Men as partners in African Feminism

I am privileged to have been taught by brilliant scholars in the areas of gender and womxn’s studies. As a man living in South Africa, it is not easy to access or engage in knowledge in these domains and there are various explanations for why this is so. Through incessant cognizance of my positionality I have now come to teach on African Feminism and utilize this theoretical framework in advancing knowledge in my areas of research. But of more relevance, we are of the position that the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of African feminism and intersectionality should be used as thinking tools for advancing consciousness of the collective (African) male psyche.

African feminism emerged in the late 1900s where black feminists were marginalised within the feminist movement by their white feminists counterparts. It emerged from the understanding that in the same way that a group of womxn formed a movement to address oppressive systems repress womxn, they were not a homogenous group where everyone had the same degree of oppression. Systems of power and oppression come together at a particular point to shape the subjective realities of diverse people differently and some are more oppressed than others. This is known as intersectionality – where one’s privilege and oppression meets or intersects to influence an individual’s social standing and access to economic and political mobility.  For example; a poor black trans-lesbian womxn are more oppressed compared to a cis middle class gay black man. However, we are aware that I cannot speak for poor Trans black lesbian womxn and for all middle-class gay black men.

I have found that it is quite easy for us to identify and understand how people and systems are oppressive against us and what we represent as men, but to a large extent we are constantly fighting to maintain our male privilege. As a gay man of colour, it has always been easy to pinpoint and challenge discriminatory practices on the basis of my race and sexuality that are targeted towards me. For example, I understand that institutional racism exist in context of the institutions I am part of. In such spaces it would be difficult to find a sense of belonging because the system is violent towards you because there is the underlying reality that these spaces were historically not designed for what I represent.  But it was a point realisation when, in the same way that white feminist had to engage with white privilege, I had to become aware of my male privilege. This is despite the fact that I do not represent the hegemonic heteronormative ideal. Irrespective of the masculinity that I represent being marginalised in certain contexts and spaces, I have to understand that by virtue of me being a man, I hold a particular position of privilege over all womxn. This privilege has afforded me more resources, confidence and capacity to claim more space and allowed my voice to be more dominant over womxn’s voices. It is in the most implicit but also explicit ways that I have exercised this privileged over womxn in various contexts.  

But it is in the process of conscientisation that you engage with this privilege. To better understand and engage with transformation and decolonization efforts and to challenge all macro and micro systems of oppression, we need to not only engage without privilege but also be prepared to hand it over. Probably the most difficult thing to do.

Partnerships with feminists and becoming allies in feminist movements have made me understand how my maleness is violent and oppressive towards womxn everywhere and so it was important for me to learn to take several seats and take in the narratives of those whose experiences of oppression is a consequence of a system that is affording me the privilege to do so and not be aware of it. It is only then that I was able understand how my behaviour and attitude towards womxn should be changed at a fundamentally internal psychological level.

It is through this process that men will begin to understand and engage with the social issues that affect womxn and how they reinforce and perpetuate womxn’s struggles.  Men should therefore not only be allies to the feminist movement but should be active partners and activists for inspiring African feminism. It should not be uncomfortable or difficult for men to be led and directed by womxn. Black womxn particularly have been at the forefront of many liberation movements but their efforts have often been silenced by platforms afforded to men. Black womxn continue to be at the forefront of these movements and many who fail to understand why this is necessary, are blatantly uncomfortable with black womxn’s anger and rage. The masculine complex of many men are threatened by handing over authority and dominance to womxn.

As Minister Bathabile Dlamini states in her Open Letter to All Male Leadership Figures, men have to be conscious of this entitlement derived from male privilege so that we can work together to eradicate all forms of discrimination and violence against womxn. Think about how vulnerable a young woman with no political or economic currency must be and feel every day. That is what we must change if we are to have a peaceful and equitable society.

So with this being said, it is important for men to identify and play their role in shaping society and directing it towards a gender conscious, non-sexist community.

This is what we speak about when we refer to male responsibility in the context of womxn empowerment across all aspects. It will take a community of men who acknowledge how male privilege and masculinities are violent towards womxn, a community of men who understand and recognise when their voices are silencing women’s experiences, and it will take a community of men who understand the centre of their privilege. It is a possible community, it just needs a launching kick from a group of action-oriented, conscious African Feminism allies/partners.


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