Feminist debates, and why the Royal Wedding meant a lot to African women

On Saturday, May 19, 2018, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married, making her the new Duchess of Sussex and latest member of the British royal family. The royal wedding was seen a landmark for African Americans, the diversity on display at the wedding representing progress that much of the westernised world has yearned to see. Kingdom Choir rendered songs such as This Little Light of Mine and Stand by Me, Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon lit up the auditorium and social media round the world simultaneously.  And to crown it all, African women from Lesotho ululated as Prince Harry and Meghan stood on the steps of the church before sharing a kiss.

Prince Harry’s wedding to a Meghan Markle, who is biracial, shouldn’t come as a surprise though. His interest in Africa isn’t hidden knowledge, and his engagement to Meghan Markle was probably predicted by this tweet in 2015. Besides the obvious royal and fairytale combo, weddings take on a whole different connotation in African societies. In Nigeria, for instance, the wedding industry is over $1 billion large, according to CNN, making it one of the most lucrative industries in Africa. The royal wedding, too, was humongous, with a $45 million budget. But consider that Kenya’s Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club in Nairobi annouced that guests could watch the wedding on TV in their hotel for $10,000.

Credit: Alexi Lubomirski

Amid all the moments of significance for African Americans came the thought pieces on what the wedding should mean for Africans, especially its women. Meghan’s makeup was one of the most talked about topics as her arrival at the cathedral saw the duchess almost appearing makeup-free. Nigerian women especially were told to take this as an example, an admonishment to the current trend of make-up artists who specialise in mind-blowing transformations. This was followed by feminist connotations, or lack thereof, of her marriage following her resolve to retire from acting, shut down her social media accounts, and basically retire from her life as she knew it, for a man and a change of social status.

Feminism and the nuances that surround choices and decisions have been an ongoing dialogue on platforms like Twitter, and with Meghan Markle identifying as a feminist, this certainly caused a storm.

Prince Phillip has managed to remain by the Queen’s side in a supporting role until he resigned from some of his official duties, and so the choice to leave a former life behind may not be a feminist debate, but one of a new job role with different requirements. The Duchess of Sussex is an actual role which plays to the Markle’s humanitarian side, herself having worked in Rwanda and always making her desire to do more than acting known. In an interview with the BBC in November 2017, Meghan said that she’s excited to focus more on humanitarian causes in her new role as princess. “I don’t see it as giving anything up, I just see it as a change. It’s a new chapter,” she said. And so it is.

As for the Duchess’s no-makeup makeup and the ubiquity of make-up artists who turn you into someone different, while I agree with the idea of still being recognisable, I’ll always love a good blinding highlight.

Prince Harry and William on their way to the chapel for Prince Harry’s wedding.

As the raft of comments continued, it it was easy to miss the reaction of older African women to whom the royal wedding meant enough to sit down and watch from beginning to end – even dress up for. Pictures and videos of women in their late fifties and above showing their heartfelt reactions to the wedding and even going as far as talking to their TV sets were published on the internet, and I was left wondering why some foreign royalty meant so much to these women.

The answer, at least to me, was that the royal wedding was a big Princess Diana revival. Princess Diana was a member of the British royal family as the first wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent to the British throne. The mother of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Princess Diana was the first woman who had ever had a normal life before to marry into the royal family in 300 years.

Princess Diana has a special place in the hearts of millions, including women born in Africa’s former British colonies. She was arguably one of the most famous women in the world when alive, and remains so even today. Diana was known for her humanitarian efforts, which led her to visit a number of African countries in her royal capacity. She met with some of Africa’s leaders including South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader and global political icon Nelson Mandela. She also met with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe on a visit to Harare and did some work in Angola where she met with victims of landmine attacks.

Her unconventional nature was constantly on display in actions such as dating Dodi Al Fayed, and not agreeing to live separate lives after her divorce like a lot of wives before her had. Then there’s also the fascinating way in which her mistakes endeared her even more to the public. Diana seemed to be the only royal that was truly in touch with what the world really looked like, earning her the nickname “People’s Princess”, as she was dubbed by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. She was vocal about a number of political issues, all with “a fashion sense second to none” as my mother puts it.

Princess Diana and her sons. Credit: Jayne Fincher/HBO

Many of these women mourned her death with the rest of the world after a car accident took both she and Dodi Al Fayed’s lives in 1997. They watched as two heartbroken sons aged 9 and 12 walked behind her coffin, and since that moment have wanted those boys to grow to be men who follow in their mother’s wonderful legacy, and also marry women who embody her good qualities.

They spoke of “Diana’s boys,” Princes William and Harry, as if they were their own grandchildren. To them, she was a normal girl who cared about others and the rest of the world in a way the others never seemed to and even if she didn’t look like them they saw themselves in her.

The prayers and well wishes seem to have been answered. “Diana, look at your boys now” was a statement and sentiment echoed as the wedding went on. The sense of pride for these boys and how far they’ve come was evident in the way the wedding’s proceedings was followed.

They loved how well they took after their mother’s warmth and care for matters beyond palace walls, especially Prince Harry, who my mother says seems to have more of Diana’s attributes. Then there were the wishes that the princess could have been alive to witness the wedding of her sons, who both left a seat for her in her honour at their weddings.