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  • The Dynamics of African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African Feminist Literatures
  • Pia Thielmann
The Dynamics of African Feminism: Defining and Classifying African Feminist Literatures By Susan ArndtTrenton, NJ: Africa World P, 2002. 234 pp. ISBN 0-86543-898-6 paper.
Foreword by Obioma Nnaemeka. Translation by Isabel Cole of Feminismus im Widerstreit: Afrikanischer Feminismus in Gesellschaft und Literatur. Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2000. 205 pp. ISBN 3-89771-201-6 paper.

The first five chapters of Susan Arndt's monograph provide a clear overview of the various terminologies and ideas of African feminisms, such as Molara Ogundipe- Leslie's stiwanism, Catherine Acholonu's motherism, Obioma Nnaemeka's negofeminism, and Mary Kolawole's and Chikwenye Ogunyemi's versions of womanism. Arndt shows how they do, or do not, relate to Western feminist concepts. With African feminists, Arndt criticizes African American feminists for speaking for black women and "women of color" internationally, thus claiming authority over African women with whose conditions and needs they may not be familiar. African feminists, in contrast, address African women's various different situations and needs that are based [End Page 156] on widely accepted but discriminatory conventions. While the term womanism is also used by African scholars, its ideas differ from Alice Walker's womanism in so far as the issue of female homosexuality is not an issue close to African women's heart whereas motherhood is.

The author establishes that the only obligatory characteristic that makes for an African-feminist text (Arndt's hyphenation) is the criticism of African gender relations, and points out that this essential component is often combined with optional characteristics that acknowledge that African women—and men—"suffer not only from sexism and patriarchal social structures, but are also victims of racism, neo-colonialism, cultural imperialism, religious fundamentalism, socio-economic mechanisms of oppression and dictatorial and/or corrupt systems" (73). Arndt creates a classification model of reformist, transformative, and radical African-feminist literatures and defines their respective concerns: Reformist feminist texts criticize individual traditional and modern conventions that discriminate against women. They present alternatives that improve women's situations, holding true that improvement within given structures is possible. Men are criticized as individuals, but they can change; thus a happy ending is made possible. Transformative feminist texts offer a fundamental critique of patriarchy. Men's behavior is presented more sharply and as being typical for them as a group. Women's complicity in the reproduction of gender discrimination is also thematized. Both men's and women's reproduction of discriminatory structures is seen as surmountable. Radical texts "argue that men (as a social group) inevitably and in principle discriminate against, oppress and mistreat women. [. . .] A disturbing lack of alternatives and perspectives distinguishes these texts" (85) from reformist and transformative ones.

The second part of Dynamics provides a close reading ofselected narratives by African women writers and tests them against Arndt's categories. Grace Ogot's The Graduate, Ifeoma Okoye's Behind the Clouds, and Flora Nwapa's Efuru make up the list of reformist texts. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo's "Ubaaku," Mariama Bâ's Une si longue Lettre, Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood, and Bessie Head's "The Collector of Treasures" form the group of transformative texts under study. Pat Ngurukie's "Mother of Daughters," Nawal El Saadawi's Women at Point Zero, and Calixthe Beyala's Tu t'appelleras Tanga are interpreted as examples of radical African-feminist texts.

While Arndt creates a hierarchy of radicalism, she obviously favors reformative African-feminist texts as the ones with the highest chance of contributing to changes in discriminatory attitudes and practices. Acknowledging the fluidity and overlaps of these categories that may make it difficult to place all African-feminist texts within this roster, she nicely accomplishes her goal of providing a tool "to categorize a literary work as feminist or nonfeminist on the basis of clearly comprehensible criteria" (23). Thus, her work is a perfect textbook about African women's literature. My students love it.