Applying a feminist framework to the problems experienced by transgender women in Africa.

Published March 13, 2012 by transfeminists

Good Day friends and followers, donors, allies, colleagues and family

Hope you are all doing well and that you dont overwork yourself in the hectic circumstances of the non-profit sector. Friends, as you will remember, last week we had started unpacking transgender feminism as a concept. Following that article, this week we look at why it has become necessary to frame the problems experienced by transgender women within a feminist framework. We also ventured into the concept of femininity and how this concept can often end up caging us since many of us have this narrow frame of reference of what is feminine and what is masculine, overlooking the fluidity of gender. Here is our article and opinion piece for this week, straight from the coordinator’s pen. Enjoy!!!!

By Leigh Ann van der Merwe

Leigh Ann is the co-ordinator for S.H.E, which is not only the affirmation of the female pronoun by which transgender women identify themselves, it is also an acronym for the social, health and empowerment coalition for transgender women in Africa. It is an informal organisation working with already existing transgender and feminist organisations in order to create unity and harmony amongst the two movements and also to create visibility of transgender women within feminist circles.

Much like the emerging transgender movement in Africa, the feminist movement grew from the struggles of women who yearned for liberation and emancipation from oppression. Gender is the common theme between the feminist and transgender movements. It is being used as a tool to oppress and curtail the freedom of these marginalised groups of people.

Transgender and cisgender women alike experience similar problems. The toughest audience to convince about the reasons for having a transgender feminist movement in Africa, is actually transgender women themselves. The biggest debate at the moment is whether transgender women should be considered women and consequently, do they qualify to be feminists? This is a really political space that in my opinion, on which consensus will be reached with a whole lot of dialogue, debate and patience. The one thing that trans feminists should not do is to negotiate with radical feminists around the concepts of masculinity and femininity. The feminist movement is centred on the principle that capability stretch beyond biology. So it is really hypocritical of radical, vehement  and transphobic feminists like Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffries and Mary Daly to play the anatomical (as in biology) and chromosomal card. That is just wrong.

The following is an extract of an electronic conversation between transgender women in the South-Eastern African region. This captures the ideology of womanhood, femininity and feminism. This conversation puts forward the idea of basic womanhood while it also explores what is acceptable and what is not. The conversation is set off by a link put on the listserve by a transgender woman from an African state:

Sammy:”There is a lot more to being a woman than dressing up and trying to attract men. Maybe they (transgender women) are insecure so feel they have to over compensate but that just makes them seem even more manly”.

Leona:”I do agree, somewhat, that for many a transsexual women, the need to fit in and become ‘the woman’ can sometimes become so much that they over do it. I just think it’s something that needs to be talked about”.

Sammy:”By the way its this ‘overdoing’ that resulted to the animosity that existed (and still exist) between a section of the trans community and a section of the feminist community. The overdoing it reinforced the very foundation of stereotypical behaviour and prejudice that women were fighting”.

Samantha:”I agree Sammy about the overdoing that led to tension between the trans and the feminist sector. And what is really stupid is that trans and cis-gender women experience common problems and as Leona said, this could be talked out. I really agree that there needs to be more dialogue between these sectors”.

Sammy:”Yes, Samantha. I agree with you. I think us, Trans women should not behave awkwardly because it send a bad message about women in general. We should be normal and stop the flamboyant behaviour I see among some peeps because for these peeps they are just acting or making fun of women. Then we swing along and we come out ridiculous and fake. We need to convince the feminists we are not what they think we are”.

Bonitta:”ha! Transexual Women overdressing something to think about”.

Sammy:”Cis-gender women confuse us with shemales, crossdressers and effeminate gay men with their irritating flamboyant behaviour both in the real world and in movies we end up suffering for it on top of this behaviour diluting our legitimacy”.

In a final email, Samantha says:” I don’t know why there is the overdoing of make-up and dress sense for transgender women but my theory is that a lot of it has to do with the way in which they were socialized. Generally, ALL women are prompted to follow a certain protocol when they become of age. I too, Sammy have made the mistake of toooo much make-up, skinny outfits and skinny, glittery clothes but soon realised that those are not the things that define me or my femininity. I am urging trans women to look beyond foundation, eye-shadow and mascara and start internalising the struggle that is facing transgender women on this continent”.

This conversation reflects many differing opinions on what is necessary and what is not. More than anything, it draws a distinction between what is feminine and what is necessary. While some feel that transgender women have every right to express their gender by the most feminine gestures, others feel it is these gestures that anger cis-gender feminists and adds to why transgender women are seen as ridiculing femininity.  Gender is a fluid concept and nothing is absolute for transgender women who transition and want to express their gender identities in sex-positive ways, be it through make-up, through glittery outfits, through extravagant gestures. There should not be a list of what is and what is not feminine. Who decides on such a list anyway?

Whichever way the conversation goes, one thing is very clear. Transgender women are just that at the end of the day: WOMEN! It is with this in mind that I call all diverse groups of women, trans women, cis-gender women, women of colour, disabled women, refugee women to the table to witness the plight of transgender women and all other minority female groups. Trans women and feminists need each other in this struggle fighting patriarchy in Africa. As a transgender woman of colour who grew up in rural South Africa, no one can claim that I ever had male privilege and no one can claim that I still hold male privilege because I have not been socialized as a male person. I grew up believing I was a woman and did feminine things. I fought harder in the feminist struggle than I fought the transgender battle so it makes no sense to me that feminists would not welcome me to the table as a (trans) WOMAN.

We trust this was a good read and look forward to another information, jam-packed opinion piece next week. Here is wishing you a super week dear friends.

Until next week

Leigh Ann

S.H.E, The social, health and empowerment coalition of transgender women in Africa.


34 B Rotterdam Road, Pefferville, East London, 5209.

Tel: + 27 738110789

Fax: 0862603971








One comment on “Applying a feminist framework to the problems experienced by transgender women in Africa.

  • This was brilliant. Thank you for writing it. That there is a debate about transgender women’s struggle fitting into the feminist framework is simply beyond me; gender stereotypes, policing, and bias is at the core of so much sexism and transphobia. That’s why your voices (and conversations like the ones you posted) are important, both for advocacy, and for affirmation. In solidarity, always. So hope I can connect with you all this year.

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