This is the second part of my interview with Faten Aggad, an Algerian governance and development expert. After a fascinating discussion on what being African means to her (in case you missed it: click here), I asked her about feminism. Here’s what she said.
Earlier you introduced yourself as an “unapologetic pan-Africanist and feminist.” What does it mean for you to live a feminist life?
It’s all about the choices I make in my daily life, and how they fit in my values system and beliefs. That means in relation to navigating a modern society as a woman: as a mother, a wife, a professional with a successful career, a daughter, a sister, a daughter- and sister-in-law, and a friend to people who are diverse in their beliefs and lifestyles.
I belong to different 'societies’ and environments, private and professional, each with their expectations on how a woman should lead her life and with which I interact on a daily life. I get to influence these environments as much as they influence me.
Why do you think it’s important to wear the feminist label with pride?
Because there is a quite a bit of a stigma that comes with the feminist label and we need to break it. I put the label on myself quite comfortably. I think what has led most people to stigmatize feminism is that they think that feminism isn’t just anti-patriarchy, but also anti-male. They’re against that type of feminism, and so I am.
People also see feminism as coming largely from the West, and as being led by White women. It’s a feminism that celebrates the model of the “independent woman”, for example. There was a time in Algeria when you had to dress up like a Western woman to show you were a feminist. The shorter the skirt the better, high heels, and of course remove the headscarf. When feminism becomes more about a woman’s looks than her essence, that’s very problematic.
“When feminism becomes more about a woman’s looks than her essence, that’s very problematic.”
Tell me more about that.
To me, it's not because you wear a super short skirt that you are a feminist. Your actions make you a feminist, not your outfit. You can wear the headscarf if that's by choice. “Choice” is the essential word here, and that's what feminism is to me is.
Feminism is about a woman being able to decide for herself what she wants, without being restricted by patriarchy. And women’s choices don’t look the same everywhere because feminism is contextual.
“Feminism is contextual”: what does that mean to you?
To me feminism is not just one thing; I see a rainbow of feminisms. A lot is shaped by our backgrounds and our contexts. What seems normal in one place can be a lot less normal elsewhere: a woman who goes to work in The Netherlands is not the same as a woman who goes to work in Yemen.
We also need to unpack things with respect to African feminism. We talk about African feminism but in reality, feminism in South Africa may not be the same as feminism in Libya or in Senegal. Even that idea of an independent woman is one that we need to unpack.
Okay, you keep coming back to the “independent woman” model. Why is that?
There is this traditional argument in feminism that all women must become independent at all costs. That’s why we encourage our girls to study and build a career. Of course, I agree, but your career is not an end in itself, it’s a tool to get to the financial independence women need to make their own life choices.
There’s also this idea that independence means you become emotionally detached from men. In the African context, many think that if you are a feminist, then you shouldn’t get married. I for one, love having my husband by my side. There is no contradiction between being a strong woman and being vulnerable in your relationship with a loving person with whom you’re building a life and a family. So again, to me independence is the tool that allows you to make the choices and take control. In the case of relationships, independence means that you don’t have to be stuck in a relationship that is very patriarchal.
“There is no contradiction between being a strong woman and being vulnerable in your relationship with a loving person”
Who are the women you look up to, as a feminist?
I’ll have to say my aunt, Mimi, because she is a woman who challenged conventional wisdom about women’s place in society every day of her life. I mean, she's not a highly educated person. When she was 20 years old, she divorced from her husband even as she was pregnant. At that time, a divorced woman was a big no in Algerian society, but she was very clear in her mind on what she wanted in life and what she didn't want. So she went about building that life with the limited resources that she had. To me she epitomizes the image of a resilient African woman.
My aunt may never consider herself a feminist but to me she is one, in every single way. She is a woman who cares about her identity and who has respect for herself. She inspires me more than any high-level public figure because I've seen up close the choices and the sacrifices that she made.
“My aunt may never consider herself a feminist but to me she is one, in every single way.”
She sounds amazing. It requires a lot of courage and determination for a woman to live by her feminist principles. Often, that puts us in trouble, too. When is the last time you got in trouble for speaking your feminist mind?
Recently, somebody was complaining about her partner who was controlling financially. My response was: “But it's your choice, too”. She got so offended by my comment that I thought, “why did I open my mouth?” (She laughs) What I meant was that life is about the choices we make. Some choices are very difficult and others very easy. Either you build something for yourself or you make the choice to remain in that relationship and accept that you are constrained – to speak about that woman’s situation.
That must have been awkward! What did you learn from that conversation?
I learned that I should be better at acknowledging the difficulty of some choices. And that I should make my points less abruptly!