Transforming Feminist Narratives and Participation of African Marginalized Women through Ceremonial Beads

Transforming Feminist Narratives and Participation of African Marginalized Women through Ceremonial Beads

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Mavis Boatemaa Beckson

Mavis Boatemaa Beckson is a second-year doctoral student with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Professional Communication and a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the New Mexico State University. Mavis serves as a Writing Program Coordinator and a Graduate Assistant at the English Department. Her research currently resides in but not limited to transnational feminist voices, new material feminists studies, comparative rhetoric, and technical writing.

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As a Ghanaian and an Akan woman, I grew up learning the significance of using objects to create uncommon meanings. Within the Akan maternal ethnic group, objects such as beads are considered an important gesture of communicating and creating a cultural connection between people within and outside the Akan group. Put differently, the Akan people of Ghana regard beads as sacred material that signify one’s status, cultural belonging, and, importantly, African womanhood.

My very first gift upon coming of age at sixteen was a bead specially designed by my mother to represent my African femininity and the cultural values I embody. Even before the gift presentation, I remember having many conversations with my mother about beads and their aesthetic symbolism, but she never said anything extraordinary except that wearing beads made a woman look more feminine. I also remember the special times when my mother would bring out every bead she owned and share their individual stories with me. I grew up cherishing such intimate moments between us. As a result, I started collecting beads so I could continue that tradition one day with my future daughter. Little did I know that my process of collection was tied into the complexity and the exploration of being in a culture that often excludes women—a culture that is heavily loaded with sexism.

Although beads are used by Akan women and men, they are often worn by women for both religious and non-religious rites and practices. The color, size, or shape of a bead can indicate the mood of a person, her social achievement, and her status within the community. Beads are an emblem of feminine identity, beauty, socio-cultural and family connection, and a relationship between mother and daughter. For instance, during a marriage ceremony, Akan mothers often pass down beads to their daughters as gifts that represent their bond.

Beads have also been reclaimed as a symbol of African femininity and recuperated as African feminist artifacts due to their ability to perform an agential role and their social significance within the Akan community and Ghana at large. As an Akan woman and an African feminist, I advocate that we pay attention to the materiality of beads because it helps us to redefine and negotiate the vital connection between objects and bodies, especially how both human (body) and non-human materiality (beads) play a prominent role in enabling the margins of what meaningful and outstanding actions might become.

Image of African beads in yellow, tan, black, and navy blue. The beads are looped in circles, four in total.

Fig. 1. African Beads.

In this essay, I interpret African beads as a symbol of African womanhood and as a unique feminist artifact, intervention, and variant of African feminism that seeks to redefine participation and activism while also reconceptualizing the cultural specificity of what feminist activism can look like in a transnational location like Ghana. I reconsider African beads as objects that can be used to challenge marginalized African women’s experiences, and I reflect on how the materiality of the body and object work together in shaping cultural, social, and political relations. Lastly, I suggest that beads as representative objects can be used as a tactic to disidentify with hegemonic dialogues and thus help to define a feminine and feminist African subject and way of performing feminist activism.

Although I focus on Ghanaian women in this essay, my goal is to highlight the unique forms of performance, participation, and delivery that have been adopted and practiced by African women and feminists. Let me make clear that I am by no means insinuating that one is given a platform to make changes just because they are wearing beads. Women can still be in disempowered positions regardless of what they wear or display. However, as Karen Barad asserts, objects can act as an “agential intra-action” (135) to create e/affective actions and hopeful possibilities. The dynamic entanglements among humans, society, and environment has been explored further by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, who argue that material feminism is pivotal in understanding and reflecting upon the relationship among objects, histories, bodies, and place. They assert that using this point of view can enable scholars to “describe nonhuman agency in a scientific or ‘cultural, historical, biological’ context…and redefine our understanding of the relationships among the natural, the human, and the nonhuman” (7). The work of these scholars is crucial for contemplating the relationships among objects, bodies, experiences, sensual connections, and their narratives within cultures, while also not privileging one aspect over another.

Important perspectives on these relationships also come from Peta Hinton, Tara Mehrabi, and Josef Barla, who focus on “the very processes through which bodies marked by race, ethnicity, nationality, sex/gender, and species come to matter” (2). Their approach calls attention to new materialism as a site for knowledge production (3) and challenges new materialist scholars to critically reflect on how the othered come to matter within and beyond their locations. It is here that I argue once again that focusing on how beads are used by African (Ghanaian) women offers a different approach to how feminist practices are enacted through material objects and demonstrates how othered women within different geographical contexts respond to problematic narratives and hegemonies and defy colonial practices through a complex form of cultural practices, power, religion, and agency.

Living and doing feminist or feminine work in Ghana can be difficult for various reasons. The multiple connotations of the term “feminist” in many African locations have negative associations and maintain a complicated identity and position for many African women. African women who identify as feminist are liable to being labeled as “rude,” “unhappy,” “women who cannot find husbands,” “white women in Africa,” and “women who have neglected their African heritage.” As African feminist scholar Ruvimbo Goredema states, “if African women identify themselves as feminist, they run the risk of being automatically linked to the white feminist ideology” and creating actions and making movements that intend to “implement freedom can be interpreted and regarded as a reinforcement of mainstream white feminism” (40). That is to say, feminism is not considered a part of the African culture. In short, as Chimamanda Adichie attests, the term “Feminist is considered un-African” (10) and many African women who identify as such as are “labelled as women who have been influenced by Western books” (10).

In response to the charge of feminist being un-African, some African women activists, like Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Onyeronke Onyewumi have developed strategies and terms that can enable African women to use their agency to engage in women’s work and to set their experiences apart from the white mainstream feminist. One such strategy is to use the term African feminism to classify any feminist action by African women that is conducted within and beyond the African context. This strategy can be regarded as a choice consciously made by African women to use their identity and subject position (which is often presumed non-existent to make significant changes within their varying locations. Goredema defines African feminism as a “feminist epistemology and a form of rhetoric that has provided arguments, which validate the experience of women of Africa and African origin against mainstream feminist discourse” (34) as well as a position of “justice that aims to create a discernible difference between women who were colonized and those who were deemed the colonizers” (34).

While the term African feminist certainly gives hope and a grounded identity for women who openly challenge dominant discourses and apparatuses within African societies, it is not enough to label women of such complex realities as African feminists. The label feminist is still regarded as a foreign concept that is aligned to white middle-class women who often lack empathy for women of color, especially non-Western women. Furthermore, the label complicates our subject position and interferes with the societal expectations of African womanhood. Despite these complexities, the term African feminism is an intervention that can empower African women to change the negative connotation of feminist actions within our locations and redefine the representation of African women. In an effort to preserve our cultural identity as African women, African feminists have taken a different route to originate a space where African women’s voices can be heard, be unique, and be distinct. They willingly made it a part of their objectives to maintain some African traditions through objects (beads, hair patterns, clothes), and form alliances with African men while exploring and discussing the inappropriate and partial treatment of women in Africa. This objective is affirmed by African women scholars like Filomina Chioma Steady, who maintains that African feminism does not seek to separate itself from men but to critique some traditional African practices without degrading those practices (28).

This deliberate display of identity can be regarded as an innovative performance tactically developed to help African women use their position to make memorable and positive impact while keeping their feminine and feminist identity culturally specific. For example, the Akan women who have chieftaincy titles or roles often shave off their hair and wear beads as a symbolic and performative act that aims to distinguish their positionality and voice within society. From a new materialist perspective, this display can be considered a deliberate gesture in which hair and beads signifies an embodiment of the material nature of physical bodies connected to constrained narratives, places, and complex epistemologies. Thinking through the role of objects and bodies in this context also allow us to reimagine human nature, materiality, performance, and experience not as idealistic or free from social inscription, but as something that is closely linked to the historical, social, and cultural practices of a place. For instance, women with such titles in the Akan ethnic group generally wear beads designed with gold whenever there is any traditional function or when they must represent the interests of the community. Here, the ceremonial beads become representative of Akan women’s authority, identity, and cultural connection, and afford them the privilege to enact feminine and feminist practices as well as serve as a protective mechanism and ethos which allows them to engage in conversations and contribute in roles which they otherwise would not be allowed to perform. Indeed, as Cheryl Glenn puts it in Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope “identity determines who may speak, who merits an audience,” and ultimately what the results of the speech will be (25).

I started collecting beads to continue my mother’s tradition with my future daughter; however, my current outlook on collecting and wearing beads has changed. I no longer collect beads because the activity reminds me of my childhood experience; rather, I do so because the display of beads and its material meaning and history in Ghanaian feminist and feminine activism allows Ghanaian/African women to explore and understand transnational women’s practices as potentially or already feminist. Ghanaian women and feminist activists have found a way to use objects such as beads to map their indigenous identity as African women who embody African values with good intentions for society. Women activists may wear beads as a form of social approval while simultaneously calling attention to the social and political stance they embrace, illustrating how non-human objects can help us to redefine and imagine feminist epistemological spaces as fluid sites of perceptions and interpretations.

For example, prominent Ghanaian female advocate, journalist, queen mother, and television show host, Gifty Anti, is well-known for wearing beads as a means of showing her Africanness whenever she speaks about women’s exclusion and activism. While she does not identify as a feminist, her “apparent feminism” performance (to borrow Erin Frost’s term), is sometimes responded to with hostile comments on social media. However, Gifty is also commended for doing feminine work in a way that is notably African. This situation can be interpreted in at least two ways. First, Gifty’s physical body and its relationship with the beads and place show how the embodied perception and reflection of non-human materials can take form socially and culturally and can silently create powerful narratives where they are situated. And crucially for a feminist inquiry, the connection of the beads on her body with her audience not only establishes her ethos but also can be regarded as a skillful feminine move to enter spaces, make her voice heard, and create possibilities and potential for feminist activism in varying forms.

For me and many other Ghanaian women, wearing beads represents a grassroots performance that strives to create a space for negotiation. This space can be envisioned as an ethical possibility where we can negotiate our Africanness, reclaim ourselves and our memories, and feel a sense of connection to culture, environment, and history while we work to establish socio-cultural transformation. Most importantly, wearing beads while performing women’s activism gives me a sense of agency and the voice to share stories from a personal perspective and engage with listeners in a respectful relationship of reciprocity.

As an Akan woman, I believe that the material elucidation of the beads—their dynamic relationship, influence, and connection with the body—presents new possibilities for transformation and spaces where other young women like myself can engage in active feminist work without the fear of losing part of our identity. By wearing beads, we surround ourselves with African feminism—precious objects, feminine objects—and practice a unique form of activism that goes beyond colonial practices, prioritizing our needs even if they are not of concern to our dominant culture, and inviting a redefinition of feminist activism.

Wearing beads as feminine and feminist activism gives us hope: the hope to keep transforming our narratives within and outside our location, the hope to re-define the representation of African women and create spaces for African women to become visible, and the hope to create alliances and transnational networks with other feminists. These forms of hope are what Glenn discusses as the potential that keeps rhetorical feminists alive. They help rhetorical feminists discover themselves, create new possibilities for change, and forge new and stronger alliances with other feminists, both marginalized and non-marginalized (197-201). It is this kind of hope that African feminists hold onto to reconfigure our struggles not only for ourselves but for women who may not identify and name themselves as African feminists.

I conclude with two questions to spark investigations into the value of African feminism in new materialist studies and to invite rhetorical feminists to delve deeper into how transnational processes of participation and transformation offers different insights into what feminist activism can achieve:

  1. How can rhetorical feminists seriously consider transnational feminist activism and its delivery through objects particularly in non-Western locations?
  2. In what ways can the study and practice of African feminism offer a potential space for revising and problematizing the misrepresentation of non-Western women?

These questions highlight new materialist and transnational feminist studies as sites of inquiry where both the othered and privileged can make meaning of their material agency and set up conversations about how identity, place, and body construct resistant strategies that might destabilize dominant social narratives.

Works Cited

  • Adichie, Chimamanda N. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor Books, 2015.
  • Alaimo, Stacy and Hekman, Susan. “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 1-23.
  • Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Material Feminism, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman. Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 123-154.
  • Frost, Erin. “Apparent Feminism as a Methodology for Technical Communication and Rhetoric.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 3-28.
  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Goredema, Ruvimbo. “African Feminism: The African woman’s Struggle for identity.” African Yearbook of Rhetoric, vol.1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 33-41.
  • Hinton, P., T. Mehrabi, and J. Barla. “New Materialisms/New Colonialisms” (Online self-published work-in-progress). 2015. pp. 1-15.
  • Steady, C. Filomina. The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Schenkman Publishing, 1981.