This is the third part of my conversation with Faten Aggad, a governance and development expert from Algeria. We’ve been peeling off the layers of her identity as an African (part 1) and a feminist (part 2). Now, I’m ready to be a little more practical, and ask about how her feminist values come into play as she lives her everyday life: at work, at home, and when she’s traveling the world.
You mentioned earlier that you love traveling. Do you get to travel as much as you’d like?
I just love travelling. I'm lucky I get to travel with work quite a bit, traveling is also a big part of my private life. As a family, we take about four trips a year, some shorter and some longer. We’ve visited Africa and Asia quite a bit. I’ve visited half of African countries, easily.
It’s not that common among African women to just go and travel the world – actually we see more and more initiatives encouraging us to do more in that regard, like the Afro Trotter Diaries for example. Why is traveling such an important part of your life?
It goes back to the fact that my family had a nomadic lifestyle, especially when I was a child. We moved around a lot. Beyond that, I remember being fascinated by my very dear late maternal grandfather, who was a seasonal migrant worker in the construction sector. He would go to work in another country (often Tunisia, Morocco or France) and come back with a lot of goodies.
This was at a time when Algeria was a socialist country trying to be self-sustaining, so the Coca Cola bottles, the good quality chocolates or even the bananas my grandfather would bring home were luxury goods. What child wouldn’t be curious about the mysterious countries that these goods came from?
As you traveled the continent, what has been most striking about the African women you’ve met in all these countries?
To me, it’s the fact that there is a certain presence and a certain aura of power that African women have in common. Despite the diversity in our backgrounds, or in the way we dress, to me that is the single common characteristic between all the African women I’ve met.
I mean, you go to a market somewhere and her presence is there, you can feel it. The African woman is leading, ordering even. Personally, I don’t feel that when I’m in Europe. People often speak of the African woman as this weak woman they need to help and protect. But no! Look at her. She can teach you a thing or two.
“People often speak of the African woman as this weak woman they need to help and protect. But no!”
I know what you’re saying about African women’s strength, but we can’t deny that there are many challenges that make women vulnerable on the continent as well. As a feminist, which of these challenges are you focusing your energy on, at the moment?
Oh wow, that’s a good question. I think it’s the regulations and representations of women in the workplace. In our countries, women represent the group that’s most involved in informal work, because it’s so difficult for women to get into formal employment and still balance all the aspects of their lives.
Yet informal work means that women become very vulnerable. And when women are vulnerable, they tend to choose solutions that work out for them practically at a given moment, but not necessarily those that give them control over their own lives. In many cases, women find themselves trapped in a bad relationship because the economic consequences of leaving their partner are too difficult or that they can’t take a more secure job because there is little flexibility to pick up their children from schools or even with family planning if you are of a certain age.
“When women are vulnerable, they tend to choose solutions that work out for them practically at a given moment, but not necessarily those that give them control over their own lives.”
We need to provide the opportunity for women to decide for themselves how they will use their expertise as a tool to achieve their independence, and more generally, make choices that are worthy of them. We can’t just wish the challenges away or expect women to handle them. Of course, with time, more women will dare to make their own choices, but we also need to structure the work environment so that women can have equal opportunities as men, for example.
How do we do that?
Take regulations regarding childcare, for instance. Many of my friends across the continent are well-educated but choose not to have a busy job because sending their kids to day care is too expensive and relying on ageing grandparents is no longer sustainable. We need to reduce that burden on women by involving both the employers and the state for instance through childcare schemes, fiscal benefits for working parents, to name but few options.
Let’s talk about how you try and embody your feminist values at home. I know you have a six-year-old son. What’s your rule of thumb when it comes to parenting while feminist?
Let me tell you a story. When I tell my son something surprising, he often asks me: “How do you know that?”. And I tell him that mamas know everything. So the other day, he replied: “No, Papas know everything”, and I said “No, Mamas do”. We went back and forth until he broke down crying. He said, “when I grow up I will become a Papa, and I won’t know everything then”. I realized that I might have taken that game too far., so I reassured him that both papas and mamas know a lot. It’s just a funny story, but what I want to say is that my rule of thumb is to challenge him from time to time about his image of women and men, but to always be open and bring things down to his level so he can understand them.
But to me it’s as much about the conversations I have with my son as it is about the conversations I have with my husband. We need to be on the same page about what type of messages we want to convey to our child, so we can both lead by example.
Got you. My last question to you, Faten, is: what is your feminist life motto?
If I’m honest, I’ll have to say: “Me first”. It sounds selfish, but I believe that as an individual, if you can’t fulfill your own dreams and do the things that make you happy and comfortable with who you are, you can’t be a be a better human being for the people around you.