African feminism

Fighters of the African feminist revolution discuss sexuality, parenthood & freedom

By Clarisse Juompan-Yakam

Posted on April 22, 2022 08:47

On the continent and in the diaspora, more and more black women are publicly opening up about their sex lives. Is this a revolution?

Axelle Jah Njiké begins her surprising autobiography, Journal Intime d’un Féministe (Noire), which was published by Le Diable Vauvert in March, with eminently suggestive chapter titles like “69”, how evocative, and Me My Sex and I, which sounds hilarious and promising. Through this work, the Franco-Cameroonian author has managed to shake up the French literary landscape, where intimacy is rarely embodied by black people.

Her first-person account reveals the unexpected life path of an Afropean woman, from sexual and educational violence to emancipation through literature and sexuality. Njiké’s mischievous narrative lists some 60 partners, both men and women, who have been important to her, emotionally and/or physically. Each of them has contributed to shaping the “sensual, carnal and sexual being” that she has become.

The feminist activist recounts how, after being raped at the age of 11, she regained her right to pleasure, and how “this reappropriation is part of a transgenerational history of being dispossessed of intimacy, as no woman before [her], in her lineage, was able to choose her first sexual partner.” In great detail, Njiké describes “masturbation [which] makes [her] a powerful woman, a desirous being, the holder of a specific, intimate power that escapes all-male incursion.”

This is a surprising statement from a black woman who was raised in a community where such things are not discussed. But make no mistake about it. The Journal Intime d’une Féministe (Noire) is not a bawdy manual designed to titillate a few naughty girls. While it is an ode to multiple loves, it also brings together the author’s deepest cracks, thus joining the category of intimate narratives embodied by black people and relayed in recent years by innovative media such as Instagram accounts and podcasts.

Therapeutic masturbation

Created in October 2018, the successful Instagram account “Je m’en Bats le Clito” – which has almost 1 million followers – perfectly illustrates these daring discourses about oneself. What is the credo of its creator, Camille Aumont Carnel, a self-proclaimed spokesperson for the liberation of feminist speech on social media? To casually talk about therapeutic masturbation, orgasms, endometriosis and much more.

This young woman, who was born in Niger, wears a clitoris pendant around her neck and rejects the label of Afrofeminist, emphasising the universal nature of her discourse. She is campaigning for everyone to have a happy sex life, which involves rehabilitating the clitoris. She would like to see this ignored and sometimes demonised organ replaces the uterus and ovaries that appear in science textbooks. Is this a gratuitous suggestion? Certainly not. More political than it seems, this proposal seeks to break with the idea that sexuality is centred around women’s reproductive function. Carnel sees the clitoris as a symbol of sexual emancipation and reappropriation of the body.

Both Njiké and Carnel want to turn personal stories into a political struggle by placing them in the public arena, where until now they had no right to be. “Intimacy is a notion that is little associated with non-white people in France,” says the first. And because she deplored this, she launched the first French-language podcast that gives voice to black women’s experiences, Me My Sex and I, which became the title of one of the chapters of her book, in 2018. Women from different backgrounds took turns sharing their different experiences, sometimes talking about unbearable topics like rape, excision, etc.

“I would have liked to have had this conversation with my mother and the women in my family,” says Njiké. “Reappropriating the narrative of our experiences in this way makes a universal statement possible.” By bringing different versions of the same intimate story related to parenthood, childhood, transmission, self-construction, emotional and sexual relationships into the public arena, the women move from the personal to the global and give a political character to their gesture. The multiple stories become a tool to break the law of silence, both individually and collectively. With some 500,000 downloads, the programme has become a reference within black communities, both in the diaspora and on the continent.

“Doing what the white man does”

Njiké believes that the challenge lies not only in lifting taboos but also in putting an end to the unequal treatment that white and African women receive when they speak out, especially in France. “Our emotions and feelings have less of a right to be heard than those of others, and I have a problem with that.”

As proof of this, she points to the indifference that greeted, despite its quality – and in the midst of the #metoo movement – her second podcast, La Fille sur le Canapé, which she devoted to speaking about being raped at the age of 11, even though stories about Afro-descendant women who have been assaulted are so rare. “This is an issue that affects all communities, without exception,” she says.

According to the podcaster, who deplores the fact that magazines aimed at a black audience have not seen fit to cover the issue either, “some did not know how to address the issue without stigmatising certain communities, others did not want to shock or inconvenience their readers. Worse still, some felt that dealing with these issues was “doing what the white man does!” Njiké feels that it is all the more important to highlight these black women’s experiences as we usually only focus on them through the lens of discrimination and racism.

Intimate stories are being shared across the continent as well. From Libreville to Dakar via Yaoundé, Douala, Libreville, Cotonou, Lomé and Abidjan, producer Alexandra Ngann Yonn interviews women on a feminist and intimate podcast, Mises en Quarantaine, which aims to provide a space to discuss education, health, training and society. The idea is to dispel the stereotype of the African woman who, after 40 years, is in distress and unable to blossom outside the triptych of husband, children and family.

In Abidjan, a lesbian couple has taken the daring, almost suicidal gamble on a continent where homophobia is unabashedly displayed to reveal their sexual orientation. Through TikTok videos, just like in a never-ending reality show, Sam and Sacha share with their 300,000 followers about how they denied their homosexuality, their previous inconclusive experiences with men, coming to terms with what made them different, how they met, the desire to assume their identity, how they came out to their family circle “in a way that ensured (their) respective parents wouldn’t have a heart attack” and the fact that the latter continuously prayed in the hopes of assuring their “deliverance.”

They also talk about how they want a child and their attempts at artificial insemination. Sacha and Sam also make no effort to hide the heaps of insults they receive from those who do not understand “why pretty girls like them choose to be lesbians.” Their straightforward responses have rallied many Ivorians to their cause. No doubt thanks to this live broadcast on TikTok, during which a tearful Sacha begged to be treated humanely.

Resistance and revolt

According to the Ivorian philosopher and novelist Tanella Boni, sharing personal stories is nothing new on the continent. “In traditional societies, for example, African women have always been able to express, through codified songs and dances, the torments they experience within their relationship or community.” Cameroonian female bikutsi singers excelled at this exercise during the 1950s and 60s. They expressed their sadness at not being able to have any children and how lonely they felt in a foreign village when they married a man from another tribe.

Obviously, these traditions were limited to the territory. Today, with the magic of the internet, even small messages can be abundantly relayed on social media, which gives the impression that there are more women’s discourses. The real novelty lies in the tone, which is increasingly free, sometimes downright bawdy, provocative and thus belies the myth of the reserved and submissive African woman.

Boni, who is interested in the place of African women in feminist thinking, sees these stories as a lever for action that is part of what she describes as “strategies of resistance and revolt. Women express themselves so that they do not die and are at peace with themselves. It is also a way for them to ‘be in palaver’ with their immediate environment.” On the continent, self-talk has not yet converted into a political act. At best, it has a therapeutic value, as the sum total of intimate accounts has not yet managed to go from appearing on social media to being debated in society.

A former research professor at the CNRS, the University of Paris-Diderot and the University of Cheikh-Anta-Diop in Dakar, sociologist Fatou Sow predicts that the phenomenon will intensify and that more and more lives of homosexuals and transgender people will be made public. “These people are so discriminated against that it is not impossible that one morning it will explode.”

She concludes with a smile: “It is obvious that I could never have written a text like Axelle Jah Njiké’s, but who knows, maybe in the years to come, an African woman will come out with her own version of Fifty Shades of Grey.”

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