Gender, Protest and Political Change in Africa: A conversation with Dr Awino Okech


By: 
Sultana Mapker

JASS recently had the pleasure to talk to our board co-chair Dr. Awino Okech about her edited book, ‘Gender, Protests and Political Change in Africa’ published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2020.  Dr. Okech is a feminist scholar and trusted facilitator among many international organizations and brings over 12 years’ experience on social transformation in Eastern Africa, the Great Lakes region, and South Africa. Broadly, the book brings together conceptual debates on the nature of state-building, youth, and gender in Africa, through case studies from Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Burundi, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, and Senegal.

Gender, Protests and Political Change in Africa’ is a book close to Awino’s heart. The inspiration to create this body of work began in 2016 when she moved to the UK to take up a job at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS.

There was a lot of excitement about the Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa and their connection to debates on decolonisation that were raging in UK Universities. I was struck by the fact that UK academics who were coming to these debates seemed to frame decolonisation of universities in Africa in ahistorical terms – as a process emerging in 2015 from South Africa and not one based on longer histories of struggles for academic freedom in universities in Africa. This was one impetus for the book. One chapter pays attention to the history of university students and youth in challenging autocracies in Africa. At the same time, Zimbabwe was going through its own processes of change with the ‘ThisFlag’ movement, the Burkinabes had successfully pushed out Blaise Compaoré and many other citizen-led resistance”, explains Awino. These events and many others across Africa propelled the beginnings of this edited book. “I wanted to understand how these events were contributing to rewriting how citizens saw change and transformation in their contexts.

Awino was committed to bringing together feminist activists and young scholars who were either working or thinking about these issues. In the higher education sector, there is an unwritten rule that you should draw on established names’ when writing on an issue so that your work can be taken seriously or considered credible among scholars in that field. "I was clear in joining the academy that my political task would be to create space for younger scholars and feminist thinkers to build intellectual legacies, otherwise I would be part of creating a cycle of unnecessary gatekeeping. As someone who spent a season of her life working in the development sector and continues to actively work with movement support organisations, I am alive to the depth of analysis and experiences that reside in these spaces. I was intent on bridge-building. To ensure that activist voices were not just case studies bound up in analysis by an academic but that they were the analysts."

As a feminist scholar, Awino also wanted to centre gender analysis in the book. While there are books on citizen-led engagement and protests in Africa, a feminist analysis is largely missing from these debates. "For instance, take Egypt and the collective labour to push Mubarak out, yet in Tahrir Square, we saw all forms of sexual violence, harassment and the disappearance of many women’s rights gains after Mubarak’s fall. Most chapters in the book push us to think about how we transform social justice movements given how patriarchy and misogyny circulate in so called progressive spaces. In addition, how do we sustain gender equality concerns during moments of revolution? How do we ensure gender quality issues don’t disappear? What are the factors that contribute to the disappreance of gender equality demands?"

When asked about what conceptual questions the book raises, Awino argues that each of the moments discussed in the chapters are opportunities to reconsider what success in movement building looks like. “More often than not, activists, argue that we have not yet achieved the kinds of change and transformation that we want because the radical visions we imagine are not here yet. When we do that, we ignore and minimise the discursive and policy shifts that happen at any moment for instance pushing for equitable education or shutting down cities to demand greater accountability for violence and therefore bodily autonomy. We need to recognise that those moments are important political shifts in this long journey of transformation we are working towards.”

The book further poses questions about what it means to embody protest and how feminist activists have subverted or created opportunities for movements to have deep conversations around misogyny and toxic masculinity. “This idea of opening up spaces for debate and engagement on feminism and pushing back against misogyny in protest movements is an important contribution. It also offers an opportunity for feminist activists to reflect on how this work can occur in a much more sustained way.  

Linking to the current moment characterised by the COVID-19 global pandemic, imminent economic recession and the Black Lives Matter movement, Awino shared relevant insights the book can offer. The book encourages readers to think deeply about questions of collective care and invisible labour that is often ignored in protest movements, yet it is essential to the success of movements and is equally key to the burnout of activists. “I think in the US context, in particular, organisers are much more deliberate about paying attention to care, security and preparing for protest action, which is a legacy from the civil rights movement. We are not that deliberate on the African continent and this is an important lesson to take away because at least three chapters in the book reflect on these issues. This is key given the discussions on police brutality and militarisation that have resurfaced strongly given some African governments use of violence to manage the spread of COVID-19 and curtail dissent emanating from citizens.”

Awino ended the conversation by sharing what she hopes readers can take away from the book.“I live by the principle that there are lessons to be learnt from our pasts. The chapters in this book reflect on struggles for freedom and equality that have happened in Africa’s recent past. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we must look to the lessons from these struggles as a basis to plot for future struggles. A book of this nature reminds feminist organisers to be deliberate in how we foreground conversations on collective care, misogyny, strategy, and safety from the beginning. It also reminds feminist organisers to be intentional about strategizing for feminist power because gender equality issues will always disappear. This is how patriarchy and its bedfellows white supremacy and capitalism work.”

If you would like to delve deeper into the edited collection click on the following link, https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9783030463427#aboutBook. Dr. Okech notes that she is working on getting the book made freely available through open access.