Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Feminist Survival in Conservative Society. (Feminart Arts and Book Festival keynote)

The Feminart Arts and Book Festival 2019 was hosted in venues around Lilongwe, Malawi from November 23-24, 2019. Here is the keynote by the festival headliner Tsitsi Dangarembga gave at the Crossroads Hotel on November 23, 2019.


Good morning, everyone.  I’m delighted to be at the Feminart Arts and Book Festival to speak on the topic FEMINIST SURVIVAL IN CONSERVATIVE SOCIETY.  I have my dear colleagues Shadreck Chikoti and Zukiswa Wanner to thank you for the privilege of being with you today.  So thank you Shadreck and Zukiswa.  Being here is such a pleasure.

Yes, FEMINIST SURVIVAL IN CONSERVATIVE SOCIETY.  The topic is very dear to my heart, as it is something I have been practising for the last half a century.   I’ve had many experiences living as a feminist on the African continent and in the global north.  Some of these experiences were amongst the most affirming moments of my life.   Other experiences were quite hair-raising.  But both kinds of experience were most profound and have informed my theory and practice of my personal brand of feminism.

The affirming experiences often took place at gatherings like this one.  These were events convened specifically to create safe places for feminist networking and discourse building.  And sometimes, plain old feminist happiness and enjoyment were also on the agenda.  I think, with a great deal of regret, that sometimes we forget that feminists benefit from occasions of laughter, hugging, dancing and singing as feminists, just like other groups of people do.  In fact, just like other people, moments of lightness and joy are not merely occasions that feminists want.  Such moments are necessary for our survival.  These are the moments when our existence is affirmed, when we can push to the back of our minds the practically constant struggle with society, in society and for society that is our work as feminists.

The truth is, such moments of regeneration and community do not occur frequently for us feminists on this continent of ours.  We are too often marginalised from economically sustainable engagement in our various sectors.  We are under-resourced in the workplaces we have built up.  This leads to our being overworked in these workplaces, and to a lack of employment for other feminists as we are unable to pay the necessary wages.  This condition of our feminism has given rise to positive doctrines of self-care as a necessary feminist practice for survival.  However, this self-care is more often than not focused on the individual and does not include the care of our feminist communities.

Accordingly, today I am not going to spend time on the hair-raising experiences I have endured as a feminist.   Instead, it is my great pleasure to thank all the sponsors who resourced this event, allowing us a safe space and an inspiring opportunity for growth, renewal, and bonding as African feminists.  I hope this inaugural FeminArt Arts and Book Festival signifies a trend of more investment in the work of feminists on the continent, and our care, than has been the case before.  That such investment would yield great returns is evidenced by the encouraging numbers of individuals who believe it is important to attend this festival.  So thank you, everybody, here present, and all who will attend the other events during the Feminart Arts and Book Festival.


We should not be surprised, however, that feminists too often are unable to congregate as we do during Feminart, for the purposes of mutual support, celebration and discourse building.  We should not be surprised that too often feminists are unable to carry out the work that is so vital for themselves, their families, their communities and nations.  We should not be surprised that the care and sustainability of feminists as individuals and in their communities is universally under-prioritised. Feminists are too often undermined in our being, thwarted in our work and hindered in our progress because, most commonly, we are women.

The construction of the world today is patriarchal.  Patriarchy is inherently flawed because patriarchal systems lead to conservative, unequal societies.  The subjugation of women is a normative constant in all patriarchal societies.

In patriarchal society, women are configured as assets to be acquired by the masculine community.  These assets – that are in fact themselves human beings – are acquired by patriarchal masculine society solely in order to augment the experience and performance of patriarchal masculinities.  In other words, women are seen as assets whose purpose is to enable patriarchal society to perpetuate itself.

A common tactic used to perpetuate patriarchal society is the tactic of divide and rule.  Certain women are elevated to privilege in our patriarchal societies.  These are women who conform to the subordinate role of women that is decreed by patriarchal society.  Here is an example of this divide and rule system in action.  Frequently we are informed by the patriarchal media of powerful women who claim that although they have attained such and such grand positions in society, they still kneel in front of their husbands, and that they cook, fetch and carry for their husbands when they are at home.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that cooking for and bringing things to and carrying things for one’s husband is inherently wrong.  However when women in positions of power and influence deploy the “Although I have attained this high position, I still do these things” narrative, I am disturbed at several levels.

Firstly, I am disturbed because the statement categorises different kinds of women.  It divides women into binary categories.  Such statements divide women into the categories of women who kneel and so forth to husbands, and those who do not. We may call this the category of marital genuflection.  Those statements also divides women into the category of women who have risen to high positions of power and influence in patriarchal society, and those who have not.  In addition to these divisions, the statements go on to relate the category of marital genuflection to the category of personal achievement.  The statements frame this relationship between kneeling and achievement in such a way as to present subservient wifely marital genuflection as a desirable behaviour for women to exhibit.

My second concern is that such marital genuflection statements indicate adherence to patriarchal norms on the part of the women who utter them.  Included in these patriarchal norms is the norm of women’s non-achievement.  In essence, such statements declare that “I should not be achieving in this way as a woman.  Therefore, in spite of my boldness against patriarchy outside the home, I still concede to patriarchy inside the home.”  It is as though women come to plead that they have not denied the essence of patriarchy because, in spite of public ascent to power and influence, they still subscribe to patriarchal norms in the private sphere.  This points to the domestic space as a bastion of patriarchy and also reinforces my earlier observation that patriarchy is built upon a concept of women as private property designed to enhance masculine experience.  Such marital genuflection statements thus amount to an acknowledgement of deviation from patriarchal norms and a petition not to be punished for this deviation because the norms are upheld for the benefit of the masculine entity in the private sphere.

There is a reason why the media distribute statements by powerful African women who say that in spite of their positions, they still kneel to their husbands.  As women we feminists are being told, “This is the kind of woman you should be.  It is the kneelers who are elevated in society.”  Patriarchal media work to produce the kind of subservient women that patriarchy requires.  It is a not-so-subtle form of brainwashing.  I am sure there are many successful women in our societies who do not kneel to their husbands, but the patriarchal media does not tell us about these kinds of women.  The voices that are amplified are the voices of the kneelers.

On the other hand, I could be wrong.  It could be that women in high position who do not kneel to their husbands do not talk about it.  If this is the case, that successful women in high position who do not kneel do not talk, we need to ask why these women do not speak.  We need to inquire what it is that silences these women’s voices,  that allows other women to speak and to be heard.  If that is the case, it is high time they did, and high time that such voices were amplified.

The reason is that patriarchy invests heavily in amplifying voices that configure women as assets.  It is my experience in my work that astute African feminists engaged in the amplification of African feminists’ voices struggle in their work of amplifying these African feminist voices.  I have noticed that rather than amplify voices and create a socially accessible feminist narrative, emphasis is on building up bureaucratic institutions that do not engage at the level of narrative that is accessible and therefore impactful on the public.

Now, I ask you, please, to indulge me with answers to a couple of questions.  This question is directed to the women in here.  We could also ask it of the men, but I will just stick to the women.  The question is, how many of the women in here are feminist?  Thank you for showing your hands.  Please stand up.  Thank you – so all the women standing are the ones who are the feminists in this room.  Now, here’s the second part to the question.    I would like to know how many of you feminists who are standing do or would kneel to your husband or partner?  If you do or would kneel, remain standing.  If you do not or would not kneel, please sit down.  Can I have a chair please!

Thank you.  Thank you.  Going by the results of that little inquiry, I would say that women who endorse marital genuflection are by and large not feminists, and that feminists by and large do not endorse marital genuflection. It follows that as they are not marital genuflectionists, feminists are unlikely to be valued or desired by conservative patriarchal society.  This is why feminists are marginalised, deprived of access to resources and sustainable livelihoods as I described earlier, and why their voices are stifled.  This is because feminists do not have value to the many forms of conservative patriarchal society that they live in.

While this marginalisation by patriarchy, the stifling of voice and lack of access to resources and sustainable livelihoods that is constructed by patriarchy is true for all women, it is more true for feminists than it is for women who do not identify as feminist; and among feminists it is more true for feminists who live and work in resource-scarce environments such as the environments that many African feminists work in.  The question of how we, as African feminists, sustain ourselves and our work in our conservative societies is a profoundly serious question in our needy African environments.  It is a question on which our very lives as feminists, and the lives of our children, and the lives of others who rely on us for their well-being, depend.


The title of today’s keynote was given to me as “Feminist Survival in Conservative Society”.  However, I have, on purpose, changed the goal post.  While I have spoken of survival and the threats to our survival as feminists, through silencing, exclusion from resources and commodification of womanhood, I have also spoken of the need for feminists to be joyous, to experience uplifting community and collegiality.  I have spoken of the need to sustain our livelihoods and stated that our work should be valued and resourced.  In doing so, I speak of more than survival.  I speak of sustainability and more – of thriving and of flourishing in our work and as human beings.  I speak of these things acknowledging that they occur rarely in our conservative societies.

The exclusion of feminists from work, and thus from sustainability and thriving and flourishing, is, like divide and rule, a far reaching tactic of conservative society.  Work is creative.  Work produces.  Effort that does not produce is not work.  It is slavery.  Work is a manifestation of power.  Work is impossible where there is no power.  To take away feminist women’s opportunity to work is to take away their power.

There are different kinds of work.   In the material world, we work with our hands, with tools, and with machines.  Such material work produces our commodities – our mealie meal, our sanitary pads, our baby’s diapers, our gadgets etcetera.  Because commodities are valuable to us, we exchange what we already possess in a material way for these commodities.

There is, on the other hand, an immaterial world.  This world is not solid.  You cannot see it or touch it.  This is the world of our inner capacities.  It is the world of our intellect, hearts, minds, and souls.  In this immaterial world, work produces ideas.  Ideas have the capacity to inspire people.  Ideas are not engaged with not physically.  They are engaged with the same capacities that generate them: the intellect, the heart, the mind, and the soul.  Ideas, by their nature, have the potential to breathe energy and life into the intellect, hearts, minds, and souls of human beings.

In the same way that it is necessary for conservative patriarchal society to keep feminists unable to control the production of commodities and thus render us unable to gather material value to ourselves, it is also imperative for the same conservative patriarchal society to ensure that feminists are prevented from germinating and incubating feminist ideas, lest these feminist ideas inspire and breathe energy and life, into other humans.

When ideas are developed and extended, they develop into theory.  The work we do with our hands, tools, and machines that is based on feminist theory is the work of feminist activism.  A couple of years ago, in a lecture on African Women’s Activism to mark International Women’s Day, I spoke about some of the differences between women’s activism and feminism.  One difference between feminism and activism that I emphasised is this difference between theory and practice.

Theory is based on ideas.  Activism, on the other hand, is based on actions, on practice.  One can go to a march, without great understanding of the issues involved.  One can choose to go to this march or to that march and how frequently one marches.

To be a feminist, however, one has to possess an understanding of the systematic ways in which patriarchy privileges traits, thought patterns, attitudes, and behaviours that are categorised as masculine.  One also has to understand how traits, thought patterns, attitudes, and behaviours that are categorised as feminine are marginalised by patriarchal systems.  It is necessary to understand how these systems normalises that which is masculine, while otherising and devaluing the feminine.  Once (an) understanding of the destructive systems and patterns of patriarchy has been created in a person’s mind and accepted by that person, the person can no longer unsee the patriarchal system.  It is not possible to be a part-time feminist.  Feminists are created by engaging with the discourse of feminism as presented in the many and increasing forms of feminist theory.

Theory is thus the result of an internal creative process.  It is the result of the use of the imagination.  A feminists’ theory is that if I act to change people’s perceptions about gender we will enjoy a more equitable world.  This theory motivates our feminist action.  It is our feminist theory that comes from our feminist ideas in our feminist imagination that prompts our feminist action.

At the same time, as African feminists, our creative engagement with our world produces other kinds of products based on our ideas that are not necessarily theory.  We write tweets, short stories, novels.  We create visual art and sculpture.  We perform on stage.  We sing and make music. We design clothes, buildings, and bridges, to name just a few things that we do with our creative feminist energy.  Each of these our creative products reproduce our feminist idea of the world.  They stand up and say, “Here, this what I have seen.  This is my representation of the world.”

It is precisely these feminist representations of the world that patriarchal, conservative societies seeks to veto, because these feminist representations of the world are accessible to other human beings in a way that academic discourse is not.  And, unlike academic discourse, such feminist representations re alive with feminist power.  It is very difficult for patriarchal conservative society to refute such feminist narratives on objective grounds without revealing its oppressive nature. Therefore patriarchal, conservative society, through its control of societal production systems, quietly works to limit the numbers of such narratives that are available to the public.


Through our inner creative work, we feminists imagine a world.  We imagine a world where, in the words of Reni-Eddo Lodge, in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race Anymore, “all people who have been economically, socially and culturally marginalised by an ideological system” are liberated from the destructive effects of divisive, ranking ideologies.  Eddo-Lodge points out that feminist liberation refers and is available not only to women, but to “disabled people, black people, LGBTQ people, and working-class people”.


We see that the work of true feminists on the African continent is not to gather the advantages that patriarchal distributes to masculine society to themselves or women only.  The work of true feminists is to ensure that patriarchal systems of privilege based on specific group membership are dismantled in their entirety. Eddo-Lodge goes on to note that “The idea of campaigning for equality must be complicated if we are to untangle the situation that we are in.” (p181)  Therefore it is immensely challenging work indeed, that we African feminists have signed up for.  Challenging work of this nature can only be successful when an agenda for its undertaking is agreed upon.

Carrying out our feminist work in our complicated, dangerous environments depends wholly on feminist women, and other feminists, using our minds and all other creative capacities – our hearts, minds, spirits, and souls – to manifest spaces of feminist thriving and thriving feminist work in today’s conservative world.

Stimulating and tapping into the imagination of feminists is critical for bringing feminist contributions to society to fruition.  This is so because tapping into the feminist imaginary deposits feminist representations of the world into societies and communities, enabling these feminist representations of the world to influence other people’s thinking and imagining in the direction of a feminist egalitarian world.


When the term representation is mentioned on the African continent, most people think of political representation. There are discussions during elections about the number of female counsellors, mayors, parliamentarians, presidents and candidates that the continent boasts. Yet there is little concern for how many women are present in the creative economy, what their roles in this economy are and whether they are empowered to produce the narratives in these creative economies that present their view of the world, so that this feminist view of the world may impact on other people.

Here, it is important to emphasise that while creative representations of the world work at the level of ideas, they also work at the level of economics.  The creative economy is one of the fastest growing economies on the planet.  Therefore, empowering feminists to produce their representations of the world is effective not only at the level of ideas but also at the economic levels of sustainability, thriving and flourishing.  Economically empowered feminists on the African continent are better positioned to disseminate more of their ideas further and to sustain other feminist women in their work.


To wind up, then, let me recap a few of the points I have made this morning.  Firstly, thinking of ourselves as feminists in terms of surviving is to do ourselves a disservice.  We need to embrace and affirm our right to sustainable livelihoods and to thriving.

Secondly, we need safe meetings places such as this Feminart Arts and Book Festival, and other such gatherings on the continent, where we feel safe enough to interrogate, together with other feminists, the matters that impinge on our well-being, and where our energies and passion are regenerated.

Thirdly, we must unleash our imagination in every way available to us.  We must unleash our imaginations in order to bring forth into this world representations of the way in which we, as feminists, perceive and experience the world.  It is also our task to use our imaginations in order to bring forth representations of the world we work towards, in which demographic group membership is no longer a basis of inclusion or exclusion from well-being.

Finally, we need to agree on an agenda as feminists.  Voices and messengers will be sent to distract us from our work and objectives.  These voices will include the voices of other women.  The messengers will often be other women also – women who have bought into oppressive patriarchal society in diverse ways.

While we perceive these voices and messengers with compassion that arises from understanding borne out of feminist theory, when it comes to our practice we must ignore these voices and messages.  Rather, whenever feminists come together as a group, whether these are neighbourhood groups, city groups, provincial or national groups, regional or continental groups, let us set an agenda, build consensus around it and leave whatever gathering we have come to with a concrete plan and concrete actions to undertake towards not only our survival, but towards our flourishing in our work creating a more egalitarian world.

Thank you for your attention.

You can read more about the Feminart Arts and Book Festival 2019 here.


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