You know that feeling you have when you’ve admired someone from distance and suddenly you get to spend some time with them? I felt that magic when I interviewed Aïchatou Ouattara, a Brussels-based activist and blogger from Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. She is the founder of Afrofeminista, one of my favorite French-language blogs, where she writes about feminism, Africa – what it says on the tin, right?
This was a tough interview to edit because we spoke for hours, like old friends reuniting after years apart. I got carried away by Aïchatou's passion, her energy, and the way she drops one pearl of wisdom after the other. Still, I hope you’ll get to see Aïchatou for who she is: authentic, thoughtful and passionate.
She told me about how her activism is grounded in her personal experience of migration (part 1, below). We spoke about what Afro-feminism and sisterhood mean to her (part 2) and discussed how Afro-feminism relates with African feminism (yep - not the same!) and Black feminism in the United States (part 3). We ended our conversation on a practical note, with Aïchatou sharing her strategies for surviving the toxic madness of social networks (part 4). Ok, let’s get started!
Note: The interview took place in French - this is a translation. To read the original version, click here.
Hello Aïchatou! Can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Aïchatou Ouattara, I am 35 years old, and I live in Brussels. In 2014 I started afrofeminista.com, a blog that explores the experiences of Black women living in Europe as well as African women living on the continent.
Why did you start the blog?
I’ve always been interested in issues related to Black women’s lives, but I wasn’t happy with the way we were being portrayed in the media, and even within mainstream feminist movements. Due to my own personal life journey I tend to look at society with a particular lens. I created my own platform as a space for me to present my own perspective on the issues I care about.
What is it about your personal life journey that gives you a different perspective?
I was born in Dakar to a Senegalese mother and an Ivorian father. I spent three years of my early childhood in Canada, then grew up in Côte d'Ivoire. I was 10 when my family moved to Brussels.
Between the dual culture I have inherited from my parents and my experiences of living in different spaces at such a young age, I’ve developed rather different perspective on life – not quite unique, but different from most people I interact with here. I see things from different perspectives.
You mentioned that you arrived in Europe as age 10, just before your teenage years. It struck me because I was 13 when I moved to France and much of my activism is rooted in what experienced around that time. To what extent has that particular experience shaped you into the woman and the activist you have become today?
I was subjected to racism and discrimination early on, and that has definitely made me aware of injustice in all its shapes and forms. Unlike many Black people living here, I did not realize that I was Black when I arrived Europe. Already in Abidjan, I was around people from diverse backgrounds – be it my schoolmates or my parents’ friends. There were mixed couples in the neighbourhood where I lived. I could tell people were different, but I thought that was due to the different countries we were all from, and nothing else.
"I was subjected to racism and discrimination early on, and that has definitely made me aware of injustice in all its shapes and forms.”
What I did realize once in Europe was that people considered my difference to be a sign of my inferiority. People would reject me and even harass me because of my accent or the color of my skin. I encountered racism before I had the intellectual ability to understand what it was, or the words to talk about it. It’s no wonder that I take injustice very personally.
Did the way you were raised influence your journey as an activist?
The women who raised me had a lot to do with who I am as an activist. My grandmother never spent a day in school and she was married off very early, but she made sure my mother and her sisters received an education – even when my grandfather was against that.
My mother doesn’t identify as a feminist, but she always taught me and my sisters that as women, we should never limit own potential. She would say things like: "You are women, but you can do anything, you can have everything". In my family, the women of each generation have pushed their daughters to do a little more than what they themselves had, to go further than where they had been.
I guess when you’ve grown up around women like that, when you’ve seen the struggle for women’s rights play out in your own family, it leaves a mark on you, you know?
What you’re telling me is that you became aware of discrimination very early. However many people have the awareness but they don’t necessarily take action or even speak out. What makes you and other activists stand out is that you didn’t let fear hold you back. How did you manage to let go of fear?
When I first thought about speaking publicly about my personal experiences, I felt embarrassed, ashamed even. As African women, we are raised to always consider what what people will say if we talk about intimate or taboo issues. We’re taught to be discreet; we’re told to never make waves. If we question patriarchal status quo, we are labelled "bad girls".
Yet I felt the need to speak out and present a perspective that was not given much of a platform back then: that of a black woman who lives as a feminist. The thing is, people who talk about sexism often have white women’s experiences in mind. And people who talk about racism often have black men’s experiences in mind. As a black woman, I couldn’t see my experiences represented anywhere. Here’s why I decided to speak out: because only me I can accurately capture the things I’m going through.
"Here’s why I decided to speak out: because no one but me I can accurately capture the things I’m going through.”
It’s taken me a while to let go of my fears. To be honest, I’m still working on it. I keep telling myself that my voice matters. I’ve recently allowed myself to be more vocal, to say things just the way I believe they are. Some people may disagree with me, others may think I'm always angry... That’s okay. All I want is to speak my mind. I’m done feeling ashamed of who I am.
Don’t miss out on the second part of this conversation, where Aïchatou breaks down what Afro-feminism and sisterhood mean to her. She also has a few words of choice for those Europeans who are obsessed with Muslim women and their veils. Join us here!