Women's Rights

Transnational African feminisms

A conversation with Anette Joseph-Gabriel and Mame Fatou-Niang on the roles and legacy of francophone African women in movements for pan-African liberation.
Women from French-speaking Africa have historically played crucial roles in theorizing liberation and working against imperialism, both in leadership positions and at the grassroots level.
Women from French-speaking Africa have historically played crucial roles in theorizing liberation and working against imperialism, both in leadership positions and at the grassroots level.

Until now, our series Talking back: African feminisms in dialogue has been focused on the work of African feminists online. We will now shift to ask: To what extent has the rise of digital technologies led to new modes of feminist organizing offline?

In the 2016 documentary, Mariannes Noires, seven different French-born women of African descent confront their own unique identities and challenge the expectations of French society. The film was directed by Mame-Fatou Niang and Kaytie Nielsen. In the film’s PR, Niang and Nielsen wrote that their interview subjects “… share their ideas and solutions to France’s most daunting issues at the heavy intersection of racism and misogyny, and they bravely lead the way forward.” Niang was born in Dakar, Senegal, and studied in the US and France, and apart from her interests in contemporary African identities in France, wants to explore the "longue durée" of that history, as you will learn in this interview.

Rama Salla Dieng: What role have francophone African women played historically in movements for pan-African liberation? Are there any concrete examples that come to mind?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel:Women from French-speaking Africa have historically played crucial roles in theorizing liberation and working against imperialism, both in leadership positions and at the grassroots level. In my book, I identify women such as Aoua Kéita and Andrée Blouin as “political protagonists.” They were central actors in the story of pan-African liberation in the 20th century. They also chronicled these movements through their autobiographies. Other women, like Jeanne Martin Cissé and Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, put forward a woman-centered politics of liberation in their political work and literary practice. In some ways, I think that national narratives have maintained echoes of their name such that people might find their names to be familiar, but will not know much more than that. That too is a form of erasure.

Mame Fatou-Niang: Annette summed it up perfectly. The situation of African women under colonial rule, and particularly under the French Napoleonic Code, was marked by great loss of power. Whereas indigenous customs gave a special place to women in pre-colonial societies, France imposed jurisprudence aimed at forcing the social standards of the Métropole. Under these circumstances, African women stood at the intersection of multiple marginalities. It is that particular set of circumstances that led women like Jeanne Martin Cissé and Annette Mbaye d’Erneville to break from the national Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF) and create the Union des Femmes Senegalaises (UFS). Although the UFS centered its actions around the emancipation of (francophone African) women, the motto of the organization was “independence before anything.” It is in the same vein that we can think of the Union of African Women, a group established a year before the Organization of African Unity (OAU). UAW, most commonly known as La Panafricaine des Femmes or Pan-African Women’s Organization (PAWO), was created by women who had taken part in the anti-colonial struggle, and who wanted to achieve the dreams of liberation and unity set forth by the 1960s wave of independence. This project is clearly stated in Aoua Keita’s inaugural speech in which the Malian feminist reiterated the central mission of UAW: the fact that “unity and solidarity of all Africans were the sole condition for the liberation of the African man.”

Through political activism, social interventions, and literary productions, francophone African women established significant networks across their countries’ borders. After independence, they also made sure that the new states honored the demands for more rights for women and girls. To build on what Annette just said, we were led to think of pan-Africanism’s major icons as being exclusively African men, such as Sekou Toure or Modibo Keita. Similarly, when one thinks of the influence of feminism, our generation has been quick to point at Western figures or Black Americans, effectively erasing the women’s movements that were born in and acted out of francophone Africa. That amnesia speaks volumes about the (non)place of black women in our history.

Rama Salla Dieng: How have women in our time continued to be influenced by that legacy?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: I think that the erasure that Mame points to makes it difficult to have conversations about legacy. For African women to consciously work in the legacies of those who have come before, we have to do far more digging to learn those legacies. We have to look beyond educational institutions that continue to valorize an all-male cast of freedom fighters, and to become learners of our own history independently and in other, often non-institutional spaces.

Because my work is primarily in the literary domain, one of the continued legacies I see is in the literary production of African women. Aoua Kéita’s autobiography, Femme d’Afrique: La vie d’Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même was the first autobiography written in French by an African woman. It won a Grand prix littéraire de l’Afrique noire, making Kéita the first (African?) woman to win the prestigious literary award. Even if she is today not known continent-wide or in the diaspora, I see these multiple “firsts” as having paved the way for subsequent writers like Véronique Tadjo, Aminata Sow Fall, and Calixthe Beyala who became the literary voices of subsequent generations. The stories they tell hold space for women and girls at the center of worlds that would otherwise relegate them to the margins. Beyond the literary sphere, the political activism of these foremothers continues today in the form of feminist thought and organizing in many forms (academic, grassroots, labor movements, politics, etc.) throughout the continent.

Mame Fatou-Niang: As an Afro-French girl growing up in the 1990s, I never heard of these black women from Africa. Never. When I learned about pan-Africanism, the names of black men came first, then that of foreign women. My generation knew Assata Shakur, loved Angela Davis, learned about Claudia Jones, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and Amy Jacques Garvey, but we never heard of Jeanne Martin Cissé or Annette Mbaye d’Erneville. Like Annette said, academic research on the political and literary endeavors of these francophone African women kept the memory of their actions alive. It is really in the past decade that these stories sprung out of their intellectual niches, to slowly make their way into broader audiences. The names, actions, words, and thought of these foremothers are currently infusing feminist and social movements at many levels in Africa, but also in the African diaspora.

Rama Salla Dieng: How have these pan-Africanist movements and ideals been present in conversations about Black French identity?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: Beyond Africa, I see a black feminist, pan-Africanist collective like Mwasi as explicitly and deliberately continuing the legacy we’ve been discussing, all the while adapting their discourse and action both to their diasporic location and to a broader and more inclusive vision of black womanhood. Mwasi is also a really important example of pan-African feminism’s intervention in contemporary debates about race and identity in France. They very explicitly draw on a political genealogy of Black French women and a pan-Africanist ideological lineage. Contrary to the worrying rise of a nativist strand of thought in the United States that pits so-called American Descendants of Slaves against all other black people, Mwasi’s vision of Black Frenchness underscores liberation as necessarily transnational and pan-Africanist, because the white supremacy that it seeks to counter is at once specifically French and broadly global.

Mame Fatou-Niang: This might sound very trivial, but for me it has been absolutely essential to read about blackness, Black French identity and black (francophone) womanhood in the French language. It has been essential to read about these topics from the perspective of black francophone women. Because the conversation on race has been taboo in France, I was introduced to racial theory in English, by African-American and Black British theorists, before stumbling on male francophone thinkers such as Fanon and Césaire. Unearthing the voices of these forgotten women, and adding these missing pieces to the current conversations on race, blackness and citizenship in France is crucial to ensure that the mosaic being assembled reflects as much as possible the long experience of black people in France.

Rama Salla Dieng: Recent works such as Mariannes Noires, Ne reste pas à ta place and Ouvrir la voix have sparked conversations in France and beyond. What role do you think internal exploration and biographical methods can play in France and in Europe in this particular moment of increased right-wing nationalist movements?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: These works emphasize what Irène d’Almeida has described as “destroying the emptiness of silence.” We throw the word “silencing” around so often now that we almost take it for granted. Sometimes we say marginalized groups are silent when in reality we simply don’t know how to hear their expressions and articulations of themselves and their political visions. But silencing as an active verb and strategy has been a long, deliberate process of disenfranchisement that is not always captured in the facility with which we use the word. D’Almeida’s formulation reminds us that silencing is not only about voice. The emptiness and alienation it creates is also about the total destruction and erasure of the person, the human. In works such as Mariannes Noires for example we hear black women who refuse that silencing, alienation, erasure, and destruction. They assert that they are human (which in a white supremacist structure is actually a radical idea that a black woman is human and not an object or marginalized subject). They speak of the complexity and messiness and beauty of their humanity and that is a political project that directly counters the racist nationalist movements that are not so much increasing or rising as regaining respectability and acceptance.

I also wholeheartedly agree with Mame’s previous point about the importance of the language in which we are able to imagine resistance and liberation. From benign terms such as “twist out” in the natural hair movement to more complex theories such as intersectionality, the size and power of the United States means that we have a significant anglicization of much of the language that we use to describe black women’s experiences. How do you say intersectionality in French? I do not mean how do you translate Crenshaw’s crucial and vital word but rather how do you convey its meaning in a way that captures the particularities of the ways that racial, gendered, and class oppression intersect in France? On one hand, having a vocabulary that crosses borders is powerful because it highlights the artificiality of linguistic and national borders. But at the same time, substituting English words such as “black” for a French word such as “noir.e” means that we step outside of the specific social, historical and political realities that constitute what we are trying to name, and end up with tools that are ill-adapted for the work of liberation at hand. Mariannes Noires is unapologetic about owning the French language and provides such a thoughtful template for how to dream of freedom in a language that initially began as imposition, for how to speak black womanhood in French without replaying the old colonial scenes of assimilation.

Mame Fatou-Niang: I love this! Annette’s words beautifully reflect something that has been central to my work as a scholar-artist analyzing black women’s experience in France. I love the figure of the mosaic. A mosaic starts with a single piece around which the structure is slowly built. As an Afro-French woman, I see that first piece as the ability to break both the silence and the invisibility that have been the hallmarks of our lives in France: the silence of numbers and the lack of ethnic statistics, the silence of language and the lack of words in French to account for a racialized experience, the silence of history and our effective erasure from France’s roman national. Being able to say “Je suis noire. Je suis Afro-Française!” (I am black. I am an Afro-French woman!), this is the piece around which I built my research, my art and my identity quest. I love mosaics because, unlike puzzles which are pre-cut, mosaics allow for fluidity and creativity, while producing pieces whose originality and strength stem from their diversity. Whereas people perceive Annette’s, Rokhaya’s, Amandine’s, and my own work as a threat to France’s identity, they fail to realize that we unearth and weave narratives that enrich the national tapestry.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel, assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan.

Mame Fatou-Niang is co-director of Mariannes Noires, a documentary on Black France.

Rama Salla Dieng guest-edited the "Talking back: African feminisms in dialogue" series and is a Lecturer in African Studies and International Development, School of Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

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