P057 – Gender, Sexuality and Re-interpretations of “African Culture and Tradition”
8 July, 14:00 – 15:30

Arnfred Signe / Dept of Society and Globalization, Roskilde University, Denmark


Seen from colonial and development points of view, African culture and tradition (particularly regarding women) have often been classified as “Harmful Traditional Practices.” Such interpretations are, however, increasingly being questioned and replaced by analytical approaches taking ‘culture and tradition’ as points of departure for alternative conceptualizations and new understandings of gender and sexuality. Tradition is seen as a battlefield, interpretations as always contested. One area of study along these lines is a focus on pleasure aspects of sexuality, replacing the development focus on sex as risk and danger. Other studies look at individuals and groups navigating between different discourses. The panel will map innovative studies of sexuality and gender in Africa with a focus on new data as well as new interpretations/conceptualizations.

Genero, sexualidade e novas interpretações de ‘usos e costumes africanos’

De ponto de vista dos poderes coloniais e das agências de desenvolvimento, ‘usos e costumes africanos’ – e particularmente usos e costumes relativamente às mulheres – têm sido classificados como costumes tradicionais nocivos, em inglês: Harmful Traditional Practices. Contudo, cada vez mais interpretações deste tipo são postos em dúvida, sendo substituídas por aproximações analíticas diferentes, aproximações que tomam ‘usos e costumes’ como ponto de partida por conceptualizações alternativas e interpretações inovadoras de género e sexualidade. Uma área de foco são estudos de sexualidade em termos de prazer, substituindo o ênfase de risco e perigo, característico do pensamento de desenvolvimento. O painel visa apresentar estudos de sexualidade e género em África, com ênfase a dados empíricos novos e interpretações inovadoras.

Paper 1

Ratele Kopano / University of South Africa

Queering African Traditions, Liberating Masculinities

Although the idea of men’s gender and sexuality as changeable cultural constructions is fundamental within critical masculinity studies, the relation of cultural tradition to African men’s gender and sexual practices retains fuzziness. Two consequences follow on this nebulousness, some of which are observable in researchers’ approaches and interpretations, while others are evident in accounts of tradition by research subjects. First, traditions tend to be treated as if they are wholly inherited, what ‘others’ and basically closed. And second, whereas masculinities positioned as modern are readily seen as constructed, masculinity characterised as ‘traditional’ are conceived as a kind of given. In this paper I am interested in further probing constructions of masculinities which mobilise tradition. The two main objectives are to show that traditions, characterised by power, are always contested; and that all men and women are always in negotiation – which sometimes takes the form of an overt opposition – with their traditions, a negotiation whose intent may be to maintain, undermine, augment or amend tradition, and whose effect is thus to construct or remake ourselves and the tradition with which they are in conversation. Given its profeminist approach, the goal with this work is to generate possibilities of opening up or queering African traditions in order to liberate masculinities.

Paper 2

Oinas Elina / University of Helsinki

Appropriation, Appreciation, Positionally and Ownership in Feminist Activism

2014 witnessed an unprecedented global media visibility of issues of race, perhaps mainly due to Ferguson, but also Mandela’s death and the 20th celebration of the end of apartheid in South Africa. At the same time, feminist politics connected to issues of race and inequality became selling in mainstream media and pop-culture, as icons like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Emma Watson declared and commercialized their feminisms. In response, in feminist blogosphere an articulation of a divide between white and black feminisms that share little in solidarity, has taken place. For a scholar on African feminisms the debate is both new and familiar, comprising, for example, of a struggle against an appropriation of African/black women’s politics, bodies and cultural expressions, a refusal of a patronizing appreciation of black feminisms by white feminists in power, and a strategic essentializing that is seen as inevitable. The explicit articulation of radically unsettling differences and non-solidarity within feminisms is both timely and surprising. Both the academic and activist debates seem to be informed by the post-structural and post-colonial theoretical legacies that challenge stand-point and identity politics, so the paper asks how the arguments go beyond legitimating an assigning of feminisms to mere subject positions that are racially marked. The paper examines the way difference, positionality and contextuality is argued for, and solidarity is problematized in selected texts.

Paper 3

Rasing Thera / University of Africa/Cavendish University

‘We enjoy having sex': Sexual Right and Pleasure among Adolescent Girls in Zambia

This paper examines sex and sexuality in current Zambia, and focuses on the experiences of young adolescent women (aged 15 to 25) in urban and rural settings. It is based on interviews with adolescent girls and boys and adult women and men.
Sexuality is important, since it concerns all adults and adolescents in their private lives. Sexuality is a fundamental issue, expressing sexual appetite, desire, and love. Through sex, gender roles are expressed and confirmed. This is for instance taught in female initiation rites, in which young women are taught about the importance of sex, both as a pleasure and for procreation. But also outside these rites young girls are encouraged to experiment with sexuality.
Sexual norms have been influenced by both Christianity and Western NGOs. Moreover, since the 1985 UN declaration that certain traditional practices are ‘harmful’, referring to practices that deal with (female) sexuality, measures to imprint Western norms have been increased.
The paper discusses how adolescent and adult women deal with these contradicting and confusing messages about ‘Western/modern’ and ‘traditional/harmful’ ideas concerning sex. The paper shows that Western norms have only slightly affected individuals’ sexual behavior, showing the resilience of traditional norms in which sex is considered a pleasure.

Paper 4

Miguel Francisco / Universidade de Brasília

Lobo Andréa / Universidade de Brasília

Same-sex marriage in Cabo Verde: Demanding for Conjugality and Cosmopolitanism

In our fieldworks in Cabo Verde, we used to hear most of gays and travestes saying that they do not have sex with other gays or travestes, but with “men”. In this former Portuguese colony, the genders are profoundly segregated and the gender roles have ideologically been conformed by the existence of “men” and “women” so as “men” and “gays”. Also, in this country, heterosexual relationships were builded up a bit different from the Western model, marked by the call for recognition of the State in the form of legal marriage; the monogamous ideal; and the cohabitation of the lovers. In Cabo Verde are remarkable the relations “ter com”, that even generating ties and offspring, do not imply neither in cohabitation of the parents nor a formalization to the State. In this complex scenario, we try to understand what the local LGBT population want by requiring the State the legalization of homosexual marriage in standards that do not hold with the reality of forms of Cape Verdean traditional conjugalities nor with the reality of homosexual relations in the country. If people in Cabo Verde rarely marry legally and gays do not date gays, what’s the point of legalizing gay marriage? We argument that the native demand for same-sex marriage is not only a demand for building a homoaffective culture and the rights that flows from it, but also an attempt to insert themselves in a contemporary cosmopolitan debate, that would make them different from the rest of the “backward” continent.

Paper 5

Gilbert Veronique / University of Edinburgh

Polygamy and Lingerie: Senegalese Women’s Art of Seduction, Pleasure and Power

In Senegal, the Wolof concept of mokk pooj describes the art of pleasing and winning over a man through culinary skills, good manners, submission, and sexual prowess. Although men are sometimes said to be mokk pooj, it is mostly a feminine quality, a social expectation and moral obligation imposed on but also reinforced by women. The attitude and qualities mokk pooj compels (docility, endurance, deference and modesty) and its relationship with food are equated with femininity and what it means to be a ‘good woman’ which, in a patriarchal and polygamous context where religious beliefs and strict gender norms are highly valued, can easily be analysed in terms of gendered structures of violence that confine women in a passive, subordinate position. However, based on 14 months of fieldwork in Dakar, I suggest that mokk pooj can also be examined as an empowering, stimulating force for Senegalese women, who have developed an artistic and creative material and moral culture of seduction and sexuality. In fact, mokk pooj is also synonym with sexual desire, creativity, and pleasure. A varied assemblage of bethio (lingerie), bine-bine or fer (beads belts), thiouraye (incense), aphrodisiacs, and maraboutage (witchcraft) is used by women to feel beautiful and sexy, and to heighten their and their partner’s sexual satisfaction. The privacy of their bedroom becomes a physical and emotional space of negotiation between husband and wife where Senegalese women assert their power and agency.

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