“Worst Woman of the Year”: Sylvia Tamale Publishes African Sexualities: A Reader

In 2003, Sylvia Tamale was named as the “Worst Woman of the Year” by a conservative bloc within Uganda. Working at the time as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at Makerere University (she later became its Dean), she was vilified for weeks within one of Kampala’s major daily newspapers, New Vision, as responsible for everything from the moral degeneration of the nation to the reason Ugandan teenagers were going to go to hell.

Jane Bennett, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town

Her crime: suggesting to the (then) proposed Equal Opportunities Commission, in her status as a lawyer, that the term “minorities” should cover lesbian and gay citizens of Uganda. Those who suggested that she should be “lynched” for her opinion then must be in great trouble now; they must be struggling for an intense enough vocabulary of distress to respond to the recent publication by Pambazuka Press of Sylvia Tamale’s edited collection, African Sexualities: A Reader. The 674-page collection goes far beyond the assertion that the term “minority” should include homosexual people when it comes to the discourse of equal opportunity; it suggests that, far from being marginal victims of patriarchal and postcolonial systems, African writers and researchers who take gender and sexualities seriously constitute a critical, dynamic, and fabulously diverse set of interlocutors whose ideas catalyse not simply a conversation about rights but a political kaleidoscope of possibilities for remapping African epistemologies of the body.

Globally, over the past thirty years, writing focused on questions to which an understanding of sexualities is core has grown enormously, and has been located in several disciplinary areas: demography, health, sociology, and cultural studies. There are leading international journals, grounded in very different approaches, ranging from the renowned British Journal of Medicine (a google search of the journal’s contents over the past 20 years using the term sexuality comes up with 1034 hits) to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Studies, which regularly publish research on the politics, cultures, and dynamics of sexualities. Culture, Health and Society and Sexualities, in particular, are well known for their editorial support of research which recognizes the importance of medically-grounded work (such as the need to prevent the transmission of the HI virus between men having sex with other men) but which insist on sexualities research as always engaged with the micropolitics of local, stubborn, and complex contexts in which the possibilities of ready categorization or straightforward generalization are rare. These journals’ work has insisted, too that while the urgencies of the HIV pandemic continue to deserve the attention of researchers, sexualities research cannot be imagined solely in terms of questions of viral transmission, ‘vulnerability’, and ‘risk’. The range of topics catalysed by an interest in sexualities is, of course, formidable, and their constellation into fields of allied enquiry is directed by political questions of epistemology. Within medical research, of course, research around sexualities may readily deploy concepts of dysfunction, a-typicality, and illness; within postmodern cultural studies, communities of researchers accept ideas about race, intersectionality, margin, or economy as critical points of entry into a new question or concern.

I would argue that the concept of gender has suffered in very specific ways from the politics of knowledge-building about sexualities, most powerfully through the past 20 years of health-focused research on HIV and AIDS. On the one hand, feminists and sociologists sensitive to the politics of gender have insisted that gender dynamics are central to issues of viral transmission and of access to treatment, especially in Subsaharan Africa. On the other hand, these dynamics quickly came to be homogenized into a profile of a poor woman, usually racialized as ‘black’, located within an environment of family and cultural abuse, and deprived of information and education (citations). The corollary of this image was one of a man: heterosexual, with many sexual partnerships and liaisons, often a migrant worker, usually insensitive to his own or others’ health, and economically either corrupt or irresponsible or both (citations). Despite the essential integration of gender analysis into much HIV-focussed qualitative work, in this body of work, gender has become a somewhat static framework through which the largely conservative norms, understandings, and practices of heterosexualities can be scripted: ‘women’ as all victims, ‘men’ as all dangerous.

The truth of the matter is that it is difficult to manage the politics of gender and sexualities together, especially in policy-oriented research. Within African feminist writing over the past two decades, there has however been a strong thread of research and writing which seeks to combine epistemological commitment to ‘undoing’ patriarchal and colonial versions of gender with the recognition that sexualities comprise a critical terrain for theory and activism. Leading contemporary voices here are Charmaine Pereira, Kopano Ratele, Sylvia Tamale, Desiree Lewis, Elizabeth Khaxas, Patricia Mcfadden, Pumla Gqola, Zanele Muholi, and Akosua Ampofo, although many others contribute (in myriad ways) to the discussions. The researchers named here do not share foci or approaches (Muholi, for example, researches as a visual artist, a photographer, and works mainly with black lesbians in South Africa; Ampofo comes from development studies as a background, and directs Development and Women’s Studies at the University of Ghana – her writing has taken on questions of reproductive choice, and of masculinities). But what a survey of their work will show is a passionate engagement with the activism of research, with the urgency of writing which tackles the politics of gender and sexualities within African contexts and with an eye attuned to the fact that researching these politics has often been done in the name of ‘culture’, the exotic and the sub-human. As Lewis begins her piece on ‘Representing African Sexualities’, in African Sexualities: A Reader: ‘Although the American cartoon (this cartoon is reproduced) ...was produced in the nineteenth century, it features images that still haunt our conceptual landscape, whether within or beyond Africa. The cartoon portrays recurring stereotypes of black bodies and sexuality: the image of the lewd black man; the pure white female body; the portrayal of the black/African body as grotesque, uncivilized and crudely sexual, even when formally dressed’. It is not only the image of the poor HIV-positive black woman, abused and abandoned, whose hegemony over the meaning of gendered-sexuality-in-Africa deserves deconstruction; it is also that case that a very long legacy of anthropological, epidemiological, and development-oriented research exists, rehearsing notions of gender as static, ‘traditionally’ brutal, irrational and superstitious in matters of sexualities, and identically deployed across African contexts.

In the past few years, a small number of volumes edited by feminist writers, presenting research on the politics of gender and sexualities in African contexts have been published. These include two books edited by Steyn and van Zyl, from Kwela in South Africa; Re-thinking Sexualities in Africa (edited by Signe Arnfred of the Nordic Africa Institute), African Feminist Politics of Knowledge (published in 2010, and edited by Akosua Ampofo and Signe Arnfred), and now, Sylvia Tamale’s African Sexualities: A Reader has been published by Pambazuka Press. The collection profiles the possibilities of writing which is unafraid to tackle questions of gender and sexualities outside the framework of HIV transmission and ‘traditional’ rites: questions of who is having sex, with whom; questions of pleasure; questions on the impact of post-flag democratic change – or militarism - on sexualities; questions about masculinities; questions about sexual commodification; and about queer African theories and experience. The collection comprises some 67 writers, working with different genres (poems, academic essays, autobiographical reflections), from 16 different countries, and the granular diversity of the pieces creates a sense of expansiveness and adventure.

Most powerfully, for me, African Sexualities: A Reader opens with two chapters, both of which address the question of what is means to research the politics of sexualities and gender in African contexts, both with a sense of the colonial (and indeed occasionally current) gazes which configured African embodiment as simultaneously exotic and bestial and with a commitment to exploring the ethics and methodologies of contemporary work. Tamale writes, ‘ a good sexuality research project does not view methodology as a mere appendage ….or a ‘way of carrying out an enquiry’’ and argues that that is in the consideration of research methodology that ‘researching and theorizing sexualities beyond the tired polemics of violence, disease and reproduction and exploring their layered complexities beyond heterosexual normativity and moral boundaries will lead to fresh conceptual insights and paradigm shifts’.

Sylvia Tamale: Best Woman of the Year?


African Sexualities: A Reader will be launched in Cape Town by the African Gender Institute and the Women and Gender Studies Department at the University of the Western Cape at The Book Lounge, October 11th, 5.30 for 6. Professor Tamale will be there to discuss the book.