African Women in/and Politics
Issues and Realities
Debates concerned with women's relationship to the state in Africa—their engagement with or disengagement from it—go back to the 1980s, when the state as a concept was rediscovered in the social sciences. At the time feminists criticised this emerging scholarship for failing to address the differential impacts state structures and policies have on women and men and the differential influence men and women have on state actions. Rather than concentrating on gauging degrees of state autonomy, as mainstream political science did, feminists were urging the study of the relationship of the public and private spheres within the state. This focus, which had long been the core of feminist enquiry, had gained even more significance as women's organisations and national machinery in Africa raised expectations of influencing public policy in favour of women and brought to the fore questions about the patriarchal “nature” of the state which subverted and suppressed women's interests (Charton, Everett, Staudt 1989:2–3).
Critical of the Women in Development approach, which had limited its approach to questioning the impacts of development on women, feminists now questioned the links between gendered ideologies, economic interests and state power (Staudt 1986:330). Ultimately feminists were keen to investigate if the state is by definition patriarchal or if it can also be harnessed in the interests of gender equality (Staudt 1986:7–8). Their concern with how gender based distinctions are institutionalised and legitimised in specific state bureaucratic and legal orders had been stimulated by the outcome of the UN Decade of Women with its demands for state action to serve women's interests. An inquiry into the state as potentially responsive to women's demands represented a departure from previous concerns of feminist theory, shifting the focus from looking predominantly at the reasons preventing women from gaining a foothold within the state to assessing “whether and how more women in public office affect the fundamental nature and policies of the state” (Staudt 1986:13).
Initially the inquiry focused on the interface between class, gender and capitalist transformation in Africa, “showing that capitalism does not everywhere have the same effects for women” (Bujra 1986:117), that African women cannot be thought of as a single category, nor be simply analysed in gender-neutral terms ‘as men’ since gender was an important social indicator. Thus, while class relations were held to mediate experiences of gender, gender also qualified the positions women gained in emerging classes (Robertson and Berger 1986:14). Behind the argument sat the observation that modern states, via the artificial