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Abuja, March 8, 2022: A woman marches to protest against legislative bias against women on International Women's Day.

Abuja, March 8, 2022: A woman marches to protest against legislative bias against women on International Women's Day.

Interview with Minna Salami: “Always consult African Feminists, academics, grassroots movements. There are many across the continent.”

Blog Joint Futures 32, 06.12.2023

Africa and Europe are facing the same global crises and megatrends. This opens up space for an international feminist debate. But “we do not have to have the same feminist politics,” argues Minna Salami (The New Institute). For a start, European politicians need to overcome persistent Eurocentric views.


Megatrends Afrika (MTA): You have written and researched extensively on Black Feminism. What trends do you see in the current feminist discourse? How are the conversations in Europe and on the African continent similar or different?

Minna Salami (MS): From my vantage point, feminism is not really a movement that has trends. It is a social movement that responds to the zeitgeist. What may seem like a trend is a response to socio-political developments and all of the conversations that are going on in society at large.

What we see today is that feminists around the globe are debating the same crises: Feminists are talking a lot about climate change, as we always have. The environment has always been a big issue for women’s movements, as well as authoritarianism and the erosion of democracy, because they go hand in hand with patriarchy. There is no authoritarian regime that is not patriarchal and, in a sense, all patriarchal systems are authoritarian towards women. War and conflict affect women particularly in dire ways. And then, of course, there are still the perennial issues that we never seem to be able to escape: the asymmetrical distribution of power, sexual objectification, the disempowerment of girls in relation to boys.

This polycrisis affects women differently across the world. If you look at the wars in Africa – in Sudan, for example – the flags are not raised as urgently as in other wars. African women accordingly are treated differently in these situations. There should never be any kind of hierarchy when it comes to war, but that is one of the challenges that African Feminists are facing.

It is similar with climate change: Africa contributes only 2 to 3 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, and yet it is the continent that faces the most severe consequences. African women bear the brunt of that weight. They do the majority of agricultural work on the continent. That already gives you an idea of the gendered impact of environmental degradation.

MTA: Does this open up space for cross-regional feminist discussions on a more level playing field? Is it an opportunity to find a common language?

MS: I certainly think it requires that kind of thinking. This is a time when we need feminism, and we need international feminism to intervene. It does not mean that we have to be some kind of united front. We do not! This discussion is why the movement is at a standstill. Feminists have made monumental achievements. But we could achieve even more if we did not feel this kind of obligation to have the exact same politics. I think that is really part of a backlash narrative against feminism; it is the first thing we always hear: “Oh, you cannot even get along.” And the fact is, we do not have to. We do not need to have the same feminist politics on every issue. But we do need to be aware of – and critically engage with – each other’s work, I think.

MTA: At the same time, of course, there are always blind spots. What areas do not receive the attention they deserve, especially in the European political debate?

MS:The big thing is Eurocentrism: It always has been, and it still is. And it is difficult to overcome. I am proudly European as well as African, and I cannot understand why it is so difficult for Europeans, and also European feminists, to get rid of Eurocentricity. We know how toxic it is.

For decades, non-Western feminism has shown that we cannot end patriarchy anywhere as long as we are reinforcing it with Eurocentric feminist work at the same time. I think we need to start being more matter-of-fact about Eurocentricism. It is not about blame. It is not about guilt. All these emotions exist within the movement. But I think we need to move away from it because it is the tool that patriarchal systems use to manipulate feminist work.

More specifically, I have noticed, for example, that when I am introduced as a Black Feminist, Europeans – and even European feminists – find it difficult to understand that Black Feminism is a school of thought. People limit this to my identity, down to certain individuals or to humanitarian development projects. And this blind spot is really troubling. Black Feminism is a school of thought in the same way that Psychoanalytic Feminism or Post-structural Feminism are, and that is the way that we need to engage with it.

MTA: Eurocentrism also comes up increasingly in the debates around decolonising Africa policies and integrating intersectional approaches.

MS: Yes, it is fantastic that we have politicians in the West talking about decolonisation and intersectionality. Five years ago, let alone decades ago, that would have been unheard of. So, I want to acknowledge that this is an important first step. Yet, it needs to be said that it is damaging when influential people talk about intersectionality but do not put it into practice, and do not even try to.

One thing that I see happening with intersectionality is people saying that they are doing intersectional feminism or intersectional politics or whatever, and then they just go on and talk only about gender, for example. I see this a lot in the West. They bring in all the feminist arguments but do not talk about race. Conversely, in Africa, there are a lot of people touting intersectionality, but then they talk only about race. Yet, the very premise of intersectionality is, of course, the intersection of race and gender and other forms of identity and oppression.

The same with decolonisation. Today, all kinds of institutions and organisations are decolonising all kinds of things. Decolonise your computer or your museum, your body, your nail polish. Great! But again, they are not necessarily putting the question of Eurocentrism on the agenda. And if you do not do that, then it is not a decolonial approach. Such a reductive approach to decolonisation, which describes a centuries-long movement for emancipation and a rigorous field of knowledge, makes the concept even more decontextualised.

Decolonisation in the 21st century is still a political project, but it is also a mental and a psychosocial project. Overcoming Eurocentrism is the decolonisation of our time. So, raise this issue whenever a project claims to be about decolonisation.

MTA: As you said, we have a much more prominent discussion about feminism these days. At the same time, the anti-feminist movement is growing here and on the African continent. How can we counter these narratives?

MS: It is a complex question. I think it is really important to see all of feminism as this huge compendium of knowledge about how to break free from patriarchy. And if that is the case, then we have a lot of language to counter anti-feminism. Feminism is the language itself.

I would say it is very much about critical argument, analysis and imagination. Those three qualities are present in all the great feminist works and achievements. Analysis, so that we understand the predicament of what we are trying to oppose, and then a formulation of critical arguments against it, but at the same time an overarching vision, a kind of creative imagining of a better future.

How can we make an argument that is both critical and creative? You could go for the most radical critical argument, or sometimes the most radical approach is to be strategic and pragmatic. Right? But you must still make the critical argument, you still do the analysis and you still do the creative, imaginative work. And that is how we are going to counter all forms of authoritarianism, anti-gender, anti-feminism.

It does not always appeal to people because it is long-term work. It takes a certain amount of stepping back, observing and then proposing something new. But that has always been a key component of feminism. And it is necessary for fighting against these negative forces in society today.

MTA: We already touched upon the notion of the polycrisis earlier. Could you give us some insights into your research on it?

MS: People use various terms for it: Nested crises, perma-crisis, multi-crisis. But there is certainly something about the zeitgeist today that is unique because of the vast number of crises, of huge catastrophes, happening at the same time and exacerbating each other.

What the polycrisis essentially means is that there is an enormous and unprecedented amount of suffering in the world. To me, the polycrisis is a painful, ugly situation that we should never have found ourselves in. It implies suffering, death, all of the worst things that humanity has done to itself and to its ecosystems.

Now, when you hear people talking about the polycrisis, I do not hear that sentiment. I am hearing urgent diagnostics. I see a lot of data. I do not hear the horror, the dystopia that this term – if it is going to be used that way – is telling us. And honestly, it drives me mad. It makes me desperate.

Also, I think we are not talking enough about peace, not just peace from war and conflict, but just this notion of peace-building that, at its core, also implies making space for silence and ease. Remember that the pursuit of peace is the seed that bolstered the early Feminist movement with women’s peace congresses and issues alike in the early 19th and 20th centuries. That seed can and should never be completely eradicated. It is there. But we are neglecting it.

So, how do we create peace in a world that is in polycrisis? Black Feminism offers a lot of different ideas, but I think the most famous is intersectionality. The theory offers useful ways of countering the polycrisis. The original theory centred on Black women being crushed by different systems – patriarchy, sexism, racism. With the polycrisis, you could say it is like if you replace the Black woman in the centre of this traffic jam with the planet. It is being crushed by these systems of consumerism, capitalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, global warming and biodiversity loss.

The moment you look at the polycrisis from the Black Feminist lens, you cannot help but see that we are talking about suffering, we are talking about oppression and recklessness. We are talking about pain, exclusion, lack of care. You can see that this is not just about economic crises or political crises. It is also about a crisis of affect, a crisis of relationship.

MTA: From a feminist perspective, should we be focussing less on data and the technocratic side of issues and more on their impact at the individual and societal levels?

MS: Feminism always brings complexity. And that is not what we see in patriarchal crisis strategy. It is almost laughably immature because it is so banal. It is so devoid of complexity. It treats the world in a dualistic way, that is binary, very black or white – as if that has ever worked in history. Feminism is the voice that says: “Hey, these are complex questions. You cannot deal with A if A and B are connected and you ignore B, and C, D, E and F, for that matter.”

An example? A simple one might be the way that we usually see a spike in domestic violence when men are unable to find work, and that much of this job loss is caused by extractive systems that put many men out of work while also destroying the planet, which further exacerbates violence. So, that is always the kind of complexity that we need to bring to these issues.

MTA: How can we better integrate feminist perspectives into policy processes and the decision-making processes around them? We have seen a lot of stakeholder consultations and other instruments, for example. What would be your ideas on how to integrate feminist voices from academia, grassroots movements and civil society in this space?

MS: It is important to create spaces for feminist voices. When it comes to Africa, there is a curious thing going on. The gender and development sector is huge on the continent and does important work. But at the same time, it is not the same as “African Feminism”. In fact, it is in some ways a kind of backlash against the African Feminist movement.

What I mean is that it can be convenient for policy-makers to focus on that sector because they can avoid working with feminists while claiming to be feminist. But if you want to implement a Feminist Foreign Policy that claims to be truly feminist or intersectional, then work with the local feminists. Do not just go and work with some (international) NGO that might actually be pretty stridently anti-feminist but is helping women in some way in a certain project. Always consult African Feminists, academics, locally led organisations, intellectuals and grassroots movements. There are many across the African continent.

MTA: Just to clarify, in the area of gender and development: Do you think there are some initiatives that everybody can get behind while other important initiatives are still being neglected? For example, it is easier to support primary education for girls than the big issue of sexual and reproductive health.

MS: I mean all of that, actually. Pretty much everything you just mentioned is part of focussing on gender over feminism. This language has taken over the African continent, and it is strongly influenced by European and Western politics. In some ways, this is a backlash against the Feminist movement. And I know this is a very controversial statement. I do not know if all African Feminists would even agree with me. And I would be cold-blooded if I said that organisations that are working on issues like girls’ education or maternal health care are not doing good work. But they are often also importing Eurocentrism into Africa. Instead of pushing feminist ideas, they are often also importing and validating a prevalent patriarchal mindset.

African Feminists are then left to rebuild years of work. All I am saying is that if you are claiming to do feminist work in Africa, then you have to talk to African Feminists. It is really very obvious.

MTA: What does this mean in practice? Because I suspect the response to this criticism would be: “Oh, we are already doing that. Obviously, we are already in touch with African Feminists.”

MS: First of all, do they call themselves feminists? And even then, secondly, have you had a dialogue with them about feminism? Is there a tradition of feminism in that organisation? If you claim that you are working on a feminist project, then you should not be in a position where you have to question these things. And if you do not take these steps, then that is Eurocentric. If we were working on a feminist project in Europe, policy-makers would not just contact any humanitarian actor, they would approach a Feminist organisation. It is not enough to assume that doing charitable work equals a feminist approach. That is not necessarily the case. So why assume that it is the case in Africa?

But the problem is also that decision-makers have to first question the patriarchal structure of their own organisations. That is my third recommendation. If you do not interrogate the problem of sexism and patriarchy and racism within your own institution, then do not work with African organisations on the issue of feminism because you are just going to make the situation worse. Again, that is Eurocentrism, and potentially it is a saviour mentality. You cannot go and “help” people with a problem that you are not fighting to overcome yourself.

Megatrends Afrika's Anna Hörter conducted this interview with feminist author, journalist and critic Minna Salami in October 2023. Ms Salami, also known as MsAfropolitan to her followers on social media, is currently Program Chair at The New Institute.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.