Practical Gender Interests (Still) Matter


The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations, which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships. – Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

A woman and her daughter in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. From “Daughters of Africa”, a series of portraits and interviews with four African matriarchs.

Gender, like ethnicity and race, is a chance factor that affects how we view the world, how the world views us, and how we view ourselves. In her 1949 The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir noted how women, through learned, practised and inherited attitudes, do not place themselves at the centre of their worldview. She described three positions that, as a result of social constructions of gender, a woman will assume to avoid complete self-actualisation: to subsume herself as the Narcissist in her reflection, as the Woman in Love in her beloved, or as the Mystic in God.

De Beauvoir describes men as understanding their relationship to society as one of transcendence: inventing, creating and shaping the world around them. In contrast, women come to understand the world in its immanence, as they see the world as it already exists and they are one of the things existing in it, with no power to control it.1 Not placing herself at the centre, she remains “the other” even to herself.

Since de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and the two waves of feminism and intersectionality that followed, Western feminism is no longer considered to be fully descriptive of the normative experience of all women. Sandra Harding refers to “socially situated knowledge” as a means to develop ways of looking at the world with women’s lives and preoccupations at the centre and with womanhood consequently as the norm.2

Diminished, erased and chastened by Europatriarchal worldviews, African feminists offer ideas to the long quest for gender equality with an Africa-centred black feminist sensibility. But African feminism is in no way monolithic.

Motherism, as defined by Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, is concerned with achieving equilibrium in society through cooperation, partnership and tolerance.3 Motherist movements inspire women to act based on their maternal identities, essentially characterised by nurturing and caring for others. While seemingly conservative, motherism is a radical notion in the world of Europatriarchal ideas, knowledge production and advocacy, as it is a view of the world defined by African women for themselves and, with that woman-centeredness, it is certainly feminist.

Motherism is feminism and indicates that non-Western feminists have always been willing to use their socially situated knowledge to advance their interests. While acknowledging its place in African feminism, what propels motherism’s separateness from general feminism? Secondly, what impact has it achieved in terms of institutionalisation, transnational organising and shaping the rhetoric of gender equality?

In 1985, Maxine Molyneux distinguished between “strategic gender interests”, which aim to alleviate the subordinate status of women, and “practical gender interests”, which are urgent and do not entail immediate emancipation or gender equality. Under this typology, motherism, which often advocates around urgent needs of survival and subsistence, emphasises practical interests, while demands that are generally termed “feminist” are strategically formulated on institutionalised forms of discrimination.4

Motherism offers women an important entry point into political activism as it legitimises women’s actions and softens the fact that they are acting politically. In Liberia, women’s wartime organising through the Mano River Women’s Peace Network, founded by Nobel Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, implemented motherist mobilisation, focused on the practical desire to end a brutal war and pave a better future for their children. The women’s network led a campaign that brought the leaders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – Charles Taylor, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and Lansana Conte respectively – to the negotiation table in 2002, although they were ultimately barred from participating in the talks because they were women. Ironically, the network didn’t make explicit demands concerning gender inequality or improving the status of women in any transformative sense. Peace – in this case, the absence of violent conflict – was the resounding theme of the entire movement and a desire that resonated with the rest of society. This allowed the movement and its participants to straddle the margins of respectability comfortably. Their contribution to the signing of a comprehensive, inclusive peace agreement was, however, a strategic win for Liberian women.

In 1992, under the regime of Daniel arap Moi, the mothers of Kenyan political prisoners appealed for their sons to be released in a year-long campaign that included a hunger strike, a petition to the attorney-general and a march to Uhuru Park in Nairobi, where they camped out, refusing to leave until the prisoners were released.5 After five days in the park, a violent altercation with the Kenyan police ensued, and amidst the panic, some of the mothers stripped naked, an act that is considered taboo in African tradition. As one mother stated:

The ages of most of the mothers here are between 60 and 80. At our age, we cannot afford to be combative at all. Let me state that this is exactly what made us strip down to our bare nakedness. It was an indication that there was nothing else we could have done in the circumstances; nothing else could have saved us and our children from the punishment that was being meted out at us… That act brought about some immunity because, had we not stripped, we would have been killed at the park.6

A woman and her daughter in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. From “Daughters of Africa”, a series of portraits and interviews with four African matriarchs.
A woman and her daughter in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. From “Daughters of Africa”, a series of portraits and interviews with four African matriarchs.© Pippa Hetherington

For another year, the women continued to gain prominence and quickly become a point of political pressure on the government. In early 1993, 51 of the 52 political prisoners were released.

Motherist mobilisations frequently coalesced into broad coalitions that went from single-issue formations to membership organisations, and from national to pan-African levels. The Women, Peace and Security Agenda that gained global recognition through the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (of 2000) was a key outcome of decades of coalition-building among grassroots and motherist feminists. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol) is also a transformative outcome of this type of feminism.

Fast-forward 25 years to a time where “feminist” no longer carries its early stigma and motherism appears dated. As Nanjala Nyabola writes:

We need new frameworks. We need new ways of thinking about politics that have more utility because they are more representative of our lived realities. A feminist methodology can be this new framework. It highlights the many silences embedded in the prevailing discourse.7

African feminism today is louder, more straightforward and, at the same time, more mainstream (or as Tiyambe Zeleza calls it, “malestream”). That is not to say that we live in a postracial, postfeminist and meritocratic utopia, rather that feminists don’t need to pretend to be apolitical in order advance political goals, as gender mainstreaming is standard business practice for small and medium enterprises up to multinationals and is firmly lodged in the public policy lexicon. While the mainstream is characterised by an engagement with feminist thought and advocacy, this is largely based on (and limited to) liberal feminist discourses with an emphasis on women’s inclusion. How far have such “strategic gender interests” taken us?

Stereotypical gender roles are still obstacles to women’s political participation and recognition. As Nyabola states,

Regardless of how smart, talented, accomplished, or connected you are, your value as a political entity is ultimately measured in relation to your nearness to a suitable penis. If you don’t have one, are you married to one? In either case, did your gene pool flow from a suitably qualified one?8

The late Kenyan politician, academic and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai was described as “unAfrican, unKenyan, unKikuyu, unpatriotic, ungovernable, unmarried, unbecoming of a woman”9. Her presidential campaign in 1997 barely received press coverage, but her divorce was highly publicised10. Twenty years later and 750 kilometres away, Rwandan businesswoman and accountant Diane Rwigara’s 2017 presidential campaign was marred by leaked fake “nudes” of her just 72 hours after it was launched11, paradoxically, in the country described as the best place in the world to be a woman in politics.12

As illustrated, the increasing presence of individual women in public life has not led to a proportionate transformation of perceptions of women in the public domain. Traditional expectations and patriarchal mentalities regarding women as subjects of men’s authority are known obstacles to women’s meaningful participation in politics. Secondly, the presence of some women in elected office has not fully transformed into significant gains, such as increased advocacy for women, representation of their interests (however “interests” are defined), greater consciousness of women’s needs, or facilitated cooperation among politicians and civil society. The presence of women in public affairs does not necessarily make an agenda or a policy more woman-centred, much less a force for addressing systemic gender inequalities. A study by Abebe and Woldeyesus in Ethiopia on the relationship between representation and substantive change in gender relations through the promotion of gender equality by women parliamentarians found that women MPs had limited, if any, direct contact with their constituencies or with other women’s organisations.13 This is partly explained by what Deniz Kandiyoti terms “patriarchal bargains”, a strategy that allows women positional power and status in exchange for their compliance and cooperation in male-dominated political space.14 Ultimately, it is clear that representation, while synonymous with institutional expansion, does not necessarily lead to a structural transformation in gender equality.

#AmINext, GBV protest in South Africa.
#AmINext, GBV protest in South Africa.© Nicky Newman

In recent years, vanguard forms of feminist organising have emerged throughout the African continent. This African feminism addresses class, gender and racial discrimination and is characterised by its use of social media to raise awareness. For instance, the #MeToo, #MenAreTrash, #AmINext movements have significantly changed how we speak about sexual and gender-based violence. But an over-reliance on public and media engagements cannot drive comprehensive change. As Minna Salami states, this “millennial or fourth-wave African feminism… does not generally engage with African feminist theory to the extent that they would revolutionise political life”.15

Perhaps motherism does have a place in contemporary African feminism?

To appreciate the origins of motherism is to come to terms with the fact that African women live and survive within a male-dominated landscape, caught between the private and public spheres, and the authoritarian post-colonial state and hetero-patriarchal nationalism. Under these multiple oppressions, it is perhaps necessary to employ multiple tactics. But it must also be acknowledged that motherism is problematic: it is rampantly cis/heteronormative and assumes that womanhood can only be attained through motherhood. Motherism simultaneously challenges and concedes to de Beauvoir’s notion of immanence – with women mobilising on the basis of their physical identity (in this case, that of motherhood) and not being hindered by it.

In 1985, at the Women’s International Peace Conference in Canada, the women delegates from Africa defined “security” as freedom from the structural violence caused by militarism, racism and sexism. Furthermore, they defined it by the quality and dignity of life. This humble submission caught on because, later that year, the same definition of security was echoed in the UN Report on Equality, Development and Peace. Almost a decade later, that definition of security was firmly lodged in the global policy lexicon, when the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report equated security with people, dignity and development rather than with states and weapons.

2020 marks 25 years of the Beijing Platform for Action and 20 years since the passage of UNSC Resolution 1325. It is an important year for a system-wide reflection and response to the challenges and successes of the past two decades of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Once more, a motherist perspective that would engage with the multiple interactions between frameworks, people and social contexts may be worthwhile. In connecting grassroots movements with elite structures, its “socially situated” understanding of the context could promote and implement the ideas and values that underpin the Agenda.

African feminists have always stressed that “smashing the patriarchy” is only half the battle, with imperialism and capitalism being the other half. Given the weight of the challenge, a comprehensive approach may hold the best promise for African feminism to achieve the seemingly elusive goal of gender equality. One thing is certain: some of the most transformative feminist triumphs from the African continent were motivated by women’s practical desires for a decent life. And that is transcendent.

  1. McConnell, “Stuffing Myself”.
  2. Sandra Harding. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is Strong Objectivity?” The Centennial Review 36, no. 3 (1992): 437–470.
  3. Catherine Obianuju Acholonu, Motherism: The Afrocentric Alternative to Feminism (Abuja: Afa Publications, 1995).
  4. Maxine Molyneux, “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua,” Feminist Studies 11, no.2 (1985): 227–254.
  5. Amnesty International, Women in Kenya: Repression and Resistance (1995),
  6. In Amnesty International, “Women in Kenya”.
  7. Nanjala Nyabola, “Kenya: It really is about dicks,” African Arguments, 18 April 2016,
  8. Nyabola, “Dicks”.
  9. Rob Nixon, “Slow Violence, Gender, and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 13 (2007): 14–37.
  10. Versha J. Anderson, “Intersectional Activism: Wangari Maathai’s Rhetorical Revolution for Peace, Democracy and the Environment” (Master’s diss., Colorado State University, 2014).
  11. Kara Fox and Edward Kiernan, “She Wanted to be President, But Ended Up Jailed Instead,” CNN, 28 August 2018,
  12. Inter-Parliamentary Union, Monthly Ranking of Women in National Parliaments (1 October 2020),
  13. Tsion Tadesse Abebe and Elshaday Kifle Woldeyesus, “The Influence of Ethiopian Women Parliamentarians on Policy Changes and Enforcement of Gender Equality Issues,” Africa Peace and Conflict Journal 6, no. 1 (June 2013): 59–73.
  14. Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender & Society 2, no. 3 (1988): 274–290.
  15. Minna Salami, “What is African Feminism, Actually?” MsAfropolitan, 6 December 2017,