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How not to write about African women and sex

By Gcobani Qambela

This weekend I read a New York Times (NYT) article that is guilty of all traditional, white, western feminist mishaps when it comes to writing about African women and their sexuality. The article titled “Talking About Sex in Mali” is bereft of any holistic overview of the lives African women and is heavily laden with ethnocentrism and white, western, cultural, supremacist ideals.

Writing for the NYT, Erin Luhmann the winner of Nicholas D Kristof’s “win-a-trip” writes (and reflects) on her “girl talk” in southern Mali with “a group of women about sex, love and female empowerment”. The women in question form a joint household as they are in a polygamous marriage with a husband who works in France. She tells us they were thus “inclined to be a bit more candid about their lady parts” since he was not there.

Despite this promised candidness, for much of this story the voices of these women largely remain muted by Luhmann. She begins with Niama the 32-year-old first wife who was “forced” by her father to marry her husband at 14 years. She has given birth to eight children and the surviving seven of these children are said to be “scattered among the group of curious onlookers” at the time of the conversation. She questions Niama if she had any fears about giving birth as she got pregnant at such an early age but notes that her question was dismissed because Niama chose to reminisce about “a past love” rather. She says that Niama “seemed more disappointed over losing her youthful potential” than concerned with giving birth at an early age.

Niama who “farms, cooks, and cares for her children” tells Luhmann that she would prefer her girls to be married at 15 or 16 years so they can at least complete the ninth grade. This view according to Luhmann is misguided for Niama is “underestimating the full power of female education”. This is despite the fact that Niama herself did not at any point state that she had a problem with the responsibility of carrying children at such an early age. Luhmann says that she is wrong with this approach because “prioritising pregnancy over education, however, always struck me as a bit of a false sense of empowerment for young women”.

She proceeds to share the story of the second wife, Taningue, who lost her first child and is now struggling to conceive although she wants to have “six or seven children” on her side of the family. Luhmann calls Taningue’s inability to conceive children “a less sustainable form of birth control, I suppose”, she says.

In “The Invention Of Women: Making An African Sense Of Western Gender Discourses” Oyèrónké Oyéwùmí notes that feminism “despite its radical local stance, [often] exhibits the same ethnocentric and imperialistic characteristics of the Western discourses it sought to subvert. This has placed serious limitations on its applicability outside the culture that produced it”. What this therefore means according to Oyéwùmí is that feminism has still largely not escaped its primacy on western thought, thus often rendering silent other theories and narratives that do not fit the western mould.

Throughout Luhmann’s article it is clear that she encountered these women in Mali with already preconceived western ideas, ideals and that regardless of what they said to her – she would not change her mind about the supremacy of what she knew against what they told her. She states for instance that “I was actually expecting much more aggressive accounts of female genital cutting” when the women do not live up to her notions of angry, “oppressed” African women.

The mother-in-law of the women who states that she wants more grandchildren “even though she already had from three daughters and six daughters-in-law” is portrayed as a traditionalist woman obsessed with having more grandchildren. This is despite her expressed allegiance to granddaughters and “family solidarity”. Her thoughts are dismissed by Luhmann’s assumptions about African societies of which she tells us “I assumed she was most interested in grandsons, because boys are often considered a better investment of family resources” [my emphasis]. Upon reading this article I am left with more questions than answers and I have to wonder what would have been the point of going all the way from the United States to Mali to only leave with more harmful assumptions about African women especially when one has been given the opportunity to speak candidly to them. What is the point of an interview but to clear up assumptions?

Like Erin, personally I want to live in a world where women and children are not married off at 14. I want to live in a world where women have full choice over their sexuality and reproductive decisions. I want to live in a world where women and girls can go to school and stop at the highest level they desire. This is not something I dispute or challenge. Indeed studies that have been done in many parts of the world do indicate that when women have access to reproductive health services, they are able to not only space out their pregnancies, but to also focus on other areas of self-development – like pursuing education, work and entrepreneurship.

My problem with Luhmann’s article is that although it’s premised on highlighting the views of “a group of women about sex, love and female empowerment”, that it will be a candid conversation, all I see as I read the profile is the white gaze: a white, western voice shooting down each word that is uttered by African women. The agency of these women is completely erased by the voice of the author.

How do these women perceive love when they were put into forced marriages at such an early age? How do they conceptualise pleasure, intimacy, sex and love? How do these women negotiate their sexual agency – how do they understand sexual consent? Can they negotiate safe sex and contraception with the husband? If they were forcefully married at such a young ages, why are they willing to perpetuate the same marriages on their daughters? Where are their sites of pleasure? How do they want to be empowered? Do they want to be empowered? Do they want to go back to school? What kind of programmes would best suit them?

These are some of the questions I would have liked the author to engage more fully. However, Luhmann ends up playing into white, supremacist ideas about over-breeding African women who need to be educated and put on contraception, without engaging the agency and deeper nuances in the lives of these women. And this is disappointing for a global publication like the New York Times.

Gcobani Qambela is an Anglo-Gold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.

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  • 9 Responses to “How not to write about African women and sex”

    1. Cheds #

      So have you taken up your umbrage with the author?

      July 9, 2013 at 2:37 pm
    2. Gcobani Qambela

      @Cheds #

      This is more than just an annoyance with one particular author. Did you not read anything that I said in this article? Don’t you understand that this is a larger problem of the white gaze and the erasure of black womens agency? While this is a response to one particular article, I do state that it’s a larger problem especially common with white, western feminists – hence I addressed it to a wider readership than one person. I did however share the link with her, to answer your question. Thank you for reading!

      July 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm
    3. Momma Cyndi #

      I do agree that your questions would have been far more interesting. I also agree that American feminists can be aggressively anoying. I don’t, however, agree that this is a problem with ‘western’ culture. Until the advent of the birth control pill and the rise of the suffragettes, most ‘western’ women were in the same boat. To this day, most ‘western’ men would prefer the culture to return to their 40 year old selves marrying 14 year olds.

      July 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm
    4. Robard #

      To be fair, even the questions you want answered are western ones. Consent, marriage for love, empowerment, contraception, feminism – all concepts originating from the west.

      July 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm
    5. michael #

      Pity it was not a black women who did the study and article because the problem is two cultures and world views that are diametrically opposed.

      July 10, 2013 at 7:18 am
    6. RJ Dupuis #

      Very insightful and enlightening piece. I cannot thank you enough for it. I will share it with my students (in a course on gender at an American university). I am also ordering Oyewumi’s “The Invention of Women,” which you mentioned.

      July 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm
    7. bernpm #

      The matter of gender equality or gender inequality is not a matter of black or white. It is really a matter of culture and cultural and/or religious practices (Muslim and similar practices) . Some of which have been in use over centuries.

      “……….all I see as I read the profile is the white gaze: a white, western voice shooting down each word that is uttered by African women. ………! I have not read the article (a proper reference was missing)

      Your article left me confused :

      (1) whether you criticized the writer of the article
      (2)or the content of the article.

      (3) Or whether you criticize your perception of the always “arrogant (male) whites” vs the eternally pictured “poor and victimized female Africans”. The latter being an implicit insult to the many well educated female Africans.

      All I am left with is that the intervieweris the problem!!!

      July 10, 2013 at 6:10 pm
    8. Siphokazi Magadla
      Siphokazi #

      Excellent response Gcobani! The Luhmann case reminds me of a statement Ifi Amadiume makes in “Male daughters and female husbands”, she states that “this is the kind of arrogant, if not absurd attitude we encounter repeatedly. It makes one think: Better the distant armchair anthropologists than these ‘sisters’ ”

      I particularly like the questions you offer, especially the question, “Where are their sites of pleasure?”. Can we just get on with it and start writing about some happy blackwomen, they exist!

      July 10, 2013 at 8:20 pm
    9. Sophia #

      I do find the things pointed out here very insightful. But I do wonder how those questions can be asked. Are people always aware of agency? For some people, it just doesn’t even occur that they could do something differently, or request certain things. Don’t we all have that problem? (some grow up a certain way where one thing is considered THE WAY and you just follow that and think that is life.) Anyway, even if someone would ask using western concepts, “choice””agency””desire””pleasure”, it is possible to leave people completely puzzled. It’s like when some adult asked me when I was a kid “Do you like school?” and I would think “Oh I actually have the option to think about whether I like school or not?” and many adults actually see things the same way-some questions don’t even occur. I heard many parents say they were dumbfounded when children ask “Why do I have to study?” and without knowing whether the child is wondering about the practical use of learning, or a philosophical one or something and just say “Society/the world requires it.” and then the child would leave feeling puzzled because society and the world just seem like a huge blob not related to him. Even if you ask about forced marriages some might not even have conceived the marriage to be forced because it just seems like the only way to get married. It’s a question that can only come from a mind that grew up “knowing” that marriage is a matter of personal choice.

      July 10, 2013 at 9:21 pm

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