On the silence of our heroes about women – a complex relationship

On the silence of our heroes about women – a complex relationship

By: Nadia Ahmadou*

The state of the post-colony continues to be the subject of many debates in contemporary African politics and philosophy. We talk incessantly – almost in circles, really – about the negative impact of colonisation and about how the essence of all things African was shaken, interrupted, ruptured and often completely erased by colonisation. Violence is a recurrent theme in these discussions; Frantz Fanon in particular puts direct emphasis on the nature of this structural violence and its role in perpetuating an inhumane system. In describing this violent status quo, he makes mention of the black woman and the white man, and the black man and the white woman, as types of relationships which perpetuate the status quo. For Fanon, the inferiority complex that dominates these sexualised relationships is part of a framework that allows colonial violence to continue to be perpetrated. Gender, however, does not appear as a great concern.

In my humble opinion, Fanon loses the plot, as he fails to discuss further the place of gender and sexuality; and how they are directly linked to these forms of structural violence. To him, violence is defined in almost black and white terms: the colonial vs. the colonised, and the various inferiority complexes that feed into this systemic violence. Anything that lies beyond this dual prism or that adds an extra layer to it is left out of the debate entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fanon. His radical rethinking of race and colonisation has framed discussions on the post colony in as many disciplines as one can think of. Where Fanon fails us in our deliberations is through his lack of focus on gender and sexuality as a central theme of violence. Before we get side-tracked on a ‘yet another feminist tirade’ path, we should take a moment to think critically about the context and time during which Fanon penned his works. Women were not invisible in these societies: neither in Martinique, where he came from, nor in Algeria where he actively supported the Liberation Movement. In fact, women were an important part of the liberation struggle, perpetuating a lot of the anti-colonial terrorist attacks in Algiers during the later stages of the war. Just to make sense of this critical part of history that has seemingly been forgotten, let’s pause a moment to  imagine all the interactions between the various concerned freedom fighters, both men and women. What types of dynamics informed their relationships, their engagements, and their joint participation to this struggle that was so important to all?

For Fanon, it was so important that he clearly defined and outlined the various interactions between the coloniser and colonised, and used that to frame the struggle; but yet not as important to use the same lens to define that which characterised those who enacted this struggle. Of course, one can easily say that Fanon and our other liberation heroes mentioned women and engaged with their role in the various independence struggles.

However, the manner of portraying this engagement is the central cause for concern. The images used to represent such important facets of colonial history have come at a significant cost to gender and sexuality as it is lived in the post-colony. The key question here being: if our heroes cast women in a very specific and restrictive role (that fails to interrogate and represent anything beyond colonisation), how do we use that to interpret our daily lives of which gender and sexuality are such an integral part?

Assuming for a moment that my thinking is flawed, why then was Fanon silent about this when assessing the violent system that he saw in the colony and in the post-colony? By taking it down to the micro level, does it mean that this systemic violence is only a characteristic of macro echelons of processes in the post colony? Is the slave-master dialectic the only representation of structural violence one can identify? I do not think so.

When we take a minute to look around our immediate communities and daily lives today, systemic violence is as strongly present in the post-colony as it was in colonial times. Gender relations and sexuality in the post-colony can be framed in exactly the same terms Fanon used to frame the slave-master dialectic. However, I will not dwell on this too much; the point is to turn us away from spending so much time envisioning the post-colony through the prism of colonised vs. colonialists.

We would benefit more from looking directly at processes within the post-colony. What is the nature of relationships between the various genders? Are people free to express their sexuality in the same way Fanon wanted the ‘natives’ to express themselves? What about the leaders who have emerged, and continue to emerge from these communities? To what extent are their motivations and policies framed by the structural violence we all see, but fail to call out?

What happens at a micro-level directly impacts the macro. Our post-colonial theorists have focused too much on macro structural violence, to the detriment of looking at the micro level: the forms of structural violence which persist in our lives and our bedrooms.

Across Africa, debates on gender and sexuality are taboo. Freedoms are outlawed and those who don’t ‘fit the box’ are continuously abused, leaving physical, mental and emotional scars reflective of the systemic violence the post-colony is supposed to have overcome. It is important to draw wisdom from ‘heroes’ like Fanon, but without abandoning the responsibility to address the gaps in their vision. The post-colony might have changed, but the nature of violence has simply taken root elsewhere.

*Nadia Ahmadou is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here

Nadia Ahmadou

Nadia Ahmadou is a young African scholar who has published widely on peace and conflict related events in Africa.

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