Feminist knowledge

Charmaine Pereira

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THIS paper focuses on the intellectual and political project of feminism, its place within the field of women’s studies and its implications for knowledge production in contemporary Nigeria. Women’s studies, as a forum for creating knowledge through women-centred research, analysis, theoretical and methodological development, has by now established a virtually worldwide presence.

There is a certain degree of overlap between gender and women’s studies since studies carried out under the umbrella of women’s studies may use a relational perspective that incorporates the social relations of gender. At the same time, gender studies in Africa have been primarily studies about women, rather than men, as a gendered group (see Mama 1996a).

Given that women’s realities are shaped by multiple social hierarchies that include gender as well as class, ethnicity, religion, age, race and so on, it does not automatically follow that an emphasis on gender will necessarily include an analysis of class and other social divisions. Indeed, one of the central arguments of the critique of western feminism by Black feminists in the U.K. and feminist women of colour in the U.S., was that western feminism was preoccupied with inequalities arising on the basis of gender relations, to the exclusion of race, class and other dimensions of social inequality (see e.g., Carby 1982, Moraga and Anzaldua 1981).

The discourse of feminism has raised a lot of controversy and is viewed with considerable suspicion in Africa, on the grounds that it is ‘alien and western’. The selective nature of this interpretation is clearly manifest in the sense that some ‘western’ phenomena, such as ‘modernisation’, are viewed as acceptable, whereas other ‘western’ phenomena, such as ‘feminism’, are not. It is nevertheless true that many African women and men, in Nigeria as in other parts of the continent, are highly reticent about identifying themselves with feminism, even if they are actively working for women. In the last ten years or so, however, many African women who may not have felt comfortable calling themselves feminists earlier have been rethinking that position. The tendency has been either to talk in terms of African feminism or to use other terms like womanism (see Tsikata 1997).

In Europe and North America, feminist research and the production of feminist theory have grown out of an organic connection between feminism in the academy and women’s movements (see e.g., Roberts 1996). In Africa, the same connection does not exist in quite the same way, and women’s studies in the region appears to be charting its own distinct course (Mama 1996a).

In the wake of the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985), the marginalisation of the vast majority of women in African societies became a matter of serious concern. It was during this period that the discourse of ‘Women in Development’ (WID) was articulated. Significant features of WID were its avoidance of any confrontational stance regarding patriarchy and capitalism, arguing instead for women’s ‘integration into development’. Whilst WID has provided the rhetoric for mobilising women in support of development, the reality was more akin to the mobilisation of women in support of state interests, with women’s autonomously defined interests written out of the agenda (see e.g., Manuh 1993; Pereira forthcoming).



The WID paradigm has been severely criticised by feminist scholars for its assumption that women have not been contributing to development. The reality is that women’s work has been ignored and devalued whilst the diverse ways in which development strategies themselves have contributed to women’s marginalisation and oppression have been denied (Sen and Grown/DAWN 1988).

The WID paradigm has since been superceded by the GAD (Gender and Development) paradigm, which ostensibly pays more attention to the social relations between women and men and their implications for development. Despite its apparent differences, the GAD paradigm shares some common themes with WID, including the combination of arguments for gender justice with those of economic efficiency. One of the consequences is a tendency towards instrumentalism when addressing problems arising from women’s subordination and exploitation: ‘gender’ receives attention only to the extent that it facilitates more efficient development (Razavi and Miller 1995).

In 1977, the Association of African Women for Research and Development (AAWORD) was formed, a landmark event in which African feminist scholars collectively registered their institutionalised presence. The aim was to facilitate research and activism by African women scholars, and thereby articulate the agenda of feminism in Africa. Workshops on methodology, women and rural development, reproduction, the mass media and development assistance were held early on in AAWORD’s existence, up to the early 1990s (e.g., AAWORD 1983, 1985). In more recent years, however, the organisation has not been as effective in bringing together the increasing number of African women scholars engaged in gender and women’s studies.


Whilst not all work carried out under the rubric of gender and women’s studies is feminist, there is a growing tendency amongst some scholars in the field to define their orientations as explicitly feminist. Nevertheless, the interests served by most studies of African women have rarely been those of African women themselves, being more often those of authoritarian regimes in search of legitimacy, or those of donor agencies serving an externally-defined agenda. High-profile WID programmes, such as the Better Life Programme of the Babangida regime in Nigeria, cannot be conflated with a women’s movement, any more than WID activities can be confused with women’s studies.

In her postscript to the anthology Engendering African Social Sciences, Mama (1997a: 423-4) points out that:


If present trends continue, deradicalised studies of women, gender studies, gender planning and gender analysis all have more prospect of gaining acceptance in the African academic establishment than the overtly feminist and movement-linked variants of women’s studies.


In view of Nigeria’s political history of prolonged military rule and authoritarian civilian rule, the need for the social sciences to address the weight of this history on the oppressive structures and practices of contemporary society is particularly acute. Military rule, apart from coercive incursions into the political and economic arenas, has involved ideological struggles for hegemony in the face of crises of legitimacy. Overlapping legacies of authoritarianism have resulted in psychological and cultural domination and underdevelopment, to varying degrees. In this context, it is incumbent on the social sciences to nurture a counter-hegemonic project of the Gramscian variety (Gramsci 1971). This would be a task of renewal, characterised by a critical and creative approach to knowledge production that will transform ways of thinking, forms of practice and the nature of political projects (Hall 1991). Such an approach would take account of multiple dimensions of oppression, exploitation and subordination, for women as well as for men, and the resistance to such oppression.



This paper is intended as a contribution to this larger project of renewal and transformation of the social sciences, focusing as it does on the implications of feminism for knowledge production in Nigeria. There are three sections to the paper. The first addresses the politics of knowledge production from the perspective of (mostly male-oriented) resistance to feminism in the academy. The second provides an outline of the relations between feminist struggles and nationalism in Africa, with a view to highlighting women’s presence in political history as feminists and key players in nationalist struggles. In the third section, I draw attention to specific themes that constitute challenges to the development of feminist theory and scholarship in Nigeria.



Feminism and The Politics of Knowledge Production: Feminist scholarship embodies a political commitment to women’s liberation and social transformation in the direction of egalitarianism in gender relations and social justice. Feminist research embodies this commitment not only in terms of what kind of knowledge is produced but also how it is produced.

The Charter of the Social Sciences Council of Nigeria notes that while ‘The distinctive characteristic of the natural sciences is the universality of their content, bound neither by time nor space’ (Article 1.1, p. 1), in contrast, ‘The study of society is less amenable to the scientific rigours alluded to above’ (Article 1.2, p. 1). Yet the deployment of arguments relating to ‘scientific objectivity’ in the social sciences in Africa has been selective in a way that is clearly gendered.



Critiques of imperialism and capitalism have been quite explicit about their political implications, viewing these as positive rather than reprehensible features. ‘Objectivity’ has neither dominated the discussion nor figured as an issue to be prioritised in such circumstances. When it comes to feminism, however, the political implications of feminist critiques of patriarchy are deplored on the grounds that they ‘lack scientific rigour and objectivity!’

The contradictory character of male intellectuals’ arguments against feminism takes a number of forms, as Fatou Sow’s discussion (1997: 33-4) reveals:


One can be an African intellectual, discuss democracy, refer to Plato and the Greek city, talk about the spirit of Montesquieu’s laws, perform an exegesis on Marx’s texts via Trotsky or Althusser; in short, show off a high level of western culture with nothing but a proud frame of mind. É the debate will qualify as scientific, academic, political, ideological, never western. The African woman intellectual is accepted among the initiated, as long as she conforms to and deepens the dominant discourse. Ever since the ‘inapplicability’ of women’s issue (sic) was first suggested, the critics have cried: cardinal sin of feminism; persecution myth; lack of scientific rigour and objectivity; mimicry and westernisation; reinforcement of the West’s racist perception; negation of culture and loss of African identity; reinvestigation of the traditional distribution of social roles; illegitimacy of the right to speak on behalf of other women, particularly rural, illiterate, poor É In all, women have only themselves to blame if they are oppressed.


‘Objectivity’ and ‘scientific rigour’ are clearly only the subtext in this particular duel of the sexes. At least three gendered sets of contradictions can be identified in the above passage, where the applicability of arguments varies depending on whether it is women or men who are the referents. These include the contradiction over which ‘western’ perspectives are acceptable and which are not; the contradiction over which issues it is necessary to be ‘objective’ about; and the contradiction over which issues can be acceptably constructed as ‘political’.



The existence of these contradictions reveals the extent to which the struggle is only nominally one of ‘rigour’. More substantively, it is one of power and points to the strength of the threat presented by feminism, as perceived by various categories of men. This threat coalesces around the possibility of relinquishing privileges that men currently take for granted or relinquishing the control that they exert over women. These two threats are fundamentally related, since it is through the control of women’s labour, mobility, sexuality and fertility that many masculinist privileges are derived.


We can see that the politics of feminist knowledge production and resistance to it are shaped by an array of factors that are not necessarily rational and therefore not always conscious. Hutchful (1997: 214) points to the force of the ‘masculine imagination’ in deriving contrasting symbolisms of women.


The first is the notion of women’s spirituality (derived in part from her symbolic closeness to nature and the Earth É) which may be used for good or evil supernatural acts (such as witchcraft), and the turmoil associated with her sexual power. This coexists with a second – and almost directly opposed – vision of woman that may be termed the ‘Good Mother Complex’, which idealises women (unlike men) as unsullied, close to home and children, and therefore renders women’s criminality and fall from grace particularly heinous.


Manifestations of Hutchful’s ‘Good Mother Complex’ have been analysed by a number of authors. The overt violence of colonial regimes across the African continent, which included the widespread abuse of women alongside the strengthening of the interests of male despots, was predicated on a more benevolent underside. This was the side that sought to domesticate and so incorporate a small minority of African women as wives of African male administrators in the colonial state.


This selective incorporation went hand-in-hand with the exclusion of the vast majority of African women from all political and administrative structures and from the wage economy that was overtaking precolonial modes of production (Mama 1997b). Pittin (1991) points out that in contemporary Nigeria, development programmes, education policy and the control over female sexuality affirm the notion that state policy and ideology in relation to women is preoccupied with the domestication of women.


Opposing the construction of the ‘Good Mother Complex’ is that of the power of women, whether derived from women’s sexuality or their spirituality (Hutchful 1997: 214). What Hutchful calls the ‘defensive fragility’ of the masculine gender is forged out of a struggle against women’s perceived ‘dark natures’. This often takes the form of continuously affirming gender roles and prohibitions against gendered transgressions on the part of men as well as women. Outside the academy, women’s material success in business, unlike that of men’s, is often viewed as a result of this turbulent and untamable nature. Alternatively, it may be constructed as a result of the corruption of men – evidence of magic and criminality. Men’s outbursts against the visibility of some categories of women, in the face of the intensification of economic crises, are reinforced by the actions of military state agencies and other sources of authority, such as religious authorities (Dennis 1987, Pittin 1991).



The notorious War Against Indiscipline of the Buhari regime is one of the better-known examples of state terrorism, targeting as it did street hawkers, beggars, homeless people and specific categories of women whose presence and activities were constructed as a ‘cause’ of the nation’s crises (Dennis 1987). Furthermore, linkages between state power and religious ideology were evident in the Kano State Petty Trading Control (Amendment) Edict of 1988, which banned hawking by girls under 16 years of age. The decree was intended to ‘protect young female children É from moral danger and exploitation.’ This it did by arresting the girls themselves and bringing them to court, not by sanctioning and removing the men who abuse young girls. Praise for Kano state policy was clothed in the form of Muslim morality, thus legitimising the ideology of the control of women and girls (Pittin 1991).

Against this background, it does not require too great a leap of the imagination to understand the threat posed by feminism to diverse categories of men in the academy as the threat of liberating women’s ‘dark natures’ and therefore, encouraging the release of women’s ‘deviant’ or ‘magical’ powers. Any increased visibility of women in the structures of higher education, however marginal and distant from the centres of decision-making, is likely to intensify male insecurity and bouts of misogyny.

At the same time, the ability of anti-feminist men to contain the threat posed by the existence of even the apolitical varieties of gender and women’s studies is circumscribed by the force of the priority given to women and issues of gender by international donor agencies. The predominance of such agencies in the funding of research is assured (for the time being at least) by the twin processes of state neglect on the one hand, and mismanagement by university authorities on the other. In this scenario, the resistance to feminism within the academy is unlikely to simply disappear.



Feminism and Nationalist Struggles: In view of the dismissal of feminism as an ‘alien’ and ‘western’ construct, the question of what relations actually existed between feminism and other struggles in Africa is of tremendous significance. This question has been most often addressed in terms of the relations between feminism and nationalist struggles in the region. The historical context of African women’s struggles has been one shaped forcefully by the continent’s experience of imperial domination.

The atrocities committed in the name of colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ and the ensuing destruction of lives, particularly in southern Africa, have meant that under national reconstruction, women’s demands have frequently been for the basic means of existence.

Women’s survival, in the wake of the unravelling of national economies, has often rested upon gaining access to basic amenities for themselves and their families. As such, their struggles have been not only a response to the oppressive features of their own societies but also a fight against the imposition of western norms. As Roberts (1985) points out, the alienness of such concepts is conspicuous when abstracted from their cultural base and there is a long history of African women’s resistance to their imposition, for example through tax riots.



In Nigeria, the Aba Women’s War in 1929 is one of the better known examples of women’s mass protest but it was not the only occurrence of its kind (Mba 1982). Moreover, the feminist character of the Women’s War was clearly manifested, as Mba (1982:91) indicates:


The women’s war was very much a feminist movement in the sense that the women were very conscious of the special role of women, the importance of women to society, and the assertion of their rights as women vis-a-vis the men.


Feminist struggle in Africa, as indeed in Asia, has been most visible in contemporary research on anti-colonialist and nationalist struggles, in projects of national liberation (see Jayawardena 1986). Across Africa, women have engaged in such struggles in varying ways (see e.g., Likimani 1985, Urdang 1989, McClintock 1991, Lazreg 1994). The Algerian and Zimbabwean cases are just two of the most notable of such instances, where despite women’s active engagement in wars of national liberation, post-war gender relations have been significantly unmarked by egalitarian transformation. Moreover, subsequent recognition of the salience of men and women’s involvement in national liberation struggles has been selective and marked by double standards. In relation to Mau Mau in Kenya, O’Barr (1985) points out that although women operated as civic as well as sexual beings in their nationalist activities, their civic contributions have been minimised.

The intertwining of feminism and nationalism in Africa has had a number of implications. One of these is that women’s movements have generally not been autonomous, but rather offshoots of male-dominated political structures. In such circumstances, the pronouncements of the head of the party or the head of state, have been very influential. Women themselves have been reluctant to address issues of feminism and women’s liberation outside the terms of national liberation. In African states professing socialism, the path to women’s liberation has been viewed as requiring no separate struggle since socialist strategy will, in and of itself, liberate women (Roberts 1985). The official view was, as Samora Machel put it in his speech to the First Conference of Mozambican Women in 1973:


Let us be clear on this point: the antagonistic contradiction is not found between man and woman, but rather between women and the social order, between all exploited women and men, and the social order (cited in Roberts 1985:183).



In this way, male nationalists denied the significance of gender relations, gender conflict and the historical contributions of feminism to socialist theory and practice.

The denial of the significance of gender conflict by male nationalists is clearly evident in the denouncement of feminism as both ‘divisive’ and ‘imperialist’. Such a position has to be located in the context of a masculinist conception of nationalism generally, and political agency specifically (see Enloe 1989). Women who try to argue otherwise are often treated with contempt:


... in spite of evidences [of African women’s traditional power] which are supported by oral traditions and social structures, present attempts by African women to recover equality and freedom are ridiculed by male power and interpreted as a mere ‘mechanistic mimesis’ and as contamination from the West (Baffoun 1985:4).


For women who were active in national liberation movements, this has the effect of rendering invisible a strong history of resistance to local and imperialist patriarchies.

The political differences among diverse strands of feminism and the question of how women in different sociocultural and historical locations formulate their relations to feminism are of immense significance. The reticence of many African women to identify themselves as feminists has been referred to earlier. It is only recently, in South Africa, that profound changes in the discourse on feminism have emerged. These have arisen primarily as a result of Black women’s greater visibility within the mass democratic movement and their moulding of the term ‘feminism’ to meet their specific historical needs and situation (see McClintock 1991). All this highlights the very real need for reflection and research on the relations between feminism and women’s movements, and the implications for the production of feminist knowledge.



Challenges to the Development of Feminist Theory in Nigeria: The feminist agenda in women’s studies entails the production of knowledge that would empower women in the struggle for their liberation in the context of social transformation. In Nigeria, the early development of women’s studies appears to have been linked to a feminist agenda. Individual scholars have used conferences on curriculum development in their disciplines, or fora for the discussion of ‘women and development’, to raise questions about the nature of women’s studies, its problems, its relevance and methods for the dissemination of the knowledge acquired.

Seminars in the 1980s held at the University of Ibadan, addressed the state of the art in Nigeria as well as theoretical and methodological issues in comparative perspective. Women’s studies itself has been growing rapidly in the country since the 1980s. The concrete realities of women’s lives and their experiences, their struggles, the socio-cultural and political constraints facing women, have all become the subject of research and debate (Awe 1996).



Yet a great deal still remains to be done. The uneven extent to which women’s studies has been pursued in different parts of the country, being more prevalent in the south than in the north, is one example. The lack of balance in coverage of the country is exacerbated by inadequacies in networking and poor efforts to disseminate information. As a result, Nigerian scholars tend to work in isolation from one another (Awe 1996).

In recognition of these and other problems, the Network for Women’s Studies in Nigeria (NWSN) was formed, amidst great enthusiasm, following the workshop, ‘Setting an Agenda for Gender and Women’s Studies in Nigeria’. The workshop, held at the British Council, Kaduna in January 1996, recognised that gender and women’s studies have had a long history in Nigeria.


At the same time, participants expressed a great need for a national forum in which the state of the art could be appraised, experience exchanged and future plans developed. In doing so, the aim would be to initiate a process through which Nigerian women scholars would be able to set the agenda themselves for the development of gender and women’s studies locally. This process would, at the same time, be situated in an awareness of African and global contexts. Many of the themes highlighted by the international network DAWN1 – the need for research, curriculum development and networking – were reflected in the discussions at the inaugural workshop leading to the formation of NWSN.


The level of awareness about women’s subordination has to be raised through popular culture, the media and formal and informal education. … The role of women’s studies in this process is important. We already know that research into our history, networking among scholars, and curriculum development are vital aids to raising our own consciousness, as well as that of men. But women’s studies in the Third World cannot stay in the academy. Because large segments of our people are still illiterate or unused to the printed word (and this is even more true for women than for men), we need to concentrate on techniques for popular and mass education. This is where the methods learned in the ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ can be useful, and where local organisations can again play a crucial role (Sen and Grown/DAWN 1988: 88).



I have identified a number of challenges to the development of feminist theory, drawn from two examples of practice involving links between the academy and women-centred organisations. This focus has been informed by the needs identified by participants at the Network’s first two workshops: more grounded theory in gender and women’s studies (Mama 1996b) and greater exposure to the debate over feminism in Africa (Pereira 1997).

My first example concerns the organisation Women in Nigeria (WIN) which has branches in most states of the federation. In its early days, WIN’s membership was drawn primarily from the university community, although in some states, its membership was more broad based. As an activist organisation, WIN carries out ‘research, policy-making, dissemination of information, and action, aimed at improving the conditions of women,’ recognising both class and gender as sources of oppression and exploitation of women and (some) men (WIN Constitution, p.1).



The organisation works for women but is constituted of men as well as women. This example draws on the processes that preceded the dispute in WIN over the choice of theme for the 1991 annual conference. In the vote for the theme to be selected, men and women within the organisation were divided, men voting for the theme ‘Women and the Economy’ with a vote of about 20:6 whilst women chose the theme ‘Women and Violence’ with a vote of 16:4. The timing of the vote, late at night, favoured men’s attendance disproportionately, thus acting in their favour.

The correspondence in WIN’s newsletter, between Ayesha Imam (1990/91) and Chom Bagu (1991), covered a number of issues salient to women’s organising and the production of knowledge. These include gender politics within the organisation, the significance of female leadership in WIN, the need for men to be sensitive to domains of masculine privilege and, not least, perspectives on violence against women.

Internationally, the question of the validation of women’s experiences as a means of conscientisation and empowerment, and therefore the relationship between experience and knowledge, has been keenly debated in women’s movements and organisations. Whilst the concept of ‘difference’ succeeds in highlighting the diversity of women’s experiences and social locations, it has been less successful in focusing attention on issues to do with hierarchy and power (Maynard 1996). Accordingly, I have chosen to highlight the theme of experience as a basis for knowledge, which Ayesha uses to justify women’s selection of violence as the more appropriate choice of conference theme.


There are some issues on which women, because of their subordinate position within male biased gender relations, know better what issues (sic) need to be dealt with. They know better on these issues because they suffer directly from gender subordination (or are in a position where they are likely to do so) while men do not and can only be sympathetic and empathetic. Men who are sensitive to and aware of women’s oppression understand and accept this – recognising that sometimes they must follow and not insist on taking the lead in defining what is important.2


Bagu’s (1991: 8) response was to refer to the partial nature of experience as a basis for knowledge:


From a theoretical point of view, the Ayesha position is rather empiricist – that only those who have direct experience can have genuine knowledge. If this were true and Ayesha knows, all the social revolutions in history would not have taken place. The experience of social oppression can come in several ways.

In an organisation like WIN, there is no way all members can have the same experience of all aspects of oppression. It should also be realised that class and gender feelings and sentiments are not instinctive, they derive from social consciousness. That is why not all members of a class and gender support the cause and struggle or the programmes of their gender or class. This is really elementary.



It is true that the argument that only those who have direct experience can have genuine knowledge, is an empiricist argument. On its own, it is a relatively weak point in Ayesha’s argument. Experience alone is always partial and needs to be understood in its structural context, given that multiple dimensions of difference constitute an integral feature of the experience of diverse categories of women (Brah 1992). Ayesha’s position would have been stronger if she had made two further points, in addition to the experiential argument. The first would be to make a connection between women’s experience and women’s interests (by no means a straightforward connection, and one that I think needs further analysis). The second argument would be to refer to the commonalities in women’s interests in eliminating violence against women from society, regardless of their actual experiences of violence, and the differences in those experiences.



Bagu’s response to Imam ridiculed the weakness in her argument and treated it as a challenge to his right to interpretive authority, that is, the right to interpret and give meaning to experience. Rather than accepting that women in WIN had the right to insist on being heard (as opposed to literally being shouted down, as happened at the 1990 AGM), Bagu seemed to view Imam’s criticism as automatically implying competition over authority. Lewis (1993: 541) makes the above point about interpretive authority in relation to South African women and the divisions that exist among women on the basis of race. Contingent upon this is the notion that ‘ "legitimate" knowledge is the rightful possession of a specific group,’ in Lewis’ case, white South African women. She argues further that the displacement of race as a real basis of conflict among women has weakened the growth of feminist theory.

The implications for feminist theory in Nigeria are clear: a lack of attention to the social bases of conflict such as age, ethnicity, religion, in addition to class, can only weaken the growth of feminist theory. The WIN example above is significant precisely because it is gender that is the basis of conflict. In the context of women’s general reluctance to address the existence of gender conflict in scholarship and in activism, there is a serious lesson to be learned.



My second example is drawn from the work of the International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRRAG), Nigeria. The research project was part of a seven country study that spanned Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines and the USA, in addition to Nigeria. IRRRAG Nigeria was set up in 1993 to investigate the meanings of reproductive rights in diverse cultural settings, with a view to giving a voice to marginalised groups of women. Internationally, struggles for women’s reproductive health and rights have been carried out in the context of building ‘an internationally recognised legal framework for the universal defence of women’s autonomy, bodily integrity and personhood’ (Correa with Reichmann 1994: 56). Central to this framework is the use of (apparently gender neutral) human rights instruments to fight abuses of women’s rights, hence the slogan ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ (see Awe 1994).

IRRRAG Nigeria’s multi-disciplinary team incorporated expertise on reproductive health, law, community development, sociology, anthropology, education, feminist research and women organising. The team members were all long standing women’s rights activists and the coordinators (three zonal and one national) had all served in different ways in the leadership of Women In Nigeria (WIN). Indeed, overlapping membership of a range of women’s organisations was a notable feature of the team composition. Whilst this facilitated the establishment of the team through the use of existing networks, it was also indicative of the relatively small number of activists committed to research in the area (Osakue et al. 1995).



It is perhaps partly as a result of the coordinators’ and other members’ experiences in WIN (specifically, the processes preceding the 1991 AGM, discussed in my first example) that the place of men in the research work was explicitly considered. Two men were involved as researchers, in ways that were important but not central to the research – coding of responses, taking notes during focus group discussions (FGD) sessions and report writing. Men were involved in the research partly so that the team could proceed with their efforts to further sensitise men to the issues of women’s reproductive rights:


It may be interesting to note at this point that the latter objective was realised if the spirited arguments that punctuated our discussions during the report writing session is (sic) something to go by (Osakue et al. 1995: 56).


However, there were some parts of the research that men were consciously excluded from, such as the sensitive and intimate in-depth interviewing process, for which it would be inappropriate to use male researchers. Moreover, men were not included as research participants in the group sessions for two reasons. The first is their tendency to dominate in terms of vocal expression; the second is the effect of the presence of men on women, who tend to give less truthful and more ‘pleasing’ responses (Osakue et al. 1995).

At the same time, there is a need to recognise that women and men are ‘bound up in a web of conflictual and cooperative relationships’ (Razavi and Miller 1995: 37). Most women, as members of households, view their interests as being tied up with those of other household members, especially their children. It is within and across webs of relationships characterised by varying degrees of cooperation and conflict that women’s reproductive health and rights will be realised. Feminist theory needs to pay greater attention to the nature of such complexities and contradictions, in order to arrive at more nuanced understandings of the implications for women’s agency, whether expressed individually or collectively.



The need to recognise and reaffirm the centrality of feminism to women’s studies in Nigeria has been a central argument in this paper. The context in which women’s studies has developed nationally is one in which the emphasis on women, whilst linked to women’s struggles internationally, has also emanated profoundly from the concerns of the development industry and state projects of authoritarian rule. Whilst not all work carried out under the rubric of women’s studies is feminist, there is a growing tendency amongst some academics in the field to define their orientations as explicitly feminist. The intellectual and political project of feminism underlies the production of knowledge about women, for women, through the transformation of social relations in the direction of gender equity and social justice. Such initiatives are deserving of greater support than they currently receive in the hostile terrain of male-dominated academia.

The reluctance of most scholars in mainstream social science to engage seriously with feminism is evident in a number of defensive postures. The most common of these includes dismissing feminism as ‘alien’ and ‘western’, despite the existence of Nigerian feminist intellectual work. Such tactics also display a selective reading of political history, in which African women, as feminists, have been key players in nationalist struggles. The variety of forms of feminism have to be understood in their historical, social and political contexts before they can be dismissed in such an unscholarly and cavalier fashion.

It is clear that the obstacles and resistances that feminism in the academy is faced with need to be understood more clearly with a view to addressing the backlash against feminism, which may well intensify in the near future. At the same time, we are currently witnessing the opportunistic take-up of women’s studies and the more neutral-sounding ‘gender studies’ by hitherto disinterested male individuals and male-dominated institutions. In the absence of any libera-tory agenda for women, such trends reflect the demise of integrity and agendas of social transformation in academia, as in the body politic.



The knowledge generated by mainstream social science in Nigeria, as elsewhere, has been about a male world created by and for men, with women occupying marginal if not deviant positions, when they have been treated as objects (and not subjects) of knowledge. Such partial knowledge cannot serve to furnish adequate understanding of the society we live in or the problems it currently faces. The possibility of women generating autonomous, not necessarily separatist, spheres of knowledge that may be used to change the prevailing order has yet to be taken on board.

For the social sciences in Nigeria to face the challenges of feminist knowledge would require a deep-rooted project of transformation: a transformation of what counts as knowledge and the institutions within which knowledge production takes place. Such a project would not simply make token references to feminist theory and methodology but would require asking different questions, requiring new conceptualisations about wider realities that include women as well as men. A counter-hegemonic project of this nature implies not only the regeneration of the academy but of culture, social relations and political consciousness, not least in ourselves.



* Revised version of a paper prepared for the 11th General Assembly of the Social Sciences Council of Nigeria, ‘Reflections on 50 Years of Social Science Education in Nigeria’, National Women Development Centre, Abuja, 5-7 July 1999.




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