Abundance of joy and revolutionary love still sit with me after a week of solidarity, radical conversations, laughter, and dancing at Freetown as part of the 10th Africa Conference on Sexual Health and Rights, convened by the African Federation for Sexual Health and Rights, and hosted by Purposeful in partnership with the Government of Sierra Leone and United Nations from June 26th to July 1st.
The week kicked off with a one-day Girls Summit, welcoming 51 girls and young women under the age of 22 from across the Continent. Girls connected, shared experiences and stories, danced, discussed, and held space for each other. This model of convening was a reminder that cultivating practices of sisterhood at a young age is not only possible but is key to our collective intergenerational and cross regional liberation. I have seen vocal, fearless, and eloquent girls stand in community with each other and vow to unite and fight for a better world for all of us- and I thought, why can’t the feminist ecosystem trust them significantly more?
I have been in search of answers to the trust question for quite some time, and I almost always come across one of two answers. The first being a lack of political will to address power polarization and ultimately redistribute and collectivize it so it is in the hands of girls. While the other is intergenerational trauma. Many lived realities and collective traumas in different corners of the globe have left older activists impacted by various sorts of violence; what is alarming is not just their well-being and mental health being threatened, but also the fact that many of them internalized and re-exercised this violence that led to excluding girls and looking down to their power.
I felt privileged to have explored the conference space from an activist-funder stance. Purposeful has managed to co-create a radical and joyful platform for girl and young activists to set their advocacy messages and priorities in the most convenient and unapologetic ways that work for them. In a record time, girls and young feminists were able to co-shape their own manifestos, respectively, to claim their voice and power. I have been fond of Purposeful’s political act of facilitating access to resources and allowing girls and young people to own their collective thinking, strategizing, and mobilizing. This courageous bold statement is a commitment to a feminist funding and accompaniment ecosystem that are intentional about finding balance and putting girls and young people at the heart and center. My activist identity was also at peace throughout the week. I engaged in conversations that were not encouraged in other spaces, I connected with powerhouse activists from across the continent and beyond and felt our organic connections smashed all the walls and borders that the colonizers wanted to build among us and around us. I genuinely witnessed Purposeful refusing to create yet another silo of convening that comes with a defined spectrum within which a certain “lively” debate is acceptable.
Some non-feminist friends asked why it was important for me as a Palestinian to be part of an African conference. It’s not the same political and social context, they explained. And that is to some extent true. Palestine is still resisting a settler colonial rule that is nothing short of a violence machine that is sustained by repression to erase the existence, heritage, and history of indigenous people; while many parts of Africa are trying to heal and self-recover politically, socially, and economically. Another key difference is our understanding of sexual and reproductive health and rights, which is the theme of the conference. In a context of child rape and female genital mutilation, among others, SRHR on the continent is primarily focused on demands of protection, accountability, and access to options and services. In Palestine, the military Zionist apparatus lobbies to communicate a liberal and democratic image to the world by pink-washing the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and easing abortion regulations, especially in response to its main ally overturning Roe vs. Wade and witnessing a backlash against women’s rights. While it continues to enforce oppressive lived realities on Palestinian girls, young people and women who are geographically fragmented because of the absence of freedom of movement; escalates in prevalence and magnitude the excessive use of armed force, consistent humiliation and repression at checkpoints/ prisons; and commits war crimes and human rights violations in the world’s biggest open prison in the Gaza Strip, including bombing recreational and community centers, hospitals and schools. To me, in simple words, the notion of a progressive apartheid state is merely absurd. And yet, despite these main differences, I see a main priority crossing with Africa, and that is the imperative need to hold the colonizer/ perpetrator to account. A main reason Israel continues to aggravate its crimes in occupied Palestine is the lack of action by the international community and the culture of impunity it enjoys as part of the selectiveness and double standards of the global justice system and mechanisms. After all, it was relatively easier and quicker for imperial expansionists to reach consensus on imposing sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, but 7 decades of violence against Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora still need justification on why we, Palestinians, are worthy of protection, reparation, and justice.
The moment I arrived in Freetown; I have been greeted with warm welcoming when people learnt I’m Palestinian. Not many asked about what’s happening on the ground back home, but many expressed their wishes for a free Palestine. This genuine belief that Palestine will inevitably be free struck me! It fueled my heart with radical love and gratitude for the interconnectedness of our struggles and liberation. It was a beacon of light and hope that we still stand united against internalizing our oppression. Salone is genuinely a fighter and a survivor. The air, green landscape, horns of vehicles, smiles of grumpy people, everything made me feel like I organically belong. I have been fortunate about not having to put up with the discomfort I feel towards fancy roads and tall buildings in the Global North that constantly self-display as a reminder of white supremacy and “civilization” that was built on the backs of the slaves. I often feel alienated walking into white spaces that were structured in all possible systematic ways to describe the global south as barbaric, violent, and backward- because I’ve seen with my own eyes, and my grandparents narrated over and over how we are not underdeveloped, but over-exploited. In one lifetime, I’ve witnessed imperial grab of my land, extraction of our resources, exploitation of our labor, forcible forestation of our soil as a colonial mechanism of dispossession, and more. Yet, I believe with all my senses that empires fall and oppression cycles collapse. History proved that many times. Even before Zionist oppression comes to an end, it is already exporting a legacy of corruption, loss, and poverty. We have seen US imperialism extract the resources of Iraq for decades, and then interfere through a military occupation to “stabilize”, “democratize” and “ensure justice”.
We must not forget that the masters are as powerful as we praise them, and as weak as we don’t buy what they sell. The kind of power they have is extractive, destructive, toxic, and unilateral. Our collective liberation is greatly dependent on us not internalizing this abusive power. Our fight is to dismantle the power asymmetries that have kept us from enjoying our basic rights and freedoms for too long. Let’s not be hungry for being our oppressor, let’s not be apt for the excessive force that some of us may think make them “glorious”. We don’t want to be equal with the cruelty of the oppressors. They are not our masters; we are not their slaves. We will not let them patronize us with their false entitlement, democracy speeches, and Ivy league education scholarships. We won’t thank too much; we won’t apologize too much. We are getting rid of the culture and beliefs that were inherently engraved in our mindsets.
Fighting this internalization among the oppressed is imperative to reshaping the narratives and rhetoric that are soaked by ideologies of indoctrination based on white supremacy and domination. The generations of the colonizers are, by default and intention, growing up to a sense of entitlement. They were, and are, raised to believe they are noble and we are inhuman; they are the patron and we are the labor; they are the absolute and we are the other. They have been inherently indoctrinated that their excessive use of force is a need for protection, while the use of force by the oppressed, even if ultimately not identical in magnitude and impact, is an act of “terrorism”. This false equation has opened space for a conversation on what are the legitimate forms of resistance. And in this disposition, it is improbable to turn a blind eye to the liberation movements and thinkers in Africa. Just as Franz Fanon saw violence as the defining characteristic of colonialism, he was also in defense of the use of violence by the colonized people who were trying to regain self-determination and sovereignty. This is not an attempt to justify violence, rather it is a call for transformative solidarity to push governments and organizations to impose sanctions, divestments, and military embargo on apartheid Israel to put an end to the use of excessive military force and violence. It’s a call to hold perpetrators to account and bring peace to a people that has never been compensated and politically offered an option to return home. It’s a call to stand against the tyranny of criminalizing the non-violent BDS movement as a form of resistance.
Violence and oppression are not only tanks, settlements, sexual exploitation, and the various explicit forms of extraction. It is also the cultural assimilation, false narratives, misinformation, and it certainly is weaponizing sexual and reproductive health and rights. The conference was on point addressing SRHR from this angle. Anti-gender justice groups and fundamentalists have claimed that SRHR is all about the access to safe abortion and rights of the LGBTQ+ community. While sexual and reproductive rights are the legal right to access services, an appropriate comprehensive health care program is just too expensive in a capitalist system, isn’t it? The privatization of healthcare is a violation of people’s right to sexual and reproductive justice that must be rooted in dignity and holistically based on the intersection of struggles. The conference reminded me of yet another example of implicit repression. Many of us have heard our mothers (but not so often grandmothers) encourage us to pursue our dreams and potential as working mothers, and we were thrilled by the progressiveness of this rhetoric. Only later did we find that this is not the bodily autonomy that we envisioned. Being a mother has been culturally imperative as a product of capitalist hypocrisy. We have inherently believed that an unpaid caregiving role exclusively and nobly makes a woman whole. We have been unconsciously forced to internalize oppression in disguise. Today, we defend our rights to be working women without necessarily having to be working mothers. Capitalism is a vacuum; it will not cease swallowing everything in its way until we cut the power off. It has manipulated motherhood and womanhood as much as it distorted the value of time where many feel hopeless in front of how productive they are, or others remain inattentive of their consuming patterns.
In the context of Palestine, what does reproductive justice mean? Pregnant women prisoners are tied to their hospital beds while giving birth; once they deliver they are forced to choose to keep their newborns in prison with them or send them away to live outside of the prison with other family members; in Gaza women with ovarian cancer are denied treatment and access to medicine, and hospitals are a target of bombing rather than being caught at the crossfire; women, young women and non-binary people are sexually harassed at borders and checkpoints; just to name a few.
Within the absence of both the political will and rule of law, it is vital for feminists to let go of the loud slogans and ground their organizing and activism in reciprocal sisterhood. The reciprocal aspect of this connection is crucial. We cannot achieve paradigm shifts, legislation, social progressiveness, and enactment of laws to safeguard and enforce the rights of women, young people, girls, persons with disabilities, refugees, and other marginalized communities if we stand separated in our respective struggles and contexts. Our collective liberation is dependent on a world revolution. We need more convenings like the ACSHR that are more frequent, appropriate in length, relevant in context, and offer connection and more mobilization beyond the conference duration. As sisters, friends, comrades, and partners, we need to radicalize our minds and tools and build intersectional cross regional liberatory approaches where we learn from each other’s lessons and struggles, co-shape our own meaningful ways of engagement and being, and most importantly speak about ourselves, our history, our ancestors fighting colonial supremacist orientalist sources of knowledge, oral history, and storytelling. We need to strengthen the ways we have each other’s backs because many of us are constantly operating in survival mode; we need to bring more joy and dance into each other’s spaces because many of us are struggling with trauma in its different shades. And we need to speak and listen more to each other’s politics- not on a panel, not in a session, but create south-south consistent spaces of informal political education. We need to center critical consciousness and radical revolutionary love as foundations for every transformative action. We can’t continue to create bubbles and parallel realities relevant exclusively to the Global South; we need to deconstruct neoliberal grantmaking, mainstream feminism and rebuild a world of possibilities and opportunities for everyone. There’s room for all of us.
If a feminist movement to survive as a political act and liberation project, it must genuinely self-ground in sisterhood and pursue beyond “gender equality”. It should overcome the goal of being equal to a certain race, class, gender or else that exacerbate harmful power and privilege. A global feminist movement should open political radical conversations on patriarchy and connected oppressive systems that limit the spectrum of options and self-defined autonomous choices among girls, young people and marginalized communities. It needs to invest in politicizing and radicalizing generations of girls. It must act together and not tire.
My key take-away from the conference is that there’s so much hope for a better world. We are as good as how much hope fills our hearts and minds. Hope is the driving force for us to criticize, question, revisit, doubt, recontextualize, analyze, mobilize, pushback, resist, love, and emancipate.
The energy I brought back home was overwhelmingly contagious and I couldn’t spare any chance to explain that this was the Africa magic!
Sandie Hanna is a feminist, human rights and anti-imperialist activist from occupied Palestine. She is the founder of Feminist Diaries, an intergenerational collective of young women and girls who analyze and produce art to share stories about their lived realities under settler-colonialism and patriarchy, activism journeys and the feminist world they dream to co-shape. She is the Arab States Program Officer of With and For Girls Fund, the world’s first Africa rooted global fund for girl activists and their allies.