Sylvia Tamale

Individual African feminists

I am an academic, a lawyer, sociologist and feminist activist. I am also an Associate Professor and currently the Dean of Law at Makerere University, the first woman to ever hold that position in Uganda. I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from Makerere University, a Masters in Law from Harvard University and a PhD […]

I am an academic, a lawyer, sociologist and feminist activist. I am also an Associate Professor and currently the Dean of Law at Makerere University, the first woman to ever hold that position in Uganda. I graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from Makerere University, a Masters in Law from Harvard University and a PhD in Sociology and Feminist Studies from the University of Minnesota. I call myself a feminist because the term embodies my political resistance to patriarchal/imperialist ideology, institutions and structures. In 2003, an end-of-year poll conducted by the New Vision—Uganda’s biggest daily newspaper—voted me “The Worst Woman of the Year” because of my vocal and “radical” support for sexual rights. I made a Worst-Woman-of-the-Year badge of honour that I wear with a lot of pride and dignity!

Feminists in Africa today have to contend with a resurgence of cultural, economic and religious fundamentalisms, which represent patriarchal/capitalist extremism. These are protected by repressive patriarchal states that will stop at nothing to protect male power and privilege. In my own work I have tried to address these challenges first by trying to transform the consciousness (and hopefully the lives) of young people in the lecture room, in my own family (I have two young sons) and in various public spaces. Secondly, my activist sisters and I have confronted patriarchal oppression and discourses through courts of law, research and the media. We have successfully challenged oppressive and discriminatory laws in the Ugandan Constitutional Court regarding women’s rights in divorce, adultery and inheritance legislations. It was also through court room activism that we won a landmark ruling in the High Court affirming the fundamental rights of Ugandan lesbians to privacy, property and protection from torture.

The task of challenging an all-powerful patriarchal system is daunting but certainly not insurmountable. In order to succeed in this endeavour, feminists need to actively participate in economic and political processes and all levels of public offices. We also need to sharpen our conceptual analysis of hegemonic patriarchal institutions and its various structures of power including in sexuality, law, culture, religion, media and language. And feminists in Africa need to regularly replenish their political and personal energies, as well as their ranks for activism without passion soon dissipates into mere rhetorical prop.

Despite the challenges I remain certain that change can happen. I take inspiration from nature, books, children, optimism and justice and I am always uplifted by the words in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…”


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