Dr Sara Panata studying Feminist and Women's Movements
"My thesis demonstrates the importance of moving away from an approach centered on major historical events and actors (...) By avoiding a teleological gaze that focuses on major socio-political changes, my study shines a light on stakeholders, mobilisations, and modes of action usually obscured by the historiography."
Dr Sara Panata, hosted at IFRA-Nigeria in 2017-2018 as a PhD student and now an ATLAS IFRA post-doc fellow, shares in this interview her passion about the history of feminist and women’s movements in Nigeria.
2017, launching of the NCWS photographic and historical exhibition, « NCWS. The founding mothers, their vision and achievements 1957- 1966 »,Samonda, Ibadan organized by Professor Felicia Ogunsheye (right). Sara Panata was the historical curator of the exhibition.
What is your academic background? How did you come to study feminist and women’s movements in Nigeria?
Well, I was born and bred in Gubbio, in the centre of Italy. I firstly had a BA of International Science and Diplomatic Relations at the University of Trieste (Gorizia). During my third year I got a grant for a semester in Paris, at the University of Languages and Civilizations (INALCO). There, I followed classes on Nigerian history and Hausa language. This semester was amazing and at the end of my stay I was deeply motivated to learn more about Nigeria history.
My first exchanges with Nigerian historian Bolanle Awe, a pioneer of women's studies in the country, and the fascinating reading of the book Nigerian Women Mobilized by Nina Mba, made me wonder about the place of women's collectives in the city of Ibadan, a Nigerian geopolitical hub, which nevertheless remained behind other cities in women's studies.
I then embarked on a Master at University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne on African History on social and urban history of Nigerian women in the city during the colonial era. Interviews with now elderly women activists who were involved in Ibadan during the decolonisation period led me to learn about several women's movements. Defined as national by these activists, these networks were active far beyond the urban borders and 1960, the year of Nigerian independence, which I had chosen as the cut-off date for my master's research. It was from these exchanges that my thesis project was born.
Can you tell us more about your research process during your PhD and how IFRA has helped you through it?
For my Ph.D, I got a 3-year doctoral contract with mobility from CNRS (InSHS), the French National Center for Research. I spent 18 months in Nigeria, based in Ibadan and hosted by IFRA-Nigeria. I was fully part of the institute’s activities, which was then under the direction of Dr Elodie Apard.
It is at IFRA that I understood that research is a collective process that also requires administrative skills (looking for funding, writing up research projects, organising and participating in academic events, etc.) as well as relational skills (organising academic activities for an academic and non academic audience, being able to collaborate with colleagues and other partners, managing multiple research activities, etc.). IFRA also introduced me to many Nigerian scholars from all around the country, through seminars, workshops and conferences. These connections were extremely useful to shape my understanding of my research topic.
What are the main results of your research ?
My PhD thesis, Nigeria Marches On: Feminist and Women’s Movements in the National Struggle for Socio-Political Rights examines the journey of eleven feminist and women’s organisations in Nigeria over half a century of socio-political action. It thus reflects on the country’s political history from a non-male-centered point of view.
The study begins in 1944, under British colonial rule, with the advent of a particular organisational model: national women’s movements that were autonomous from government institutions and other political actors. The study analyses the role that these movements have envisioned for Nigerian women, first within the colonial system and later in the independent nation, the rights they have demanded, and the collective paths they have taken to obtain them. These movements are very heterogeneous and represent a very wide range of ideological orientations, yet they find common ground in their commitment against the relegation of women to an inferior social position and in a desire to speak out for all women in the country.
Anonymous, « Women May Boycott the Next Federal Elections », West African Pilot, 23 August 1958. Five women members of the Federation of Nigerian Women's Organisations leaving the headquarters of the colonial government after a meeting with the British Governor on women's suffrage.
My thesis demonstrates the importance of moving away from an approach centered on major historical events and actors, often used to frame the study of women’s mobilisations in Africa, such as the nationalist struggles for independence or the democratisation periods. By avoiding a teleological gaze that focuses on major socio-political changes, my study shines a light on stakeholders, mobilisations, and modes of action usually obscured by historiography. This history ends in 1994, when this organisational model loses its momentum after having, however, moved the needle on many national socio-political issues in the interval.
After defending your thesis in 2020, you're now benefiting from an IFRA’s postdoc grant for a 3-month fieldwork. What are the questions you want to address during this fieldwork and how are they completing your Phd research ?
While formal organisations - such as those I studied for my Ph.D. - were the favoured tool of mobilisation chosen by women activists until the 1990s, it is also important not to ignore the activists who were part of these organisations. During this fieldwork, I will focus on some key members of these organisations and move away from a macro-history of women's organisations to a micro-history of their members. I will examine the effects of their years of activism on the lives of the activists themselves. I then plan to study the international circulation of these ideas these activists formulated in Nigeria, by following the trajectories of these women across borders.
What is the next step in your research? What is your new research project (if you can tell us)?
I would like to focus on a history of political citizenship in anglophone West Africa (Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria) from the 1930s to the 1970s, through a comparative and transnational study. Adopting a gendered perspective, my objective is to look at pioneering women actors in the suffrage debates, legislative texts and debates around the expansion of political citizenship, and appropriations of the ballot once suffrage is granted (during electoral campaigns and elections). The overall objective of this research is twofold :
- First, I want to study the history of suffrage in West Africa from a gender perspective in order to renew the political history of the continent during the colonial and post-colonial periods by reshaping the contours of formal politics that have, until now, largely been thought out by and for men.
- Secondly, I want to look at the specificities of political citizenship in anglohone West Africa to understand the global history of suffrage under a more complex and nuanced angle.
What is the main advice you would give to a junior researcher?
That’s a tough one! I think it is important not to take doctoral research as a solitary race. For your ideas and arguments to develop, it is critical to share, to receive comments and encouragement but also to be criticised, challenged, pushed to look further. I would advise you not to be intimidated by academia and to seek out international dialogue as much as possible in order to multiply the points of view on your research. You’re not risking much: if people do not have time for you, they will not answer you, that’s all!
2014. Dr Panata interviewing Alhaja Sidi Alaga in Lebanon Street, Ibadan
2016. From left to right : Sara Panata (moderator), Ngozi Iwere (activist), Molara Wood (writer), Georgina Duke (editor). Round table "Feminism and/or Feminisms", organized by IFRA Nigeria and French Consulate in Lagos, Terra Culture, Lagos.