The Making of a Feminist Political Constituency or How to Theorize a Bonobo Sisterhood Polity

*Emmah Wabuke

How can we convert women into a feminist political force rather than political footstools of the more quintessential polities, such as ethnicity? This post has no answer. Instead, it provides a roadmap, through a series of questions, which will hopefully lead the reader into a working formula on HOW to create a feminist polity.

Theses have been set out to explain why women cannot create a feminist polity. As noted in the preceding paragraph, powerful polities include ethnicity and religion. In establishing a pathway to a feminist polity, we must then begin by asking ‘Why ethnicity and religion and Why Not Women?’ Quick hypothesis: identity politics.

In her paper, ‘Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity’, Joan Scott notes that identity politics claims to protect the interests of particular groups which share and rally around actual or perceived injustices peculiar to their group. It seems therefore that identity politics requires group identification and a rallying call for injustice. Prima facie, a female constituency satisfies both these requirements. Women after all have historically been and still remain unequal to the male gender in many spheres.

So why the disparity between theory and practice? Many reasons really, including the historical advantage enjoyed by other polities. Take ethnicity for example; ethnicity as a polity began in the colonial era and was solidified in post-independent Africa. Dr Adams Oloo in ‘Party Mobilization and Membership’ notes that in post-independent Kenya, ‘the colonial logic of culturally and territorially distinct ethnic groups shaped local understandings of interests and in turn affected the political rhetoric.’

One particular reason that I wish to emphasize on, however, is anti-essentialism. Anti-essentialism grew from the 1970s feminists who rightly rejected essentialism due to its tendency to tell one story of the feminist struggle, one which more often than not starred a white middle-class woman. Instead, there was a justified call for inclusion of other women, including racial minorities, sexual minorities and lower-class women. Yet, in emphasizing differences between the group, the noble anti-essentialism debate may have obtained what Prof Mark Lilla terms ‘a can’t understand won’t understand me’ attitude within the group. Instead of having a feminist polity, women have then become part of a voting bloc which prefers political parties, ethnicity or religion rather than their own unique overarching struggle as women.

How do we correct this? Enter the Bonobo Sisterhood. As I have discussed before, the Bonobo sisterhood derives its name from Bonobos, chimpanzee-like primates, native to the Wamba Forest, DRC which have established a female camaraderie to protect themselves against male aggression. When a younger female faces sexual harassment, she releases a cry which other older female bonobos respond to. Through these alliances, female bonobos have greatly reduced male-instigated infanticide from their midst.  I believe a Bonobo Sisterhood to encompass consciousness (acknowledgement of differences among women), collaboration (amplification of the less privileged voices by those more privileged) and combat (legal and policy fights for change).

To develop a Feminist Theory of the State, we should, as Prof Mackinnon puts it: ‘embrace all women. . . each of us in our complexity, ambiguity and divisions in our identifications along with our attempts to reject our stereotypes we have been saddled with’. The Bonobo Sisterhood Polity calls for the same approach. A Bonobo Sisterhood Polity does not suppress the differences in the members; it instead mandates the more privileged to amplify the struggles of the less privileged. In other words, instead of looking at women as a unified homogenous group, the Bonobo Sisterhood Polity seeks to create coalitions among all women.

However, women are diverse and wide. How, then, do we draw a connecting thread that cuts across well-established polities, such as ethnicity, class or religion? Quick hypothesis: By framing the narrative. In ‘The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant’, Professor George Lakoff argues that in order to win political battles, groups (in his case, Democrats) should frame their political narrative by tapping into the values of the group. According to Prof Lakoff, facts do not convince half as much as value-based frames. Effective values-based messaging, it seems, is the first step in developing a Bonobo Sisterhood Polity.

How do we develop effective values- based messaging? Quick Hypothesis: Prof. Alan Jenkins’ VPSA or Values, Problem, Solution and Action. Effective messaging, Jenkins posits, is based on shared values. Considerable effort should be drawn on identifying the shared values of a group, any group, including women. In 2018, an opportunity may have arisen in the midst of the Me-Too Movement. This Movement has on a general scale unified ALL women in agreeing that women disproportionately face sexual harassment and has harnessed calls to make workplaces safer for women. In the process, women have generally been keen to note that some women disproportionately face discrimination than others, based on added disadvantages, such as race and class.

As stated in the first paragraph, this post provides no answers. Instead it sets out the following questions that are helpful in developing a Bonobo Sisterhood Polity. In sum, to theorise the Bonobo Sisterhood Polity, we must ask certain questions: ’Why not women?’, ‘Why the Bonobo Sisterhood Polity?’ and ‘How do we build the polity in theory and then in practice?’


*Emmah Wabuke holds an LL.B from University of Nairobi and an LL.M from Harvard Law School. She is also an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. Emmah is a Lecturer at Strathmore Law School and a Research Fellow at Strathmore Institute of Advanced Studies in International Criminal Justice where she heads the Gender Peace and Security Centre. She has an interest in the intersection between gender and national security in Africa. 


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