Feminism and Culture

The latest edition of Buwa! is out now focussing on Feminism and Culture in southern Africa with great articles from across the region

Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

January 8th, 2014

“I am not a feminist because I cannot divorce myself from my cultural context and also because feminism is not practical in my culture, and is for the elite.” This was the response given by one young woman at the start of OSISA’s annual regional feminism training course in Zimbabwe.

And it is definitely not an isolated perception of the much talked about relationship between feminism and culture – part of the reason why the two-week feminism course hosted by OSISA and the Institute for Peace, Leadership and Governance at Africa University is so important! It got me thinking about how the nexus between feminism and culture has often been understood – or misunderstood – and how this has shaped people’s understanding of their realities. One thing was very clear here – at least for me – that feminism was regarded as some appendage to one’s life, which somehow had to be ‘fitted’ and ‘married’ to one’s cultural context. And it also got me thinking about how culture has often been viewed as some kind of container into which behaviours, practices and actions have to ‘fit’.

All of this reminded me of the tendency of many people to plead ‘culture’ when they want to dismiss arguments and behaviours that challenge the status quo. This issue of BUWA! provides space to critically engage with the positive and negative aspects of cultures, which influence the lives of women, and to explore women’s and feminists’ experiences and understanding of these as well as to look at some of the perceptions and misconceptions about the interface between culture and feminism – both of which are broad and multi-faceted phenomena.

This issue offers some definitional considerations from an anthropological perspective, as well as exploring the interplay, and manifestations, of culture in the web of human existence, including in the realms of spirituality and faith, tradition and custom, body politics and associated relationships, among many others. And it covers a range of topics – from exploring the interface of states and cultures to establishing how state policies and administrative structures have colluded with cultural practices to deny and/or jeopardise women rights, as in the pieces by and .

A cluster of articles draws attention to the dynamics of how men have related with culture in defining certain kinds of masculinities. Many men invoke culture to justify unhealthy masculinities that take away the freedoms of women and girls. discuss the broader theoretical understandings of masculinities, while brings it closer to home by providing an African perspective. demonstrates how, further afield, some men have gone to the extent of invoking the law and legal frameworks to reclaim men’s rights, as evidenced by how men are organising in the Caribbean. This is also a phenomenon that our region has been increasingly experiencing, although the trend has been more in relation to men organising to promote gender equality rather than to reclaim men’s rights. Initiatives such as the Fatherhood Initiative have pushed the envelope to focus more on redefining masculinities through encouraging progressive fatherhood practices. It is important to note that in all these initiatives – as well as in most of the articles in this issue – culture is often at the centre of such discourses and debates.

One of the most visible – and sometimes also most invisible – sites on which culture has impacted on women’s rights and freedoms is their bodily integrity. There is a lot of politics that plays out in relation to women’s bodies in the name of culture – from women elongating their labia for men’s sexual pleasure as decries, to myths and mysteries around masturbation and menstruation as explained by , to cultural barriers to women’s access to strategic economic resources, such as mineral wealth, as illustrates by using the experience of women in the gold mining fields of Zimbabwe’s Penhalonga district.

Part of this politics stems from the debate about women’s fashion and notions of female beauty, with culture again being used as the key determinant of what is beautiful, what is fashionable and what is acceptable. argues that fashion has shaped women’s identities and makes a case for using fashion to achieve feminist objectives, while pushing for a feminist body of knowledge around the subject to allow this to happen. Similarly, tracks the historical transformation of what is defined as an ‘attractive’ woman’s body, from tubular to slender and many other shapes in between, and tries to address the central question – what is beautiful? She concludes that these ‘attractiveness’ trends have damaged women’s self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth.

Nowhere are body politics as pronounced as in the institution of marriage – an institution that is often regarded as a sacred cow in cultural debates. Marriage for most women, especially in Africa, equates to signing away control of their bodies. A telling illustration is the skewed way in which women – especially those in heterosexual marital relationships – have been infected and affected by HIV and AIDS compared to their male counterparts. There are mixed views among feminists regarding the institution of marriage and how it has positioned women. While some feminists have argued that many of our continent’s cultures have set heterosexual marriage relationships and feminist principles on an inevitable collision course, others view the apparent clash between the two as not all that dramatic. describes how the nature of his 26-year marriage to Doo Aphane has allayed some of these fears among their friends and relatives.

It is worth noting that discourses and debates about marriage, culture and the positioning of women often pit heterosexual marriage relationships against same sex marriage alternatives or, in some cases, relationships outside of marital relationships. In this issue, sheds light on some lesser-known models of same sex and non-sexual marriages among women in Africa, which still, she argues, tend to follow patriarchal dynamics of power and control.

Another institution that has also been regarded as a sacred cow is religion, and feminists have long focused on how patriarchy employs religion as a tool – often in partnership with culture – to oppress and suppress women. A lot has been written over the years on some of the key religions that are prevalent in southern Africa, including Christianity and some African traditional religions. Less has been shared about the realities of women practising the Islamic faith in the context of southern Africa. shares the peculiarities of a woman growing up as a Muslim in Zimbabwe. She observes that Islamic religious practices and traditional Shona practices are not very different – both suppress women, especially with regard to women not being able to make important decisions about their lives.

Closely linked to culture and religion are the arts and people’s performances, which, to a significant extent, reflect and mirror a community’s beliefs and practices, and in turn influence and shape those practices. Some artistic forms of expression that have embodied this are songs, music and dance. While feminist research has looked into how some song lyrics denigrate women and perpetuate patriarchy, dance forms have drawn less attention. provide a feminist analysis of erotic dance styles, and argue that while some feminists find such dance styles demeaning and denigrating of women, their bodies and sexuality, erotic dancing can also be considered as a means of empowering women given that it allows them to subvert patriarchal ontologies that regard women as objects that are to be deployed by men for their own pleasure. Ncube and Chipara challenge feminist readers and writers to explore this debate further so as to discover how useful erotic dance is in the struggle for women’s emancipation and empowerment.

But what about pop music? There are often heated debates about whether such music could possibly incorporate any progressive and/or affirming messages about women. looks at contemporary pop artists, such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and others, and highlights the tensions that exist between their song lyrics and the video images that often accompany them.

This issue paints a picture of cultures that are constantly evolving but that do not necessarily change the underlying way that women are perceived and treated. This is aptly captured by in her analysis of how practices of welcoming new brides into a family have transformed in shape, but have remained essentially the same in terms of value and the message that they put across about women. One would have expected that with information technologies changing the way that people in the world relate to one another and how cultures evolve, there would be have been some fundamental shifts in how women are structurally positioned. However, confirms that this has not been the case, arguing that feminists have not effectively appropriated the social media and ICT tools that have revolutionised social, commercial and other relations across the globe.

The issue concludes with a piece by who argues that feminists are not talking to each other enough across generations and that this has to change if harmful cultural and other practices are ever going to be replaced by real respect for women’s rightful citizenship and freedoms. There is, she believes, an urgent need for greater intergenerational dialogue to foster real change.

About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.


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