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In Women’s History Month, these African groups can offer lessons to feminists everywhere

What is gender equality, exactly — and who gets to define what it should look like?

A woman holds a banner protesting legislative bias against women on International Women's Day in Abuja, Nigeria, on March 8. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 was #BreakTheBias. As the official IWD organization wrote:

Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality.

That kind of rhetoric is important. Discussing diversity, equity and inclusion in the mainstream, it acknowledges that disparities exist and can be eliminated.

But simply talking about the importance of change does not itself change structures or systems that produce inequalities. Often, there’s a backlash when advocates try to reform organizations, employers and governments to reduce those inequalities.

Even professed advocates of eliminating bias can argue with one another about what to do. Two large questions trouble the discussion: First, how to define the desired change, and second, how to create it. After 10 years of researching Muslim women’s organizations in Nigeria and Ghana, I’ve identified some ways that advocates may wish to begin answering these questions.

What is gender equality, exactly?

Around the world, visions of what gender equality might look like vary dramatically — as dramatically as do women’s experiences in different political, cultural, economic and social contexts. While women from the global north are often able to shape global, regional and domestic discussions and policies about gender equality, that power itself comes from greater access to resources and often centers the experiences of one group of women to the exclusion of others.

African Muslim feminist scholars like Amina Mama, Ayesha Imam and others have written about how to cultivate broader and more representative global feminist theories and agendas by examining how women create local feminist agendas and activities. Their approaches make it possible to influence larger movements and political systems. Lacking that, global feminist movements may end up, for instance, viewing Islam as a constraint on gender equality rather than a resource women can interpret and use to promote equality, much as other foundational religious and political texts can be reinterpreted.

In Africa, local feminist movements often have to argue with conservative claims that feminism is a Western construction, a kind of cultural colonialism. Feminist Africa features gender studies work by academics and activists in the region, including a wide range of perspectives from African Muslim feminists — and can disrupt that narrative. These scholars refuse both Western liberal feminism’s and Islamic conservativism’s efforts to treat them as homogenous and passive. Instead, they offer arguments from feminist viewpoints drawn from a deep understanding of their own cultural contexts.

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How different kinds of groups can truly collaborate, without the more powerful dominating

Women heading international nongovernmental organizations tend to have more economic resources than women involved in local, nongovernmental and community-based organizations. My research examines umbrella organizations that include several groups, including large international and locally grounded organizations, and other research has helped organizations develop strategies for better understanding and acting on their various constituents’ needs.

For instance, I’ve worked with the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN), whose membership includes both kinds of organizations. Nigeria is a presidential federal republic like the United States, with similar relationships among different levels of government: federal, state, local. FOMWAN was established in 1985 and has chapters in all 36 Nigerian states. FOMWAN offers programming focused on basic needs, such increasing access to education through building schools, feeding programs for students and increasing retention and graduation rates. It also works on voter registration drives, vaccination campaigns and other programs and policies.

The umbrella group creates its agenda through consensus among all its members, so that women who are economically vulnerable have an equal say with those with more resources.

All these women’s groups function independently, outside the umbrella group. When working together, using consensus to decide which programs and activities the umbrella group should undertake requires members to discuss and negotiate with one another to agree on priorities rather than letting a majority rule. FOMWAN tries to prevent disagreements within its purview from hurting other areas where its member groups might collaborate. Of course, none of this works perfectly. But these strategies can be replicated and modeled.

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How to turn decisions into action

Of course, agreeing on the agenda is just one step. Next comes deciding how to put it into action. In northern Nigeria, many of the groups and women working on gender equality through civil society organizations at times partner with the local, state and federal government authorities, allowing the government to monitor how effectively the groups work to increase access to health-care facilities, clean water and sanitation and address other types of inequalities.

Not all organizations partner with the government to accept its oversight; some instead pressure the government through sensitization campaigns from the outside, lobbying for such things as maternal health care, fiscal accountability and transparency, and protections for vulnerable groups. Still other women run for the state and national legislatures. Of course, legislating requires winning agreement from others, limiting what elected officials can achieve — especially because those with more economic, political and social capital are better positioned to win and serve and may not support legislation that would redistribute their power. But having women represented and visible matters nevertheless because it normalizes seeing women as key decision-makers.

Working both within and outside of institutions can help change them. For instance, FOMWAN collaborated with other women’s organizations and legislators to work on passing a free maternal and child health-care bill in Kano, a state in northern Nigeria. The umbrella organization helped to frame key provisions and identify the logistical barriers that prevent economically vulnerable women from accessing care. Other groups set up meetings where female leaders from underserved communities met with local Health Ministry officials to communicate obstacles women encountered accessing facilities.

What can be learned

The examples of African Muslim feminist scholars, activists and local organizations can be useful in showing others around the world how to define equality and put it into action — recognizing and addressing the diversity of women’s needs as they themselves define those needs.

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Adryan Wallace (@AdryanWallace1) is an assistant professor of Africana studies and affiliated with political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Stony Brook University.

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