This is my first post for Black Looks! My posts will cover my research interests: African feminism, how as African women we think of ourselves, media and popular culture, the dubious concept of post-feminism which I think is, ironically enough, infiltrating popular discourse in Africa.
My PhD research looks at all of these themes. It looks at what seems an emerging trend in Nigeria for young, urban, middle class or ‘elite’ women to present themselves in ‘hyper-feminine’ and ‘hyper-stylised’ ways, like this…
These pictures comes from the popular Nigerian lifestyle website BellaNaija. I’ll be looking at this site in my research and also doing interviews to hear from women directly.
It sometimes feels a frivolous research topic, particularly when I read the mostly grim news coming out of Nigeria. When I describe my research to people, some wonder what its ‘benefit’ or ‘impact’ will be. I think they mean for ‘development’ or for the advancement of women’s rights in Africa. One family member (a man) dismissed my topic with the statement “there are superficial people everywhere!”
I definitely have my personal reservations about the styles, about the conspicuous consumption, particularly in the midst of poverty, about the racialised and classed politics of privileged African women wearing ‘real hair’ extensions taken (sometimes forcibly by middlemen) from the heads of poorer women in places like Brazil, India or Peru. But I think to equate women’s ‘dress-up’ with superficiality is to overlook how practices of femininity are socially and culturally prescribed. And also how under conditions of patriarchy these practices may be sold as expressions of women’s power and ‘fabulousness.’
I was reminded of this some weeks ago at a dinner for a young Nigerian woman. I was one of few women there under 35 not dressed in the styles my research looks at. At some point the conversation turned to gender issues. One professional woman who works with only male colleagues talked about the sexism she experiences at work and how she was treated differently (mostly better) when she began to wear more skirts. In response a young woman of about 18 made an impassioned statement that as women we just have to feel empowered in ourselves, we do not have to look or act like men to be powerful, we can be ‘girly’ and powerful, we do not have to be like feminists who have taken it too far and who hate femininity.
To me these are post-feminist ideas. In response to a problem like sexism that is political and structural, they give apolitical, individual, stylised, even commercialised solutions. No need for party-pooping feminism! If taken to their extreme these kinds of ideas tell individual women to just feel strong and good about ourselves whatever the obstacles. But this leaves the obstacles unquestioned. It becomes our job to get around them and our fault if we fail.
It is precisely such ideas and such senses of self that I want to explore in my research. If young, privileged Nigerian women think of themselves as post-feminist, and if these are the kinds of ideas being disseminated in popular media like BellaNaija or the new women’s magazines that have sprung up in Nigeria like Genevieve and TW (granted alongside other more conservative ideas about ‘women’s place’), what space for African feminism?