Ode To Black Women

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Viewed from the perspective of the African liberation movement, it is imperative for both women and men alike to have a firm position regarding women in society. We must answer honestly for ourselves: What role should women have in a liberated Africa and in the movement for African liberation? 

There is no doubt that for many reasons the most controversial answers to this question will come from men, but African men nonetheless must take a position. This author begs the pardon of women for any unintended male chauvinism inherent in this editorial. History does teach us however, that there are prominent examples of African men who can serve as role models to others regarding a male position on women. The earliest instructive figure that comes to mind is Frederick Douglass, a prominent African slavery-abolitionist of North America.

Frederick Douglass was the most prominent male advocate of women's emancipation of his time. Because of this, he was often held to public ridicule and experienced slanderous name-calling. At a time when most men would feel their manhood was compromised or that their masculinity was being questioned, Frederick Douglass maintained his anti-sexism position. When he was sarcastically branded a "women's rights man" he responded, "I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated." This is a perfect example for any men who play these macho, peer pressure games with each other.

As a man, Frederick Douglass understood that the subjugation of women in society was just as corrosive as any other human oppression. He realized that without women's contributions to society the world would be at a great disadvantage. At a women's suffrage convention he said: "No man, however eloquent, can speak for woman as woman can speak for herself. Nevertheless, I hold that this cause is not altogether and exclusively woman's cause. It is the cause of human brotherhood as well as sisterhood, and both must rise and fall together. Women cannot be elevated without elevating the man, and man cannot be depressed without depressing woman also". 

The late President Sekou Ture of Guinea concurred, asserting that “Just as the struggle of African women cannot be waged and pursued outside the context of the struggle of our People for the liberation and emancipation of our continent, so the freedom of Africa cannot be effective if it does not lead, concretely, to the liberation of the women of Africa. In the emancipation of women is the emancipation of men." 
These are men acknowledging that the free development of society is conditioned by the free development of women. They were saying that if women are forced to labor and raise children in deplorable conditions this consequently affects males as well as the females of society. Today African women are victims of gender discrimination in the work place, the burdens of single parenting, physical abuse and rape by men, and brutal forms of state sponsored sexism. Such things as prostitution from low self-esteem/worth and severe economic hardship are prevalent among women.  Twisted commercial cultural values penetrating society reduce woman to mere sex objects.  The African liberation movement cannot afford these symptoms or the afflictions that cause them.  African men must begin viewing women as indispensable counterparts, seeing in each and every woman a potential mother, sister, wife, friend, and/or business partner.  The liberation of African people cannot be achieved without the full and fair participation of African women in the leadership of our struggle.

An examination of African history reveals impressive examples of women freedom fighters and women’s organizations. Many African parties and national liberation fronts consisted of women's wings that have played and continue to play indispensable roles for independence throughout the depth and breathe of the continent. The women’s wing of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), Organization of Angolan Women (OMA) is the largest women’s organization in the world and has over forty years of experience in fighting for African liberation. Starting out with five courageous women, today OMA has a membership of over 1.5 million women and has received international awards for their work in literacy while at the same time fighting the enemies of Africa.

Other such African women’s organizations are: The National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW) which is the women’s wing of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF); the Organization of Mozambican Women (OMM) of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO); the Democratic Union of Women of Guinea-Bissau of the African Party of Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). The Union of Guinean Women (URFG) is the women’s union of the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG).

Historically it has always been women who have undertaken the most painstaking and sacrificial roles in the African liberation struggle.  Not to take anything away from the prominent and renowned women, who have made great contributions to our struggle, but the most profound lessons men can learn from African women in particular and all women in general are not from the high profile contributions.  Many men still have to learn, and we can learn it from the women, that in order for contributions to our people’s struggle to be genuine we cannot look only for high-profile roles or expect recognition.  As men we must learn, and we can take examples from our women, that our families need our selfless and unconditional support and there is no role, in any kind of relationship, that deserves more accommodation and cooperation from us than that of our women who bare our children and bare the brunt of our suffering as a people. 

The most revolutionary relationships we can have in our movement, with our mates, and with our families have been exemplified mostly by the women. A man who cannot take a lead from a woman certainly cannot be revolutionary enough to help empower women. Empowering African women means being able to have faith in and to submit to their leadership in revolutionary organization and their leadership in the family as well. This is not to say there needs to be a leader for one-on-one relationships, but when we take the family as a whole we must admit that it’s our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, wives and daughters that more often know and do what’s best for the family as a whole.  There are so-called men freedom fighters that neglect their children in order to “sacrifice for the greater good of the movementâ€?. 
We men must have relationships with our children that don’t leave them feeling like the movement keeps us away from them, but instead helps them understand that the movement is the inspiration that makes us the good and loving fathers and husbands we should be. If we pay attention women will teach us this type of selflessness.

There are certain things African people as a whole can only learn from African women, because they have sacrificed and suffered the most and have balanced these things the best. Women have a tradition of demonstrating relationships that are characterized by unconditional love and sacrifice. There are still men who consider themselves revolutionary but who have difficulty interacting with strong, confident, intelligent women; men who can only have a relationship with a woman if she abstains from the political movement and only supports his participation in it. Or worse yet men who pay lip service to women’s role in the movement but still try to rationalize and justify reducing her to a sex object or their own personal support base.

As long as African women play a second-class role in the practical and theoretical solutions of African problems only one half or less of Africa’s intellectual potential will be at work.  African men must help free African women up so they can work to increase their understanding and mastery of revolutionary theory AND experience in revolutionary practice…so that we have as many women regarded and respected as ideologues for our struggle as we do men. This is what will enhance and complete the soundness of our revolutionary ideology.  The relationship of African women to men must become such that our successor generations can look to a body of revolutionary knowledge and practical examples that have been forged equally by both men and women.  Only then can we achieve African liberation and make a real contribution to the liberation of humankind.

In conclusion President Ture offered us a valuable epiphany when he said, “The women, as we have said, constitute the base of society. If today, all the men in Guinea, all the men in Africa, and all the men in the world, were to disappear, the Guinean and African society and mankind would however continue to live, because there would still be women carrying in them germs that would come to replace all the men who had disappeared.  But let all the women of Guinea, all the women in Africa and all the women in the world disappear, and at most, in a century, the whole of mankind would disappear! This is a first reality.â€?

Black Star contributor Netfa Freeman is director of the Social Action & Leadership School for Activists (SALSA), a program of the Washington DC based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He can be emailed at netfa@hotsalsa.org

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