The names of men fill history books and resonate in our minds. When you think of the fight for liberation, the name of a woman hardly comes to mind. In reality, women played a crucial role, equal to that of men. Pan-African women fall within this category and it is for this reason that the African Union (AU) celebrates Pan-African Women’s Day.
The theme of this year’s celebrations is “Towards the African Women’s Decade: Realizing Women’s Human Capital through accelerated social and economic development, addressing the scourge of violence, food insecurity, and good nutrition on the African continent.” In the same spirit, we write this short article to enlighten our audience on the evolution of the role of the Pan-African women over time, as an appreciation of where we have come from and the exciting future that lies ahead in the persisting fight for gender equality and women empowerment.
Pan-African women stem from the idea of Pan-Africanism that was initiated by black Americans and West Indians seeking to establish contact with Africa, after slavery in their respective countries, had been abolished. The goal of Pan-Africanism is to stop the notion spread by colonialists that Africa had neither history nor civilization. Consequently, the term “Pan-African woman” is inclusive in uniting women of African descent with the recognition that even those who are not physically in Africa still play a significant role in advocating for gender equality and empowerment abroad.
They are united through the Pan African Women’s Organization (PAWO), which aims to promote an exchange of good practice and initiate joint efforts to support human rights and eliminate all forms of discrimination.
Let us now deep-dive into their transformative roles over time.
Colonialism and slavery eras caused much strife, which contributed to gendered norms that forced women into more submissive and passive roles. Women were critical problem solvers, leading militaries, transitional leaders, and took up critical roles during some of the worst economic, political and health crises.
During this time, Pan-African women contributed to governmental advisory roles such as Taytu Betul, the wife of Menelik II in Ethiopia. She is described in a UNESCO report as a shrewd but somewhat conservative adviser who remained firm when the Emperor behaved too timidly towards foreign representatives, especially in actively encouraging Menelik II to take up the fight against Italy. In 1890, she wrote to the Italian ambassador, “You want to make Ethiopia your protectorate, but that will never be”. As a result, she ruled Ethiopia as Empress after Menelik II’s death. Taytu Betul is further praised for organizing men to fight the invasion and for furnishing supplies for the troops.
In addition, Pan-African women actively participated in peace treaty negotiations with colonialists. Queen Nzinga Mbandi (Anne Nzinga) of Angola was seen as a firm negotiator, specifically in matters concerning the slave trade. She opened Angola’s borders to refugees and assisted freedom of enslaved people from Portuguese traders during her queendom.
The role of Pan-African women in the post-slavery period involved forging links between black activists in the diaspora as done by Louise Little. Famously known as the mother of Malcolm X, Louise Little was proactive in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), alongside its leader, Madame Maymie Leona Turpeu de Mena. Madame Mena illustrated Pan-African women’s role as visionaries and intellectuals through her acts that motivated black persons in the Usa, Caribbean, Central America, and other parts of the world.
Moreover, a research study indicates that Pan-African women in the diaspora greatly contributed to theoretical, political and literary works that focused on black women’s experiences, endorsed feminist activities, and challenged sexism and homophobia. These works indeed paved the way for the inclusion of Pan-African women in various societal roles rather than nurturing. To this end, Pan-African women participated in radical politics to combat male-dominated Pan-Africanism and to eliminate racism, class discrimination, and sexism in their societies.
For instance, Audley “Queen Mother” Moore and Dara Abubakari practiced gender-focus Pan-Africanism based on black women’s experiences. They are known as the Mothers of Pan-Africanism who are viewed as key figures in sustaining and elevating the movement at the grassroots level. Together they developed political critique and were active members of various organizations including UNIA and the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women.
They were also leaders in the Republic of New Africa and the Revolutionary Action Movement. In their different capacities, Queen Mother Moore and Dara Abubakari always centered their practice on black women’s concerns and goals even if they didn’t always express this in noticeable ways.
We have seen the difference that equal job opportunities, equal healthcare and education, equal decision-making power, and freedom from violence can make. We have seen the difference when women are able to make their own choices and the power of the collective voice when their needs and interests are met.
Today Pan-African women play roles centered on the achievement of gender equality and women empowerment in their different capacities. Jessica Horn, a founder member of the African Feminist Forum, researcher, writer and poet, is keen on fighting for the right of women to live in a world without violence. She is dedicated to creating safe and sustainable feminist freedoms through activism in their different professional capacities.
Pan-African women are also making history by increasingly occupying parliamentary seats. Today, most African countries have at least one gender quota in place, including 13 counties that specifically reserve seats for women in parliament rather than the legislated candidate or political party quotas.
Furthermore, McKinsey & Company reports that one in four board members in African companies are now women indicating that Pan-African women are occupying top positions in the corporate sector. Such representation has resulted in Sub-Saharan Africa having the most reforms in promoting gender equality in business.
Some popular Pan-African women you may know include the following:
1. Musician Miriam Makeba (South Africa)
Popularly known as “Mama Africa”, she was a musician and active participant in the anti-Apartheid movement. Through her music, she commented on the Apartheid government and racial disenfranchisement for over 30 years.
One of her famous quotes: “I look at an ant and I see myself: a native South African, endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit”.
2. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (Nigeria)
As a pioneer African feminist, she founded the Nigerian Women’s Union and protested exploitative economic policies for women in business. She was also an anti-colonial freedom fighter, social activist, educator and mother of multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti.
One of her famous quotes: “As for the charges against me, I am unconcerned. I am beyond their timid lying morality and so I am beyond caring”.
3. Nobel Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai (Kenya)
The founder of The Greenbelt Movement was a passionate environmentalist who advocated for government transparency. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to become a Doctor in Philosophy and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
One of her famous quotes: “And so I’m saying that, yes, colonialism was terrible, and I describe it as a legacy of wars, but we ought to be moving away from that by now.”
4. Bibi Titi Mohammed (Tanzania)
She is an unsung hero who assisted Julius Nyerere to mobilize a large number of women that secured his success by convincing them to endorse the ideas and policies of the Tanganyika African Nation Union (TANU). She was sentenced to life imprisonment after being accused of attempting to overthrow Nyerere’s government because she did not agree with his socialist beliefs.
One of her famous quotes: “The need to come together and pursue a common cause for our freedom is now; we must rise for the sake of Tanzania.”