Feminism in the Digital Age: How Social Media is Impacting African Women’s Liberation

Jul 5 · 5 min read

Written by Fatima B.Derby

Female protester at The Total Shutdown in South Africa

From the mid-19th century to date, feminist ideology and philosophy have changed over time, creating what is referred to as waves of feminism. In the digital age, feminist activists employ digital tools to magnify activism and women’s liberation efforts. Feminists throughout history have used different tools and resources to advocate for change. In this time, feminist activists have agitated against all forms of discrimination against women and have pushed for women’s rights to vote and be voted for, to own property, to access abortion and reproductive healthcare, to equal pay and maternity leave, to be protected from domestic violence and rape and to sue their abusers.

The first wave in feminist history organized around women’s rights to vote. The second wave mobilized around the fight for women to gain equal legal and social rights. However, one of the biggest shortcomings of second-wave feminism was that it did not carry along women who were neither white nor middle/upper-class. Second- wave feminism was grossly exclusionary of black and brown working-class women. This exclusion gave birth to third-wave feminism, which sought to challenge definitions of feminity that centred the experiences of heterosexual white middle-class women. One of the defining operational frameworks of third-wave feminism is intersectionality. Within the context of African women’s liberation movements, intersectionality describes how our various identities as African women define our different experiences with power, privilege, oppression and discrimination under systems of oppression like patriarchy, colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism.

Protesters at the Market March Protests organized in different cities across Nigeria

With the rise and expansion of new media technology and social media platforms globally, there is a fast-growing awareness of socio-cultural issues amplified by social media influencers such as Rupi Kaur, Mona Elhataway, Adwoa Aboah among others. In an internet minute in 2019, there are about 1 million people logging into Facebook and about 87,500 people tweeting. African feminists and women’s rights movements and organizations form a part of this statistic and are engaging with other users online.

African feminist scholars and activists are able to publish their work online, document their unique experiences within the patriarchy via new media tech such as feminist blogs, online visual storyboards, feminist zines and e-magazines etc. They are also able to engage in feminist critique and public discourse through social media. Women’s rights movements and organizations are implementing digital campaigns to create awareness and encourage dialogue around systemic issues affecting women such as gender-based discrimination and forms of violence against women. Sexual assault, body positivity/autonomy, sex worker rights, LGBTQI+ rights and sexist microaggressions within African contexts are issues that have been brought to the forefront through African feminist activism in digital spaces.

Hashtag Activism and Social Mobilization

“Hashtag activism is a term coined by media outlets which refer to the use of Twitter’s hashtags for online activism. The term can also be used to refer to the act of showing support for a cause through a like, share, and etcetera, on any social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter”. (Donah Mbabazi and Joan Mbabazi, 2018). Hashtag activism is one way that African women’s rights activists are collaborating to plan and organize protests, marches and rally support to take specific actions geared towards women’s liberation that influence policy and effect behavioural change among people.

Social Media has so far proven instrumental in shaping the way that feminists from different regions in Africa interact and collaborate with one another to organize around issues central to women’s liberation, within an intersectional framework. In the struggle to dismantle patriarchy in its different facets, social media has demonstrated to be a useful tool for African women’s rights activists to mobilize people and resources to take tangible and substantial action within their communities.

African protesters in London protesting police violence against Nigerian women

#TotalShutdown, #MarketMarch, #NameAndShame, #SayHerNameNigeria, and #ArewaMeToo are examples of hashtags that started as online movements and campaigns to protest violence against women and have translated to community mobilization to effect social and political change for African women. For example, The #NameAndShame campaign that started out as on online conversations about rape culture in Nigeria and the importance of a sex offenders registry as essential to implement the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of Nigeria is in the final stages of a launch of a Sex Offenders Registry to name and shame sexual predators in Nigeria.

The poem that got renowned feminist and queer rights activist Dr Stella Nyanzi arrested and jailed by the Ugandan government was published on her Facebook page in November 2018. The poem which described Yoweri Museveni as “a pair of buttocks” was critical of the state of Uganda under Museveni’s rule. The government charged her for cyber harassment and offensive communication, in violation of the Computer Misuse Act. The poem explored themes of oppression, corruption, unemployment, bad governance among others.

On June I6 in commemoration of her 45th birthday, Dr Stella Nyanzi released 45 poems from her prison cell in Luzira which were distributed by African feminists and women’s rights activists via social media. Some of the poems are critical of Museveni and his governance while others are reflections of life as a political prisoner.

Dr Stella Nyanzi’s imprisonment and persistent revolution against oppression and patriarchy, the #PushForNyanzi hashtags and the general discourse on the ways that African feminists and women’s rights activists are packaging resistance are being magnified by social media. Social Media continues to be a useful tool for teaching, learning and facilitating public dialogue on challenging unjust social and legal systems.

For African women’s liberation movements particularly in more repressive contexts where freedom of speech and expression are restricted and curtailed by authoritarian governments, Social Media is a piece of crucial machinery by which African feminists control the narrative around women’s rights and unify women’s stories and experiences.


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