In the first part of our conversation you mentioned in passing that you were a radical feminist. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I am a radical feminist. To me, it means that I don’t tolerate compromise on the values I defend. In the pan-African feminist movement we came up with a formula I fully subscribe to : I’m a feminist, with no ifs and no buts.
That’s a powerful concept, but I have to ask: when was that one time you had to compromise on your values? I won’t believe you if you say it never happened!
(Laughs) It has happened more in my professional life than in my personal life. At the African Union and in the UN system, I felt stranded in a working environment that was so negative, with many compromises made around values. We were often doing things that we all knew would do nothing to transform the societies that we were supposed to support, but we were doing it because some big shot in the office upstairs had said so.
After those experiences I decided to only choose to work with organizations where my values were respected, and it felt so liberating. It wasn't easy though: I spent a year or two struggling to find consultancy work. But I felt very good.
"I don’t tolerate compromise on the values I defend."
On the personal side… well of course single men are a rare commodity, and from time to time this gorgeous married man comes my way. Most of the times I don’t even think about it. But once I met somebody and I started considering the craziest things, like polygamy! (Laughs) Thank God (and thanks to my feminist sisters) I woke up and that was the end of it.
What did you take away from these challenges?
The more I’m growing as a human being, the more I’m going to be challenged. I like it, actually. At least I don’t feel like a fraud. For many years when people were like “wow you’re such a tough feminist” I would think, not really: I’m not in the trenches, I’ve never been harmed or whatever. But when I did get threatened and slapped – yes this actually happened – it took a while but after a while it really felt good!
Like you’d earned your stripes?
You and I have often laughed at the many misconceptions we’ve heard about feminists. Some days it really pushes my buttons. What’s that one cliché that you find infuriating?
Definitely, anything that has to do with our sexuality. We are associated with the issues we advocate for. For example if you advocate for sexual rights and issues around sexual identity, people will say you’re a lesbian. Well-meaning people will even come and tell you: “stop doing this, people are going to think you’re a lesbian.” So what?
Also, whenever we criticize the status quo people’s easy reaction is “oh you just hate men”. No, we don’t! We hate the fact that some people monopolize the space – and yes, often these people happen to be men.
"People’s easy reaction is 'oh you just hate men'. No, we don’t!"
Many feminists put lots of energy into trying to change these misconceptions. I think that’s a distraction. In life there are some people who like you and some people who don’t. As long as you know who you are, why do you care? I’ll admit, it took me some time to get there! (Laughs)
I simply tell people that there is a difference between feminism and what I call female-ism. Female-ism to me is the women-led twin of patriarchy: it calls for a world where women would do everything that men are doing today. As a feminist, this really isn’t the world I want.
Every time we meet I think back on that time when we both found ourselves on a TV talk-show about child marriage in Senegal. Everyone’s opening statement was quite measured but yours was: “child marriage in Senegal is not marriage, it's pedophilia”. You must have known it would make the imam and the government representative go wild – and they did! – and potentially affect your reputation. What was going on inside your head at that moment?
Remember, everyone was framing the issue very carefully, as if Senegal were one of those countries – and there are some – where it’s marriage between two teenagers. But in Senegal we know that’s not the case. You know, in Senegal we have a dual way of looking at crime: if a foreigner is involved we call it pedophilia, if it’s a Senegalese, it’s a traditional marriage. I thought somebody had to say it.
I looked around the table, wondering who could say this without dying – socially or professionally. And I decided I’d say it. You know, when I was representing an entity I had to sit through absolute bullshit coming from governments and civil society sometimes, and couldn’t say anything. As a consultant, I could. So I did.
I hear you. When the show was aired, your whole statement had been edited out. How did that make you feel?
I was expecting it, it’s not the first time this happens. You know, every time I get censored, it makes me proud. You know you’re close to the truth when people’s only weapon is to censor you. If you weren’t making sense, if you weren’t having any impact, they wouldn’t do that.