Nkiru Nzwengu on Feminism and Africa;
The Effects and Limitations of Western Metaphysics of Gender by Zolani Nkomo
In what way can what Nkiru Nzegwu calls the Western metaphysics of gender be said to have distortional and even oppressive effects when applied uncritically to the situation of women in non-Western contexts? What critical lessons can one draw from her arguments with regard to identity politics in general and its feminist variety in particular?
In understanding what Nkiru Nzwengu calls the “Western Metaphysics of Gender”, we must take into consideration her use of Susan Moller Okin’s definition of Gender as “the deeply entrenched institutionalization of sexual difference” in the Western tradition and Western epistemology where men and women are “assigned converse attributes”. Nzwengu begins by examining “ways in which the metaphysical implications of the concept of gender affect theoretical analyses and erode the cultural specificity and the historicity of societies” (Nzwengu 2004, 560), specifically the Igbo society. She writes that her intention with the study is “not necessarily to invalidate the concept of gender per se, but rather to highlight the intrusive nature of the Western metaphysics of gender on theoretical formulations in and about other cultures.” (Nzwengu 2004, 561). She bases her argument on what she calls the “false universalization of the Western concept of woman”.
Nkiru Nzwengu argues that “false homogenization obscures contextual specificities and social complexities of a vast array of non-Western traditions.” (Nzwengu 2004, 561). It is in reading how she supports this claim that I will examine how “Western metaphysics of gender” can be said to have distortional and even oppressive effects when applied uncritically to the situation of women in non-Western contexts.
From her arguments, I will draw critical lessons with regards to identity politics in general its feminist variety in particular.
Western Metaphysics of Gender
As renowned Western Gender theorist Judith Butler (1990) writes in the preface of her book, Gender Trouble; “precisely because ‘female’ no longer appears a stable notion, its meaning is as troubled and unfixed as ‘woman,’ and because both terms gain their troubled significations only as relational terms, this inquiry takes as its focus gender and the relational analysis it suggests.” This shows that even in the Western understanding of gender, there exists a problem with the hetero-normative definitions which have been so prevalent in studies of gender. Gender is no longer to be considered a concept which conforms to western definitions but rather a concept which has to adapt to the context in which it is applied. To simplify Nzwengu’s argument; conceptions of Gender there are not necessarily tools to understanding gender here and these conceptions can be quite problematic if applied universally instead of contextually with considerations of the societies where Gender relations are in question.
Following Nzwengu’s argument, we then learn traditional Western Metaphysical conception of Gender as an attempt to explain the fundamental nature of being a woman in an African context is inadequate. Furthermore, an analysis of Gender using the Western Metaphysical definition could ultimately have negative effects and result in a “distortional” and “oppressive” account “when applied uncritically to the situation of women in non-Western context” (Nzwengu 2004, 562).
Africanist Theory of Women
There are many challenges in the writing and analysis of African literature that focus on or is written by women and as a result there has been lack of a theoretical focus which many scholars can come to agree upon. “So much of the writing and analysis of this literature has been influenced by the [Western] Feminist paradigm, and which largely operates within the walls of Western thinking”. This reiterates the need for an African-centered theoretical framework in scholarship to lead us to a theory that is focused on the African woman specifically in the study of Gender. Furthermore this will assist in informing the writing and understanding of African women in literature. An Africanist woman theory should respond to “the inadequacies of both [Western] Feminism and [concepts of] Black / (African) Feminism” and this notion is simultaneously accompanied by the notion which reverberates the need for accuracy in naming, identifying and giving definition to the women of African descent. The significance of this theory can be located in its demonstration of the categories of women as differentiated and not as a singular monolithic bloc to which the same framework of analysis can be ascribed. This theory is heavily weighted and dependent on its Afrocentric approach using the writing and analysis of woman’s literature to broaden the scope and application of gendered theory. “This paper demonstrates that [African] women writers seek to rewrite official historiography and contest the exclusion and misrepresentation of women experience, but they largely do so within the context of the feminist theoretical focus.” (Mangena 2013, 7).
African Womanist theory shows us that “women are not a monolithic bloc; they are divided by race, class, culture and by life experiences.” (Muchemwa 2010, 138). Many African concepts of Woman have differentiated categories of Women therefore a “homogenization” of the experience of women in a broad context applied to women in Africa results in a “common language of oppression.” (Lyons 2004, 3).
Nzwengu then points out contextual differences in Western and Igbo societies and culture. This is done to purposely “isolate African women from the general category that includes non-African women” (Mangena 2013, 8) by means of differentiation and to expose the distortional effects that arise from using an inadequate framework, especially one which has been incorrectly applied because of the assumptions that the framework of Western Metaphysics can be all encompassing in all analysis of gender across cultural differentiation.
“One perspective lays blame on Western Feminist theorists for silencing the African woman in the very speech intended to liberate her from oppression.” (Lyons 2004, 3). “The Africana Womanist enters the postcolonial discourse by weakening the orientalist discourse of Western Feminism and exposes its inadequacies by attempting to include what it has tended to leave out.” (Mangena 2013, 8).
English Gender theorist Bell Hooks in her book Feminism is For Everyone, writes; “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. It is my hope that it will become a common definition [of feminism] that everyone will use.” (Hooks 2000, 1). This is an example of yet another presumptuous imposition by Western Gender theorists who function under the pretext of creating a framework that can be applied without consideration of contextual differences.
Nzwengu highlights the problematic nature of “Woman as a category of female identities in all cultures and in all contexts”. She “shifts to [indigenous] cultural logic in Igbo society which leads us to the word “nwanyi,” which means offspring who are female. Nwanyi is a category that distinguishes a female human being from “nwoke” (a male human being). Its primary and dominant function is to mark the biological sex of a child. Unlike the Western category “woman,” nwanyi marks physiological differentiation without ranking or defining females in relation to males. In the translation of Igbo concepts to English, nwanyi has been treated as synonymous with ‘‘woman,’’ even though they do not share the same attributes or conceptual scope. For instance, nwanyi does not exclusively refer to an adult female person; it refers to both children and adults. It does not imply that females are psychologically passive beings who are or ought to be submissive and subordinate to men.” (Nzwengu 2004, 562).
[Western] “feminists have claimed that considerations of gender and gender-related inequalities play a role in the most basic dynamics of social life – in the structure of families, defining identities and opportunities for self-fulfilment, in creating roles and expectations regarding intimate relations, and the like – so that attention to such inequalities is central to the examination of social life and political institutions.” (Christman 2002, 163). If applied to the African context, this theory already lacks in interpretation and understanding of the social practices and the roles assumed by women in non-western contexts.
Christman acknowledges that just because certain theorists had sexist and racist views should not make the theories of Gender sexist…racist [and exclusionist]. “For such theories are simply silent about the particularities of identity which define the agents to which they apply… these theories imply the exclusion of certain groups if the experience and interests of the members of those groups are not captured adequately by the assumptions behind the theories’ principles” (Christman 2002, 154). These principles are often abused to intentionally oppress the groups which they exclude, giving a distorted account of social reality of females in non-western society.
The one-size-fits application of a Westernized approach to Gender metaphysics cannot be universal; and with more specific consideration to an African context, it becomes inaccurate and invalid. “This is because [in an African context] gender identity is a flexible, fluid state of being, and it is tied to social roles and functions that demand deliberative rationality from females. Given their multiple social roles, Igbo females do not have one gender identity.” (Nzwengu 2004, 563).
The application of Western ideas of women in Africa would distort the social reality and ultimately have oppressive effects. African and Western theories of Gender and social organisation are different and separate. Females in Africa have shifting gender identities of where most of them do not imply that women are subordinates of men. If any consideration of gender is to be made with pre-existing theoretical frameworks, it should be with regards to their contexts.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: … and Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, Champan & Hall Inc., 1990.
Christman, John. Social and Political Philosophy; A Contemporary Introduction . London: Routledge, 2002.
Hooks, Bell. FEMINISM IS FOR EVERYBODY. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000.
Lyons, T. Guns and Guerillas Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle. Asmara: Africa World Press, 2004.
Mangena, Tendai. “THEORISING WOMEN EXISTENCE: REFLECTIONS ON THE RELEVANCE OF THE AFRICANA WOMANIST THEORY IN THE WRITING AND ANALYSIS OF LITERATURE BY AND ABOUT ZIMBABWEAN WOMEN.” Researchers World -Journal of Arts, Science & Commerce (Researchers World) IV, no. 1(1) (January 2013): 7-13.
Muchemwa, K. “Old and New Fictions: Rearranging the Geographies of Urban Space and Identities in Post – 2006 Zimbabwean Fiction.” English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies (Weaver Press) 27, no. 2 (2010): 134 – 145.
Nzwengu, Nkiru. “Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender.” In Blackwell Companion To African Philosophy, by Kwasi Wiredu, edited by Kwasi Wiredu, 567. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishers, 2004.