By Naduah Wheeler
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer
Feminism is essentially the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said and Beyoncé quoted. While most people who identify as feminists would agree upon this definition, what exactly that social, political, and economic equality looks like varies depending on who you ask. The vast differences in individual feminisms is already obvious in the United States, with the stark difference between White Feminism™, TERFs (Trans-Erasing Radical Feminists), liberal feminism, and so on. While all of these “types” of feminism are striving toward equality, their definitions of equality differ. Now, try to imagine navigating all of the various intricacies of feminism in a cross-national context.
Many western feminists attempt to simply apply western feminist ideas to new countries without taking into account individual cultural values, needs, histories, and desires. Understandably, this doesn’t work very well. Perhaps the most widely known instance of this failure has been the nude protests of Femen. Coming from the “#FreetheNipple”, sexual liberation train of thought in the west, Femen staged a topless protest in 2013 to fight for one woman, Amina’s, right to be nude, but did so from a standpoint that the hijab, burqa, niqab, and other coverings as well as Islam itself were inherently oppressive and misogynistic. Instead of gaining any ground examining women’s rights violations in the Muslim world, they portrayed the entire religion of Islam as oppressive, leading many Muslim women to post the reasons they choose to wear the hijab on a variety of social media platforms. Femen’s definition of equality cannot be easily extended to the Muslim world, whose women don’t necessarily require nudity to feel empowered and many of whom feel empowered by wearing the hijab and other head coverings.
Coming from a very feminist, social justice background, I face many of the same difficulties trying to find my place here in Bimbilla. I’m aware my definition of equality and understanding of feminism are much less useful and maybe even useless within a Ghanaian context, so my question becomes: where does feminism start? In order to create equality, one must first understand the inequality. I figure gender roles are a good place to start. In the States, our gender roles are generally divided along a “strength” line. Women are weak. Men are strong. This means physically and emotionally. Work is divided and interpreted according to the same idea. Women are expected to do office work, childcare, to stay at home, jobs that require less physical labor, and the women’s jobs that require extensive physical and mental labor are still interpreted as weaker: nurses, teachers, housekeepers. Men do physically exhausting work: construction, carpentry, auto mechanics. Even the less physically demanding jobs they do are given more respect.
In northern Ghana, gender roles aren’t based on physical or emotional strength. Instead, they’re based on the division of the home versus farm. Women carry extremely heavy loads of water and other goods each day to the house. They also make fufu and banku regularly, which involves smashing cassava until it becomes a ball, requiring a lot of upper body strength. Since motorcycles are considered more masculine, women also tend to walk and ride bicycles more. Essentially, women here defy many American gender expectations. The men work on the farm, transporting goods to market and to the home on their motorcycles. They also run most of the shops, spots (bars), and restaurants.
So in two and a half months I had learned that my nearly 20 years of experience with feminism were almost completely irrelevant in a Ghanaian context. I was left knowing our work was based in feminism and fighting patriarchy, but without a clue how to do so. After learning that my understanding of gender-based differences was completely irrelevant here, I started asking questions instead of simply trying to decipher answers on my own. Asking questions brought me closer to understanding than I had gotten on my own in twice the time. I began looking at potential issues that maybe weren’t based in specific gender roles, but rather a more general understanding of power.
Take something that is a pretty established issue in the States: street harassment. Nearly every “type” of American feminism agrees that street harassment is… not great. It feels threatening and can be extremely scary if you’re alone. Living in Bimbilla, especially as a “white” person, I receive a lot of attention. Nearly everyone wants to say hello, ask my name, and often propose marriage. I started observing the local women to see how they handled what I interpreted as “harassment”. Much to my surprise, they were absolutely unbothered. They smiled and yelled back, returning the greetings, because that’s what they were: greetings. Greetings are a huge part of Northern Ghanaian culture, and the people yelling at me were never trying to be threatening. They were just trying to say “good morning” or “where are you going” the way they would anyone else.
By starting to ask questions I started learning that women wanted more access to education. I started learning the barriers that prevented them from getting an education. I started learning that many men are unfaithful in marriages, but that isn’t the biggest focus for many women. Instead they’re much more concerned with forced marriages. I learned that some women sleep on the streets with their only job being to carry things in the market. I learned that their dream is to sell things in a small stand in the market. I started learning the problems that Ghanaian women have identified in their own lives and where they wanted to focus.
I’m still learning. I have a long way to go since nothing I do will give me the life experience of growing up as a Ghanaian woman, but I’m getting better. I’m learning to move back and to listen. I’m learning the limits of my experience. I’ve always defined good feminism and good activism as asking the people you’re trying to serve what they need you to do, then doing it. Now I’m getting the opportunity to put that definition to the test. It’s a difficult process, but with the help of some very patient Ghanaian women, I’m getting better.