Questioning Feminism in Zambia

Nana Zulu

It’s not easy to identify yourself as a feminist in Zambia. You risk violent backlash or isolation in your community, workplace, and relationships. For Nana Zulu, her first contact with JASS in 2009 raised the question: What does it mean to be a feminist in Zambia today?

Looking back, Nana recalls this civil-society gathering in Lusaka in 2009 as a key moment on her journey. She was struck by the radicalism of Central American feminists in a video that JASS showed, and began to make connections with her own situation. When she went on to attend JASS training institutes in 2010, Nana noticed how learning about practical methodologies shifted things.

The discussion made me think about my own personal life and how decisions were made for me, like the pressure to get married and have babies. And in the workplace, even though I was running a program for women, all of my superiors were men! The JASS power analysis helped me to understand ‘power over’ as something structural, not just this or that individual being difficult.”

In this welcoming environment of the workshop, the young women began to talk about sexual pleasure alongside the reproductive health topics that Nana had worked on for some time. The censoring effect of patriarchy, Nana realized, reaches across every level of a woman’s life.

When we got there, the room was laid out very formally with conference tables. Shamillah, the facilitator, immediately said, ‘We have to move the tables.’ I thought, this woman is crazy but then I realized that just changing the set-up made people feel safer and made the space more interactive. If we felt tired, we could lie on the floor or take off our shoes. It was the first time a workshop invited me to open up.” 

She brought these new insights and ways of thinking into her work context, beginning at Youth Vision Zambia (YVZ) and later at Women and Law in Southern Africa. The Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), a collaboration between YVZ and JASS, involved a hard-won battle for women-only spaces.

  • The questions tackled by the YWLA are valuable ones for all young feminists:
  • What does it mean to be a feminist within a culture or religion at odds with women’s freedoms?
  • How has NGO-ization sculpted the way we think of feminist work?
  • What does it mean to be a “good, young Zambian woman”?
  • How can young women mobilize as feminists for positive change?

Post-colonial Zambia is a complex mix of forces. Globalization and neoliberal policies sit side by side with nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and a conservative culture that reinforces traditional gender norms. The rich history of women’s rights work in the country has been diluted by “gender mainstreaming” and NGO-ization. For younger women of Nana’s age, the older generation of activists and thinkers seem to have been muted. The most contentious issues continue to be abortion and the identity and rights of LGBTI people: complicated for some young women who identify as feminist and Christian. There are no simple answers. What provides Nana with a foundation is the sense of her own “power within”. “Even what we feel is our weakness,” she says, “can actually prove to be a strength.”

Generation Alive generation-alive-zambia

Nana and others involved in the YWLA wanted to move beyond workshops and towards collective action, creating new spaces where a new generation can find their own voices. They formed Generation Alive - a group of passionate young feminists asserting a feminist agenda for change in Zambia - as a step towards feminist movement-building. The group’s first concrete objectives are:

  • to ascertain the number of women in leadership positions in NGOs, political institutions, faith-based groups and the private sector;
  • to organize to ensure women’s participation in the 2016 elections; and
  • to create a safe space for women to take discussions further on sexual health and rights, economic independence, work culture and more.

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