To kick off women’s week at AUP, the Inspire Africa Club held a panel at Combes to discuss the role of women in traditional African societies. The panel was mediated by the club’s Vice President, Rokhaya Wade, and held AUP students from different parts of Africa: Sandrine Waseli from Egypt, Ramata Dia from Senegal and me, a Nigerian. We reflected on what it means to be a woman in our respective African communities, its cultural restraints especially in terms of education, religion and rape culture.
Before the event, I had asked Rokhaya Wade, a Senegalese student who is currently pursuing a degree in Finance and Economics, why the event was important to her. She said, “women’s place in African societies is changing dynamically.” She added that the reality of contemporary African women is different from their parents’ generations and they are faced with new challenges because, “our fight is for equal opportunities.” Rokhaya was particularly interested in this event because she believed it would be a platform through which women could come together to discuss and possibly find solutions to these challenges. During the event, she expressed that African women are often expected to tend to their husbands by cleaning up after him, cooking and washing the dishes and that a woman who cannot cook is automatically assumed to be a bad wife.
At the intermission, there was a video presentation about Umoja, a village in Kenya in which men are not allowed. It was started in 1999 by Rebecca Lolosoli as a protest against patriarchal and misogynistic societies the country offers. The women build their own houses, teach children—including those from neighboring villages—make and sell jewelry, and come together to protect the borders when necessary. They live together in harmony and far from their oppressive societies. I also had a chat with Inspire Africa’s Event Coordinator, Djena Kouyate, before the event. She said the event was important to her because “African women are waking up!” For her, people need to realize that there is a generation gap as younger African women are finally waking up to fight for their rights and place in their communities.
A lot of people believe that for people to progress, they have to let go of their traditions. Gloria Atanga, the President of the Inspire Africa club, disagrees. “I think it’s wrong for women to be enslaved by responsibilities,” she said, emphasizing that African women have responsibilities to their families and the societies that they should carry out without being enslaved by them. “There should be a balance between the two.” Dominique Bondo, a Sciences-Po student from Congo and Cameroon who was present at the event, agreed with Gloria, telling me, “I really hope that the government understands that girls and women have a choice.”
For me, the balance should be between tradition and religion. More specifically, I focused on rape culture and how people make excuses for rape if a girl is dressed “immodestly.” I was born in Kano, a state in northern Nigeria, where a girl becomes a prostitute if she is not dressed modestly, according to the societal definition. But the fact that I was raised in different states—Abuja and Lagos—helped me understand that Hijab is more traditional than religious. I’m allowed to go out in jeans when I’m in Lagos and in Abuja, I have to wear an Abaya or a long dress over trousers but in Kano, I can’t wear anything but traditional clothes. Islam never said “wear a Hijab in Saudi Arabia, but not in New York.”
Having been born and raised in France, another panelist, Sandrine Waseli, has had the opportunity to be exposed to two different communities. She believes that women’s place in African societies has evolved, but still has a long way to go. Realistically, she has observed that African women are too scared to fight for their rights because they have no support from their communities. She was particularly passionate about the event as she believed it would “bring light some aspects that are unknown to many, but also reveal how caring and strong African women are.”
There was a very diverse audience during the event. While the African girls were there to share stories about how problematic it is to have to meet up with societal expectations, the African boys wanted to share what they have noticed. “To me, it’s slavery,” Seun Ozolua said in the midst of Dhouha Djerbi’s “the sexism is subtle” and Rokhaya Wade’s “men just don’t go into the kitchen.” At a point, Sandrine Waseli and I burst out laughing at the fact that people are always telling us, “how are you going to feed your husband when you can’t cook? He will starve.” The familiarity of the statement seeped through the crowd appreciatively.
For the non-Africans in the crowd, it was an eye-opening experience and the reality was too different for them to relate, but they were trying to understand. They asked questions such as, “how do societal expectations influence your relationships now?” Sacha Gulliene, an Italian, told me afterwards that, “listening to people talk about women being disrespected makes me more aware of cultural differences.” At the end of the evening, everyone agreed that complaining about it is not going to change it.
Inspire Africa was started in Fall 2017 by Gloria Atanga and Rokhaya Wade, with Djena Kouyate, Deborah Golan and me as executive members. Although the club lost two members due to academic pressures, the three-woman team is stronger than ever.