In this ‘Plantain and Porridge’ feature, Kathryn Buford explores both the light (plantain) and more filling (porridge) aspects of African feminism with Minna Salami, the founder of the MsAfropolitan blog.
Listed by ELLE Magazine as one of ‘12 women changing the world’, Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish writer, speaker and commentator. She is a contributor to Al Jazeera and the Huffington Post as well as a member of the Guardian Africa Network.
Far from being a derivative of western feminism, Minna believes: ‘Feminism is as African as Mount Kilimanjaro.’
Minna is a passionate advocate of African feminism as a serious political movement with the power to change women’s lives fundamentally. After all, African feminists have spearheaded the creation of anti-rape laws; increased access to sexual care and contraceptives; and initiated an unprecedented number of female PMs. Far from being derivative of western feminism, Minna believes: ‘Feminism is as African as Mount Kilimanjaro.’
We begin our discussion with plantain: Salami’s favourite feminist joke; her take on Beyoncé’s hot-button single, Formation; and booty-shaking as liberation. Next, we start on the porridge: Salami explains what feminism means to her; how gender shapes what it means to be African; and how feminism allows women ‘to protect their bodies and repower their minds.’
Do you have a favourite feminist joke?
There’s a brilliant Punch Newspaper cartoon that parodies the silencing of women – in the cartoon, six people sit in a meeting room when the only woman present makes a suggestion. A man responds, ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.’ He he.
I also like Nora Ephron’s sense of humour. She had a knack for being funny and serious at the same time like when she said, ‘Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.’ Truth!
In no more than 3 words, what is your take on Beyoncé’s new song, Formation?
God Bless America.
Some women like Shonda Rhimes have said that it felt ‘traitorous’ to care about her physical appearance. She used to say: ‘My body is just the container I carry my brain around in.’ Do you think seeing your body as ‘more than a container’ is somehow at odds with feminism?
Your mind is your greatest asset, but it’s OK to invest in other parts of you too… and to do that in a way that you enjoy.
In most African and diaspora societies, we take booty-shaking seriously ya know.
As for me, I love fashion. I think lipstick is a great invention. I own tongs and for that matter, thongs, though I don’t think thongs were a great invention. I use an anti-aging serum. I like my skinny jeans with heels, and so on. I don’t go around claiming that any of these things are necessarily feminist, but they are not ‘traitorous’ either.
Chimamanda Adichie once posited: ‘Shouldn’t you have your choice to shake your booty?’ She asked this rhetorically, but I’ll pose it as a literal question to you: What are your thoughts on the freedom to booty shake? When is it exploitative and when is it empowering?
In Nigeria, like in most African and diaspora societies, we take booty-shaking seriously ya know. From ancient rituals to modern social life, shaking your booty is not only reserved for nightclubs, but also a must at weddings, office parties, even church-goers get up to get down if you know what I mean. Nowhere is too sanctimonious for derriere-wining.
Men who have issues with the term feminist are not ready to tackle patriarchy.
Nor is booty shaking just a female activity. Some of the most impressive booty shakers are actually straight men. Just look at how Fela Kuti danced on stage! Booty shaking and objectifying women’s butts are not the same though, but Chimamanda was right about the former.
When it comes to what you require in a dating partner, is feminist at the top of the list?
It’s a deal breaker. In 2016, when there is so much information about feminism and why it matters, a man who is not feminist could not be my ‘Mr. Right.’ Just like I wouldn’t want to date a white person who believed that white supremacy was okay, experience has taught me that men who have issues with the term feminist are not ready to tackle patriarchy.
Feminism is a serious matter and we face some serious challenges. What is something someone might be surprised to learn about your playful side?
Oh God. Isn’t describing something playful about yourself a bit like laughing at your own jokes? I’ll tell you one thing though: I take not taking myself too seriously very seriously.
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism means very many things to me. But let me talk about how I feel that feminism is something spiritual for women. After all, feminism provides women with guidance, healing, strength; one could argue that all those types of things are to do with spirit. And yet I do not want to imply that feminism is a religion… Although it is probably the closest I’ll come to having one.
As a woman, not being a feminist would feel to me like being black in the seventeenth century and not being an abolitionist.
By the way, I mean religion not in the sense of adhering to the teachings of a particular god, but rather as a kind of conscientious dutifulness.
Some women say that they can’t imagine being a woman without being a feminist. Chimamanda Adichie famously stated: ‘We should all be feminists.’ Do you think feminism is for everyone? What’s at stake when women choose not to embrace feminism?
Funny, I have said that – in fact I post it with regular intervals on Twitter and my blog – as a woman, not being a feminist would feel to me like being black in the seventeenth century and not being an abolitionist.
That said, yes, feminism is not only an idea by and for women. By contrast, in my view, feminism – as an idea about distribution of power in society – is relevant not only to women but to men, old and young people, the poor and the wealthy, people from all walks of life. We need many more brothers to be feminists.
I do think perspectives are changing. However, feminism has largely been seen as a white western women’s movement, particularly for the privileged. Why is it relevant to women across the African continent?
Feminism is relevant to African women because it is the most efficient tool with which women can protect their bodies and repower their minds. It is thanks to feminism that female genital cutting (FGM) is a criminal act across several African countries, albeit not all. Feminists saw to it that the new South African constitution inserted anti-rape laws especially as it affects the LGBT community.
When hundreds of girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, it was feminists who brought awareness about the incident.
Feminism is the reason that increasing numbers of women have access to sexual care and contraceptives, and that Rwanda became the first country to boast a parliament with an equal number of female MPs. In April 2014, when hundreds of girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, it was feminists who brought awareness about the incident to an international audience.
Culturally too, feminists like Bibi Bakare-Yusuf have started publishing houses and feminists like Wanjira Maathai are doing necessary work for the environment. Feminism is as African as Mount Kilimanjaro.
You have shared some thoughtful opinions on western feminism. You’ve shared that many western feminists don’t seem to appreciate the value or power of this movement. As you explain, ‘This [appreciation] at least would seem the case observing the endless feminist debates about identity politics, pop culture, Tinder or whatever. Not saying these things don’t matter at all but apolitical feminism alone is unequipped to end sexism.’ What is apolitical feminism to you? Would you say apolitical feminism has been a red herring for the west?
While positioning itself as the region that champions gender equality, the west has failed to look in the mirror. If it did, it would spot that there is an ongoing revivalism of old, patriarchal, conservative values and a backlash against women’s rights that needs to be taken seriously. However, much of the feminist movement in the west is, yes, apolitical, dealing primarily with popular culture, academic transformation and sexual representation in the media.
Mind you, these are all important topics, however, without a robust politically charged force behind them, it becomes easy for neo-patriarchy to co-opt feminism and convert it into a commercial rather than a political force, as indeed has been the case.
Furthermore, to the extent that feminist discussion in the west remains a political movement rather than the high school debating society it sometimes reminds me of, it is a political movement for middle and upper-class women who are able to access the corridors of power but who often host conservative views which only liberate women who have the same privileges that they do. By contrast, such views can worsen the situation because it makes it look like equality is being achieved when really what is being achieved is the commercialisation of feminism into a patriarchal low-budget product.
Some feminists have been critical of a perspective that sees black feminism as derivative of white feminism as opposed to an outcome of the black power movement. You have been very articulate in explaining why African feminism is not derivative, but visionary. Can you share what makes African feminism unique from other feminist movements?
I do not want to romanticize African feminisms because there is so much left to achieve. However, where the political charge of feminisms in the west is declining, it is increasing in Africa.
African and African-American women are actually completely immersed in each other’s movements.
In fact, one of the most successful movements in Africa, in terms of representation, policy and legislation in recent decade is the feminist movement.
Do you think it’s important that African-American women and African women feel invested in each other’s movements? Why? What are the consequences of not seeing connections amongst our movements?
Our oppression and our freedom is connected. Let’s recall that pan-Africanism in its heyday depended on interactions between Africans in the continent and the diaspora. But to be honest, while there are many village mentality feminists everywhere; that is feminists who have mistaken feminism for identity politics and are only willing to engage with feminists who share their exact same background, African and African-American women are actually completely immersed in each other’s movements. Women from the US are engaged in unearthing Africana herstory, for example. And no African feminist is unfamiliar with bell hooks.
You’ve also shared your thoughts on how ‘Africanness’ is different depending on one’s gender. I was really intrigued when you said: ‘What it means to be African is so different for women and men. This upsets me. We should be united. Imagine if it meant the same thing.’ How does gender shape what it means to be African? What does this mean for African women?
Since we live in a society where male perceptions are the norm, most issues have two sides: that of the so-called ‘neutral’ observer (which is actually the male observer) and that of the woman observer, which is in its nature, dual. Women interpret things both through a male lens and through their experiences as women.
Let’s explain this by looking at something in which we all are included: namely citizenship in the nation state. When we talk about citizenship, we speak about it as though it were a neutral term. As if it means the same when a man says that he is Somalian, South African or Angolan as when a woman says that she comes from one of these countries.
And sure, our ethnic origins, historical and cultural belongings tie us to our nations. However, when it comes to a fundamental pillar of citizenship, namely the legal rights or the constitution, African countries have distinct, unfavourable laws for women.
Spirituality is an important theme in your writings. Speaking of African women you’ve said: ‘I know, I know, always something working against women in Africa. But African women will always be strong. It’s a divine agreement.’ What is this divine agreement?
The divine agreement I’m conjuring is to do with stories of power in African herstory. From Queen Hatshepsut of Kemet to the Queen Mothers in Ghana, and many, many more such as Oyalogy, an idea I’ve written about, it’s part of African heritage female memory/DNA to be connected with the divine, powerful feminine energy. By connected, I don’t just mean as ancient pasts but as tools we can use to make our feminism conscientious and focused. The spiritual theme in my writing is informed by conscientious feminism.
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Photography by Nadyah Aissa