Welcome to second part of my interview with Dinah Musindarwezo, a Rwandan feminist who has dedicated her career to advocating for better policies for African women. After telling me about how she became a feminist (click here if you missed it!), Dinah shares the story of when she had to paid a high price for standing up to patriarchy. All I wanted to know was: was it worth it in the end? Her answer is inspiring.
You’ve achieved so much in the time since you first called yourself a feminist. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
Sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on your own achievements, but I’d say I’m most proud of how I’ve tried to live by the feminist saying that the personal is political. I try to live my feminist values in my everyday life, in the hope that I might inspire someone – especially another woman – to recognize that as African women, we don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations. We too can question the status quo.
“As African women, we don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations. We too can question the status quo.”
You wrote a moving article on African Feminisms about how you once decided to stand up to patriarchal traditions, and how much that decision cost you. Can you tell me more about that?
As an African woman I love most of the traditions we have across Africa. In Rwanda, we have powerful traditions around the time a woman is getting married. There is a big function called gusaba, when the groom’s family asks a woman for marriage, and asks what it will take for her family to accept that request. In our culture, we typically ask for cows.
The positive part about the function is that it brings two families together and they start to know each other. Celebrations are done through beautiful Rwandan dances , good food and good drinks. What always troubled me about that function is that it’s extremely patriarchal. People negotiate for cows as if women were some goods in the market: “Our daughter is educated so we deserve more cows”. “No she’s a little too old so we’ll only give you five cows”.
It sounds just like how things are done in Cameroon, where I come from.
I also don’t like that the men sit at the front row of the negotiations. Uncles who might not have a clue who you really are will sit in the front and negotiate, but your own mother who did most of the work of raising you sits in the back. Even you who are getting married, you have no say. Talk about taking away women’s agency, voices and representation!
So, when the time of my own wedding came, I said I wanted to make changes to the gusaba. I wanted to honor tradition by bringing our families together and having all the beautiful dances and all that, but I asked for my mother and older sister to sit in the front and I said no to all bride price negotiations. I’m a human being; there isn’t any number of cows that will determine my value.
“I’m a human being; there isn’t any number of cows that will determine my value”
How did that conversation go down?
Having my mother and sister sitting in the front was easily accepted, but my dad was not convinced with my no-cows clause. I told him, “Daddy if you want cows, I’ll buy you some cows. Just don’t negotiate as if I were some market good”. He reluctantly agreed but I felt like he could change his mind at any point.
And that’s what happened: on the day of the function, he got angry and demanded that we talk about cows. My uncle who was in charge of the discussions said no, that we had already agreed to leave it out. But this whole thing disturbed the function, and it went on to disturb my relationship with my dad, until his life ended.
This story resonates deeply with me because I had to face the whole bride price predicament when I got married. My father is a chief of village and did not want to make an exception for his own daughter, so I paid for half of my own bride price! It’s been years and I still feel the sting of failing my feminist values. If we’re being honest: in hindsight, was it worth it? If you’d known your decision would cost you your relationship with your father, would you do it again?
For me, it was the right thing to do. I had to do it for me because I didn’t want to do anything I didn’t believe in. And I had to do it for other women, to show them that this was a choice they too could make it if they wanted to – that it’s possible to question cultural practices if they don’t align with our values.
“It’s possible to question cultural practices if they don’t align with our values.”
Yes, it was a tough decision. I knew it would not be easy: every time you challenge patriarchy, you are starting a battle. There is always resistance. I had friends who came and told me “look how you’ve broken your daddy’s heart with these feminist beliefs of yours”. But I’m his daughter, so maybe he too could have tried to respect what I stood for. Although deep down I was also heartbroken for harming my relationship with my Dad.
It’s been years, but I keep hearing from women from my community who tell me my decision inspired them to also say no to bride price. So to me, it was definitely worth it. And I believe that is how we start to transform negative cultural practices.