My mourned friend Malick, whose remembrance has just been celebrated, was an avid reader. He was an intellectual of the postmodern kind – not the nineteenth century one with a study and many books, but a traveller without much money, with regular access to an internet connection and ways to find what his mind needed. The reading choices he shared with his friends often surprised me, as they disclosed to me a web of intellectual wanderings from another world – and yet one which I could share. As a francophone West-African he read the French classics, which I only remembered from my school years, but among whom some had stirred more attention in me while studying philosophy – like Camus. More interesting to me however, was his probing into a world of revolutionary activists and thinkers, of whom I had mostly only faintly heard. Of course, in ‘the West’ (for lack of a better word I use this vague indicator of the US and Western Europe), Mandela and Che Guevara are fashionable revolutionary icons. But the African icons were less known to me: Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, and Thomas Sankara.
When my curiosity brought me to research somewhat the one least familiar, Sankara, I found that he is not only known for the four year Marxist reign he exerted in Burkina Faso, untill his violent death, but also for his explicit promotion of women’s rights. Although of course Marxist movements have always inspired to a greater or lesser extent momevents for equal rights for men and women, I was struck by the insight of Sankara in some deeper levels of feminist questions. I found this insight in the published speech he held in Ouagadougou in 1987, on International Women’s Day. Whereas as a philosopher I cannot subscribe to any version of Marxism as a doctrine (as I can’t to any doctrine), I am critical to some of the elements of this doctrine as shared by him – I cannot escape however the fact that Sankara tried to think further from the roots also, to understand things happening in his times.
First some political facts of his feminism: during his presidency he addressed women’s problems as they appeared in his time and part of the world – not only did he legally ban (in a time when this issue was barely discussed on a wider scale) female genital mutilation and other sexuality-related oppressive structures like polygamy and forced marriages, he also promoted women leadership and the preconditions for it: defying the practice of banning girls from school when they became involuntarily pregnant. Then let us look at his ideas, which go beyond traditional (marxist) feminism. He wrote of women’s emancipation that ‘it is not a mechanical equality between men and women […]. The genuine emancipation of women is that one entrusts responsibilities to women […].’ Also he realised that women rights are not something which men can give, as a present to women: ‘It is for women themselves to put forward their demands and mobilize to win them.’ The interesting thing in these last words is that he proclaims, as a man and a political leader, his solidarity to women who do just this. In so doing he steps back, as a man and a leader, realising that once he would prescribe what emancipated women need – he would obstruct the very thing he wanted to promote.
Another, seemingly simple, point in his feminism is even more radical – a point not very well addressed up till now – the point of domestic work. Socialist and communist feminism has mostly focused on the public rights of women, their right to work, to an education, to divorce and contraception, supposing the state or some public institutions would take care of the tasks always silently allocated to women: taking care of children and of the home. Feminists have struggled for the right to child care, or for some parental leave for fathers of young children. But the massive fact that to raise children takes decennia, and that the household never stops, is rarely discussed. But Thomas Sankara does discuss this: ‘Where is men’s real superiority complex more pernicious, yet at the same time more decisive, than in the home […]?’ Although he also sees a task for child care centers in relieving the burden of women, he does not beat around the bush: ‘Men and women will, from now on, share all the tasks in the home.’
There is the point without which no feminist movement will ever accomplish equal rights for women beyond their paper version. And on this point Sankara’s words go beyond local situations and problems and become universal. It is not just that the burdens of domestic work should be relieved from women, so that they can participate more fully in public life – without men and women of one household sharing this work, it will onely be transferred to some low-paid other women as it is the case in the richer parts of the world. But more significantly, it will keep men from ever feeling what this responsibility of caring for the home is about, and thus, from ever being able to practice real solidarity with feminist goals – this is, I think, what Sankara understood.
Thomas Sankara lived from 1949 untill 1987 when he was murdered. He was the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 – 1987, during which period he aimed to realise goals like land reform and independency from the IMF. I cited from his speech Women’s liberation and the African freedom struggle, published in 1990 (second edition 2007) by Pathfinder Press, USA. His speech contains more surprising views and expressions than the one’s I could cite in the limits of this post.