Akumaa Mama Zimbi’s style
The #WearYourDrossNow campaign was started by Joyce Akumaa Dongotey-Padi, popularly known as Akumaa Mama Zimbi. Affectionately called Akumaa or Mama Zimbi, she identifies as a women’s rights activist, a sex doctor, and a zimbigenic (from her name Mama Zimbi) in her Twitter bio. While Akumaa’s Twitter bio until 2017 listed her as a gender advocate, her Mama Zimbi Foundation website described her as a “Ghanaian women’s rights leader, television and radio broadcast journalist, actress and marriage counselor committed to enhancing the status of underprivileged women and children in Ghana and reviving broken marriages” (Mama Zimbi Foundation, n.d.). Per her Twitter bio, website, and self-presentation in the cybersphere and legacy media, Akumaa is not known to claim the feminist label. Akumaa has been a mainstream public figure in Ghana for at least a decade, gaining wide popularity for her performances on TV shows and later her work in radio and TV as a presenter. On Twitter, she commands a following of over 29,000 followers.
“Wear your dross now,” which literally means “put your underwear back on,” is a hashtag specifically directed at women, as indicated by the gendered word choice of “dross.” Social commentary on Ghanaian female sexuality has seen the repeated use of dross in conversations on female sexuality, specifically in popular culture such as hiplife music (a genre widely enjoyed across the country) where women are either sexually objectified, hypersexualized, or slut-shamed (Jabbaar-Gyambrah 2008). Such popular cultural discourses on female sexuality reflect, as argued by Tara Jabbaar-Gyambrah (2008), Ghanaian society’s dedication to preserving patriarchal values by promoting the virgin–whore dichotomy, a phenomenon observed throughout various world cultures that restrain women’s gender roles to normal or deviant.
This dichotomy is evident in Akumaa’s numerous discussions of appropriate sexuality for women. Her commentary draws on what she claims are gender advocacy, gender activist, or women’s rights activist strategies to “reconcile” social and cultural values. Notably, as I will show, her work both online and offline presents strategies tailored to what she claims are the needs of her audiences. Crucially, these strategies replicate heteropatriarchal values for female autonomy, promoting respectability guidelines for the female body without questioning the normative systems and social and religious dictates that keep women oppressed. Akumaa’s work with her NGO, the Mama Zimbi Foundation, engages in important gender activist work by exposing and confronting issues affecting marginalized elderly widows which enhances women’s agency. By contrast, her Twitter hashtag activism, enacted via #WearYourDrossNow (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23WearYourDrossNow), takes gender activism in a different direction that in fact constrains women’s sexual agency.
Purity, Virginity, and Marriage
To understand the emerging frames in the online #WearYourDrossNow campaign it is important to consider the sociocultural context within which the campaign takes place. In Ghana, religion and culture are forces that drive public discourse on issues of morality. For decades cultural and religious institutions have reflected the ideologies of the elite class, to the extent that these two initially separate and oppositional spheres—addressing gender and sexuality—have been conflated repeatedly. According to Tamale (2014), when faced with a seeming common enemy (such as feminist activism), institutions with opposing ideas often work together to overcome the common enemy and ensure that they maintain the status quo and do not lose cultural power.
Most Ghanaians believe culture is borne out of custom, tradition, and dominant religions such as Christianity and or Islam. As such, the relationship between religion and popular interpretations of culture in Ghana has become an increasingly collusive one. Reflecting the impact of Christian and Islamic doctrines, conversations on sex and sexuality in the Ghanaian public sphere tend to shame women for their sexual choices (Ababio and Salifu Yendork 2017). Such public shaming is not uncommon in Ghana; in a recent case, I demonstrated the ways in which a male public figure in Ghana publicly slut-shamed a woman who refused his sexual and romantic advances, aware that it would be detrimental to her public image (Mohammed 2019). As well, condemnations of female bodily autonomy and sexual agency are popular in the sermons of prominent “Men of God” such as Bishop Duncan Williams, Counsellor Lutterodt, and Dag Heward-Mills. In 2017, Counsellor Lutterodt publicly shamed women who have children outside of the institution of marriage, calling them “born ones”—a derogatory term used to insult these women (Joy FM 2017).
These same assumptions and values, as I will show, are reflected in the dominant frame that Akumaa Mama Zimbi’s #WearYourDrossNow campaign draws upon. While the hashtag campaign is not deployed as news, the cultural impact of the discourses is similar—the frames emerging from the campaign replicate the popular shaming of female sexuality, creating these as normal social expectations. In turn, those norms impact the discourses of gender activist ideologues, showing them to be both malleable and co-optable.
In this discussion, I analyze the activist strategies and women empowerment discourses employed by Akumaa in her social media interventions to shame sexually active young women and “encourage” them to delay or suspend sexual activity until marriage. The analysis seeks to link the manners in which her discourse frames female sexual agency similar to those common among religious institutions and in Ghanaian popular culture. More broadly, I show that the meaning of gender activism has been defined as a watered-down version of feminism that is easily depoliticized by state actors, NGOs, and various stakeholders (Mohammed 2018; Tamale 2006). Together this mirroring of cultural norms and destabilization of the term “gender activism” creates an opening for altered definitions, enabling Akumaa to appropriate the gender activism label in her antifeminist work.
Preserving Female Purity for Marriage
The dominant frame that emerges in the analysis of the tweets collected from the hashtag campaign is preserving female purity for marriage. This frame reinforces traditional cultural stereotypes and misconceptions about the female body and female sexuality. Marie Hardin and Erin Whiteside (2010) have argued that frames that dominate in public conversations over long periods of time tend to be conceived as the norm and accepted widely by the population. This theme is reinforced by toxic traditional ideas of what proper womanhood and girlhood should be. The general notion in many African societies is that a person fully becomes a man or a woman as soon as they are married (Sennott and Mojola 2017); this widely held belief constructs a binary relationship between childhood and adulthood, collapsing the rich spectrum of singlehood. Heterosexual marriage becomes a key defining factor in who becomes an adult more so for women than for men, and single women are then subjected to these normative values as though they are children. Female chastity then becomes a sexual value/virtue by which single women are judged and whereby women who have sex or children before marriage are shamed. This #WearYourDrossNow chastity campaign ultimately polices women’s sexuality.
If he really wants to get under your dross, let him marry you first. No means no. Be #Zimbigenic & #WearYourDrossNow (@Akumaa, March 29, 2016)
The #WearYourDrossNow hashtag demonstrates the campaign’s adoption of the authoritative tone of a mother, big sister, or aunt figure giving unsolicited advice to younger women. The campaign is deeply gendered in deploying the word “dross” over a more gender-neutral word like “underwear.” Importantly, the campaign puts sexual responsibility on women while overlooking men in the context of this traditional, cis-heteronormative reference to sexual relations. The use of the adverb “now” places urgency in the command, reinforcing its authoritativeness. The hashtag demonstrates clearly that this is a chastity campaign directed at young women.
The audience of this tweet are clearly young women, to whom marriage is presented as a condition for sexual intercourse—that is, she must preserve her body for marriage. Akumaa routinely presents marriage as the only reason for sexual intercourse to take place—she communicates that sex outside of marriage is immoral and socially unacceptable, and she places the responsibility for abstaining on women. This framing reinscribes conservative notions of sexuality, erasing the potential female agency women attain via sexual choices; it works to restrain the acceptable sexual choices for women. Moreover, the target demographic for Akumaa’s campaign reflects mainstream societal notions regarding the age at which one may actively engage in sexual activity. Akumaa’s targeting of young women is strategic—she is addressing a vulnerable demographic who tend to reject the feminist label and thus are more likely to be influenced by her campaign (Bawa 2018). According to Sylvia Bawa (2018), generational differences are common in feminist identity politics in Ghana, where older women are more likely than younger women to identify as feminist. This disparity makes young Ghanaian women the perfect target for this antifeminist campaign.
If [yo]u are still on his bed, be #Zimbigenic, close [yo]ur thighs, get up. #WearYourDrossNow and go to [yo]ur hostel. #Medaase (@Akumaa, February 24, 2016)
As evidenced by this tweet, the campaign targets young college women. The word “hostel” specifically points to the audience of Akumaa’s campaign because it is common knowledge that tertiary educational–level students live in hostels. In many hostels, the requirement for lodging is that the applicant be a student of the institution(s) the hostels are normally affiliated with. Akumaa’s campaign, then, is not only gendered and targeting youth, but it also focuses on women in university and other postsecondary educational institutions (termed tertiary in Ghana). Crucially, this demographic has the most access to Twitter and uses it regularly. Such women in Ghana have been consistently hypersexualized in media representations (in film, TV, music videos, etc.), which often depict them as sexually immoral. They are presumed to be engaging in sexual activity outside of the confines of the institution of marriage. Sexual activity outside of marriage is equated with these media myths of hypersexuality—to effectively position it as a burden that young women must manage in order to stay chaste for marriage.
Keep what is left for the right man who will honour you with marriage. #WearYourDrossNow (@Akumaa, March 18, 2016)
Additionally, Akumaa attempts to present the withholding of sex as a tool of empowerment for young women, adding discourses resembling postfeminism (Dosekun 2015) to normative Ghanaian sexuality discourses. Here, withholding sex until marriage is framed as an empowering and honorable act for women. In postfeminist discourses, sex positivity and female sexual agency are amplified without taking care to critically nuance sexuality within normative cultural conversations on sexuality and sexual agency (Dosekun 2015). For example, in the tweet on honor Akumaa is presenting abstinence as a tool of empowerment that preserves the self-worth of young, single Ghanaian women as opposed to the immorality of sexually active women, thus falsely marginalizing sexually active women as beyond the mainstream.
The campaign hints at a need for moral and sexual “empowerment” for these women, who need to be saved from their hypersexuality, linking empowerment to abstinence. Akumaa employs a combination of empowerment politics and choice feminism politics where young women are entreated to choose chastity to preserve both their worth and the hefty cultural capital associated with their virginity. Ironically, although feminism based on choice often claims to be an apolitical approach that does not judge or critique individual choices (Ferguson 2010), Akumaa’s campaign presents only one moral choice: sexual abstinence before marriage. This lack of choice ultimately reinforces societal norms by associating women’s abstinence alone with respectability, morality, and honor, and depicting sexual activity as deviant rather than a value that is in fact held by many.
Not only does the #WearYourDrossNow campaign advocate sexual purity for marriage, it frames marriage as a reward to women for maintaining sexual purity. The discussion of sex outside of marriage conveniently leaves men out of the conversation. Importantly, public figures have resisted this framing and this responsibility being saddled on girls alone. For example, writers such as Malaka Grant (2015) have drawn attention to the harmfulness of Akumaa’s campaign by presenting counternarratives to the hashtag in their blog posts and other writings, asserting that Akumaa’s stance on female sexual agency is dangerous. As well, the blog from Ghanaian feminist Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and Malaka Grant, “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” (https://adventuresfrom.com/), has constantly presented narratives that promote sex positivity, female agency, and female bodily autonomy from a feminist perspective. In co-opting empowerment in the service of abstinence, Akumaa has deployed discourse that seeks to marginalize the common, less-rigid ideas about single women’s sexuality held by many young women and progressive social leaders like feminists.
Chastity and “True” Womanhood as Empowerment
It’s not about [yo]ur makeup and the designer wear. It’s about being a true woman. #Zimbigenic #WearYourDrossNow #Medaase (@Akumaa, February 15, 2016)
Framing analysis also helps to make visible the connections between power, discourse, and society (Hardin and Whiteside 2010). This connection is evident in the framing of chastity and “true” womanhood. In Akumaa’s February 15 tweet, “true” womanhood and femininity are cisheteronormative and are performed through chastity in support of the heteropatriarchal institution of marriage (Jewkes and Morrell 2012). Sexual purity is depicted as a value that women should aspire to and a quality that men should look for in women (Sennot and Mojola 2017). Akumaa binds chastity to women’s interests in fashion and makeup, which she decries as worldly and immoral; she asserts that “true” womanhood is achieved and demonstrated by letting go of worldly, material things and practicing chastity before marriage. In this binding, the value of restraint is deployed to naturalize the association of chastity and non-material concerns. This binding seems to reflect the traditional religious and social values that pervade current conversations in the Ghanaian public sphere.
Once again, this assertion runs counter to the way many young African women understand and assert female agency. According to Dosekun (2015) many middle-class women in Lagos find consumerism and the performance of hyperfemininity to be empowering. Christie Sennott and Sanyu Mojola have found that “urban women in particular have been noted to seek out relationships with men who can provide the resources they want and/or need and that serve as status symbols” (2017, 782). Many young women in Ghana engage in transactional relationships (dates, sex, and company) with older men in exchange for money and expensive clothing. Oftentimes they are tagged by sexist men on social media sites as “slay queens,” meaning women who are obsessed with their physical appearance, spend lavishly, and share the details of their luxurious lives, often supported by so-called sugar daddies on social media (specifically Instagram). Women who engage in these transactional relationships are chastised by Akumaa for “exchanging” their chastity for gifts from older men. These comments echo and reinforce that shaming practice, encouraging modesty and (condemning) young women who exchange sex, company, and dates for gifts. Ultimately, by either retweeting these comments or openly supporting them in her own tweeted responses, Akumaa bolsters and encourages the public ridiculing of these young women, normalizing the dynamic (espoused in her campaign) that infantilizes these young women and condemns and judges them for their sexual choices.
Overall the frame constructs female responsibility as agency conceptualized in a conservative, postfeminist form of empowerment. Chastity, framed as a choice that a woman makes on her own, is cast as her ability to resist her sexual desires and maintain abstinence until marriage. Choice is presented within a narrow frame of respectability where a young woman is presented with no other option to maintain her integrity than to suspend sexual activity until marriage. As such, this choice is not agency but in fact is a postfeminist practice that demonstrates her ability for self-restraint; this practice normalizes the woman as having sole responsibility for managing heterosexual dynamics. In so doing, it maintains restrained traditional, gender roles for women and for men.
The Need for a Feminism with a Capital F
This essay demonstrates that just as online social media platforms can be used to facilitate activism and organizing (Srinivasan 2013), they can be used to reinscribe dominant gender ideologies and promote harmful tropes that restrain female sexual agency. Therefore, new media and their affordances are not necessarily revolutionary, but the way they are used for liberatory politics can make them revolutionary (Brock 2018; Mohammed 2019). Akumaa uses gender activism and women’s rights activism to support her antifeminist sexual repression campaign in a manner that hinges women’s agency on traditional standards of morality and conservative social and religious values.
The #WearYourDrossNow campaign threatens the gains of decades of feminist work done in Ghana that has achieved an increase in educational access for girls and is slowly increasing the participation of women in politics. Akumaa’s antifeminist tweets on female sexuality demonstrate a form of gender activism, gender advocacy, and women’s rights that is co-opted by what Adwoa Asante (@obaa_boni [https://twitter.com/obaa_boni], a popular Ghanaian feminist activist on Twitter) calls “patriarchal princesses,” where elite/upper/middle-class women (such as Akumaa) benefit from the patriarchy and therefore work toward maintaining the gender role status quo (Obaaboni 2015). Gender activism is a practice repackaged by Akumaa and utilized as a tool of empowerment to encourage women to view their bodies as vessels preserved for the consumption of men in the traditional venue of marriage. This phenomenon demonstrates that, now more than ever, African feminist activism needs to pay attention to dismantling oppressive systems by having long overdue conversations on the ways in which activism has been watered down and put in the service of oppressive patriarchal systems and their representatives, who laud regressive gender values (Mohammed 2018; Tamale 2014; Tamale 2006).
This antifeminist gender activism, as seen in Akumaa’s social media practice, suggests that there is a need for a “feminism with a capital F” to intervene (Tamale 2006, 39). Beyond women’s empowerment discourses, “attempts to liberate women must address the crucial issue of sexuality” (Tamale 2006, 40). While sexual politics are usually positioned as secondary to other issues in gender activism, it is imperative to highlight how issues of female bodily autonomy and sexuality in African feminist movements are often situated within normative cultural and religious values and practices. Hopefully, Nana Darkoa Sakyiamah’s “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” is driving conversations on sex positivity and female bodily autonomy in these digital spaces. While the legacy media that are most accessible to the Ghanaian populace reinscribe normative ideas of gender and sexuality, conversations in digital spaces among young African feminists often resist the status quo by asserting women’s bodily autonomy and providing counternarratives to the dominant regressive discourses as demonstrated by Akumaa.
Akumaa’s gender activist strategies illustrate the limitations of choice feminism. According to Michaele Ferguson,
Choice feminism is motivated by a fear of politics. It arises in response to three common criticisms of feminism: that feminism is too radical, too exclusionary, and too judgmental. In response, choice feminism offers a worldview that does not challenge the status quo, that promises to include all women regardless of their choices, and that abstains from judgment altogether. (2010, 247)
While at first glance, Akumaa might appear to support choice feminism, it is not the case as that approach claims to be apolitical and to not judge or critique individual choices (Ferguson 2010). Akumaa claims to be guiding young women to make better sexual choices, but the #WearYourDrossNow campaign indicates otherwise, judging young women for being sexually active, hinging their self-worth on abstinence, and, as argued, bolstering powerful regressive forces that place moral responsibility in sexual relations on women alone and that encourage female shaming. Moreover, Akumaa’s writings are dangerous and sexist in assuming that the freedom to choose to have sex is guaranteed and universal, and therefore that challenging women to abstain from sex is “radical.” This assumption demonstrates an ignorance of the limited options and violent realities that many Ghanaian women face. Such an awareness is crucial to understanding the choices women make to assert bodily autonomy, to exchange sex for currency, and to insist on having choice over how they use their bodies.
As activists invested in female agency and bodily autonomy, we must ourselves enact radical practices in response. To ensure accountability, radical transformation, and the growth of our feminist activist work, we must exercise judgment and present critique in order to, as Ferguson (2010) asserts, grow feminist politics. Judgment here should take the form of presenting dissenting perspectives (Pillay 2016) as accomplished by Malaka Grant and @obaa_boni (cited earlier) to counter the misappropriation of activism in antiliberatory projects like Akumaa’s campaign.
When contextualized within conversations on feminist activism in Africa, the #WearYourDrossNow antifeminist campaign demonstrates that gender activism is still more accepted than feminism (Bawa 2018; Mohammed 2018; Tamale 2006). That the campaign has thrived for years and garnered support among young women for many reasons means there is more work to be done with regards to supporting enhanced dialogue regarding what constitutes female sexual agency. First, as Bawa (2018) has observed, older women are more likely than younger women to adopt feminist praxis due to various factors, including their married status and former involvement in liberation movements such as the fight for Ghana’s independence. Older women thus tend to possess an intricate understanding of feminist politics, whereas many younger women are more hesitant to identify as feminist due to their single status and limited understanding of feminist politics, among other reasons. (Bawa 2018).
Finally, the campaign has thrived online due to the disproportionately youthful makeup of Twitter spaces in Ghana. Older women have tended to not be part of the online debates regarding female sexuality and virtue. As such, beyond reexamining feminist education in Ghana, it is important to dismantle the hierarchies in Ghanaian feminist movements that make them largely inaccessible to the masses and present them as exclusionary spaces (Bawa 2018). Mainstreaming platforms such as the “Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women” and “Ghana Feminism” (https://ghanafeminism.com) and expanding feminist education on reproductive rights activism and sexual autonomy among other issues are good places to start to create dialogue on these issues.