Human Rights

Sexuality Unbound: Exploring Power and Politics

Introduction: Reclaiming Voices, Redefining Norms

My recent engagement with Nana Darkoa’s enlightening book, “The Sex Lives of African Women,”[1] has been nothing short of transformative. This book transcends being a mere anthology of experiences; it casts light on the often-muted journeys of African women in their quest for sexual autonomy. Each story in this collection is a testament to the diversity and resilience of African women. The insights I gained from “The Sex Lives of African Women” have sparked a deeper contemplation on these themes, prompting me to reflect on my own experiences and the broader discourse on sexual politics. It is an active engagement in uncovering and amplifying overlooked experiences. In this concise reflection I intend to reflect reflective piece, I would like to reflect on questions about the nature of sexual identity in post-colonial African societies: How do people negotiate their sexual identities within the constraints of societal norms and historical legacies? How does the existential struggle for authenticity manifest in the context of sexual identity? In what ways do our bodily experiences shape and are shaped by our understanding of our sexuality?

The Political Act of Discussing Sex

In a world where sexual discourse is often shrouded in layers of cultural and historical complexity, the act of discussing sex openly carries a significant political weight. It challenges the deeply ingrained societal norms that have long suppressed women’s voices and exerted control over their bodies. Such an act is not merely individual freedom but a political statement, resonating with Audre Lorde’s concept of the ‘Erotic as Power’,[2] where she teaches us that our erotic knowledge—our understanding and expression of sexual pleasure—is a source of female power and agency. This is so precisely because it enables women to challenge the patriarchal structures that have historically policed and dictated their sexual experiences and expressions. What we glean from Lorde’s assertion about the power of the erotic is that  “the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.” Here, Lorde emphasizes that embracing our erotic knowledge can be a catalyst for broader societal transformation, challenging the status quo that has long marginalized women’s sexuality. The recognition of erotic knowledge is also essential in problematizing the force exerted on women from the interplay of gender and sexuality as social constructs. In the company of thinkers like Bell Hooks[3] and Judith Butler[4], we get to deconstruct the essence ascribed to gender and sexuality by highlighting the political ramifications of openly discussing sex. Engaging in this discourse challenges the heteronormative narrative that has historically governed our understanding of gender and sexuality, thereby confronting the very fabric of these social constructs.

Open discourses and debates also lend us languages and vocabularies to trouble the legal and societal policing of sexuality by unearthing the connection between sex, power, and identity. Only then can we call out the absurdity and arbitrariness of laws governing sexuality over the centuries deployed to control not just sexual acts but the very identities and self-expressions of people.

Negotiating Identities Amidst Societal and Historical Paradigms

In African contexts, where the remnants of colonial laws often intersect with traditional norms, the act of discussing sex becomes an act of resistance against both the legacies of colonialism and the prevailing patriarchal structures.

These dynamics are vividly illustrated in my encounters. I recall a discussion with a friend from Kenya, where she shared her experiences of navigating the complexities of expressing her sexuality within a society that still bears the scars of colonial moral impositions. Her transformation from a village upbringing to an advocate in Nairobi sharply illustrates the challenge against colonial legacies in sexual law. Her move to Nairobi where she encountered a community that not only shared similar experiences but also actively resisted these constraints. This was a turning point, where her struggle evolved into a collective movement for legal reform. Joining this movement, she focused on challenging the laws that perpetuated colonial mindsets, advocating for the recognition and protection of diverse sexual identities.

Her story, like many others, is a testament to the resilience and defiance of African women who dare to reclaim their sexual narratives. It reflects a broader movement of African women who are increasingly challenging the socio-legal structures that have long sought to confine their sexual identities and expressions.

In these discussions, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political. By engaging in open discourse about sex, particularly from an African feminist perspective, we are not only reclaiming our bodies and narratives but also challenging the deeply rooted structures that seek to define and confine our sexuality. This act of defiance is an integral part of the larger struggle for gender equality and sexual liberation, something we have historically learned from African and African American feminists like Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Sylvia Tamale[5] and Stella Nyanzi[6]. They have shown us that the act of discussing sex for Black women societies transcends the realm of personal expression; it becomes a potent tool for social and political change, a means of challenging and reshaping the narratives that have long dictated the terms of female sexuality. It is a bold step towards dismantling the patriarchal and colonial legacies that continue to impact the lives of African women.

Personal Reflection: Navigating Sexuality in Sudan

A personal encounter that illuminates this perspective involves a conversation with a close friend from Sudan, who once shared, “In our society, expressing our true sexual identities feels like a rebellion against an invisible force. It’s a battle between who we are and who we are expected to be.” This negotiation over discussing sexuality as a lived experience can be elucidated through my journey as well. Growing up in Sudan, the act of even contemplating and discussing sexuality was not just an internal challenge but was profoundly influenced by the external world – the cultural norms, the legal constraints, and the historical legacies of colonialism. My journey was less about personal sexual identity and more about overcoming the deeply ingrained fear of engaging in conversations about sex. This process involved navigating these external influences while attempting to reconcile them with my curiosity and desire for understanding. In this context, the act of discussing or exploring the topic of sexuality became a nuanced struggle for knowledge and expression in an environment where such discussions were often taboo or fraught with social risks.


The narratives in “The Sex Lives of African Women” intricately weave into the rich fabric of human rights law, presenting a compelling tapestry of autonomy, expression, and equality. This exploration is not merely a reflection on sexuality; it’s a resonant declaration of fundamental human rights. Anchored in the principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, these stories transcend personal expressions, embodying a robust assertion of personal autonomy and agency. They echo the profound right to freedom of thought and expression, encapsulating the liberty to explore and articulate one’s intricate sexual identity.

Moreover, this open discussion of sexuality emerges as a bold stance against societal intrusions, championing the right to privacy. It transforms personal narratives into a collective uprising for fundamental human rights, intersecting with the global struggle against gender-based discrimination. This dialogue weaves a rich tapestry that challenges patriarchal norms and advocates for gender equality, resonating with the ethos of various human rights treaties.

In essence, the book’s narratives do more than share personal experiences; they serve as a clarion call for human rights advocacy. They spotlight the critical importance of discussing and embracing sexuality, not just as a personal journey, but as a dynamic act of asserting rights deeply rooted in global legal frameworks. This powerful reflection underscores that our personal stories of sexuality are inextricably linked to the broader, vibrant canvas of human rights law.

[1] Nana Darkoa, ‘The Sex Lives of African Women‘ (Dialogue Books 2021).

[2] Audre Lorde, ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power‘ in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press 1984).

[3] Bell Hooks, ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center‘ (South End Press 1984).

[4] Judith Butler, ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity‘ (Routledge 1990).

[5] Sylvia Tamale, ‘African Feminism: How Should We Change?’ in African Sexualities: A Reader (Pambazuka Press 2011).

[6] Stella Nyanzi, ‘“Dismantling Reified African Culture Through Localized Homosexualities in Uganda”’ (2013) 7(3) Culture, Health & Sexuality 301.


  • Samah Khalaf Allah

    Samah Khalaf Allah is a Sudanese human rights advocate and feminist with a focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR). She has a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health Management and a Master's in Gender, Development, and Peace, both from Ahfad University for Women, Omdurman, Sudan. Currently, she is a Doctoral Researcher at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, her Ph.D. thesis focuses on Queer subjects in Sudan.

By Samah Khalaf Allah

Samah Khalaf Allah is a Sudanese human rights advocate and feminist with a focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR). She has a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health Management and a Master's in Gender, Development, and Peace, both from Ahfad University for Women, Omdurman, Sudan. Currently, she is a Doctoral Researcher at the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence, University of Bayreuth, her Ph.D. thesis focuses on Queer subjects in Sudan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *