“Ashawo Work na Work”: How Young Ghanaian Feminists Are Making Feminist Futures A Reality
Fatima B. Derby, Accra, Ghana
In 2017, the AWID #PracticeSolidarity campaign highlighted how young feminists could build feminist futures by showing up for one another, being in cross-regional conversations with one another, marching in solidarity with other activists and collaborating between movements. Feminist solidarity and collective action in practice requires, first of all, for us to understand and acknowledge that our experiences, although similar in some ways, are also unique and distinct in other ways. Our different identities such as our gender, race, class status, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or disability influence the ways we are treated by oppressive systems. Acknowledging these different experiences helps us find common points for action within our movements. This understanding of solidarity is key in feminist activism and organizing.
Maame Akua Kyerewaa Marfo is one of the organizers of the Young Feminist Collective, an Accra-based feminist group that defines itself as committed to continuing in the badassery of their feminist ancestors. For Maame, practicing solidarity becomes a feminist reality when she makes a conscious choice to include and centre women from different backgrounds in her activism and organizing.
“Feminist solidarity is standing with everyone who exists at the different margins of society, even if their experiences are different from mine”, she says.
bell hooks tells us that, “Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained ongoing commitment.”
In April 2019, Nigerian Twitter was thrown into a state of fury when news broke of the unlawful arrests of over 100 women on suspicion of sex work. The arrests, which have now come to be known as the Abuja Police Raid, were made by the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) Joint Task Force and the Nigeria Police Force. The women were picked up from streets, restaurants, clubs and lounges, accused of being sex workers and extorted by the police. Many of the women were asked to either pay a fine of $8 (N3,000) or be sentenced to imprisonment for a month. $8 might seem like a small amount to some people but in a country where the minimum wage is about $3 a day, it is a significant amount for many people. Those who could not afford the fines were sexually assaulted by the police.
The Abuja Police Raid and the unlawful arrests of the women on suspicion of sex work show how deep the stigma of sex work runs within our societies and institutions. Women who choose to live freely, dress the way they want, go wherever they like and at any time they please are often regarded as “sexual deviants.” The stigma associated with sexual deviance exposes women to higher risks of violence. Unfortunately, the police who are supposed to protect women are themselves ambassadors of state violence. Following the raid, women's rights organizations and African feminists living in Africa and the diaspora took to social media to express their anger and frustration about the institutionalized oppression of women. Out of these conversations, #SayHerNameNigeria - an adaptation from the Say Her Name movement - was coined by Nigerian feminist Angel Nduka-Nwosu. The Say Her Name movement, according to their Mission Statement, is a "movement that calls attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes, and demands that their stories be integrated into calls for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of police brutality."
When I first heard the news about the Abuja Police Raid, I was horrified and seething with rage. I knew I had to do something so I reached out to some Nigerian feminists and asked how I could help. I was added to a Whatsapp organizing group where Nigerian feminists were planning to protest in Lagos and in Abuja. I volunteered to organize a solidarity march in Accra and they readily agreed. I got in contact with other young feminists in Accra including members of the Young Feminist Collective and we began organizing a solidarity march.
Like Maame, Jessica Armooh is a member of the Young Feminist Collective, Accra. Her countless experiences of sexual harassment from police officers at road checkpoints gave her reason to march in solidarity with The Say Her Name Nigeria Movement. She says, “the Abuja Police Raid brought to bear the fact that things are really bad for women, especially for single women whom these police officers interact with. But it was also great to know that as women, we are in solidarity with one another, standing up for ourselves and advocating for each other”.
Organising and marching was a very intense and frightening experience for me. Mobilizing people to protest police violence meant that I had to deal with Ghana Police. I wrote to Ghana Police notifying them of our proposed march and they invited me to the Accra Regional Police Headquarters to answer some questions about the march, the organizers and participants. After reassuring them that it was a peaceful march and we were not a “terrorist organization”, they informed me about the procedure to obtain a police escort for the march.
And although I felt a little afraid and worried for my safety, my commitment to standing with other women to demand justice gave me the courage I needed.
While I was feeling a little trepidation about the march, it was an empowering experience for Nana Akosua Hanson, who is a young Ghanaian feminist and the director of Drama Queens, a political theatre organization that uses arts for human rights activism. Prior to that day, Nana Akosua had never been to a protest before. She says it was liberating. In that moment, she felt the power of the movement most strongly - being part of the bigger march of women in the UK and across different cities in Nigeria.
“The solidarity march showed me how feminist solidarity manifests. Bringing together feminists on different continents, in the virtual space and on the streets of Accra, united in a liberation cause for sex workers who have been brutalized by the police and ignored by the leaders”.
For Nana Yaa Konadu Agyepong, a young Ghanaian feminist writer, it was cathartic to march the streets of Accra and loudly oppose state violence against women. She acknowledges that oppressive systems are similar regardless of what country they exist in. “There have been instances where the Ghana police force has been violent toward women. Our protest was about those women in Abuja, but also about the ways women aren’t allowed to be; whether it’s going to the club or working in Abuja or driving in Accra”.
This cross-continental adaptation of resistance language and practice says a lot about the similarities in Black women's experiences the world over with regards to patriarchy, race and other forms of structural violence.
Our struggles are connected - the central principle of the #PracticeSolidarity campaign had become a feminist reality. And this feminist reality gives Nana Yaa hope.
“We have a very long way to go. There has been some progress. And I know it’s the collective force from individual efforts that will get us to freedom.”
Marching to the Nigerian High Commission in Accra, loudly chanting “Ashawo work na work” ("sex work is work" in Pidgin) was freeing. It helped us assert our agency and gave us the power and confidence to stand up to the oppressive state. For me, that was a feminist future coming to life in our present moment.
“Let it Grow”
Gucora Andu (@gucora.andu), Nairobi, Kenya
A black woman with her arms raised, unbothered with her exposed bushy armpits. In many societies, armpit hair on women is taboo, while men don’t face such scrutiny. The idea that not shaving can be a choice is an important step towards reframing this issue.