"Those are the everyday struggles of feminism" – Dinah Musindarwezo (Rwanda) – 3/4

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I only knew Dinah Musindarwezo as professional women’s rights expert and advocate, but in our conversation she opened up about what it means to live a feminist life at home. Sometimes, it involves making excruciating decisions, as she explained in the previous part of this interview. Most times, it’s about dealing with the everyday challenges of motherhood and marriage.

I’m so impressed at how you’ve managed to put your feminist values in practice. But do you always manage to do that so well? Are there any areas in your everyday life where you struggle to apply your feminist values?

Oh yes, definitely! I’m a mother, and currently I struggle to raise my son as a feminist. Remember how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was saying that when you raise a child as a feminist it feels like the whole world is conspiring against you? I’m feeling that right now.

Before my son went to day care, he loved all colors: red, pink, green, blue, all of them. When he saw dolls, he’d play with them, even if he always preferred cars. But the moment he started school, he started telling me he only liked blue. If I got him anything with pink on it, he’d ask me “why did you give me this? I’m not a girl!” (She laughs). So yes, I had to sit down with him and explain that there’s nothing wrong with boys liking pink or girls liking blue. He also had long hair which I would braid once in a while, these days I can,t do that because he tells me he doesn’t want to look like girls!

I feel you sister! I had to ask my husband to wear his pink shirt just so my son could see a man wearing pink. Any other challenges you’d like to share?

My other struggle is about sharing domestic work with my partner, as we both work outside the home. Of course, living in Nairobi we are lucky we can afford to pay someone to help us look after the children and cook and clean. But I was still the only one who hired and managed that person. I was the one to make sure we didn’t run out of food, and all of that.  

It was driving me crazy and I had to talk to my partner about that. I wanted us to share not just the financial contribution to our household expenses but also the actual work it takes to run the household – and that includes the mental burden of planning it. So, we agreed to share the responsibility. For example, we share the responsibility of grocery shopping: he makes sure we have fruits and vegetables, and I get the rest of the groceries. Ultimately, it’s the little things that matter: for example, my partner looks after our son more, say for shower time or dinner. Also, who ever leaves the bed last makes the bed.

“ Ultimately, i’s the little things that matter”

Dinah, this sounds too good to be true. Tell me the truth: is it working?

It is now! My partner now tells me his friends praise him for buying vegetables. They tell him: “Oh you’re such a good husband!” And I always ask him if he tells his friends how he has a good wife that buys rice and meat. (She laughs). It’s become a joke between us.

Of course, there is a lot we can improve on. I do cook a meal from time to time, even if it’s just breakfast. But my son hasn’t seen his father in the kitchen cooking anything for a long time, so he once he asked me: “but mummy, daddies don’t cook, do they?”

Ouch!

I know, right? How do I say daddies can cook when he’s never seen his own father do any cooking? I did explain that daddy hasn’t had much time to cook but he can cook, just the way mummy can cook. And that was fine with him.  But after I put him to bed, I had to talk to my partner and ask him to go and cook when our son is looking. Otherwise he might cook in my house but stop when he becomes a daddy.

Those are the everyday struggles of feminism! For me I am not only negotiating that unpaid care and domestic work is shared equally with my partner and also trying to shape and raise a son who will share that work with their partner in future.

Well I think you’re doing much better than me! What would be your advice for women who are trying to figure out how to embody their feminist values in their daily lives?

My advice is: don’t give up. Keep insisting that domestic work needs to be shared, especially if you have a male partner. Keep pushing for your boys and your girls to understand they have equal roles and responsibilities in your house.

“My advice is: don’t give up.”

And for younger women, my advice is: please get married to someone who understands and respects your values. Make it one of your non-negotiables. But also understand that even when you think they get it, when things go from theory to practice, you both realize they don’t.

Obviously, if you don’t mind doing all the domestic work on your own, that’s fine, but know that it’s how things will always be.

Thanks for the advice! It might be a strange question, but I’ve noticed that you always refer to your husband as your “partner”. Are you deliberately avoiding the word “husband”?

You know, I just think “husband” is loaded with patriarchal connotations and societal expectations of what a husband is! (She laughs) There are assumptions that you are the chief of the household, the breadwinner, all of that. Similarly, “wife” comes with expectations about your roles and attitudes in the marriage. I choose to use the word partners because to me a marriage is a partnership, and an equal one.

“I choose to use the word partners because to me a marriage is a partnership – an equal one.”

And there is also this idea that a relationship between a husband and a wife is more valued that one between two people who are not married. I completely disagree with that. There are people who have lived together for years, but society refuses to recognize their relationship just because they haven’t done the paperwork. With my choice of words I am trying to neutralize that kind of thinking.

Whew! This conversation had me thinking back about my marriage and ask myself and my husband - I mean, partner - some serious questions. What did you think? Let me know in the comments! Don’t forget to head over to the last part of my conversation with Dinah, where she brilliantly answers some of the toughest questions I’ve asked myself as a professional. Like, what’s the point of spending so much energy at the African Union or United Nations when African women’s lives are so remote from those spaces? Click here to read Dinah’s thoughts.