Women and Writing – Resistance or Affirmation of Ability?

This evening budding women writers, who mingle frequently under their umbrella organisation Amka, will launch an anthology Fresh Paint Volume 2, at The Goethe Institut.

The book is a collection of short stories and poems. Fresh Paint is important. It shifts the centre. In this publication we have emergent Kenyan writers with a particular character; an authentic female voice.

In the forward to Fresh Paint Volume 2, Lydia Gaitirira writes that the contributors to this anthology are “beneficiaries of the many years of the continuous struggle by the women’s movement.”

Indeed, “In many ways the 21st century is a good time to be a woman in Africa” wrote the editors of the Pan-African anthology African Women Writing Resistance. The editors; Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho and Anne Serafin made the statement to celebrate the achievements of African women such as Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

In literature Kenya boasts of illustrious writers such as Grace Ogot, Asenath Bole-Odaga, Muthoni Likimani and Miriam Were. Prof Jennifer Browdy and her colleagues see “writing as a tool of resistance” especially for women who must suffer inequality in a male-dominated society.

By writing, women are taking the position at the “forward edge of the tide of empowerment” that is sweeping across the continent.

But it goes far back. During the Pharaonic period we had the highly educated and able Queen Hatshepsut; in Angola in the 17th century there was the warrior Queen Nzinga. These women showed determination and fortitude in their “grand match,” to quote the late Kijana Wamalwa, to the highest political office in their societies. They had to overcome insurmountable obstacles in a supposedly rigid patriarchal African society that intimidates, oppresses, and suppresses the womenfolk.

This is a dominant narrative that informs most “progressives,” and “radical feminists” such as the editors of African Women Writing Resistance. Why the “romanticisation of resistance” in the study of humanities, asks Palestinian anthropologist Prof Lila Abu-Lughod?

Abu-Lughod instead suggested that “resistance” should be seen as a “diagnostic of power” relations, a theory that informs Prof Lidwien Kapteijns and Maryan Omar Ali in their book, Women’s Voices in a Man’s World: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature. Abu-Lughod tried “to articulate a rationale for the study of the voices of the subordinate.”

However, Prof Brinkley Messick, also an anthropologist, argues that it’s sometimes difficult to hear women voices in a patriarchy. Thus he proposed the concept of “subordinate discourse,” a form of expression that coexists with a dominant ideology even though they differ. The “subordinate” does not imply a “lesser” form of articulation. It exists as a distinctive form of expression which does not draw attention to itself as an ideology of resistance; hence it remains sufficiently unnoticed by the dominant order to avoid suppression.