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African feminist uprisings: Getting our knickers in knots

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112 | Feminist Africa 18
African feminist uprisings:
Getting our knickers in knots
Sarita Ranchod
Imperialism’s image as the establisher of the good society is marked by
the espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind.
– Gayatri Spivak (1988: 299)
The power politics of daily life that find expression in practices of inclusion
and exclusion, participation and marginalisation (classed, gendered and raced,
among others) that define our lived realities often seamlessly transfer into
online spaces as our contemporaneous continuum. As feminists and largely
herstorically colonised peoples, we have learnt to be wary and to question
how and who documents our (her)stories (translating them into “truths”) and
from what perspectives; and the power politics inherent in how we (or others)
may write, record or claim attribution, authorship or ownership of (our) words,
actions and bodies.
The power dynamics of who authors and “owns” feminist knowledge
vis-à-vis those who give voice and content to what is known as feminist
knowledge; who speaks and who is spoken for in feminist research and
knowledge production processes, and how all of these factors so powerfully
came together in this organic African feminist encounter, entirely facilitated
by online spaces and tools – has made this standpoint contribution a difficult
one to write.
Late in 2012, a private company, Nectar Lingerie, based in Canada – acting
on the misguided notion (at best) that wearing underwear improves African
women’s social status and protects us from rape and disease – initiated their
“Undies for Africa” marketing campaign. Customers were encouraged to drop
off their used underwear at Nectar Lingerie in exchange for discounts on
new purchases. The used underwear would be shipped to “Africa,” allowing
the women who donated their used underwear and bought new underwear
Standpoint | 113
to make a contribution to improving the lives of African women, including
preventing rape and disease transmission through this consumptive act.
A counter-campaign emerged as a simultaneous outpouring of outrage as
soon as online African feminists and their allies became aware of the “Undies
for Africa” campaign. Enabled by the immediacy of internet access, social
networks and feminist mailing lists, feminists and their allies voiced their
strongly held objections to the campaign.
Nectar Lingerie was slated for trivialising (and attempting to profit from)
structural sexual violence, asserting colonial “civilising” and paternalistic
relations between the global North and South, evoking enduring representations
of “savage” African masculinity, and the continuous association of Africa and
African women with disease-ridden bodies, casting the citizens of the global
North as our knowing saviours – even in the underwear department.
Discussions about taking issue with the “Undies for Africa” campaign
organically shifted between individual conversations and across and between
online spaces, including via individual postings on “newer” technology – social
media sites – and the Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) in Africa mailing
list (used by academics, researchers and activists involved in feminist, women’s
and gender studies to share and exchange information and opportunities), an
“older” and robust email-based technology medium.
The catalytic power of the GWS mailing list with its broad, yet specific
reach, emerged as the fulcrum of counter-campaign voices and mobilisation
among African feminists and their allies. The campaign elicited a deep well
of responses, in many instances from heretofore silent voices on the GWS list,
that on this topic found it necessary to break their silences and make their
voices heard.
The multiplicity of voices, actions and responses generated by African,
diaspora and other feminists in solidarity, proved central to making (positive)
change happen – the withdrawal of the campaign following the direct
engagement of African women (and their allies) with the company and its
campaign – by asserting our rights and responsibilities to make our voices
heard on matters that affect us transnationally. Vocally asserting our rights to
define and speak for ourselves, using our collective and individual agencies
to reject negative stereotypes that define us in homogeneous portrayals and
re/presentations, and challenging shop-soiled, meaning-laden uses of our
bodies as feel-good marketing tool for (private) financial gain formed some
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of the content of our multiple acts of subversive silence-breaking through the
counter-campaign.
The simultaneity and multiplicity of responses that the online spaces
so speedily enabled, and the multiple non-linear actions of individuals and
groups of individuals across disparate locations and time zones highlighted
the messiness of definitively recording a chronology or timeline – and
by extension, authorship and ownership – of the multi-layered counter-
campaign’s efforts (and other similar forms of online activism).
The danger of creating a singular “timeline” of events was that it would
risk excluding so many of the prior, simultaneous and multiple voices and
actions that took place in several spaces, in the process of capturing (wittingly
or unwittingly) one particular version of a herstory, timeline or chronology.
This realisation was a powerful reminder of the subjectiveness inherent in
pronouncing a chronology or chain of events involving many people – and
in our era – events that involve simultaneous, technology-supported or
enhanced social mobilisation.
Reflecting on my responses to efforts to record this particular chain of
events, and trying to make sense of all of the elements of the campaign
and counter-campaign that contributed to so deeply unsettling me, I
recalled the experience of being taught history during my apartheid-era
schooling experience. I was reminded of the authoritative perspective from
which histories (including chains of events resulting in specific outcomes)
were portrayed; the “facts” and “truths” of our school curriculum, from the
perspective of the “victor” (oppressor) versus our diametrically opposed daily,
lived realities of being black under apartheid.
Subjected to apartheid’s versions of history and its limited engagement
with a broader world, through a curriculum whose ideology was rife with
crafty inclusions and visibilities and exclusions and invisibilities, supported by
state-controlled propaganda media, Bob Marley’s dictum that “half the story
has never been told” held currency. Similarly, Marley’s words apply to the
“Undies for Africa” campaign and the need for its counter-campaign.
The outcomes of the campaign – both in the deeply engaged feminist
responses and in that of Nectar Lingerie (withdrawing their campaign) – had
barely unfolded when it was evident that this transnational African feminist
“story” would be documented.
In navigating this reality I was concerned (and shared my concerns) about
attribution and authorship of the counter-campaign, the people involved,
Standpoint | 115
their words and their actions, and the erasures that (can) take place when a
collective and organic effort whose success lay in its multiplicity, is written up,
inevitably by one, or a few people.
My concerns were about the danger of singular versions of events and
what is or can be excluded in efforts to document, record, author and re/write
herstories, and the complexities of creating timelines and herstories that will
inevitably exclude parts; fragments, of a whole and complex story (even when
attempting to include).
The discussions on the GWS list prompted me to return to and deepen my
reflection on the politics of feminist research in relation to feminist activism;
the relationship/s between the researcher and the researched; who writes or
records what, for whom, from what perspective/s, and the potent inherent
power dynamics, not unique to online spaces. It got me thinking about
what “the most respectful or ideal feminist way” would be to record such an
uprising.
Discussions profiled the complex tensions between feminist activism and
feminist research; the politics of location and the spaces and places from
which we speak (as diaspora, “Northern” or “Southern” feminists); the power
dynamics inherent in being the researcher – no matter how sensitive and
committed to inclusion, participation and making herstorically silenced voices
heard – and uncomfortably for me, be(com)ing the researched.
Realising that in the instance of “Undies for Africa” I was part of the
“researched” (not a position I have much direct experience occupying) led to
a fair amount of discomfort and reflection on my feminist politics and ways of
being and becoming – reflections that are always in process, and necessarily,
incomplete.
It also surfaced structural and postcolonial discomforts and dilemmas
embedded in being a feminist of colour – located in the global South –
armed with ease in the most commonly used language of globalisation and
unfettered access to online media.
Accustomed to thinking about issues of inclusion and exclusion,
participation and marginalisation in my engagements with the worlds I find
myself in, I was keenly aware throughout that the voices of the recipients of
the used underwear, and women who lacked easy access to connectivity were
not part of our engagement. I was also very much aware that the spaces in
which we engaged, certainly the GWS list, by virtue of its purpose, included
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women like me – (largely) women of colour who had either transcended class
boundaries through our education and skills, or had entered the world with
the accoutrements and privileges of being born middle-class.
Given all of the complexities and the power issues inherent in this process,
how does one document a feminist uprising such as this one? How does one
“do it right” and respectfully?
Feminist standpoint approaches, in being able to capture and validate
personal experience, position and responses to an event or situation, and
acknowledging that it is indeed subjective – one standpoint among many
– from which to understand and analyse a situation, provide a way to
understand one contribution, or perspective, towards a greater whole. We
can therefore claim to have participated, but the activism (and its outcomes)
cannot be claimed by any one person or group. This is the strength and
beauty of the parts contributing to a whole, revealing collective ownership in
and through individual stories. It also reminds me of the moral responsibility
we have, as feminists, to create and sustain spaces for making herstorically
marginal voices heard.
This approach enables a grappling with the power differentials embedded
in each of our positions – influenced by class, location, sexuality, age, colour,
education, caste, ethnicity and more – and what they mean and imply for
how we practice feminism.
Grappling and navigating daily with the politics of power, knowledge and
ownership and how this triumvirate complexly functions in all aspects of our
lives means a feminist’s work is never done. It is always in process.
The Undies for Africa counter-campaign eloquently reflects how positive
change is possible. It is one victory. Many struggles remain.
Aluta continua.
References
Spivak, G. C. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. eds.
Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of lllinois Press.
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