Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases

…. I speak on behalf of women the world over, who suffer from a male-imposed system of exploitation. Women who struggle and who proclaim with us that the slave who is not able to take charge of his own revolt deserves no pity for his lot. This harbours illusions in the dubious generosity of a master pretending to set him free. Freedom can be won only through struggle, and we call on all our sisters of all races to go on the offensive to conquer their rights.

Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence. I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.

Extract of Sankara’s speech on October 4th 1984 at the General Assembly of United Nations

On October 15th, Africans commemorate the assassination of Isidore Thomas Sankara. On this day every year, the internet is filled with his quotes, his pictures. Africans collectively spend a day praising a man whose sacrifice we stand on. 31 years later, the continent is still deeply lost and sometimes there seems to be no hope for the future. And by the future, I mean an Africa free from white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.

I studied the life of Thomas Sankara. I was desperate to understand how and why he was ahead of his time. Amazed by his speeches that centred women’s liberation, I searched longingly for a reason behind his allyship. Sankara’s politics were based on the idea of a new society where men and women must be treated equally. His speech of October 4th, 1984, is still the best speech I have ever heard from an ally. But his devotion to women’s rights was beyond simply articulating the women’s struggle. He worked towards a fair and equal Burkina Faso during his short time as the leader. His administration stopped female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy. His advisory team was mostly made of women. He gave women access to power and stepped back to LISTEN and learn about how he could be a great ally. Most importantly, he was aware of his male privilege but also aware that Africa’s freedom depended on the liberation of women. In his own words, “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk about women’s emancipation as an act of charity. Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women will enjoy equal rights”. Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them.” Sankara knew then that white supremacy was patriarchal and capitalist then imperialist. He knew that it was only through women’s liberation that Africa could be revolutionized.

Today, allyship has become more of an identity and less about the work required. The most oppressed among ourselves deserve our entire allyship. I am talking about queer and transgender African women on the continent; domestic workers and women in rural areas. Today we must recognize that 31 years later, African presidents have diluted Sankara’s model by giving power to women who are deemed respectable, ‘cool’ and less threatening to patriarchy. The ones who can easily advance patriarchal agenda and not threaten patriarchy or shake any table. The fight, the struggle is very complex and requires all of us to learn and acknowledge different intersectionalities, then take action.

While studying the life of Sankara, I found an important element to his life: he listened. His great allyship consisted of listening. During his first year as a president, Sankara organized the first Pan-African conference, hosted by Burkinabe women. He listened and was told how he could use his privileges for women’s rights. In our most privileged comfort, how often do we choose to listen to the underprivileged? Are men who claim to be sons of Sankara listening to women? Or do they spend their days tweeting about how women can deal with abusers? Are cis-heterosexual women listening to queers or trans women? Or are they just busy gaslighting and being defensive whenever they are called out on their homophobia or transphobia?

Allyship has turned into oppressors occupying spaces which were supposed to be for the oppressed. Instead of supporting women in their liberation struggles, male allies have taken over movements for women’s liberation. I  recently learned that the Executive Directors of UN Women in some countries are men. A clear manifestation of the “He for She” type of ‘activism.’ I reject such allyship. I don’t believe in allyship that doesn’t make sure the oppressed has a seat at the table. The allyship I long for is when you access a space and use your privileges to create different seats at the table then back down to the oppressed can articulate their own experiences.

We must be aware as allies to different causes, that it is not enough to just regurgitate the language of the oppressed struggle while erasing their contribution. And very often, we walk into the trap of believing we now can speak over marginalized people. That’s what patriarchy has done over the years by claiming to care about women’s issues in meetings where the guest speakers are not women but men who apparently have done gender studies. The truth about oppression can be found in LIVED EXPERIENCES. Anything you study is utopian. Nothing can replace the voices of the ones who actually go through it every single day. The erasure of marginalized people in their spaces has happened over the years through allyship. Therefore, non-marginalized people with good intentions must LISTEN and learn to ask “how can I help?”

On my own journey as an ally to trans people’s rights, I had to confront the fact that I AM PART OF THE PROBLEM. So I must not self-center in their cause. I must always educate myself through listening but mostly working towards personal change so I don’t personally oppress them or erase their existence.

As we all go through life with a hope for a better Africa, let us remember to often ask ourselves how we can de-center ourselves and center our collective liberation. It’s consistent work. As Sankara said, “Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality.”

Until next time,

Keep Resisting!

~ By Judicaelle Irakoze 

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