How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Having studied at an all-girls school for most of my life, it was always amazing that the punchline to this joke was almost always guaranteed a laugh.

Even at a school dedicated to the advancement of African women in postcolonial Kenya, the idea of feminism appeared to translate to radicalism and images of bra-burning rallies. So if someone told me two years ago that I would be wading into a discussion on the label "feminism" I would probably have laughed in their face. Being called a feminist was usually a setup to a disparaging observation about the state of one's personal life. For instance Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan to win the Nobel prize and long recognised as a feminist and hailed as a heroine in the west, was received in Kenya in a manner that can best be described as lukewarm.

Yet, Kenyan women are believed to be among the most liberated, certainly on the African continent. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), using measures of development adjusted to account for gender, only 54 of 155 countries for which statistics are available outperform Kenya with regards to gender parity in development. This implies that the average Kenyan woman is more likely to be educated, and to a higher level than many of her African and indeed global counterparts. Similarly in Kenya, female-headed enterprises (from large distilleries and multimillion-dollar megachurches to tiny stalls selling vegetables) are not unusual. So how could a country where women are able to achieve so much have such an ambiguous relationship with an "empowering" label?

The Kenyan situation is not unusual. In many parts of the global south, women are rejecting the baggage that comes with western feminism. I believe this has to do with how it has defined what women want, and how to go about getting it. This is hardly a new criticism. For decades, "minority" women have argued that western feminism is the preserve of white, middle-class women, and does not fight the battles of women with other racial or economic backgrounds. Qualified feminism – third-world feminism, postcolonial feminism, chicana feminism – emerged as a rejection of this homogenising approach to liberation, as many women felt that their double burden – gender as well as racial or economic – was being overlooked.

In the modern world, economics has for the most part supplanted race as the primary basis for exclusion and discrimination in all societies. And while western feminists have by and large succeeded in achieving a substantial level of social and economic freedom, their counterparts in other parts of the world continue to struggle. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, described as "rape capital of the world", women are not only suffering unequal access to education or economic empowerment, they also suffer significant threats to their personal security on a daily basis because of a war fought primarily between men. For these women, rage against religion, for instance, seems hollow and distracting, as that is often the only institution that will stay and rebuild long after the government and the UN and other civil society actors have moved on.

The priorities of western and developing world feminists differ. Even in countries where the threat of imminent war is absent, the economic oppression of women by patriarchal economic institutions persists. The Economist noted that in Burundi, women are the social and economic powerhouses of their society, sustaining their families with apparently nothing more than a tenacious desire to see their children do better. However, they are still forbidden from inheriting land and many are exposed to the threat of beatings or rape. In Bangladesh, the vast majority of the workers in the export processing zones are women. Yet the cost of being the engines for the economic growth of their country is that women are more likely to be uneducated in Bangladesh than in just about any other south Asian country.

Nonetheless, these feminisms are not diametrically opposed. All feminism has so far proven itself better at identifying oppression than in identifying freedom – and it is in this gap that the debates arise. To western feminists, freedom has come to mean, among other things, sexual liberation. Try to transpose a similar approach to other parts of the world and you'll find that most women see this as another form of sexual exploitation and oppression, pointing out that true freedom involves the freedom from sexualisation.

These positions, while miles apart, are not irreconcilable: both inherently recognise that some form of social oppression is denying women the right to exist as whole human beings, rather than purely sexual or asexual objects.

This desire for a holistic appreciation of womanhood is the true essence of feminism, and an excellent place to begin in bringing the disparate schools of feminism back on the same page. It is in the interests of all feminists to reject oppression as defined by those who experience it, rather than focusing on pointing fingers or claiming superiority over other groups.

How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? It doesn't matter, as long as we all recognise that the lightbulb needs changing.

Published Monday 16 August 2010

With Obi Anyadike for IRIN

Sudan is a lynchpin in the flow of migrants out of Africa. It is also a serial human rights abuser. For a European Union keen to throttle that flow, it’s an unfortunate combination.Sudan is already benefitting from a $45 million regional programme to “better manage migration” in the Horn of Africa, under the European Commission’s $2 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.The EC has also announced a $112 million aid package “to address root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement” in Darfur, east Sudan, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The problem is that the Sudanese military is involved in much of the instability in those regions.

“Sudan is not only important as a major transit route north to Europe, it is also a producer of migrants,” said Magnus Taylor, Horn of Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“But if your job is to stop people arriving in Europe and to come up with a deal to reduce those numbers, then your interest in the internal politics of Sudan may be secondary.”
A string of media reports has condemned the EU’s agreement with a government that for 26 years has been headed by President Omar al-Bashir, a man charged with genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. The conflict in Darfur alone has uprooted 2.6 million people, despite a UN arms embargo.


 For Foreign Affairs

In a stirring dirge for victims of a lynching, Billie Holliday mourns the strange fruit borne by Southern trees. “Blood on the leaves, and blood at the roots” she laments, “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. ” More



NAIROBI — One day in 2014, university students Felix Nyangena and Dennis Magomere, 21 and 22 years old respectively, were walking from the Globe Cinema roundabout in Nairobi’s central business district to the nearby offices of the Higher Education Loans Board, a government agency that oversees financial disbursements to students. More

Debating Daadab

For the New African

On 11 April 2015, Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto announced his intention to have Dadaab refugee camp – the largest refugee camp in Africa and until the Syrian war, the largest in the world – closed in three months.  More

The politics of identity and belonging in Kenya


For Aljazeera

When I was 18 years old, I went along with my classmates to the local chief's office to apply for my national identity card. Like most Kenyan high schools, every year, the members of the final class were taken to the nearest chief's camp and guided by a supervising teacher through the process of applying for the card. More

The Standing Vote

For The New Inquiry

IMAGINE a stand-off between the police and a group of protesters that extended beyond two hundred days during an election year and culminated with a handful of teenagers being shot in the face with rubber bullets and bean bags–but which didn’t receive wall to wall coverage, and to which neither major presidential candidate was compelled to respond. More


About Me

Photo Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola

Writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst.

"The goal of the critical scholar is not to separate one struggle from another, but to connect them." Edward Said, Orientalism

In Print

World Policy Journal

Heinrich Böll Stiftung


Institute for Security Studies