The F-word is not a dirty word

The F-word is not a dirty word. Photo | Photosearch

What you need to know:

  • Every time I say I am a feminist, people look at me like it is a dirty word
  • To the point that, I remember early on when I put a word to what I was, I would not say it in public


A friend of mine is doing her PhD thesis on, among other things, different types of feminism. She asked me to read it over, because that whole feminism thing is right up my alley, and she is writing about a feminist hero: Wangari Maathai.

In her paper, she talks about the fact that feminism is not really supported in Africa, for a couple of reasons: we lack the policy and infrastructure in a lot of areas to push for gender equality when we need to; feminism is seen as a Western concept; most people support gender inequity, especially married women who benefit from the protection of patriarchy; among other things. But what jumped out to me most (other than women keeping other women down) was what Wangari Maathai said to people who were threatening her and her life, with male politicians going to the extent of threatening her with FGM.

“I’m sick and tired of men who are so incompetent that, every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia to reassure themselves. I’m not interested in that part of the anatomy. The issues I’m dealing with require the utilisation of the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck. If you don’t have anything there, leave me alone.” (J. Mbaria, ‘East Africa Hails Wangari Maathai’s peace prize’, The East African, 11 October 2004)


Can you believe I’ve never read this apparently famous quote before? I am not sure what I have been reading. But this is the exact kind of feminism I’m interested in.

Every time I say I am a feminist, people look at me like it is a dirty word. To the point that, I remember early on when I put a word to what I was, I would not say it in public. I didn’t want to defend myself. I didn’t want to keep being told I would never get a boyfriend. It was a tiring perspective to constantly have to explain. But the older I grow, the more I realise the importance of being loud. Of being seen to be loud. Of not being silenced by a very real systemic manipulation that’s truly trying to keep women in ‘their place.’

The kind of feminism I want is the radical kind; because it is apparently radical to deal with what lies above the neck. The kind I want to inculcate with is the kind that questions why things are the way they are; why so many industries and interactions are skewed because of gender, and why almost everything is imbalanced. Wangari Maathai believed so strongly in the type of world she was trying to create, she was willing to be tortured and die for it. She was even going to strip for it! Remember when she told cops trying to stop her protest that she was going to strip and they were going to see their mothers naked?

That she was so devoted to her cause makes me wonder what I am devoted to. We must have a type of feminism that inspires that kind of devotion here, no? If feminism is, indeed, as they say, a Western concept, what is the version we are attempting to grow here?

I think African feminism looks like what my mother has tried to teach me my whole life. To learn everything, you can from the people around you. To keep trying. To help the women you can and bring them along on your journey. To always have your own. To allow people to have choice, even if you don’t understand it; understand that their choices are valid. And finally, something else that Wangari Maathai said; to never dim your shine for someone else. “Nobody warned me – and it had never occurred to me – that in order for us to survive as a couple I should fake failure and deny any of my God-given talents.” Me too, Wangari. Me too.


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