“Feminism is my religion” - Diakhoumba Gassama (Senegal) 1/3

diakhoumba gassama - credit: eyala

diakhoumba gassama - credit: eyala

From the day I mustered the courage to start eyala, I knew I wanted Diakhoumba Gassama, as a guest. An ebullient feminist from Senegal, Diakhoumba amazes me with her irreverent honesty and her commitment to living by her values every day, whatever the cost.

Raised in Belgium, Diakhoumba has been championing women’s rights and sustainable development for over ten years at the African Union, the United Nations and as an independent consultant. She now spearheads Amnesty International’s youth and activism campaigns across Africa.

We had an intense, moving conversation about what feminism means to Diakhoumba both as a moral compass and practical guide for daily choices (part 1), about earning her feminist stripes through facing compromises and speaking truth to power (part 2) and about the healing power of speaking out about her personal scars as a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM) and depression (part 3). I hope you will enjoy this conversation as much as I did!

Hi Diakhoumba! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Diakhoumba and I’m feminist, a pan-Afropolitan, meaning a pan-African who is also a citizen of the world. I am a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). I’m passionate about life, love, children and the planet.

Feminist: Even dictionaries can't seem to agree on a definition for this word. Some say a feminist is someone who believes in gender equality, and others that a feminist is someone who advocates for gender equality. Would you say that being a feminist about what we believe or what we do?

I think that if you’re a feminist you end up being a fighter and engaging in activism in one way or the other. But I believe that you can also be a feminist just by practicing some of your values on a daily basis. It’s about raising your children a certain way, whatever their sex. It’s about exercising solidarity, opening spaces for other people, and exercising kindness, and making sure that whatever you do is not taking away from anyone else’s dignity.

"I believe that you can also be a feminist just by practicing some of your values on a daily basis."

To me, feminism is definitely beyond belief. It’s a vision and a value system. In the same way some people are religious, I can say feminism is my religion. Everything I do, whenever I have to decide between A or B, I ask myself: are my values going to be respected? Am I going to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the same way?

As a feminist and as an activist, what achievement makes you the most proud?

I’d say that I now speak up when I’m with my family, my community, even my friends, and someone makes a gross homophobic or sexist comment. I used to keep silent and think: not worth the battle. It changed after I engaged with the feminist movement. Now I surprise myself and I speak up. That’s something I’m very proud of.

Are there other ways in which you apply your feminist values in your everyday life?

I try to respect the right of people to make choices that I don’t agree with. It’s been very hard because I’m a very opinionated person, as you know. I come from the Mandinka tribe, we have hot blood, we are warriors!

"I try to respect the right of people to make choices that I don’t agree with"

The other thing is that I absolutely do not tolerate exploitation. In the Senegalese context that’s important because there are domestic workers in almost every house and people usually think exploiting them is regular practice. I oppose any kind of exploitation.

Do you think it’s important that feminism start at home?

Absolutely. Chronologically, though, feminism didn’t start at home for me – and I know it’s the same for a lot of sisters. We first joined the movement. It’s only when we felt empowered enough as advocates out there that we started bringing the feminist struggle back to our respective homes.

Do you remember how your journey to feminism started?

It started with an accidental event. Twelve years ago, I was working at the African Union and they sent me at the last minute to replace my boss at a meeting on HIV/AIDS and gender. It was my first meeting with civil society, and I’d never been around feminists.

So I arrived in this space, and people were not happy to see me because I was very junior and they were expecting the big director, and my English was not that good. So I decided to sit in the back and observe, but these women, some of them are still my friends today, they slowly drew me into their circle.

I was like, wow, is this the sisterhood they’re talking about? It feels a bit like a cult but I like it! At that moment I knew I wanted to be part of this movement.

Is sisterhood still important in your life today?

Sisterhood gives me balance. First, we work on hard issues, so that’s important. Secondly, sometimes you’ve achieved something great and you want to share it with someone who really cares – especially for those of us, who don’t have a family of our own. The sisters are here for you, they are carrying you. The feminist movement is a family beyond the family, and it’s the family that I chose for myself.

"The feminist movement is a family beyond the family, and it’s the family that I chose for myself."

The other added value is that we have the honesty, especially among us radical feminists, to tell each other when we think we are making the wrong choices. It has helped me avoid a lot of mistakes, whether it’s about my choice of partners, my choice of jobs. I think the way my career, my personality and my life have been shaped, has been affected in a positive way by the presence in my life of other women who come from very different walks of life. It really gives me different perspectives when I have to make my own choices.

 

In part 2 of our interview, Diakhoumba tells me what happens when her feminist principles meet real life challenges, and about that time when she went on national television to speak truth to power. Read here.