Some women can reinvent themselves again and again. My friend Rachel-Diane Cusiac-Barr is one of them. In a previous life, the 33-year-old Cameroonian had jobs that ranged from fashion model to international development consultant at Dalberg. Four years ago, Rachel-Diane decided to take a break from formal employment to spend more time with her two children and start Niango, a clothing line inspired by Africa.
I am delighted to share with you excerpts from our intense conversation, which explored many avenues but kept coming back to one word: choice. Rachel-Diane told me why choice is central to her vision of feminism and how she felt when other feminists looked down on her own life decisions (Part 1, below). She explained the empowering messages she weaves in her designs and why she believes that the fashion industry is not inherently misogynistic (Part 2). Our discussion ended on a hopeful exploration of sisterhood, the power of writing and feminist role models (Part 3).
Hello and thank you for joining me on eyala. Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Rachel-Diane Cusiac-Barr, I am 33 and I am Cameroonian. I am passionate about issues relating to women and especially young girls. I also love fashion. I am a mother, a wife. I’m a straightforward kind of girl and a bit of an idealist. I grew up in Cameroon then I moved to Senegal when I was 26. I’ve been living in Montreal since late 2017.
In 2014 I created Niango, a clothing line that blends modern fashion and my African heritage. Niango means “woman” in Douala, a language from Cameroon. I wanted to bring together my passion for fashion and my passion for women’s issues. Each of my collections explores a reality of women’s lives.
Do you call yourself a feminist? What does the word mean to you?
I’ve always been a feminist. I can’t imagine being a woman and not being a feminist. To me feminism goes beyond equality beyond men and women. It’s about equal opportunities to make our own choices.
You wrote about your troubled relationship with the feminist movement. Can you tell me more about that?
I’m not an expert when it comes to the feminist movement, but I believe that what women have fought for is the right to choose. Everything was being decided for them. They wanted to study but they couldn’t. They wanted to work, drive, own their own bank account, but they needed their husband’s permission. They wanted to decide how many children to have but they couldn’t.
As I said earlier, choice is central to my feminism. But that’s only valid if the feminist movement respects the fact that there is more than one choice possible out there, and that all choices by all women must be respected. That includes women who choose to stay at home, to let a man hold a door open for them, or to cook for their husband. If it’s their choice, there is nothing wrong with that! Different women have different aspirations, needs and priorities, so they make different choices. Women should be allowed to make the choices that are in line with who they truly are, and we shouldn’t judge them for that.
What you’re saying sounds… personal. Are you drawing from your own experience?
When I decided to take a career break and focus on raising my children, I heard so many criticisms. I read articles that suggested that a good feminist wouldn’t have made that choice. I was confused. As a feminist, I felt judged by the movement I thought I belonged to.
“When I decided to take a career break and focus on raising my children, I heard so many criticisms.”
I think this is the reason why many women want to stay away from feminism. Many of them feel excluded from or criticized by the movement just because their choices are different from those of feminist activists. The movement should be more inclusive and keep sisterhood alive.
I can only imagine how difficult it was to make such a decision when your career was so promising. And it’s true that we feminists often value our careers as a tool for economic independence. Did the pressure you felt have an impact on your decision process?
It was a difficult process, but not because I struggled with views about feminism. Nothing in my feminist values says that a woman shouldn’t stay at home if she wants to. I was able to choose freely, so my decision was not opposed to my feminism. It was fueled by it.
I was hesitant because of my personal and family background. You know, my mom was a stay-at-home mom too, and I see how much that restricted her independence. I had promised myself I would never find myself in that situation. I always wanted to work and be financially independent. I always thought I’d focus on my career then on my family.
“I was able to choose freely, so my decision was not opposed to my feminism. It was fueled by it.”
And yet when I became a mother I discovered myself to be a lot more protective than I had imagined. And a lot more… anxious. I grew up thinking that you don’t let strangers take care of your kids. If you need help, you turn to your mother or your sister. But here I was, in Senegal, a country where neither my husband nor I had any family. The idea of delegating to a nanny whose competencies I didn’t fully trust put me in a state of panic.
At the end of the day, here I was, doing what my mother had done. That was my big conflict.
That’s a tough one. How did you manage to resolve that conflict and make your decision?
First, I realized that my situation was different from my mother’s. She hadn’t had the same assurances I had in terms of academic and professional background. And she definitely didn’t have the same husband.
I also saw the situation as an opportunity to realize one of my dreams and create Niango, my clothing line. It has helped me get some of that financial independence I wanted. I’m also doing something that keeps my brain active and that gives me freedom to manage my time as I wish so I can be here for my children. Not having Niango would have been devastating for me. Today I feel like I found a balance that works well for me. I feel more comfortable with the idea to resume my career now.