A few days ago, an opportunity to have a constructive debate about an important issue facing African societies arose, amidst accusations by the representatives of the feminist movement in Rwanda that Pan-Africanists are undermining their quest for dignity. However, cancel culture and its politics of self-righteousness purity quickly vanquished this opportunity. In any liberation movement, as is true in Pan Africanism and Feminism, it is the norm that external forces to the movement seek to undermine it. It has also been the norm that many such movements have suffered from internal limitations that have undermined an otherwise noble cause and rendered it unable to achieve its objectives. Cancel culture is a good example.
Cancel culture’s key limitation is its failure to contextualise the feminist liberation struggle in ways that make it appealing for the wider society to embrace its ethos and strategies. In Rwanda, cancel culture, a western import, runs counter to Rwanda’s way of life.
Consider this. From the outset, the RPF conceived itself as a family (umuryango) rather than a typical political party; its members were, and remain, bound by more than common political objectives. Indeed, while accountability remains one of its core tenets, the RPF’s internal mechanisms that enable counselling, dialogue, restrained punishment, forgiveness, and rehabilitation have held the family together through hardships, despite a few erring members here and there who have ended up in banishment.
Naturally, in its efforts to rebuild a decimated post-genocide nation, the RPF has sought to project the logic of its internal organisation on the Rwandan society, whose members are now part of a family bigger than the RPF itself and organised around indivisible citizenship – Ndi Umunyarwanda. In such a configuration, those who reject accountability and refuse to face the consequences of their actions, as well as those who undermine the concept of indivisible citizenship, find themselves on the margins of society or banished, depending on the degree of hostility to this value system. On the contrary, those who atone for their wrongdoings, accept their punishment, and commit to doing better are reintegrated into society. This profoundly African way of life would meet cancel culture on its terms only after exhausting all avenues of restorative justice. In other words, cancel culture would, if at all, be the last, not the first, recourse.
Worse still, cancel culture – for all its strength in mobilising rage – is ill-equipped to deal with widespread issues facing women, such as the rape culture in Rwandan society. It might, at best, threaten the few Rwandan men present on social media and commenting on gender issues into silence; however, it won’t fundamentally change the fact that, in a patriarchal and Christianised society, men are raised to believe – and women are raised to accept – the idea that marriage brings all sorts of entitlements on women bodies, for instance. Such distressing issues can only be addressed by revamping our education systems, in their formal and informal settings, through the introduction of a new set of values regulating interactions within the Rwandan family.
The solution that preserves the value system of Umuryango and secures the interests of a genuinely feminist movement cannot dismantle or supplant the logic of restorative justice (accountability, consequences, and rehabilitation) that holds the broad Rwandan family together; instead, it ought to reinforce this logic in ways that make the family, in the broad or narrow sense, a safe space for women and girls. Cancel culture is not ready to hear any of this.
The politics of anatomy
The second limitation, promoted by the most vocal wing of the feminist movement, is the failure to distinguish enemies from potential allies. For instance, the main protagonists of the recent controversy, myself included, on both sides of the divide do not hold opposing views on the need to create societies where women feel as valued as any human being. However, there are notable disagreements on how to achieve the necessary alliances that would further our intertwined struggles. A key disagreement, for instance, was the subject that lit the fire on social media: whether the feminist agenda ought to destroy the value system around Umuryango, a controversy in which the object of confrontation was a mere illustration.
The power of the feminist movement lies in the moral quest for gender justice. It is not derived from the power of anatomy. Accordingly, the strategic objective of the feminist movement is not to cancel men, its cathartic value notwithstanding. The quest for catharsis by waylaying men whose views are insignificant to the bigger picture commits the same error that it seeks to correct. It subordinates the strategic pursuit of women’s justice to insignificance by, for instance, confusing biology (the fixed, immutable, physical marker of a female) with gender (the unjust roles that are assigned to those differences in physical markers).
Gender is, therefore, politics. It, not the body, is the terrain for activism. And anything that is politics, by definition, is subject to prioritisation and context. As noted above, in Rwanda, the context for social change is the preservation of Umuryango, around which a multiplicity of moral centers, feminist or otherwise, agitate for prioritisation of their respective agendas. In other words, I’m not sure the feminists desire to present an alternative vision for society. They seek to erect a moral center around the existing vision and to elevate their grievances atop society’s most pressing concerns. Again, because this is a political question, it cannot be answered biologically. It can only be answered ideologically.
Moreover, any quest to answer a political question biologically will invariably lead to frustrations, a feeling of being unheard, and a need for catharsis, and a desire to lock out men from having views on concerns of women since, after all, perpetrators don’t care. A discourse that ought to be ring-fenced ideologically is ring-fenced biologically, and any trespass without the anatomical passport is punished by cancelling. But this naturally comes at the cost of social change, the goal of feminism.
If patriarchal ideology wrongly suggests that cooking and cleaning skills come preinstalled in women, then it’s equally wrong to suggest that feminist ideology is preinstalled in a woman’s body. In both cases, ideology, not the body, is sufficient to reimagine gender roles and engage in gender politics.
Cancel culture’s instinct for solace in group catharsis in the context of a patriarchal hostility is understandable. But is it worth it if it distorts the otherwise strong ideological and moral basis for elevating gender injustice to the status of society’s most pressing priorities?
The alternative to cancel culture is to leverage the noble cause for gender justice, not the body, to push the legitimate argument that transgressions against women should not carry redemptive, rehabilitative, punishments back into privileged status. Secondly, to demonstrate that the gravest forms of gender-based violence are as urgent a threat to Umuryango as any transgression that threatens to tear it asunder, as the case would be with terrorism and treason, for instance. In other words, to make the case that the grievances of the feminist movement are compatible with the current aims of Umuryango, which wasn’t the case in the recent controversy. As things stand, therefore, there is no greater threat to that argument than cancel culture, body politics, and the impetus for cathartic healing.
A Rwandan feminist pursuing liberation by destroying Umuryango is no different from the African feminist seeking to destroy Pan Africanism. It is an auto-immune condition in which the immune system, instead of defending the body, starts to destroy it. Ironically, Pan-Africanism and African feminism are not in power. They remain, largely ignored, on the fringe of African societies, both advocating for radical change and both vilified and mocked. It would, therefore, be ludicrous for Pan-Africanists to undermine the feminist struggle, or for African feminists to conceive Pan-Africanists as a barrier to their objectives. It’s akin to two rebel movements fighting each other when they should be joining forces due to the shared strategic aims.
In Rwanda, the government has been progressive enough to be amicable to, and even identify with, both movements, with the only unstated caveat being that they subscribe to the value system that preserves the Rwandan family and indivisible citizenship – Umuryango mugari and Ndi Umunyarwanda, respectively. It is, therefore, in the common interest of feminists and Pan Africanists to craft a viable vision of society that responds to the pressing concerns of our people without the urge to take out our frustrations for slow progress on the other.
In the meantime, the feminist movement has made it clear that anyone who subordinates its agenda to any other agenda of society will feel its wrath. Surely, the rage is justified given the extent of patriarchal violence. But at what cost is it prepared to sacrifice its strategic objectives for cathartic gains – to win the battle and lose the war, so to speak?