Women's Organisations and Movements
Sometimes Autonomy but Often No Unity
The observation that in Africa women's action space was severely curtailed by tradition and custom and further circumscribed by the state and ruling political parties, has led many African women to opt out or disengage from the state, seeking to pursue their specific agendas in whatever autonomous spaces are available. Yet, perhaps just as many African women have chosen to forgo the autonomous pursuit of their own interests in order to lend their energies to broader political or social movements which were not specifically concerned with gender issues. Nationalist liberation movements all over Africa have benefited from the participation of women and their militancy. The fact that this happened over a period of roughly 40 years and in the knowledge that participation was no guarantee for women's demands to be addressed by male leaders would suggest that choices between autonomy and integration have been and are being made.
The conflicts in the 1980s between Western feminists and African women centred ultimately on the issue of autonomy, proclaimed as the sine qua non of women's movements in the West, and rejected as too narrow by those African sisters still involved in liberating their people rather than only themselves. Women's organisations in Africa often have a history in political parties and have been “closely associated with agendas for social reform… as well as making claims on the state for women's rights and social rights more generally” and even autonomous women's organisations have frequently engaged in associations with non-feminist actors to pursue common goals. This has led Maxine Molyneux to suggest that women's movements are characterised by a diversity of interests and forms including state-linked mass organisations for women and other organisations that do not primarily advance women's specific gender concerns. More important then maintaining autonomy Molyneux believes has been the re-conceptualisation of women's interests and goals in the 1990s, when women's citizenship also came to depend on “the attainment of social as well as civil and political rights and upon gaining institutional power” (Molyneux 1998:219, 224, 240).
It would thus seem that the position, put forward by Aili Mari Tripp (Tripp 2000a) that for African women associational autonomy has been the most important condition from which they have been able to challenge the state, is too narrow to capture the myriad of strategies that have been pursued. Tripp has contended that autonomy is often the result of marginalisation and exclusion, but that African women in many cases managed to “seize on their auton