I’m ashamed to admit it now, but for years I didn’t bother to know Dinah Musindarwezo’s last name. Dinah and I met in more meetings than I can remember, and I was impressed by her commitment and professionalism. To me, she was “Dinah from FEMNET”, the powerhouse of a woman who was spearheading one of Africa’s leading women’s rights network. (Soon after we spoke, she was appointed as Womankind Worldwide’s Policy and Communication Director.)
Over time, I became as interested in Dinah’s personal experiences of feminism as her professional feminist expertise. I started Eyala because I wanted to connect with Dinah and the many other activists I worked with, not just as colleagues but as sisters. I started Eyala so I would always remember that my colleagues’ names and stories matter as much as their professional competencies.
So, world, meet Dinah Musindarwezo and remember her name, because is a force to reckon with. In this fascinating conversation, she told me about how she became a feminist and what that means to her (part 1, below). Dinah shared the moving story of how standing up to patriarchal traditions tarnished her relationship with her father (part 2), and we discussed the everyday challenges of living a feminist life (part 3). We closed the interview with inspiring words for African feminists advocates about knowing our worth and owning our agenda (part 4).
Thank you for joining me Dinah! Can you briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Dinah Musindarwezo. I am originally from Rwanda, I was born and raised in Uganda, and I currently live in Nairobi, Kenya. I am an African woman and I call myself a feminist and a pan-Africanist.
Can we break this down? Let’s start with the “pan-Africanist” part. What does it mean to you?
I feel like I have different identities and pan-Africanism brings them together. It’s an ideology that believes in the collectiveness of Black people: we share common issues and we’ve experienced similar systems of oppression based on our race, our colonial history or even our current history. Pan-Africanism unites us and motivates us to fight for our own identity our own independence as Black and African people.
And what do you mean when you call yourself a feminist?
I self-identify as a feminist because I believe in the transformation of the status of women and girls. Feminism provides a critical analysis of the power imbalances that exist between men and women, between boys and girls. It questions the status quo, and it seeks to improve the status of all women and girls by addressing systems of oppression starting with patriarchy so that all women and girls in all their diversities enjoy equal human rights and are viewed and treated as equal.
“Feminism provides a critical analysis of the power imbalances that exist between men and women”
Can you remember how your feminist journey started?
Right from childhood I started questioning the way things were, starting with my own family. My father was a traditional African man who expected everyone in his household to serve him. Someone always had to bring him a glass of water, serve him his food, or prepare his water for showering. I would always wonder why my mother had to do most of the domestic work, and why she had to wake up earlier than all of us and go to bed later, while my father would sit there, relaxed, whenever he came home.
Oh, this sounds so familiar!
Right? I also grew up in a family where there were more boys than girls. My older cousin and I were expected to help my mum with the cleaning, cooking and all those household chores, while my brothers could concentrate on schoolwork and play football. If one of my brothers did something around the house, he would get so much praise: “see how your brother can cook!”.
But for us girls, there were no praises, just criticism: we were never doing enough. I knew this was not done in bad spirit and that our parents loved us all equally, but their expectations and the way they distributed roles bothered me. I now know that they were simply reproducing models they had experienced themselves as they were growing up.
So did you always know that you wanted to dedicate your career to addressing gender inequality?
It’s not until I got to university and I took a course on women’s studies and gender equality, that I realized that everything I had observed throughout my childhood was part of a bigger issue of gender inequality based on a system of patriarchy. I remember feeling so awakened: for once, I was learning something at school that resonated with what was happening in my own life and in the life of my community, my society. It felt like a calling, and when I had to decide what kind of work I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to make a difference in that area.
The first job I got was with a local NGO in Rwanda that was working on addressing gender-based violence. It was in the post-genocide era, and it was so heart-breaking to speak with all these women who had been gang-raped, who were psychologically traumatized, who had lost everything. I realized how much work there was to do. That’s when I understood what kind of profession I wanted to pursue. I later completed my Masters’ degree in Gender and Development.
Do you remember having a “aha!” moment in those early days of your feminist journey?
I’d say it was when I took part in the African Women’s Leadership Institute. It’s a course that Akina Mama Wa Afrika (a feminist pan-African organization) hosts to educate young African women about feminism. At that point, I’d interacted with women’s rights issues but I had not really interacted with feminism at a deeper level. I didn’t know what feminism meant.
All I’d heard about feminists was that they were all lesbians who hated men and encouraged women to divorce their husbands and break their families. That feminism was a Western agenda anyway. These were misconceptions but as a young woman I didn’t know that – and I certainly didn’t want to be associated with feminism back then. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to break anyone’s family!
What did you learn during that training that changed the game for you?
Well, first I learned that there is nothing wrong with being a lesbian woman! (She laughs) I learned so much about feminism in that course, and I got to meet fantastic feminists who left such an impression on me.
I remember being inspired by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, a Nigerian woman who was nothing like what people had made feminists to be. Here was this incredibly empowered woman who was married yet was questioning marriage as an institution. And she wasn’t white, she was a real African woman! (She laughs) Bisi became a role model for me. She inspired me to self-identify as a feminist, right there at the training.