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  • “The Personal is Political,” or Why Women’s Rights are Indeed Human Rights: An African Perspective on International Feminism*
  • J. Oloka-Onyango (bio) and Sylvia Tamale (bio)


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I. Introduction

At first the Sky was very close to the Earth. But every evening Woman cut off a piece of the Sky to put in her soup pot or, as in another version, she repeatedly banged the top end of her pestle carelessly against the Sky whenever she pounded the millet or, as in yet another rendering—so prodigious is Man’s inventiveness, she wiped her kitchen hands on the Sky’s face. Whatever the detail of Woman’s provocation, the Sky finally moved away in anger, and God with it. 1

A. In Which Direction are We Heading?

The title to this essay is composed of two slogans well-known in the women’s human rights movement—one drawn from the domestic arena and the other from the international arena. 2 Both have been the subject of intense debate, scrutiny, and contestation from a variety of perspectives. 3 As two Africans grappling with the pedigree and content of slogans that originated from within Western feminism, we embarked on a search for their meaning. 4 For us, Angela Davis best captured and translated the essence of their evolution by reflecting on her own political development as an activist confronting prejudices of race, class, and gender within an imperialist setting:

I was vehemently opposed to the notion, developed within the young women’s liberation movement, which naively and uncritically equated things personal with things political. In my mind, this idea tended to render equivalent such vastly disparate phenomena as racist police murders of Black people and the [End Page 692] sexist-inspired verbal abuse of white women by their husbands. Since I personally witnessed police violence . . . during that period, my negative response to the feminist slogan, “the personal is political,” was quite understandable. While I continue to disagree with all easy attempts to define these two dimensions as equivalent, I do understand that there is a sense in which all efforts to draw definitive lines of demarcation between the personal and political inevitably misconstrue social reality. For example, domestic violence is no less an expression of the prevailing politics of gender because it occurs within the private sphere of a personal relationship. I therefore express my regrets that I was not able to also apply a measuring stick which manifested a more complex understanding of the dialectics of the personal and the political. 5

Still, a nagging feeling persisted. From the perspectives that we brought to the subject, the etymology of the two slogans was greatly intriguing. We struggled to establish how best to convey that feeling. Through their juxtaposition we sought to present our readers with either of two meanings. On the one hand, were we celebrating the successful transposition of domestic (“the personal”) feminism onto the international (“human rights”) scene? If it takes the statements of more than sixty highly committed, deeply respected, and geopolitically diverse essayists to affirm the coming of age of the women’s human rights movement as an international phenomenon, we could well say that the anthologies reviewed in this article effectively sealed further debate on the question. To borrow a much-abused Ugandanism, international feminism has truly “arrived!” 6

On the other hand, despite the affirmation of achievement represented by the mere fact of publication, a number of issues seemed to have been handled only obliquely by the contributors to these new volumes. Other issues were treated with the silence of omission. This led us to the second theme underlying our inquiry and further confirmed our decision to place the two slogans side-by-side in our analysis: the proposition that the domestic had been transposed on the international with only semantic modification. In other words, had domestic Western feminism emerged dominant on the international stage? Coming from a context that has known both colonial domination and neocolonial exploitation, such caution evolves as second nature. It is particularly germane given the historical practice of western societies capturing, defining and transforming, or [End Page 693] “orientalizing” 7 realities in the “third world.” 8...

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pp. 691-731
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