I’m in conversation with Aïchatou Ouattara, a Brussels-based feminist of Ivorian and Senegalese descent, and the author of an excellent Francophone blog named Afrofeminista. If you missed the first part of our interview, click here to find out how her activism is grounded in her personal journey and her family history. In this second part, I ask Aïchatou what Afro-feminism and sisterhood mean to her.
Note: The interview took place in French - this is a translation. To read the original version, click here.
Your blog’s title makes it clear that you’re not just a feminist, you’re an Afro-feminist. What does Afro-feminism mean to you? And how is it different from – or opposed to – mainstream feminism?
To me, Afro-feminism doesn’t exist in opposition to mainstream feminism. However mainstream feminism doesn’t make space for Black women; that’s the representation gap Afro-feminism came in to fill. Historically, mainstream feminism was meant to defend the rights of White, heterosexual, middle-class women. Obviously, many other women did not feel represented, including those from the working class, those who were homosexual, those living with a disability, and, well, those who weren’t White. And the list goes on!
So, to me, Afro-feminism is a branch of feminism that addresses the ways Black women living in Western countries are oppressed and discriminated against because they experience sexism and racism simultaneously and cumulatively (and sometimes in addition to other discrimination related to sexual orientation, disability, religion and so on.).
Another essential component of Afro-feminism is that it fights the oppression that Black women living in the West experience within their own communities of origin. It’s a fact: Black women living in the West are discriminated against by the society they live in and the communities they originate from.
" It’s a fact: Black women living in the West are discriminated against by the society they live in and the communities they originate from."
What do you say to the critics who say Afro-feminism weakens the feminist movement? My understanding of their argument is that there is strength in unity and Afro-feminism highlights the differences rather than the common ground.
Afro-feminism is not about setting Black women apart; it’s about giving an in-depth solution to issues that are otherwise neglected. Let’s admit it: the movements that should embrace us as Black women are making us invisible instead.
Take mainstream feminism: it mostly ignores Black women’s realities. On the other hand, pan-Africanist or anti-racist movements focus on racism and do not even recognize the sexism that we experience every day. Yes, we are Black, but we are also women.
And of course, we are women, but we are also Black!
Exactly. That's why it's critical for us to have a space of our own, where we can speak about our unique set of experiences, and where we can organize to address the discrimination we are faced with. There’s just so much stuff we put up with, you know? Our bodies are represented in a way that’s always hypersexualized. We get discriminated against when apply for jobs. We’re expected to work as nurses or in nurseries – of course, personal care is a crucial sector, but the jobs are so poorly paid, and the working conditions are so precarious.
I’m a feminist first; feminist values are where my Afro-feminism is rooted. I choose to focus on issues that affect Black women, but I stand in solidarity all other women, including those whose struggles don’t have anything to do with my own life. And even those who make choices with which I disagree.
It sounds like sisterhood is at the core of your vision of feminism and Afro-feminism in particular. Can you tell me more about what sisterhood means to you?
Sisterhood is an essential part of it. To me, practicing sisterhood means getting out of my comfort zone so I can be in solidarity with other women’s struggles. All other women. That's why I'm shocked to see the attacks carried out by some feminists against Muslim women who choose to wear a veil. They insult them, they tell them they aren’t real feminists. No one asked you to agree with wearing the veil! What we ask is for you to acknowledge that women who wear it are discriminated against, that they are banned from schools, from jobs, and from some public spaces.
I, for one, am a Muslim who I don't wear a headscarf. That’s my choice. But there’s no way I will turn against a woman who has chosen to wear the headscarf. Whether she made an informed choice is not my concern. I can’t know, I'm not part of her private life. And it’s just not the point. The point is that her rights are threatened, so as a feminist, I have a duty to defend this woman even as her life choices differ from mine. A threat on a single woman's rights is a threat on all women’s rights. That’s what Audre Lorde taught us.
" A threat on a single woman's rights is a threat on all women’s rights."
"I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own". This quote is my feminist motto, so I agree 200%.
Unfortunately, many mainstream feminists want to impose their model on other women without taking into account these women’s culture, religion and values. Such feminists have an ethnicist, colonialist, dare I say maternalist vision of what it means to be a woman is, what means to be free is, what it means to be a feminist.
They use African women’s issues as an excuse to stigmatize our realities and culture. Did you see how the French president is obsessed with what goes on in African women’s wombs? I am using Afrofeminista to deconstruct this colonial vision of Black women – a vision in which all of us are victims of FGM and forced marriage, all of us are prisoners of our "barbaric" cultures, and all of us need to be taught how to fight for our own freedom. No, thank you very much!
"They use African women’s issues as an excuse to stigmatize our realities and culture"
I’m not saying that African women don’t have issues to deal with; I’m saying that there are many women activists in Africa who know how to fight their own battles. Black women have been at the forefront of all anti-slavery and post-colonial movements. No one knows better than us how we will free ourselves from patriarchy.