Some thoughts of a white girl involved in the West African feminist movement

Walking down the street the other day, I heard a call of ‘hey madam white, how are you?’ I turned around, surprised. I was used to the familiar call of ‘obruni’ (foreigner) or ‘white lady’, but ‘madam white’ was a new one. Working as the only white girl in a pan-African feminist organisation in Ghana, my presence as an ‘obruni’ is always visible although obviously not called out as it is on the streets of Accra. My ‘whiteness’ can therefore often feel irrelevant to the feminist task at hand of challenging the marginalization of women and girls in the region.  However the criticisms that recently emerged over how Western feminists responded to a particularly brutal gang rape in India have led me to reflect on my own role within a feminist movement in the Global South.

In December, Aruna Shanbaug a 23-year-old Indian woman was gang raped by a group of men and boys with such severity that she died of internal injuries. The rape drew widespread criticism from women and men within Indian. Shocked by the severity of the attack, and tired of the regularity at which similar incidents occur, the attack became a rallying point for change to the systems that allow women to be treated with such brutality. In this instance, the calls for change that have long been called for by feminists within these countries, have been amplified by the number of other people now standing behind them.

The attack was far from both my lives in Ghana and New Zealand, and the lives of many Western feminists. However despite the unified goal of feminists to end violence committed against women, Dr. Swati Parachar noticed a certain silence about the attack on the part of Western feminists who seemed “silent or less outraged today because the rapists are not ‘white’ men or soldiers oppressing the poor female of colour”.

As the feminist movement gained traction in the 1960s, there was a tendency for Western feminists to speak for women in the Global South – to simplistically frame the violence and oppression they faced as a product of backward cultures. In speaking out, many Western feminists ignored the privileged positions from which they spoke and showed a lack of understanding about the complex social, economic, political and cultural factors that created and maintained the oppression of women. In the process of trying to ‘liberate’ these women, they marginalised their voices and reinforced crude cultural stereotypes about the Global South which allowed the continued imposition of simplistic ‘Western’ solutions.

According to some, the nuance of the original argument has been lost, and Western feminists have become reluctant to speak out against oppression occurring in the Global South for fear of misunderstanding the issues, and appearing to speak for, and silence women. What started as a caution for Western feminists to “listen, think and critically reflect before making arrogant judgments on the situation of ‘othered’ women”[1] has turned into silence and a new fear that attempts to foster solidarity may have diminished. In comments on Swati’s piece, a number of Western feminists explained their positions, stating that their concern with speaking out about a situation they have little understanding of prompted their silence, and without knowing the best way to support women on the ground leading these efforts, a certain kind of paralysis occurs. This silence of Western feminists has once again brought up the question of what role they should play in challenging violence against women in the Global South.

Since starting work in Ghana, these debates about cross-cultural feminist solidarity have become central to my life and work. Everyday I see, hear or read about issues that women face within West Africa. There are the young girls in Liberia who must suffer through sexual abuse from those they trust in order to receive schooling; there are the women in Sierra Leone who try to run for office but receive physical threats should they stay in the race; and there is the everyday discrimination of women in workplaces throughout Ghana where many men seem to think it’s their role to ‘pamper’ women by telling them they’re beautiful rather than treating them with the same professional respect their male colleagues receive.

Through my work I could be perceived as acting in solidarity with these women. I spent the first few months trying to figure out what exactly genuine solidarity was and trying to enact it. There’s this character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, who is one of the few white people in an ‘African’ novel who isn’t in some way arrogant, domineering or patronizing. He’s humble and quite lost, a writer who wants to understand Nigeria but realises that he’s not the one to write about it. It seemed like a reasonable model to adopt, so like him, I tried to be one of the ‘good’ white people, thinking that so long as I avoided being appearing arrogant in office meetings it would somehow right centuries of colonial wrongs.

However in this region where each county’s history of colonialism and exploitation has been unique, and where each society is divided by a distinctive combination of gender, ethnic, class and generational divides, knowing the best way to navigate the terrain can be challenging. This is the fear of course, that not being fully aware of the context and of the cultural cleavages, you can bowl on in and irritate old hurts and create new divides. While it is true that people make mistakes in any occupation and situation, in this circumstance the fear of contributing – in whatever small way – to historical mistakes so grand in scale can be intimidating.

Working within these new environments can create the type of personal tensions described by Salman Rushdie where “the act of migration puts into crisis everything about the migrating individual or group, everything about identity and selfhood and culture and belief”. You find yourself in stressful situations where old insecurities can come into play and you worry that you are inadvertently becoming the bad stereotype of the Western ‘development’ worker: unreflective, unaware and arrogant. In these situations where your sense of self has been disrupted, being confronted with the prospect of conforming to a stereotype you don’t like can be unnerving.

A lot of it comes down to a fear of the unknown. I realised recently that despite thinking about these issues frequently, I had never actually asked any of the women I work with what they thought about my being here. In speaking to a colleague about it, her experiences reinforce the necessity of these debates as she had seen feminist organisations that were accused of speaking for women from the Global South while working in the U.S.

But she also pointed out the uniqueness of my situation by highlighting that I am working for an African-led feminist organisation and there are, I think, some lessons to be learnt about solidarity from this. Before I applied for the job I hesitated, knowing that the organization’s mandate is to increase the number of West Africa women in peace and security work. There seemed to be little likelihood that I would receive the job, and if I did should I even be taking it or was I taking a job from someone in West Africa who deserved it more? I did get the job and I took it while also realizing that there had been a certain arrogance in my hesitation. I was hired by women who have been at the forefront of the women’s and peace-building movements in the region. They clearly know what is best for their organization, and who is suited to achieving its aims. The only reason I am able to do the kind of work I am now doing is because I have been vetted by these women and was invited to practice a form of solidarity on their terms.

This kind of solidarity is difficult to create when the inequalities are built into the system. Often these inequalities can be difficult to pinpoint but one way they can be measured is monetarily. Most international NGOs and multinational organizations have salary structures where international staff are paid at a higher rate than local staff so that if I was working for one of these organizations doing similar work to what I’m doing now, I would likely be paid more than local staff. There are reasons for the need for different international salaries, some very valid, and some less so. But it still begs the question of how you can have genuine solidarity when from the outset those from outside the country are being valued more monetarily than those who likely have a deeper appreciation of what is happening in the country.

Speaking to a friend about these issues a while ago he commented that whenever barriers are in place that stop people being able to communicate with others, change is unlikely to happen. These barriers can be those systemic inequalities that cause some people’s voices to be valued more highly than others. They can also be those barriers that have emerged which render smart, reflective, compassionate feminists silent for fear of reproducing inequalities. In some ways, a space has been created within my organisation in which people can talk across boundaries. Most of us have crossed various borders to get to where we are: Ghanaians who have moved from smaller towns to the city, Sierra Leoneans and Ghanaians who have spent long periods abroad and have recently moved back home and me coming from the other side of the world. When we can talk honestly about these boundaries we can learn about, and from, each other and figure out ways to move forward. Because of this, I have had the luxury of encountering powerful African women and girls on a daily basis, and, as time goes on, the idea that anyone could even attempt to speak for women who are so outspoken becomes increasingly bizarre. However, due to the inequalities in the system this continues to happen.

Strangely, one of my most intense experiences in West Africa came in a taxi somewhere between Togo and Benin, as I read Teju Cole’s story of a Nigerian man in New York. Confronted with a version of himself he was not able to reconcile with, he said this:

“Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains in our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic … And so, what does it mean when, in someone else’s version, I am the villain?”

Isolated culturally and linguistically, and unable to be the type of ‘development’ worker I had originally envisioned myself to be, I curled up in the corner of the car and closed the book.

We strive for these perfect ways of being and are constantly put up against the limits of our understandings, the limits of our empathy. And maybe that is why some feminists have become silent about these issues, because the constant implication of yourself within this injustice can become exhausting. You write yourself into a caricature that begins to define you and slowly you start to lose yourself and what you believe you stand for. Maybe in these moments the most you can do is be gentle to yourself; to acknowledge that you will make mistakes and try to learn and change. I’m not sure what this means as solidarity is stretched across countries and continents and feminists throughout the world must decide how to respond meaningfully to rape in India. But when I think about the future, I think about the feminist friendships cemented in my office in Accra, and how they will stretch across countries and continents whenever any of us decide to leave.

After all, the feminist movement is an exciting place to be. Despite being confronted with a host of injustices committed daily against women, you get to see the strength and resilience of women fighting against it; women who may have grown up being told they will never amount to anything more than a set of ovaries and a pretty face but who refuse to take this and push forward. So for the moment I will stay here trying to push forward too, guided by my own sense of self and beliefs, in whatever form of solidarity I am invited to do.


[1] As one commenter on Swati’s piece put it.