We Belong Here, Too: Accommodating African Muslim Feminism in African Feminist Theory Via Zaynab Alkali's the Virtuous Woman and the Cobwebs and Other Stories

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African feminism has articulated its concerns vocally and visibly through educated and well-informed advocates of women's rights in Africa. Scholarly and activist efforts by Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Oyeronke Oyewumi, Filomina Steady, and Ifi Amadiume, to name but a few pioneer activists of African feminist thought, have furnished this long ignored field of African studies with groundbreaking research, making the realities of African women more visible than ever before. In so doing, these feminists have distinguished African feminist thought from Euro-American feminism by shaping a space for its own preoccupations glossed over by Euro-American feminists, who tended to assume that Euro-American situations were similar to those in Africa and consequently exported ill-matched solutions to problems facing African women. Central to the argument of African feminist critics is the mandatory recognition of the specificity of the context of issues pertaining to the lives and choices of African women. (1)

Within the limits of African feminist theory, as defined by the aforementioned scholars, this essay will study the relationship between Islam and women in Nigerian novelist Zaynab Alkali's The Virtuous Woman (1987) and The Cobwebs and Other Stories (1997). The objective of examining the role of Islam in Alkali's work lies in acknowledging the thick texture of Islam shaping the lives, decisions, and choices of African Muslim women. Theoretically premised on the ideology that stresses, as the theorists cited above have forth-rightly argued, the urgent need to respect the specificity of women's social, familial, religious, caste, class, and economic conditions and situations in Africa, this analysis will also reveal the ways in which African feminist theories harbor an inherent bias against Islam. Despite advocating greater specificity in theorization based on class, race, religion, and caste in the study of African feminism, African feminists themselves are guilty of failing to acknowledge the role of Islam in the lives of African Muslim women. The chief reason for this is the classic case of foreignness--that Islam is not an "authentic" African religion and that it usurped the place of traditional religions. (2) Therefore, Alkali's representation of African Muslim women serves as a response to such views within African feminist theories simultaneously invoked and challenged in this essay.


In its countercanonical articulation and circulation, African feminism first defined itself as markedly different from Euro-American feminism and accused the latter of ethnocentrism, racism, and a blind transfer of Western notions of emancipation and liberation to Africa. For instance, Amina Mama, among others, draws attention to Europe's four-hundred-year history of violence on women before it audaciously posed as a heroic protector and uplifter of women arriving in the colonies. (3) In resisting the export of ill-matched solutions from Europe to Africa, African feminists insist that African realities are animated by a different social and cultural logic and claim that it is not always gender that defines women's roles and functions in African society, but also social roles and functions. In this regard, Oyeronke Oyewumi explains that because of a multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting positions, "womanhood" in Africa may not necessarily constitute a social role or identity. (4) Gender, as a host of African feminists maintain, is a limiting and incomplete analytic category of women's issues in Africa, for it frequently fails to encapsulate social locations of women within culturally specific communities. More precisely, in her groundbreaking research on African feminism in Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, Ifi Amadiume convincingly demonstrates that social categories and functions do not necessarily rest on bodily distinctions of gender. …