Matri-legal Feminism: The development of a theory for studying African women in law

By: J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.


In the beginning

As a graduate student pursuing a Masters in international development at Ohio University, one of the first assignments I had was to write a critical review on Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner Amartya Sen’s book—Development as Freedom. I panicked. How could I, a graduate student, write a critique of a book written by a Nobel Laureate? I was later to learn the hard way that academic work entailed a critique of existing theories, knowledge systems, epistemologies, and the development of new theories.

I came into the graduate program with two disadvantages. My first disadvantage was being the product of an educational system based on learning by rote. I had not received training in deconstructing existing knowledge, critical thinking, analytical framing, and theoretical reexamination of received knowledge. I was the product of an educational system that famed Brazilian scholar Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed refers to as the “banking education” system. A system of learning that is uncritical, totally receptive, and non-liberatory.

The second disadvantage was that I had just completed law school and jumped into a new educational system that was highly interdisciplinary, and nothing like law. My law school training was focused on understanding the law, interpreting the law, applying the law, and making a case for why your application and interpretation of the law was the best to get your client what they wanted.

With these two disadvantages, I could not fathom how I would deconstruct and critique Amartya Sen. Fast forward years later, I find myself doing that repeatedly as a scholar, and it is becoming second nature.

Making the move

In 2013, I traveled to Ghana to conduct interviews with women judges for my first research project on women in law. Having finished my doctoral studies in 2010, which focused on women’s civil society organizing, it was time for me to develop my research agenda. I decided to go back to my original love—the law, having been called to the Ghana Bar in 2001. It was time for me to merge my interdisciplinary background and training. The trip to Ghana in 2013 led to my first co-edited book Gender and Judging in Africa: From Obscurity to Parity? (Routledge, 2016), and two subsequent books that followed.

As a researcher, the more I read about women judges, the less I found how applicable the existing theories were to the lived experiences, positionalities, and realities of women across the continent of Africa. I am not denying the fact that there are some commonalities of what women go through, but when it comes to using theory to explain the nuances. I just could not see a close fit.

In 2019, I decided it was time to make a bold move. I decided to develop a new theory on how to study African women in law, and matri-legal feminism was born. Though still being developed, the initial ideas I explored can be found in Matri-legal feminism: An African feminist response to international law, in Kate Ogg and Susan Rimmer (eds.) (2019). Research Handbook on Feminist Engagement with International Law (Edward Elgar).

I developed the theory by first critiquing the focus on existing discourse on studying “African women” from an essentialist perspective. The gap in international feminist theory to fully grasp and acknowledge the historical matriarchal African feminist ways of being has often resulted in the ‘add African/third world women and stir’ approach. Characterized by the tendency of some scholars to provide a sprinkling of examples from a few case studies as generalizations of the experiences of all African women. I noted:

“What areas are of the most interest to scholars when analyzing African women’s experiences? Are African women and the locations they embody viewed as locations of power or locations of subordination? Can we classify the experiences of women in Bulgaria as representative of all women in Europe? Feminist theorizing should avoid drawing on the experiences of a few women from one or two countries in Africa as an embodiment of All women in Africa. What do such over-generalizations proffer for theorizing on women? More importantly, what richness are we missing when we engage in such “mixing and stirring” of the experiences of diverse women across the continent? The experiences of African women should be stand-alone narratives and not simply lumped into a homogeneous, albeit lackadaisical way of analyzing the lived experiences, personal agency, and contributions of women across the continent of Africa. While references to the phrase, “sisterhood is global,” has come under attack in some quarters, the tendency of feminist scholars to categorize the experiences of African women into a singular experience remains a constant challenge.” (P459-460).

Synopsis of the theory

Matri-legal feminism is guided by three key assumptions. First, is the issue of recognizing the non-equal subordination of women in law. While women in law face the common challenge of patriarchy, African women have the added burden of dealing with inherited hegemonic, colonial, and neocolonial patriarchal systems that combine with local patriarchal systems to reinforce different systems of subordination at multiple levels.

Second, matri-legal feminism recognizes the role of gender duality in African systems that privileged women’s leadership roles in the social, cultural, spiritual, and political realms. Systems that were upended by colonialism, thereby introducing the double subordination of women. Recognizing African women’s gender duality and the fluidity of gender construction and the invention of woman provides glimpses into how women in modern-day African systems can assess leadership by drawing on these historic gendered dual roles.

Third, matri-legal feminism advocates for the recognition of cultural difference and diversity by emphasizing the inherent differences between and within the categories of women— with an emphasis on the diversity of experiences. Such recognition of the diversity of experiences throws light on the resistance of feminist scholars who tend to lump all women across the vast continent of Africa as “African women.”

Nearing the end game

Matri-legal feminism is an anti-essentialist framework, drawing on critical postcolonial studies to situate the hitherto silence on the experiences of African women in law. The rise of women in leadership positions across African judiciaries is not the result of western foreign aid interventions. The number of women partners in law firms across Africa is not the result of western feminist activism. While we cannot deny the fact that women in law still face challenges at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, religion, class, and other markers of marginalization, African women continue to rise from the ashes of colonial and imperial domination, while resisting local patriarchal norms.

Through Matri-legal feminism, I am advocating and theorizing for the beginning of a new field of study of the lives and experiences of women in law across African societies. Returning to my opening line in this piece, I would dare say my bold critique of Amartya Sen is paying off. I quickly learned to turn my disadvantages into advantages. To look for the gaps. To attempt to fill them. I am still new at theorizing, but the journey has begun, and I am looking in the mirror to see where it leads me.