Braving the constraints, a whole generation of African women led the anti-colonial struggle and for women's rights. Many of them have studied in the normal schools of the AOF.
It is the little-known story of a generation of African pioneers, midwives and teachers, who became militants for independence and for the cause of women.
Among them, Jeanne Martin Cissé. Originally from Guinea, in 1972 she held the presidency of the UN Security Council as the permanent representative of her country, which was then a non-permanent member of the Council. She was born 46 years earlier during the era of French colonization, in the small town of Kankan.
In the early 1970s, she had been traveling the world for almost twenty years, familiar with UN bodies and international organizations. She left Africa for the first time in 1954, to go to Asnières, in the Paris region, delegated by the president of the Democratic Party of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, at a meeting of the French section of the International Democratic Federation of Women (FDIF), an organization close to the communist movement.
The fight was then intense against the French colonial authorities. To publicize the battles fought in Africa, the one who was the tenth graduate teacher from her country also went to Austria, Hungary, China and even the USSR.
His trajectory, out of the ordinary, is however not unique. Women of her generation, trained by French colonizers to become teachers, midwives or nurses, crossed gender, class and racial boundaries to engage politically, despite the constraints that weighed on them.
From colonial school to political struggle
By creating federal schools for girls in Senegal, those responsible for French colonial policy certainly did not aim to contribute to a transformation of social and gender roles.
On the contrary, it was indeed a matter of allowing young doctors, pharmacists, so-called "native" teachers from the federations of French West (then Equatorial) Africa (AOF and AEF) to find wives "at their level", to encourage them to form "evolved households" intermediaries of the administration and devoted to the "mother country".
The objective was also economic: in the absence of female teachers and health personnel in sufficient numbers, the training of local auxiliaries at a lower cost would make it possible to combat illiteracy and the high rates of maternal and infant mortality. .
Thus between 1918 and 1957 (date of leaving the last cohorts of midwives and teachers) the School of Medicine of Dakar and the Normal School of Teachers of Rufisque hosted 1 girls, 286 of whom graduated : 633 midwives, 63 visiting nurses and 294 teachers.
During a training of three or four years in boarding school, under the more or less benevolent and authoritarian rule of French directors, these young girls from the different colonies that made up French West Africa (AOF) have forged close ties of camaraderie, also based on the feeling of belonging to a very small minority whose room for maneuver was limited but real.
These women were inserted into the larger network of literate men whose names have been recorded in history. They thus came across Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first president of Côte d'Ivoire, Modibo Keita, former teacher who led his country to independence, champion of Pan-Africanism, president of the Federation of Mali in the 1950s, Mamadou Dia, Prime Minister of Senegal who opposed Léopold Sédar Senghor, or the Senegalese writer Abdoulaye Sadji.
These first promotions of “scholarly women” shook up the hierarchies. Rare at the time, they first left their families to continue their education in Senegal. Their first journeys, from Dahomey (now Benin), Guinea or Niger to reach Dakar and, not far away, Rufisque, are a major step in their formation, as a first moment of openness to the world.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, when access to citizenship for colonized peoples is the subject of intense debate and as the demands for reform multiplied, they participated with their brothers, fathers and husbands in the fight against the colonizers, trying to lead the anti-colonial struggle and the fight for women's rights.
A balancing act
For this generation of women, who never define themselves as feminists, the challenge is twofold: to fight racial inequalities and to claim more rights as women. The first objective takes precedence. It is first to claim equality between whites and blacks, between colonizers and colonized, to denounce colonial violence and then to obtain independence, that these women get involved.
Most of them join the African Democratic Rally (RDA), the main opposition party to the colonial authorities founded in October 1946. They found a place there, between participation in mixed mobilizations and the formation of independent if not autonomous women's committees.
Their education leads them to occupy the functions of secretaries or treasurers of the women's sections of the party. In French Sudan (present-day Mali), the midwife Aoua Keita joined the RDA in 1946, and founded the first women's committee in Nara in 1949.
Teachers preside over the sub-sections of the RDA in the towns where they are assigned. Some joined trade unions at the same time, such as Nima Bâ who joined the teachers' union in Guinea at the end of the XNUMXs. She explains that she was called in because she had “a certain level”.
Some are active in mainland France, such as Jacqueline Coulibaly, a student at the Sorbonne, who started in 1954 alongside Joseph Ki-Zerbo became her husband, within the Federation of Black African Students in France (FEANF). Her stances reveal the dilemmas facing women of her generation. In Tam Tam, the newsletter of African Catholic students, she wrote in 1956:
“The real problem is to find a synthesis of Western elements and African customs, to find a way to integrate the instruction given in schools with the traditional elements of family education. As Africans, boys and girls alike, become aware of this problem, they will necessarily understand that they must choose the best of what the West brings them and keep what can and must be saved from ancestral traditions. »
Defending access to education, fighting excision, early or forced marriages and above all polygamy is often seen as a betrayal of African cultures. The first graduates, often accused of being a small westernized bourgeois minority and disconnected from reality, attempt a difficult synthesis.
Jeanne Chapman, a teacher since 1944 in a school in the popular district of Treichville, in Abidjan, condemned polygamy in 1960 by comparing men to roosters in a barnyard (Brotherhood, January 1960) but called a year later for the invention of a “Negro-Western civilisation” (Abidjan Morning, April 9, 1961).
This balancing act that claims equal rights on the basis of complementary social roles between men and women is built in connection with an international militancy that they are the first women in Africa to experience.
International experience, a lever for emancipation
In the careers of these pioneers, the fact of participating in international congresses, of leaving their country and sometimes the continent to meet women from the rest of the world is decisive in the construction of a militant discourse.
In 1949, Célestine Ouezzin Coulibaly, who was not a former "normalien" but a teaching instructor, was delegated by her companions to go to Beijing, at the Congress of the Women's International Democratic Federation.
She returns determined to fight for more rights. Jeanne Martin Cissé is struck by the spirit of solidarity that reigns between the women present at the FDIF congress in Asnières, whether they come from the West Indies, Africa or Indochina. She discovers "new perspectives" and feels better informed, as she writes in Milo's daughter (African Presence, 2009).
Two years later, in June 1956, the first World Conference of Working Women organized by the World Federation of Trade Unions in Budapest gave Jeanne Martin Cissé the opportunity to meet Malian teacher Aïssata Sow Coulibaly .
In Vienna, in June 1958, at the IVth Congress of the FDIF, a small group of African delegates from Senegal, Mali, but also Cameroon and Madagascar denounced colonial oppression but also reflected on the need to unite their forces. across West Africa, if not the entire continent.
The project came to fruition four years later, in 1962, in Dar es-Salaam, the capital of the future Tanzania. It was there that some thirty representatives from 21 countries from both the north and south of the continent took part in the first African Women's Conference, later called the Pan-African.
Among them, teachers and midwives represent 11 of the 18 members of the various delegations from the former French colonies. Jeanne Martin Cissé becomes the Secretary General of the organization which has its headquarters in Bamako, the capital of Mali.
In an interview with the magazine Awa, the magazine for black women, the first issue of which appeared in January 1964, it insists on the need for African women to make their voices heard, in dialogue with women all over the world.
This article is published as part of the symposium “African Modernities. Conversations, circulations, decentrings”, which takes place from June 9 to 11, 2022 at ENS-PSL, on the Jourdan and Ulm campuses. Find the program here of these exchanges.
Pascale Barthelemy, Lecturer in contemporary history, ENS of Lyon
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.