Sexual Pleasure Empowers Women!: Response to Susie Jolly (3)

In Africa the negative and/or “victim” discourse in relation to sexuality is largely an alien import. Without suggesting that Africa is a homogeneous continent or that sexual violence against women did not exist before the arrival of foreigners, I believe that the common history that we share (e.g. colonialism, slavery, globalization) profoundly affected the way that Africans perceive and ‘do’ sex. Hypocrisy, silences and reticence threatened and even replaced the relative sexual openness, comfort with nudity, even flirty dispositions that Africans traditionally enjoyed. The traditional sexual morality codes were radically transformed through the force of imported religions, education, laws and policies.

But the pleasurable discourse in Africa endures if not openly, then through subtle and delicate ways. The knowledge and discourse found in many sexual initiation practices and systems around the continent includes pleasure and agency. Examples include: the Ssenga among the Baganda of Uganda; the Tete among the Shona of Zimbabwe; the Alangizi among the Yao of Malawi and the Chewa of Zambia; the Mayosenge among the Bemba of Zambia; and the famous Lawbe women of Senegal. African sexualities have a tradition of creative expressions including: folklore, song, dance, folk art, poetry, body markings, clothing, jewellery, and even through names and naming systems.

As Susie Jolly indicates, feminists on the continent are (re)turning to some traditional African sexualities, reclaiming their positive aspects as part of the liberating development projects (INCRESE and Feminist Africa). Indeed, our African American sister, Audre Lorde instructed us way back in 1984 that the ‘Erotic is Power’, urging us to use the erotic as the basis of women’s resistance against oppression. As expected, this feminist approach to sexuality in Africa faces stiff resistance from patriarchal and religious fundamentalists that wish to maintain a tight leash on women’s sexuality and continue to construct their sexual autonomy in a negative light. But more and more African women are heeding the call, “Victims No More!”

Sylvia Tamale
Associate Professor of Law
Makerere University

References

  1. Feminist Africa (2005) ‘Sexual Cultures’, Issue 5
  2. Feminist Africa (2006) ‘Subaltern Sexualities’, Issue 6
  3. Feminist Africa (2008) ‘Researching for Life: Paradigms and Power’, Issue 11
  4. Lorde, Audre (1984) ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, New York: The Crossing Press

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