Pioneering Burkinabé writer Monique Ilboudo: “For women today, nothing can be taken for granted; we must remain alert and continue to fight”

Pioneering Burkinabé writer Monique Ilboudo: “For women today, nothing can be taken for granted; we must remain alert and continue to fight”

“I’ve fought these battles because they’re important to me. My granddaughters will one day harvest the fruits we have planted.”

(Juan Luis Rod)

Monique Ilboudo was born in Burkina Faso in 1959. She became the first woman to write and publish a novel in her country. She was also the first woman to teach at the law faculty of Ouagadougou University, where she struggled to be taken seriously. As a minister for the promotion of human rights, but also as an outspoken voice, Ilboudo has played a prominent role in the political scene of her country.

From 1992 to 1995, she wrote an editorial column Féminin Pluriel (Feminine in the Plural) for the Burkinabé daily L’Observateur Paalga. In parallel, she launched the observatory Qui-vive (Who Lives), focused on the living conditions of women in Burkina Faso.

She is the author of several essays that dive into the taboos linked to the traditions of Burkina Faso. One of those, Droit de cité : être femme au Burkina Faso (Freedom of the City, Being a Woman in Burkina Faso), published in 2006, gives a juridical, historical, ethnographic and socio-cultural analysis of several issues: female genital mutilation, contraception, abortion, rape, incest, witchcraft, laws around marriage, polygamy, the education of girls, the division of labour by gender and the underrepresentation of women in politics.

In 1992, she published her first novel, Le Mal de Peau (The Pain of the Skin), that was followed by three more. The last one, Carrefour des veuves (Widow’s Crossroads) was published at the end of 2020, during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What influence has your family had on your fight for women’s rights?

My family background has played a very important role. I was born into a family that believed that their daughter should have the same opportunities as boys. I’ve seen families take their daughters out of school and marry them off. I was able to study.

My mother was a rebellious woman: she stood up to her parents and refused the marriage they wanted to impose on her. Being the daughter of such a woman is already a strength in itself. My father loved me very much and had confidence in me. A father’s role is very important. By showing confidence in me, he enabled me to develop confidence in myself. That’s why I was not afraid of anything, I had two people behind me.

When you published your first novel, did you know that you were the first woman in Burkina Faso to publish a novel?

No, I was not aware that I was the first woman to write a novel. I had just returned from Europe and was advised to enter a literary competition. I won the prize and an article appeared with the title: “A novelist has been born to us”. I was surprised by the content of the article.

What led you to start the Féminin pluriel (Feminine in the Plural) newspaper column?

I was in Germany and I gave a copy of my thesis to the director of the newspaper [L’Observateur Paalga]. He thought I wrote well and asked me to do a column about women. As women often used to write anonymously, he suggested that I keep my name. The column left no one indifferent. One day I went to the post office and an elderly woman hugged me and said: “Thank you for speaking for us!” Two camps would often form around me, wherever I was: the women would defend me and the men would challenge me. The column lasted a long time, because there were many things that encouraged me to continue.

What are the main themes you address in your novels?

My work always comes back to the women’s struggle. I identify with the defence of the weak, I don’t like injustice, I like freedom. I’m more a woman of freedom than a woman of power. The thing that hurts me most is when someone tries to stop me from being free. I cannot bear to be deprived of my freedom. I’ve even had to fight with my parents to preserve it.

My latest novel, Carrefour des veuves (Widows’ Crossroads), published in September 2020, is once again about the plight of women, but this time in the context of terrorism. My previous novel, Si loin de ma vie (So Far From My Life), is about migration and a young man who is gay, in a country where the rights of the [LGBT+] community are not recognised.

I’ve fought these battles because they’re important to me. My granddaughters will one day harvest the fruits we have planted…[.] A journalist asked me why I hadn’t stayed in Europe after completing my PhD [in Paris, where I chose ‘State Contracts with Multinationals’ as my research topic, to denounce the iniquity of such contracts and to encourage African countries to resist the power of multinationals]. I wanted to go back to my country because those who gave me the scholarship did so for me to return. I had a duty, I couldn’t think of staying in Europe, I wanted to be useful so that others could also study; although, with ideas like mine, life would have been easier there.

Do you think, as a novelist, you have an influence on the women here in Burkina Faso?

I think so, for two reasons: I was among the first women who dared to publish their writings. I think this has helped show that women too can and should speak out about our environment, our society, our culture and how we operate. If, thanks to my texts, just one little girl were able to say to herself, “So, it is possible”, then I will have contributed to building a female identity in Burkina Faso.

Every voice, male or female, is different, and adds to the wealth of cultural and artistic diversity in our country. Being who I am, creating stories and characters, contributes, I believe, to stimulating the imagination and the thinking of my contemporaries and my readers.

Someone once asked me if I was aware that I was a role model. It’s true that when I talk about women, I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about the problems experienced by other women, the suffering I see. But it has only really struck me in hindsight. At university, a young student said to me: “It’s thanks to you that I’m here, I chose law because of you. I made an impression on young people, I had short hair and that inspired them. They called me ‘the aunty with short hair’. Although it wasn’t my intention at the time, I realise now that girls and boys have identified with me.

Do you think that women can express themselves freely in Burkina Faso? If not, what kind of constraints are you faced with?

Not really! I’m not necessarily saying there’s censorship. The main problem is self-censorship: for fear of being stigmatised, for fear of being labelled, many women don’t dare to speak out about their situation, about the discrimination or the injustice they suffer. The dominant culture considers that a good woman is one who keeps quiet.

What is your vision, as an African woman and artist, of the construction of the African woman’s identity?

There can be no ‘African woman’s identity’! The singular here essentialises, dangerously. African women are different from one part of the continent to another, from one environment to another. They are fighting for more freedom and equality like so many other women around the world. This fight for full civil rights and against violence is central to their dignity. Modern communication technologies could enable us to better share the experiences that move these struggles forward, and to show more solidarity.

How do you view the West’s influence on women’s rights in Africa?

I believe in the universality of the struggle. It is not because the philosophy of human rights comes from elsewhere that it is bad. European women have helped us, African women, to open our eyes to certain issues, because they, as women from the West, were able to see our culture with a degree of distance. The first to denounce forced marriages were nuns, because they came from a different world. Today, we are not going to say that marrying a 13-year-old girl is a good thing.

But that’s not to say there have been no feminists in African history. Girls of the same age group had their own way of criticising the family and their husbands. Every society has its own way of resisting oppression and changing things, its own way of finding a better life. But our elders didn’t dare to talk about certain subjects, such as excision. It was people from other countries, from outside (including Senegal) who first dared to talk about it. We didn’t want to talk about it because it was like a violation of our privacy, but other people helped us to open up and talk about these issues. Women’s solidarity opened our eyes, and I’m thankful for that.

How do you imagine the African woman of the future?

I see a woman without complexes and who preserves a degree of authenticity, because it would be sad if she were in danger of becoming uniform. It’s important not to let yourself be dominated by other people’s ideas, but to stay true to yourself and your own ideas. There’s no need to have any complexes: if my neighbour has a good idea, I try to take inspiration from it, but I don’t apply it just as it is.

In my latest novel, I talk about Korean and Brazilian women selling their hair to get by and how no one wants our hair because we don’t even want it ourselves! We are humanity in diversity. We have to be ourselves because all the others are already taken, if I stay myself, it is up to me to define who I am, not anyone else. If we want to be respected, we have to respect ourselves. We cannot defend certain ideas if we have no respect for ourselves.

What is the message you would like to convey, today, to the new generations in Burkina Faso?

The message is perseverance: don’t look for instant rewards. When you fight a battle, you don’t reap the benefits immediately, but future generations will be able to benefit from it. When you have convictions, you must always fight for them. For women today, nothing can be taken for granted; we must remain alert and continue to fight. The revolution [led by Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s visionary former leader who was murdered in 1987] introduced many provisions for women, but there are many who now want those gains reversed. Nothing can ever be taken for granted!

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin