A Historical Materialist Analysis of Gender for the Worldwide Pan-African Movement

The Worldwide Pan-African Movement’s  (WWPAM) current line on gender contradictions and the role of women in the struggle is out of date. As a movement, we are in dire need of an update in our analysis around these questions if we are serious about the struggle against patriarchy and the liberation of women and non-men*.

*Non-men means folks who are neither men nor women, but who are still oppressed on the basis of gender under patriarchy and capitalism.

This paper seeks to raise and discuss three major contradictions that currently exist within the WWPAM’s generally accepted line on gender, patriarchy, and the role of women:

  1. The masses of Africans people are divided into two genders – man and woman – based on biology.
  2. The primary role of women in the revolution centers around our ability to reproduce and our traditional role of raising and caring for children.
  3. The general silence of the WWPAM on the question of queer and trans African liberation.

The underlying basis for the first two contradictions is the same: an analysis common within the WWPAM which on the one hand recognizes that colonialism and capitalism imposed European constructions of gender based on biology, divided labor into reproductive and productive modes, and used that as a basis to dispossess and oppress African women and non-men but which on the other, upholds uncritically the very binary biology-based gender roles created by that process of conquest and exploitation.

Many organizations within the WWPAM recognize that gender, just like race, is a social construct developed according to the structure, culture, and material conditions of a specific society. This can be shown through even a cursory study of pre-colonial African history – there were many, many different constructions of gender co-existing on the continent at one time. In the Yoruba society of what is now modern day Benin, Togo, and Niger,  for example, gender was not considered a principle means of ordering society at all. Many diverse gender categories existed, few of which were tied to anatomy, and Africans were able to move flexibly between them and even occupy intermediary – meaning neither male or female – gender identities. It was only with the arrival and advance of British imperialism that gender in that region became a fixed and binary conception strictly tied to anatomy which was considered fundamental to the order of society. Newly designated Yoruba ‘women’ (in the European sense) were dispossessed of their claim to the land under this foreign and violently imposed  social order and forced into a position of subordination.

However, while our ideological, historical, and cultural foundations clearly show that gender is a social construct which is developed differently according to its context,  the WWPAM as a whole fails in our political line to take that fact to its logical conclusion: no universally applicable construction of gender can exist or has ever existed, because no universally applicable way of ordering society has ever existed. Thus, the Euro-colonial-capitalist imposed construction of gender is not universally applicable – and could certainly not be applicable to the folks it was used to oppress – and should not be used as a basis for revolutionary Pan-African, socialist, and anti-patriarchal analysis.

Our acceptance of the biology-based binary gender roles created by European imperialists in service of capitalism and colonialism for the explicit purpose of subjugating African women and non-men is thus a contradiction. If we understand that these constructions of gender were imposed by European colonialism and a developing global capitalism, using them as the basis for our line on how to liberate women and non-men from these systems makes no sense.  There is, indeed, a hard limit to how far our analysis and interventions around these questions can go if we are using such a poor foundation as our starting point for thinking about them.

If we accept, as we should, that no universally applicable construction of gender – whether defined by biology or otherwise –  exists, then it follows that saying the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) role of women in the struggle is bearing, caring for, and raising children makes no sense. If we understand gender is socially constructed, then it’s not much of a stretch to also understand that a person could identify as a man and still be biologically able to bear children. Or that a person could identify as neither a man or a women – that they could identify as something similar to one of the so-called “third genders” prevalent throughout pre-colonial indigenous societies globally – and still be biologically able to bear children. If gender is socially constructed, context- specific, and not biologically based, then many many folks other than women can bear children and thus defining that as our primary role in the revolution is a contradiction.

The underlying reason for the third and final contradiction is distinct but related to that of the first two – liberalism and an uncritical acceptance of Western societal constructions imposed by colonialism and capitalism. Though there is a centuries long paper trail showing how European imperialist powers have used a dual strategy of criminalization and religious indoctrination to chase acceptance of queer identity from indigenous societies, in the modern-day many members of and organizations within the WWPAM accept as somehow African an antipathy towards gay men, lesbian women, and queer folks. Or if we don’t accept it, we aren’t moved enough to challenge it as a movement when faced with it.

There is a prevailing thought within the movement that raising struggle around these contradictions – particularly the third – will alienate the WWPAM from the masses of poor and working class Africans on the continent and in the diaspora that we are seeking to organize. But it’s a fact that the folks who we are excluding when we fail in our duty to struggle around these contradictions are members of those very same masses. Queer and trans Africans overwhelmingly occupy the lowest position economically and socially within almost every society where they find themselves – whether on the continent or in the diaspora. If women are the slaves of slaves, then queer and trans and non-binary Africans are the slave’s whipping post. When we fail in our duty to engage in this struggle it is poor and working class Africans who we are leaving behind.

Our purpose with this paper and with the campaign of seminars we are developing within the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, is to force a long overdue internal conversation within our movement – and revolution – around who it is we are talking about when we refer to the African nation.

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Onyesonwu Chatoyer is an African woman marooned in the United States, organizing to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. She is an organizer with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the All-African Women's Revolutionary Union, an editor with Hood Communist, and also serves on the national committee of the Venceremos Brigade.