On the Conflation of Feminism and the West

As I sat in class listening to my colleagues compare the life of women in Nigeria — as described by writer and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — with that of American women, I couldn’t help but think of the differences. Perhaps the most intriguing perspective Adichie had to offer on feminism sat at the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity. The starkest difference to me was the belief that to be an American feminist is  more convincing that to be an African feminist.

In this passage of her talk, Adichie recalls the time she was told that feminism was “un-African”:

Then an academic, a Nigerian woman, told me that feminism was not our culture, that feminism was un-African, and I was only calling myself a feminist because I had been influenced by Western books…. Anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided I would now call myself a Happy African Feminist.

My immediate thought turned to the theory of liberal feminism in international relations. Liberal feminism assumes that the west has cracked the code on the most valuable feminine norms for women everywhere. These norms are rooted in capitalism, individual rights and equality under the law.

The flaw of liberal feminism, however, is demonstrated by the logic pursued by the academic Adichie refers to in her talk. The idea that feminism is “un-African” is used by liberal feminists as a basis to legitimize a sort of “benevolent paternalism.” Adichie seems to suggest that there is not only a severe failure to understand what feminism is, but also a failure to understand who has the capacity to understand and practice it. The idea that feminism is “un-African” is rooted in infantilized conceptions of folks of color — an idea that has historically been used to legitimize imperialism and colonization.

The conflation of Western civilization and feminism is not only dangerous, but wrong because it excludes folks of color from the equation. Adichie’s talk, therefore, is proof feminism, at it’s best, must and should be intersectional.

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