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Offsetting Misconceptions of African women in the Diaspora
Jane Kani Edward, Ph,D

By Jane Kani Edward, Ph.D.

Introduction
Misconception about Africa and Africans is not a new phenomenon. The African people in general and
women in particular have been misrepresented by the outside world – Europe in particular. European
philosophers, explorers, and scholars produced knowledge about non-European societies since the
eighteenth century that misrepresented African realities. Ethnographic writings and the Western media
coverage of African affairs further played a significant role in perpetuating negative images of Africa and
Africans. Certainly, there have been concerted efforts by many Africans in the diaspora including African
scholars to challenge these images and highlight the positive stories of contemporary Africa. However, such
efforts are sometimes overshadowed by constant negative reporting by the Western media about the African
continent. P. Bohannan and P. Curtin observed, “in spite of the systematic search for knowledge about
Africa, the old myths or misconceptions about Africa and its people lived on and new myths were added.”
They further noted, “part of the problem comes from the way the news media report African affairs,” which
tend to focus on crisis – civil wars, natural disasters, famine, starving children and poverty-ridden mothers.2
Indeed, the continuous reporting of such traumatic events further perpetuates negative images of Africa and
its diaspora, and consequently, African women in the diaspora are seen through similar narrow and negative
lenses.

This essay draws on my own experience of conducting research among African immigrants in the Bronx.
My intention is to deflate the stereotypical image of African women in the diaspora by highlighting their
achievements and contributions to their communities both in the Bronx and in Africa, and the American
society. Understanding how African women in the diaspora are negatively portrayed, and to challenge such
misconception requires a brief discussion on the misrepresentation of African women in colonial
anthropological writings, and in refugee and forced migration literature. Such analysis provides context for
the examination of effective strategies to change such negativity. Given the breadth and diversity of African
women in the diaspora, I delineate the experiences of new or contemporary African diaspora, which refers
to “Diasporas formed since the late 19th century,” and include: the “Diaspora of colonialism; the struggle
for independence; and the era of structural adjustment.”

Misrepresentation of African Women in Colonial and Refugee Writings

European colonial narratives of early 18th through the 19th centuries about African women simultaneously
situate them as ‘powerless’ and ‘innocent’ inviting intervention on their behalf; ‘primitive’ in need of
civilization; and potential ‘deviants’ in need of containment. Images of African women in colonial
anthropological writings in particular, depicted them as ‘backward,’ ‘primitive,’ and of ‘inferior’ race.4 The
image of an African woman during that period was presented in opposition to that of a middle-class
European woman during the Victorian era in Europe, particularly in 18th century Britain. Ifi Amadiume
argues “to early anthropologists who wrote about African societies, African women occupied the lowest
end of the scale described as no better than beasts and slaves, while Victorian lady stood at the apex.”5 In
some writings, African women were depicted as disease carriers, or “mentally inferior,” “ignorant,”
“childlike,” and “immoral.” According to Lynette Jackson African women in colonial towns in Africa
“were suspected of being both disrespectable and diseased. They were inscribed into colonial space as ‘stray
women’ … responsible for ‘spreading disease.’6 Such negative depiction of African women formed the
bases for European colonial policies – political, social, economic, and legal, that were implemented during
the colonial rule in Africa.

Similar misrepresentations of African women in colonial narratives are further manifested in the manner in
which African immigrants and refugee women were/are depicted in refugee literature, photography, and
journalistic writings of contemporary times. The period between the 1960s and early 2000, witnessed a

significant spread of nationalist struggles, civil wars, political instability, economic crisis and genocide in many African countries. These events triggered mass movement of African people across national and international borders in search of safety and better economic opportunities in other countries including the United States. Those Africans constitute the “new African diaspora” noted above. During this period scholars, journalists, activists, and advocates of refugee and forced migration issues, mainly from the West produced scholarly and policy-oriented documentations about refugees and immigrant populations. The literature and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) posters, though are useful, however, emphasized specific aspects of the refugees and immigrant women from Africa that render irrelevant their agency, and their role as creators of knowledge and agents of social change as well.

The image of a victimized, dependent and helpless African woman refugee and immigrant, for instance, dominate the literature and media coverage of events in Africa and its diaspora. As Sherene Razack writes, “[w]hen women become defined as refugees, who they are, is usually tied to notions of the relationship of backwardness and victimization.8 For Barbara Harell-Bond, “UNHCR posters depict all refugees [and African refugees in particular] in attitudes of submission or hopelessness. They are waiting for something to happen.” In her view, “[t]he image of the helpless refugee, desperately in need, reinforces the view that outsiders are needed to help them.”9 Additionally, policy-oriented reports and journalistic articles on African immigrants in the Bronx, for instance, tend to accentuate immigrants’ socio-economic problems and tensions between Africans and African American communities. Very little discussions focus on the achievements and contributions of the African immigrant communities to the socio-cultural, economic and political aspects of the host society.10 Similarly, collaborative initiatives and efforts between African immigrants, African Americans and other immigrant communities to address some of their challenges are rarely covered or sufficiently analysed.

The representation of African refugees and/or immigrant women solely as victims, dependent and desperate for outside help, is often problematic for several reasons: First, it ignores the struggles and efforts made by the refugees and immigrants to alleviate some of their problems before the arrival of relief aid or social services. It also overlooks the pre-migration planning and preparation of African women prior to leaving their countries of origin in Africa to their intended destinations. Similarly, the depiction of refugees and immigrant women as such, renders irrelevant their agency. It is true that when people become refugees or immigrants usually seek some assistance from public and private institutions to meet their basic needs. However, this help should not be interpreted as a complete state of dependency and helplessness, since refugees and immigrants often try to find ways of sustaining themselves.
Countering Stereotypical Image of African Women in Diaspora.

It is indeed a challenging task to change people’s perceptions and long-held negative representations of African women, particularly given that some Western media outlets continue to misrepresent the African continent. Despite such difficulties, African women should confront the negative media images, as well as the narratives that tend to depict them in stereotypical way. For instance, there is need for African women in the diaspora to start and/or continue to write their history and life experiences from their own perspectives. African women need to self-identify and self-represent themselves through diverse forms of research, writing, as well as media production processes. They must be the ones who work toward breaking- down the negative stereotypes and popular assumptions propagated by existing scholarly and/or journalistic writings, as well as different forms of films and television commercials and programs that tend to depict African women unfairly. In addition, there is a need to focus on the success stories of African women in diaspora in all aspects of their lives.

As indicated earlier, many African women in diaspora in academic and research institutions in the United State have taken up the task of challenging misrepresentations about African women whether in the media or written texts. They do so by presenting a different and often unsung success stories of African women. For instance, my own research findings of African Immigration Research in the Bronx published in a report

titled “White Paper on African Immigration Research in the Bronx,” highlight some of their achievements and contributions.11 Launched in 2006, the African Immigration Research’s main objective is to examine the situation of African immigrants in the Bronx with an aim of capturing their varied experiences. The goal is to shift the discussion about African immigration from simply assessing the needs, and challenges immigrants encounter which, tend to dominate the literature, to analyze their achievements and contributions to the host society, as well as the linkages they create with their communities in Africa. Using oral history, urban ethnography, observation and participant observation research methods, the project analyzes the social, cultural, political, economic and historical aspects of Africans.

The research findings reveal the resilience and commitment of Africans in general and women in particular, in the process of adjustment to the host society in the face of difficulties and uncertainties. Such resiliency is exemplified by their hard work, establishment of businesses, socio-cultural, religious, political institutions and women’s organizations that serve as catalyst to address their needs in the Bronx. Additionally, women in the diaspora are contributing to the development of their communities of origin in Africa through remittances, transnational entrepreneurship, and community development support. Women such as Ramatu Ahmed Founder of the African Life Center that serves the African community; Naaimat Muhammed, founder of the 16th District African and Muslim Council, who became the first American-born African and Muslim female to run for political office in the Bronx, in 2013; and countless other African women who are outstanding leaders in the African community in the Bronx. Such success stories of African women in diaspora are rarely featured in major media outlets in the United States. Thus, it is the responsibility of African women in diaspora to bring such stories to the forefront of the national debate on immigration in the United States.
Notes:-
1 This article is a revised version of a keynote speech titled, “Changing the Image of African Diaspora Women” I delivered at two events organized by Ntumba Mukendi of Ntumbantumba organization in celebration of the International Women’s Month held at Fordham and Columbia Universities on March 20th and April 3rd 2014 respectively.
2 See Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin, African and Africans, 1995: Page, 7.
3 See Paul T. Zeleza, “Diaspora Dialogues: Engagements between Africa and Its Diaspora. In
Isidore Okpewho and Nkiru Nzegwu (eds.). The New African Diaspora, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 31-60.
4 See, Gwendolyn Mikell (ed.). “Introduction, African Feminism: The Politics of Survival in Sub-Saharan Africa, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997, pp. 1-20.
5 See Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters and Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd. 1987, page 2.
6 See Lynette A. Jackson, “When in the White Man’s Town”: Zimbabwean Women Remember Chibeura.” In, Women in African Colonial Histories, edited by, Jean Allman, Susan Geiger and Nakanyike Musisi, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2002, pp. 191-215, page 191.
7 See, R. Gorman, Coping with Africa’s Refugee Burden: A Time for Solution, 1987; B. Q. Ebenezer, the Problem of Refugees in Africa, 1999; and C. Mink, Africa Refugee Crisis: What to be Done? 1986; S. Hamrell (ed.), Refugee Problems in Africa, 1967.
8 See, Wenona Giles, Helene Moussa, and Penny Van Esterik (eds.), Development and Diaspora: Gender and the Refugee Experience, Dundas, Ontario: Artemis, 1996, page, 17.
9 See, Barbra Harell-Bond, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pages 11-12.
10 See, Waldman, Amy. “Shooting in the Bronx: the immigrants; Killing Heightens the Unease felt by Africans in New York.” New York Times (February 14, 1999),
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CE2D8153AF937A25751C0A96F958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print; Loffee, Karina. “Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. forming African Advisory Council to aid immigrants.” The New York Daily News, January 13, 2010, http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/bronx/2010/01/13/2010-01-13_new_group_to_aid_african_immigrants.html;
Medina, Jennifer. “In School for the First Time, Teenage Immigrants Struggle” New York Times (January 25, 2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/25/education/25ellis.html; and Kate Guthrie, “Sub-Saharan Immigrant Community Needs Assessment,” Prepared for the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Organization (WHEDCO), July 21, 2006, Online Article, http://www.media.duke.edu/centers/hlp/programs/sol/overview/research/2006/guthrie_final_report.pdf
11 See, Jane Kani Edward and Mark Naison, “White Paper on African Immigration Research in the Bronx,” Fordham University, Bronx, New York, 2010.
4
12 The African Immigration Research is part of the larger Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP), Department of African and African America Studies Fordham University.
*Dr. Jane Kani Edward is Clinical Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Director of African Immigration Research, Fordham University. She is the Author of Sudanese Women Refugees: Transformations and Future Imaginings, 2007. She can be reached at edward@fordham.edu

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