Teacher || Writer || Poet || Activist
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (1940-2019) was born on December 27th, 1940 in Lagos Nigeria. Her father was a missionary and reverend and her mother a teacher of English and Math in Teacher’s Colleges. She then moved from Lagos to Benin City, because her father had founded a new mission.
Her parents were among the first Nigerian Christian converts, which shaped her life greatly. Her social status was likely impacted by this unique fact. Additionally, she had early exposure to Western Education, which as we’ll explore later on, is considerably important.
Ogundipe-Leslie attended Secondary School Queens School in Ede, Yorubaland, which was considered the best school in Nigeria. The school was considered to be a very good representative of the colonial effort at integration.
Another part of their uniqueness was that there was a nationwide exam given to students, from which they selected the best girls. These girls were placed into Queens School, making the academic environment competitive and advanced (Queens College). Because of this acceptance method, Ogundipe-Leslie likely experienced a very culturally diverse social environment.
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie then went to the University of Ibadan, a University College of the University of London in Nigeria, in 1963. She graduated with a BA in English Honors. She became the first student in the history of the university to graduate first class honors from the Faculty of Arts (her academic competitiveness from Secondary Queens School likely prepared her for this impressive endeavor). Worth noting is that around this time (1960), Nigeria gained its Independence. This momentous event likely affected Ogundipe-Leslie’s topics of interest and academic atmosphere significantly. While at Ibadan, she joined various organizations and clubs, including writing poetry and criticisms for the Mbari Artists, Writers Club, and The Horn. (Interestingly The Horn has seen other literary “big names” including Wole Soyinka and Abiola Irele) (Postcolonial African Writers). In reference to Ogundipe-Leslie’s work in The Horn, author Siga Fatima Jagne wrote:
“Her student publications reveal her nuanced attitude to the events of that time and laid a solid foundation for her long struggle for women’s rights and her commitment to the dual tasks of theoretical work and practical action in advocacy.”
Later, Ogundipe-Leslie attended Leiden University in the Netherlands where she completed her PhD in Narratology (the theory of narrative). In addition to writing columns for the Nigerian newspapers The Guardian and The Nation, over the course of her career, she taught at the University of Ibadan, Ogun State University, University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Legon University in Ghana, and at several American universities, including Northwestern University. (See Premium Times)
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie has published (in) a variety and number of works including but not limited to: Sisterhood is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology, Sew the Old Days and Other Poems (1985), Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations (1994), in which our critical text, “Stiwanism: Feminism in an African Context” is, Women as Oral Artists (1994), and Moving Beyond Boundaries (1995).
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie wrote her essay Stiwanism (and created her theory) in response to Africans who argue that feminism is not relevant to Africa, and Africans who argue that Feminism is a foreign/Western endeavor that Africans need not take part in. Additionally, she notes that she wants to assert a mention of caution towards scholars who judge African feminist movements by Western notions of feminism.
To first get a more personal introduction from Molara Ogundipe-Leslie herself, here is a video of her speaking at the Ghana International Book Fair. She highlights one of her works, but from 0:00-0:46 and 1:00-1:39, she talks about herself in general, and her work with gender studies as a driving force.
Ogundipe-Leslie wanted to avoid the divisive discussions which occur when one begins a conversation on feminism in Africa. So, she created the theory of Stiwanism. Stiwanism is an acronym for the following:
Stiwanism essentially argues for why a specific kind of feminism is needed in Africa. Some skimming her essay may think “this is just feminism; why did she write this?” to which I would argue that they did not read her work carefully enough, and to which Ogundipe-Leslie would also note that she created Stiwanism because:
“The word ‘feminism’ itself seems to be a kind of red rag to the bull of African men.”
-Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (Stiwanism,229)
At the time of publication, (1994), there were indigenous feminisms in Africa that were being brought forward. Stiwanism is unique in that it is a way to study African feminisms as they specifically relate to history, gender, politics, race, economics, and social dynamics. Ogundipe-Leslie considers a plethora of influences to various notions of feminism in Africa to ensure that she can effectively critique the state of gender issues in Africa. In her essay she writes:
“STIWA is about the inclusion of African women in the contemporary social and political transformation of Africa. Be a Stiwanist.”
Ogundipe-Leslie anticipated protest to her essay on Stiwanism, so much of the essay examines the answer to the question:
Why is Stiwanism needed?
Ogundipe-Leslie articulately responds to the expected question by arguing that the issue of gender has failed to be acknowledged, tested, examined, and confronted by theoreticians of African liberation and change. She claims that there must be a new reordering of society (and familiar structure in particuar) in order to have a successful, true transformation.
“African women must theorize their own feminisms.“
“There can be no liberation of African society without the liberation of African women.”
Furthermore, Ogundipe-Leslie calls for African women to read white feminists with critical discrimination and detailed sensitivity, to note for what may be relevant to them, and what may not.
In Leila Abouzeid’s Year of the Elephant, Although Morocco seems to have joyously won Independence through the efforts of women, women continue to suffer. Using theorist Molara Ogundipe-Leslie’s essay, Stiwanism, it becomes clear that Zahra’s experiences are due to a failure to include change for women as requirements for revolutionized Independence.
In her preamble, Ogundipe-Leslie argues that Stiwanism ought to apply to the entirety of Africa, not just “Black” Africa, or “West” or “sub-Saharan” Africa, and not just the reader’s own ethnic groups, but the entire continent of Africa.
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie claims that women are still considered sacred and therefore wield political power. Women’s menstruation is actually a point of power, as men respect women in this time with more reverence. Additionally, women may threaten to remove their clothes and expose their naked body, as a method of threatening a man into doing what the woman would like, since men consider it unclean and bad to see a naked woman. She also mentions that armed robberies and raping of women as a power of manipulation and power stem from Western influences, not African origin necessarily (or at least that it became more frequent with Western influence).
Ogundipe-Leslie goes as far as to say that women even collude with polygyny, which must stop. Women have succumbed to the belief that they must be married at all costs, or at least have a man to admit to the paternity of their child so that they may have the safety of the “male umbrella”. She critiques that women are often opportunistic about gender roles, seeking a softer life which is sometimes offered for women if they are dependent on the males in their life. Some women choose to exploit men financially. Or if they have a job, they give their entire paycheck to their husbands, or use all of it for their family. Ogundipe-Leslie critiques this use of women’s money, since it actually contributes to womens’ lack of independence. Ogundipe Leslie continues that there are women who are also insistent on receiving a bridewealth or brideprice when they marry, which is a material benefit for the wife’s family from the groom (essentially the opposite of a dowry). A group called The Married Women Incorporated is mentioned as a group which fulfills many of these negative roles for women.
For Stiwanism to be effective, Ogundipe-Leslie argues that women and men must be co-partners in the social transformation of Africa (they historically had not been). The efforts cannot simply be men attempting to alter society, and then “deal with the gender issue later”. Additionally, she asserts that all black African men or those in the diaspora must be liberatory feminists for the women in their lives (whether that be wives, daughters, mothers, aunts, co-workers, neighbors, etc.). This notion of universal feminism is similar to much more recent claim that “We should all be feminists” (TED), made by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of various novels, short stories, and nonfiction who has been acclaimed for attracting new readers to African literature .
Ogundipe-Leslie’s concern regarding co-partnering for the work is relatively successfully addressed in Year of the Elephant, Zahra realizes that women’s rights were not addressed in any way in the work leading to the Independence. Additionally, in Year of the Elephant, the male characters are in no way encouraging women’s revolutionary change, in fact, they are often seen discouraging the women’s independence.
To continue on Ogundipe-Leslie’s essay, women in Africa and specifically in the middle class must move past their false consciousness (in which they believe they understand feminism or argue for the best for society but do not), they must disillusion their minds, and take a personal active interest in their society. Women must not simply sit back and allow or expect men to do social advocacy on their behalf. Ogundipe-Leslie reiterates that women must educate other women about the rights and responsibilities of a modern nation, if a woman strives to be an independent individual (which she should strive for).
In Year of the Elephant, Zahra and other women, in the beginnings of Independence have “thrown their spindles away to join the struggle” (Abouzeid, 28), metaphorically casting aside their typical feminine roles as housewives to join the typically masculine fight. This instance did not stand alone, however; Roukia and Zahra “organized strikes, collected donations, and learned to read and write and burned Pinhas’s shop” (Abouzeid, 42). Moreover, women develop this community of women, expanding it, improving it, and deepening it, while the men (at least the men that Abouzeid reveals to her readers) are ineffectually sitting behind bars. Roukia, Safia, and Zahra do this not simply by “participating in meetings, collecting donations, [and] fighting illiteracy” (55) but by actions that grow the constituent community such as spreading literacy, and by deciding that they would set up women’ meetings to inform on politics. The three women enact this plan by agreeing that “Each of us would contact five or more women, who would then tell the same number, and so we would gather a group” (Abouzeid, 55). By doing so, they are creating a system that intrinsically deepens the bonds between the women. At these meetings Roukia, Safia, and Zahra told the gathered women about “the delicate phase [their] country was presently passing through, and about the new Morocco and […] the real struggle for development and economic independence” (Abouzeid, 55). So, the women in the novel have been able to fulfill the requirement of women educating other women in a revolution or social change. However, since their goals and points of teaching did not include mention of women’s rights, familial structure, or change within gender roles and expectations, the “Independence” which they gained was not as fulfilling for the women as it was for men. Therefore, failing to be a true independence or revolution by Ogundipe-Leslie’s arguments. Ogundipe-Leslie’s arguments can easily apply to a vast array of countries, and her basic principles easily apply to women’s rightful place in dialogue in nearly any situation.
Ultimately, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie’s theory of Stiwanism is her acronym for Social Transformation Including Women in Africa, which she uses to explain her goal for women in Africa and bypass “charges of imitativeness or having to constantly define our agenda” (230). She writes that “this new term ‘STIWA’ is about the inclusion of African women in the contemporary social and political transformation of Africa” (230). Ogundipe-Leslie clearly outlines flaws with “feminist” thinking in the past, or the thinking of people against her work, and steps that women can take, including surrendering self-indulgent aspects of gender constructs, and searching out role models to mimic. . At the core of her theory is a rather simple idea: including women in the discussions and movements around change for the environments women take part in.
Personal Life and Family
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie passed away on 18 June 2019. She is survived by her two daughters: Dr. (Ts’gye Maryam) Rachel Titilayo Leslie who is a scholar of religion in Africa and writes on the significance of African legacies for global culture and Dr. Isis Imotara Leslie, a political scientist who has taught at several US universities. Her grandchildren are Askia Tristan Folajimi Leslie who graduated from University of California, Berkeley for Computer Engineering and Coding and Joshua Tolu Victoriano who was recently ordained a deacon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia.