African Feminism & Dignity
Calling for a #DignifiedResponse to Covid-19 on Twitter
“Is there a support mechanism to ensure that as we respond Covid, I don’t compromise my Dignity, I’m not exposed to abuse, oppression etc. And that’s the campaign we have been running for the past one month now.” – Mwanahamisi Singano
As governments race to respond to coronavirus and its ensuing humanitarian consequences, many people have been left out. What would a #dignifiedresponse to coronavirus look like?
At the end of April, FEMNET, an African feminist organization, launched a campaign asking just that. In a series of Twitter conversations, 706 users made 1,700 posts on that hashtag. Those tweeters made clear that “#DignifiedResponse is a MUST”, “because human dignity is above everything.” We analysed those Tweets (using the Vicinitas analytics tool) and spoke to FEMNET Head of Programmes Mwanahamisi Singano, to understand what dignity looks like to African feminists, in the midst of a public health emergency.
The conversations suggested that:
- Female health and work are especially related to dignity
- Police violence violates dignity
- Dignity means listening to everyone’s stories
- All of this is feminist.
Female health and work are especially related to dignity
Responding to FEMNET’s campaigns, many tweeters argued that a dignified response would be one that attends to the challenges faced by women. Respondents highlighted violence against women (and the closure of refuges in lockdown), menstrual hygiene, and medical care in pregnancy and childbirth. Others focused on basic needs, highlighting that women may need particular support when it comes to (informal sector) income, food prices, masks, and employment protections. These areas were mentioned far more often than (for example) education, energy, or water.
@mariamalom: #DignifiedResponse means existence of shelters for survivors of violence, access to SRHR services for women & girls, availability of food and supplies for those living below poverty line especially women & girls & lowering of prices for essential items liken “Unga” for accessibility.
This reinforces the evidence that some areas – female health and work – have a particular relationship to popular perceptions of dignity that other development priorities do not – though naturally all sorts of development processes can be more or less respectful. To achieve really respectful development, Singano said, the response of governments must be transformational – something that chimes with prior experimental research showing that small acts of respectfulness do not have significant effects.
Police violence violates dignity
The most widely circulated Tweet on the hashtag related to an incident in the Kenyan city of Kisumu, in which citizens protested the arrest of a man for not wearing a mask, by police who were themselves maskless.
@MuangePJunior: Congratulations Kisumu residents,Twitter DCI has got the wind of the story & we’re working tirelessly to bring the police officers to book ! We’ll give a #DignifiedResponse soon.
This was one of a series of incidents in which Kenyan police attempted to enforce public health measures through arbitrary violence. FEMNET’s Mwanahamisi Singano explained that resisting this sort of violence had been inherent to the campaign from the very start: “it was fueled by the militarization of the state to force people into the lockdown or the forced curfew.” Since then, Black Lives Matter protests have exploded across the world following the killing of George Floyd. Protests in Nairobi (building on longstanding campaigns against police violence by the Social Justice Centre network) used the language of dignity – and were in turn met by still more police violence.
In earlier research by the Dignity Project with the Mathare Social Justice Centre, police killings were identified as one of the most pressing violations of dignity faced by poor Nairobians. Singano echoed that research, noting that though everyone has the inbuilt capability to be respectful, not everyone gets the right nurturing environment that allows them to practice that respect. In this discussion of the capability to show respect, both Singano and our Mathare participants diverge significantly from the Western philosophical literature, which insists we all ought to show respect without investigating whether people may lack the resources to do so.
Dignity means listening to everyone’s stories
Tweeters made clear that listening is at the heart of a dignified response. Several tweets urged governments to practice “two-way communication”. Many urged governments to include women and people with disabilities in their planning. Singano emphasised this point: “we do believe that Dignified Response needs to be inclusive…We also believe that Dignified Response needs to be just, it shouldn’t in any way undermine one group over the other.” In this regard, many tweets lauded FEMNET’s ‘Pan-African Women, Girls & Activists COVID-19 Response Plan’ website, and in particular its ‘My Story’ section, as a place to share and raise up the voices of those who might otherwise be left out. FEMNET’s Singano said she had been especially struck by listening to the stories of disabled women: “We had heartbreaking stories, stories from women with disabilities saying you know. You’re telling all of us not to hold hands and to keep the distance but the only way for me to move is for somebody to hold my hand, you’re telling me to stay meters away etc., to wash hands what if I don’t have hands, what if I use my hands to walk?”
@rkagoiy: True! #DignifiedResponse means listening – DEEPLY LISTENING to the realities, priorities & experiences of the most marginalized in our communities – and TAKING ACTION!
FEMNET is specifically a pan-African organization, and the campaign attracted Tweets from many different African countries. Though Kenyans were perhaps the most prolific users of the hashtag, the popular Tanzanian activist Maria Sarungi Tsehai shared it, as did Gaddo, the satirical cartoonist who publishes across East Africa, as well as contributors from Gambia, Sudan and eSwatini. One important element of listening, Singano said, was always ensuring that voices from across Africa were heard. Indeed, the roots of the campaign lay partly in FEMNET’s frustrations at being excluded from the meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women, and wanting to ensure that there was a strong Global South voice in the construction of coronavirus responses.
“We are the people in the continent, we were founded in the values around Ubuntu and that was our rallying ideology over the years and that’s why for example Kwame Nkrumah was king to fight colonialism in Kenya or in South Africa. We never had boundaries then because we had an ideology which we all share that you are because I am and that there is Ubuntu…we are one in our holiness despite the boundaries, despite the color, despite the sex, we are Africans and that’s it. And over the years that has been derailed, over the years now I’m a Kenyan…and they don’t have an interest of what is happening in Tanzania or Tanzanians are my enemies etc. So when we subscribed to the values which divide us, which bring barriers, which makes me superior or tells me for me to be successful I have to undermine and exploit others then we end up living an undignified life.” – Mwanahamisi Singano
Listening is a potentially potent strategy for ensuring that people are properly respected – the topic of future experimental research by The Dignity Project.
All of this is feminist
Singano argued that dignity had served a useful purpose, as a flexible campaign term that could be applied to many different areas. Yet more than that, she drew a direct link between dignity and feminism. “The choice of the word Dignity is because, one, we are a women’s rights organization, but also we are a feminist organization and the question of dignity comes at the core of our being.” Her exploration of the links between feminism and recognition respect are worth quoting in full:
“In feminism we embrace the question of Dignity because that is the core of women owning women, and their body, their mind, and their soul…It brings back to holiness of women, holiness of femininity and the right to be, and the ‘freedom from’ but also ‘freedom to’. So in the feminism, pan-African feminism to which I pledge my allegiance, we do say our famous saying that, “I’m a Feminist, no ifs no buts, no however”, and that calls everyone to treat me for who I am without an exception and without qualifiers, and that’s where the question of dignity comes. So everyone has to be accorded the highest level of respect, the highest level of support without qualifiers and that’s all I call dignity.”
In its insistence on an ethic of care, and in the way it demands that each person be heard and fully valued, dignity has a close relationship with much feminist thinking.
Dignity clearly resonates with a wide audience of African feminists, whose views on dignity have rarely been studied. In her centering of Ubuntu, Singano follows Motsamai Molefe and other thinkers in proposing a distinctive African conception of dignity. That conception chimes with the definitions of less wealthy Nairobians, and with philosophical work by people like Remy Debes. It is feminist, centers inclusion and listening, posits female health and work as having a special relationship to dignity – and names police violence as the essential violation of it.
Nanjala Nyabola has written that “Digital spaces have increasingly become part of Africa’s popular energy”. The #DignifiedResponse campaign has been warmly received by African feminists on Twitter – and does seem to be getting results. Singano reports that the Kenyan government has been receptive to their advocacy to protect women in informal work, while the AU at the very least has listened.
We thank all the contributors to the #DignifiedResponse hashtag, and especially Mwanahamisi Singano and her sisters at FEMNET, for their dedicated advocacy. In this time of crisis, injustices are exposed, and sometimes they are righted. Dignity can be a puissant frame in those campaigns.
If you would like to support FEMNET’s urgent work, you can do so here.