Personal Reflection on QAYN’s 3rd Activism School
By Lola Kamarizah (Cameroon)
I admit that I used to be very violent. On leaving here, I commit to leave violence behind here, in Cotonou, and to be an even more ardent supporter of women’s rights. I have understood that being a man gives me no rights over women simply because they are women.…
E. had not even reached the end of the sentence when a voice piped up, ‘No, do not leave your violence here with us!’, bringing a smile to everybody’s face. It is June 10, 2016. The last day of the QAYN’s 3rd Activism School for and with queer, trans* and feminist activists in French-speaking West Africa. It’s almost 1 p.m. and the air is thick with emotion. Time for the oral evaluation. Seated in a circle, some can be seen trying to hold back tears. What could have happened in Cotonou to bring everybody to such an emotion state?
The thing was that in Cotonou, from 6-10 June, over 30 LBTQ activists met to talk about trans*, queer and feminist activism. It all began with a single thread that each participant attached to her/his/their wrist and passed it across to another person, threading through all the participants until a web was spun. One thread binds us all. Cut it here or anywhere and we all feel it. So, a single word connecting us during our entire stay and to last a lifetime: so.li.da.ri.ty.
‘Mama Awa’ and Mariam, QAYN’s Founder, facilitated the daily workshops. The first two days were spent remembering and analyzing the roots of our activism. Several shared realization emerged – beginning with personal experiences of exclusion, stigmatization and rejection as individuals, either because of being a gender non-conforming person and/or of being a woman who loves other women. The running thread, the essential element that brought us all together is the realization that being a woman, having a gender expression or identity or a way of being and living that does not correspond to society expectations. This awareness had set us on the path of resistance and towards activism, initially under the umbrella of women’s organizations or LGBT organizations primarily led by men. However, through our various engagements in these spaces and subsequent double marginalization and invisibilization, led us to begin to mobilize ourselves and communities to gradually address our own lived realities.
Moving from the personal to the collective is not without its obstacles. Mobilizing ourselves as queer women and/or gender non-confirming groups does not necessarily mean that we are actually a movement. Conflicts of leadership, competition, class, generational issues, and abuse of privilege, etc. often prevent activists within the same cause from working together as a group.
So, over the course of the first two days, we unpacked the nature of our personal and collective engagement. We debated at length the fact that confining ourselves to a single issue won’t free us – on the contrary, we must place our struggles against the oppressive patriarchal system within a larger context of struggles for an equal and just work. Together, we revisited our understanding of feminism, trans* and queer identities; through those analysis, we surfaced certain commonalities between these struggles and analyzed their intersectionalities. If being queer means defining oneself outside of gender binary, being trans* also stems from resisting the same gender tyranny and being feminist is first and foremost rising against the same oppressive patriarchal system. We are all subject to the same form of oppression, as women, trans* and queer - patriarchy and heteronormativity.
As trans* and queer, we are victims of dual discrimination – based on our sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Sexism and hetero-normativity are the consequences of patriarchal oppression that we must dismantle, while remaining vigilant by not reproducing the same oppression within our movements. For example, in our intimate relationships, roles are too often rigid and where it is up to Partner B to do the housekeeping and receive money from Partner A who, in return, dominates us and police our life including our spending habits and whose violence is readily excused just by being in the man’s role. These realities are so deeply embedded in our sub-consciousness that they are perpetuated in our activist spaces in one form or another.
So, how do we connect these different struggles? To begin with, by becoming and remaining aware of the crosscutting and intersectional nature of our needs: access to health care, equitable treatment, justice, respect of our identities, freedom to dispose of ones own body, equality of rights, etc. Then, through the organization of, and participation in joint initiative such as forum, training, workshops, sharing of information, conferences, etc. on issues of gender and sexuality. To better surface these struggles, we also have to document our lives and share our experiences. This will make it possible for us to develop leadership and give us visibility. Finally, women’s living conditions – trans* and queer women - will not change unless we mobilize to bring about changes to homophobic and sexist laws, including within our movements where trans* issues remain poorly understood and transphobia is reel.
longside the discussion groups on trans*, queer and feminist activism, we also devoted space to art and creativity. Led by a Togolese artivist, we explore our creative sides through painting and drawing, which were then displayed in an ‘art gallery’ or all to see and appreciate. Most of these pieces created celebrated love and womanhood. An example was the painting presented to QAYN, on which could be seen the shadow of two women tenderly embracing each other.
In addition to our daily work, we organized ad hoc excursions in Cotonou. The places we went to eat and dance were welcoming and friendly. We did not hear a single insulting remark nor experienced any aggressive behavior – which might have been the case given that, in the heat of some moments, there were many visible signs of tenderness. This experience shows that in Cotonou (and, by extension, in many African contexts), careful distinctions should be made when using the argument of a homophobic Africa chasing homosexuals. We must not only fight against gender-based violence and gender stereotypes but we should also distance ourselves from stereotypes about African societies, which are just as capable of tolerance and acceptance, and even of protection as any other society.
To end, what happened in Cotonou planted a seed. The seed is the sign of a new beginning. In order to sprout, it must be on fertile ground. To grow, it must be rooted and nourished, cared for. The meeting on queer and feminist activism was an opportunity to prepare the soil. More is required for the seed to flourish. With increased awareness of the dramatic repercussions of the patriarchal and hetero-normative system on our lives as women, as trans* and as queer, we nourished each other with our shared experiences. We promised each other that we would revisit our struggles and our motivations in order to reposition our engagement within a broader context. In Cotonou, on the banks of the ‘mouth of the river of death’, we spoke Struggle. We spoke the Fight. We spoke Feminism. We spoke Love. We spoke Revolution. We decided that our feminism was inter-sectional, radical, and there was no going back. No ifs, no buts.