Engaging with African feminist interpretations of the maternal

Published in Social Sciences and Public Health

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

There is increased advocacy for reclaiming subjugated knowledge that has been pushed to the margins of modern society, and highlighting knowledge predicated on the diversity of humanity. In line with the 2024 theme of International Women’s Day which calls for investments in women’s health, the WHO Africa highlights the importance of pushing forward with a gender agenda towards the improvement of maternal health, and women’s health more broadly [1]. I argue that a gender agenda provides the stimulus for engaging with knowledge from the margins or what feminist author Patricia Hill Collins [2] refers to as subjugated knowledge. Subjugated knowledge in this case refers to African women’s lived experiences that have been routinely distorted or discounted. Feminist interpretations of African women’s experiences serve as lenses to understand social structures and mechanisms impacting maternal health and well-being.

One of the most intense debates among African feminists occurs around interpretations of motherhood and its relationship with patriarchal culture. Some feminists argue that the valorization of motherhood serves as an essentialist marker for female authenticity within patriarchal cultures [3]. Others deconstruct motherhood beyond the act of childbirth and childcare stating that motherhood is not an institution constructed by the patriarchy, but an experience created by women as an act of freedom and self-determination [4,5]. Admittedly, to engage with marginal discourse or acknowledge subjugated knowledge is to wrestle with such contradictions [4]. Nonetheless, African feminist writers invite us to rethink the legitimacy of representations of motherhood foregrounded in mainstream culture and centre the experiences of African women.

The mother figure is revered and idealized throughout African societies and cultures reflecting strong pronatalist values. African feminist scholar Ifi Amadiume [6] explains that motherhood is viewed as sacred in African traditions and societies. Nkolika Aniekwu  [7] concurs and emphasizes the agency of African women as defenders of their rights to motherhood. In African feminist literary works, the mother as a metaphor has been used to elevate and celebrate women’s roles in society while deconstructing symbolisms that debase women in masculine-ordered discourses [8]. Similarly, Nortje-Meyer[5] describes mothering as an inherently African way of care that also includes non-maternal care provided to a group or community.

African feminists are troubled by the theorized association between motherhood and victimhood, theories that  African feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí  [9] argues find their origins in Western epistemes that are based on rigid dichotomies such as the mind/body. The mind (often regarded as male) is exalted as a site of reason and restraint and the body (often regarded as female) is demeaned as a site of irrationality, and moral corruption [10]. These dichotomies define the structuring principle of Western societies along gender binaries-man/woman.

In Indigenous African societies, rigid gender ideology do not necessarily guide social organizing and women have been shown to take on roles of authority and power. Oyěwùmí highlights chronological age and position within the family as organizing principles in some African societies. Seniority, she explains, is the dominant language of power in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture, therefore elderly women, based on their chronological age and status as mothers, wield significant power in society [9]. Oyěwùmí’s assertions confirm earlier descriptions of women’s influence in society. Ifi  Amadiume [6] illustrated the socio-cultural significance of elderly mothers who were shown to wield considerable power in formal and informal settings to negotiate and safeguard women’s interests. The elderly women were considered above patriarchal control and therefore had access to spaces and roles monopolized by men. It is worth noting that in African contexts, all women are considered mothers, even if they do not have their own biological children, this suggests the influence of all elderly women [4]. Aniekwu [7] concurs that while male dominance is assumed at many levels of society including domestic spheres, there continues to be pre and post-colonial evidence of high-level women, especially older women, in political, economic and domestic spheres that represent women’s interests.

African feminist interpretations have implications for discourses surrounding maternal health. For example, maternal health programs predicted on a gender framework may erroneously attribute household decision-making power to only men while ignoring the influence of elderly mothers and mother figures. The evidence of older women’s influence on household maternal and child health matters remains constant. Earlier feminist writings showed older women’s role in safeguarding maternal health in informal spaces; within their families, elderly mothers in Igbo communities of Nigeria enforced traditional rules that supported child spacing. They also enforced traditional rules that protected women from domestic violence [6]. Similar examples show that older women are influential in changing harmful norms that negatively impact maternal health such as abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting [11,12]. Furthermore, African feminist understandings of motherhood elevate the concerns of mothers in their diversity. As Bernedette Muthien[13] explains, matricentric practices that exist across the African continent value mothers as the source of life and creation and are rooted in principles of spirituality in healing and care activities. The importance of spirituality in matricentric societies speaks to the need for spiritual support within maternal healthcare services, a necessity that African women desire but has long been ignored in maternal healthcare [14].

African feminists are actively resisting assumptions about the homogeneity of women’s experiences and challenging assumptions of commonality in feminist expressions. Understanding motherhood in African contexts entails unlearning oppressive dimensions of motherhood as defined by the West. Engaging with ancient and existing knowledge on motherhood is important given the continued centrality of motherhood in African contexts. Feminist interpretations enrich this knowledge and serve as lenses to understand social structures and mechanisms impacting maternal health and well-being. 


[1] WHO, “International Women’s Day 2024,” International Women’s Day 2024 | WHO | Regional Office for Africa, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://www.afro.who.int/regional-director/speeches-messages/international-womens-day-2024. [Accessed: 15-Mar-2024].

[2] P. H. Collins, Black feminist thought : knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment, Second. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

[3] P. McFadden, “African feminist perspectives of post-coloniality,” Black Scholar, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 36–42, 2007.

[4] O. Nnaemeka, “Imag ( in ) ing knowledge , power , and subversion in the margins,” in The Politics of (M)Othering L Womanhood, Identity and Resistance in African Literature, 1st ed., O. Nnaemeka, Ed. London: Routledge, 1996, pp. 1–25.

[5] S. J. Nortjé-Meyer, “Mutual-mothering as wise living or living wisely,” HTS Teol. Stud. / Theol. Stud., vol. 73, no. 4, pp. 1–6, 2017.

[6] I. Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex In African Society. London and New Jersey: ZED BOOKS, 1987.

[7] N. Aniekwu, “Converging constructions: A historical perspective on sexuality and feminism in post-colonial Africa,” African Sociol. Rev., vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 143–160, 2006.

[8] O. Oha, “Culture and gender semantics in Flora Nwapa’s poetry,” Writ. African Women, no. 2017, 2021..

[9] O. Oyěwùmí, “The Invention of Women,” Making an African sense of Western gender discourses. 1997.

[10] B. Bakare-Yusuf, “YORUBA’S DON’T DO GENDER: A CRITICAL REVIEW OF OYERONKE OYEWUMI’S: The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses,” Codersia, pp. 1–12, 2004.

[11] B. Shell-Duncan, A. Moreau, K. Wander, and S. Smith, “The role of older women in contesting norms associated with female genital mutilation/ cutting in Senegambia: A factorial focus group analysis,” PLoS One, vol. 13, no. 7, pp. 1–19, 2018.

[12] J. Aubel, I. Touré, and M. Diagne, “Senegalese grandmothers promote improved maternal and child nutrition practices: The guardians of tradition are not averse to change,” Soc. Sci. Med., vol. 59, no. 5, pp. 945–959, 2004.

[13] B. Muthien, “Living Egalitarianism: Recentring the Indigenous Matricentric in Africa,” Perspect. Africa, no. 1, pp. 42–50, 2021.

[14] A. I. Adanikin, U. Onwudiegwu, and A. A. Akintayo, “Reshaping maternal services in Nigeria: Any need for spiritual care?,” BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, vol. 14, no. 1, 2014.

Please sign in or register for FREE

If you are a registered user on Research Communities by Springer Nature, please sign in