard’s Africana studies department, moderated the first panel, which included Professor Amina Mama, Nigerian/British feminist activist, researcher and scholar; Abigail Disney, filmmaker and philanthropist; Professor Sylvia Tamale, Ugandan feminist lawyer and academic; and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, co-founder of the African Women’s Leadership Institute and the African Women’s Development Fund. Mama is the founding editor of Feminist Africa, a journal of gender studies, where a range of African voices can be heard. She said that 20 years ago when she began doing this work, African feminists met one-on-one trying to develop a forum to share their voices.

An important point that resonated throughout the day is that North American feminists often feel they need to export Western feminism to Africa. Disney called that the primary obstacle to the West’s success in promoting feminism on an international level. “I would argue that we need to stop using the word ‘empower,’” she said. “We need to give our resources and let them do with it as they see fit, whether or not that matches our predetermined definition of what it is a feminist should be.”

Tamale said that because patriarchy and the backlash against women’s gains are global, feminism is always global. Adeleye-Fayemi expressed a similar position, noting there is a global citizenship as women. There is also a lot of unfinished business in the quest for equality; to achieve that, effective alliances among equals need to be built.

 “It’s very important to be humble enough to accept the fact that there are women and men from the African continent who know what they’re doing, who know what they’re talking about, who have solutions,” said Adeleye-Fayemi.

“We operate within and out of different geopolitical spaces,” said Tamale. “We need to really begin listening…beyond words and really getting to the nuances.”

The second panel, moderated by Professor Abena Busia, chair of the department of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, included three men who are not specifically involved in feminist work, but who embrace feminist ideology and try to lead others by example to end gender discrimination.

Busia asked panelists Samuel Doe, Mohamed Yahya, and Kennedy Odede how their feminist perspectives were shaped personally and professionally. Each shared the experiences that led them to support the fight for women’s rights.

“In a sense, society has let inequality and submission be accepted as the norm,” said Yahya, who works for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in crisis prevention and recovery. “I have never seen a society that fully discriminates against women and prospers.”

The panelists agreed that men often don’t understand what feminism means and they hope that women and men do a better job of educating those who are ignorant. Yahya said emphasizing the economic upside of equality might be transformative, noting you cannot marginalize 50 percent of the population and compete globally. “A challenge to men—step out of your comfort zone to break the shackles of inequalities,” said Doe, a senior policy advisor at UNDP bureau for crisis prevention and recovery. “There is nothing that has value more than humanity.”

Odede said he took risks in his own community by initiating discussions, because conversation starts at the grassroots, in villages, even among men who have never heard the word feminism.   

Journalist, human rights activist, and founder of the Man Up campaign to promote gender equality, Jimmie Briggs, moderated the final panel, which addressed the issues and conflicts among different generations of African feminists. “The histories of our liberation struggles, the histories of Africa are certainly imbued in everything that we’re doing, but we have to think of our future imaginative and something we can forge forward,” said Hakima Abbas, director of programs at the Association for Women’s Rights and Development.

Gbowee said in order to engage in intergenerational organizing, the different generations have to want to engage. She has witnessed frustrations and antagonisms from both older and younger feminists. She’s even heard young feminists suggest the older generation “retire.”

“We don’t have a lot of spaces where people are able to talk about their experiences as older feminists, so...passing down of the history of feminism in Africa, we don’t have a lot of that,” she continued. “If young feminists were reading the stories of older women, we wouldn’t be trying to get them out of our spaces so fast. We would be thinking how we can maximize the wealth of experience they bring to the table.”

She said it is crucial to document the stories of these women, most of whom have never written about their lives. On the other side, at times, there is a feeling among younger feminists that older feminists expect them to ask for permission to be engaged in activism. “Younger women are not asking for permission to organize or to be African feminists, they are doing it,” said Abbas.

There is also a need for older feminists to open their minds to LGBT issues. Spectra, an award-winning Nigerian writer, gender-justice advocate, and new-media evangelist, said young African feminists are also engaging in activism beyond the traditional models of policy, protesting, and writing. Not only are they building community through social media, they’re engaging in creative activism through music, art, and theater. “There are avenues that are creating many powerful conversations, raising consciousness,” Spectra said, noting that these venues are making LGBT people more visible. “I’d like to see more of that recognized and affirmed, especially by older feminists.”

“It’s a two-way learning street,” said Gbowee. “If you people make us understand how important this is in your space, we will be able to be advocates for some of these things. “This is not competition,” she continued, “it’s cooperation. We’re all fighting to get to the same place.”

Even with all the serious subject matter covered, there was never a shortage of humor. “Remember the saying, ‘I don’t want to be part of the revolution if I can’t dance,’” said Adeleye-Fayemi of the African Women's Leadership Institute.

—By Lois Elfman ’80