© Ernest Kodjo Ayikpah
Twitter activist Nana Ama Agyemang Asante.
“I didn’t identify as a feminist for a really long time,” says Nana Ama Agyemang Asante. She is a Ghanaian writer and journalist. Although she grew up in a home where she was encouraged to question gender stereotypes, Asante didn’t come across words like “feminism” or “patriarchy” until she was in university. The reason was probably that, for a long time, women’s rights activists in Ghana preferred to use terms like “women’s empowerment”, “gender advocacy” or simply “human rights” to make their points. As Asante recalls, “feminist” was “what men called you if they wanted to insult you.”
Nowadays, “feminist” is a term embraced by ever more women in Ghana. Asante and others were at the forefront of reclaiming the term and mainstreaming it. An outspoken political and social commentator, Asante was, for a long time, the only female co-host of any of Accra’s popular radio breakfast shows. Though gender equality is a principle of Ghana’s constitution, societal progress has been slow.
Asante is among a new generation of feminist activists. They use social-media platforms to critique the male-dominated society and expose the contradictions of patriarchy. Asante says that there are limits to what is permitted to say in mainstream media. “There are so many things I can do at Citi FM, but some views I cannot express on the radio,” she reports. Social media is the space where she can rant and challenge outdated ideas. For her tweets, she has been called a witch and a misandrist.
Other feminists are just as outspoken online. “Men who think women belong in the kitchen are the same men who want a female doctor when their wife gets pregnant,” read a recent meme posted on Our Collective Vagina (OCV). This Facebook page was created by Maame Akua Awereba in January 2018. She also set up the sister page called Dear Survivor, which allows victims of sexual violence to share their stories anonymously.
“I think in many ways, I have always been a feminist,” Awereba says. When she was a little girl, there were things at school or church that made her think “this does not make sense”. For example, she recalls that girls were taught how to behave in ways that would make boys treat them well. Even back then, Awereba felt that boys’ behaviour should not be seen as girls’ responsibility. In the same vein she now insists that rape and sexual assault must never be blamed on the way a women dresses. Men are responsible for men’s actions.
OCV is a “truly feminist” Facebook page, its founder says. Awereba started it because she felt the information available to Ghanaian women was insufficient. “I realised that a lot of feminist platforms here were quite diplomatic about the issues, and they were basically pussyfooting.” She says she is straightforward and wanted a space where feminists could express themselves without risking to be hounded by people who oppose them.
Unlike other feminist pages, OCV does not tolerate comments from anti-feminists. It does not even accept invitations to debate. OCV deletes, reports, blocks or simply ignores hateful comments. As Awereba explains, the mission of the page is “to put out information and give feminists a safe space.” OCV is known for dark humour and satire.
It does not bother Awereba that critics accuse her of having created a “feminist echo chamber.” She asks rhetorically: “Is it not necessary?” As long as men dominate social life, she argues, women need safe spaces, and the mere fact that this question arises at all shows that male dominance is a problem.
Social media is a powerful tool. It allows people previously excluded from public discourse to find their voices and build alliances. On the downside, many people do not have access to the internet in Ghana and other African countries. High costs and poor infrastructure mean that many people cannot make use of this tool.
Indeed, Ghana’s clicktivist feminists tend to be from well-to-do families. Asante’s father was a lawyer and a traditional chief, so she had a relatively comfortable life. Similarly, Awereba’s parents are educated professionals. Some say that the privileged backgrounds insulated them from the experiences of poorer women who face real gender violence in Ghana, such as rural women who are absurdly accused of “witchcraft” and banished into inhospitable camps in the north of the country.
Such criticism will not silence the social-media feminists, however. “I can’t help the fact that I was born in a middle class home,” Awereba says, and adds that she feels duty-bound to use her privilege to fight for those who suffer more. In her eyes, one does not have to experience an injustice personally to know it is wrong – and fight it.
Another common criticism of clicktivism is that it does not achieve much on the ground. Asante disagrees. She has over 21,000 Twitter followers, and is convinced that online communication reverberates offline.
By mid-May, the sharp tongue and witty approach had won OCV almost 10,000 likes on Facebook. However, success has made Awereba a target of aggression. That was evident when OCV and another social-media feminist group called Pepper Dem Ministries were at the forefront of a censure campaign in late 2018. They demanded that the mobile-phone company Huawei cancel its partnership with a popular comedian, who had made jokes about sexualised violence and earlier had even invited people to post “rape techniques” on social media. He also works as a primary school teacher, but only received a caution letter from the Ghana Education Service. OCV and Pepper were appalled – and had to face a flood of hateful responses.
Asante had a similar experience. Her name trended on Ghana’s Twittersphere after she described as “predatory” the actions of a popular actor. The married male actor had been filmed making unannounced visits to the dorms of female students at a university and surprised them with an uninvited hug on Valentine’s Day.
Both women have received rape threats on social media, and both felt forced to take steps to ensure their safety and mental wellbeing. Asante considered going offline, but she decided she would not be pushed away by trolls. Awereba has deleted all online photos of her son in order to protect him, but she too is eager to keep on fighting: “Online activism has brought down governments,” she says, “it can bring down the patriarchy.”
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), an international non-governmental organisation, appreciates the social-media approach to spreading the message. “Feminists know that the personal is political and has deep impact on our society,” she points out. Online activism benefits teenage girls who deserve to understand the society they live in and can learn a lot from online role models.
Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu is a Ghanaian journalist.
Nana Ama Ageymang Asante’s twitter feed:
Our Collective Vagina:
Pepper Dem Ministries: