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The realities often forgotten
1 Jul 2010
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“Women must be able to listen, be ambitious—to change things—and have this strength, this ability to combat all sorts of injustice. When we fight for the rights of women or human rights, it is to fight for the right of all people, so we can live in a world a little more peaceful.”

Dairyatou Bah. Author of the book On m’a volé mon enfance (My childhood was stolen from me) on her childhood growing up in Guinea and surviving excision, forced marriage, polygamy, and rape. At the time of interview, she was coordinator of outreach to national and international branches of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is a vocal feminist organization based in Paris, which advocates for the rights of women and girls in France, especially those of immigrant origins and those who live in difficult areas. They combat for equality, secularism, and gender diversity through academic programs, psychological and legal aid for victims of sexual and domestic violence, legal lobbying, demonstrations, and protests. Interviewed July 2010.

The realities often forgotten

In my work, I am inspired. When I wake up in the morning, if I didn’t have a fight, if I didn’t have a reason to defend others, I would not have a reason to live. It is the only thing that allows me to resist in this world and to believe in myself. The desire to help others and to give them what they don’t have is to live. It is to bring a voice to all these innocents who live in difficult conditions. That is what motivates me. All the projects that we launch here on violence against women, they are my motivation.

I am Dairyatou Bah. I work at Ni Putes Ni Soumises.[1] Ni Putes Ni Soumises, when it was founded in 2003, it allowed for an awakening of the consciousness of people. The movement exploded because an association like Ni Putes Ni Soumises was needed. At the time, one heard a lot about issues that had nothing to do with immigrants in France. For example, no one spoke much about the ghettos. No one spoke much about excision. No one spoke much about forced marriages. Ni Putes Ni Soumises was the French Revolution of those women. They were women who could be Arab, black.

Founding an association like this one was a jolt of consciousness, of different backgrounds, of people organized against forced marriages, against excision. In fact, there were marches that were done everywhere in France to protest violence against women. 

In the beginning, for a long time, Ni Putes Ni Soumises had tried to protest but they were not heard. Then, a young girl was burned alive in Vitry-sur-Seine, and Ni Putes Ni Soumises protested. When that happened, it was in the media and people understood. It shook up a lot of people and it made people understand that violence is everywhere. It was the moment for the people to carry rights to all women in France.

It was such a time period in France where it was necessary to shock people in order to educate them. Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Whores Nor Submissives] is truly a name that shocks people but a name that should be given to a movement like this one. For example, young girls in France could never dress how they wanted. If they dressed in miniskirts, their brothers would beat them, saying, “You are a whore.” So, we say to all that when a girl grows up, she becomes a woman, not a whore. A man too, when he grows up, he should be a man, not a batterer.

In my opinion, it is an association that dares to confront what people think in France. We show on a national and international level that the rights of women are not just words. They are reality. When you see a young girl burned alive, you see Ni Putes Ni Soumises. One must have courage to denounce the burqa in France. It is Ni Putes Ni Soumises who brings that debate. Beyond that, people have trust in NPNS because it is on the ground and in the field. We denounce the realities that are often forgotten in France.

In fact, I arrived at this movement because of what happened to me. My objective was no longer to be a victim, a woman who hates her life, who is miserable. My goal was to help those who could no longer lift their heads, to give strength to all. I wanted to say, “Look at me. A few years ago, I neither knew how to write nor read the French language. I lived with a husband who had three wives in the house with children. I was completely ignorant in this world. In time, I was able to fight for myself, thanks to many people." I left the man who made me live a very hard life. With him, I had been locked up, married young, forced to miscarry. At twenty-seven years old, I said goodbye and I put myself in the streets for almost a year.

From then on, every person that I encountered played an important role. She participated in my future. It is thanks to a bit of all the women who helped me that I am here now. It is stunning. There was a social worker, there was a psychologist, there was a worker in family affairs. There was eighteen months of intervention. They allowed me to relax, to learn a little of the French language, to understand French culture.

There were people who helped me to learn a new life, to eat easily again, to heal the loss of a baby. Thanks to all these generous people around me, it gave me the desire to live again.

Then, I wrote a book. The book was a very important shift in terms of my psychology. It allowed me to empty a bag of pain and put all of it in the book and say, I leave these things, and now, I move forward.

It was a little difficult. What was the most difficult was to return to the past. It was to live the same emotions. Each time I recounted one of the stories, in fact, it was pain; it was suffering. I saw the images; I saw everything. To live that, in writing my book, it was a nightmare and it was painful at that moment. At the same time, I knew I was doing something profound.

I was well-known afterward. After the book was published, I went to different countries. I never anticipated an adventure like that. For me, it was to put the story out there and move on to other things. 

Because I released this book and because I have come far in my life, I find it's not worth getting caught up in making accusations for the bad things that happened to me. It’s important to go beyond that. To go beyond that each morning, I lift myself up. I fight still. Each person must go past their suffering to get themselves out.

Certainly, there are women who have resentment. They really carry a sadness. It’s necessary to recognize your sadness, but after, one must have strength. Work to live with this sadness in order to go beyond it and live otherwise.

What allows me to be here before you, it is because my own story allowed me to go above that, to help others as best I can. That’s to say, in helping people, we change things. We participate in the act of life, and it is that which is important.

After, when life gives us gifts, we wake up, and when we wake up, we have a character greater than ourselves. What allows me to hold on and continue this work here, beyond what happened to me, it is that I have determination and tenacity.

It is also very important when one engages in this fight to try to distance ourselves from what we have lived. If we rest in our unhappiness, we cannot lend a hand. At one point or another, one must distance ourselves from our complaints.

It’s what makes me want to come to work. I have this immense sense of being in France, a sense of ability. I discovered people who were truly generous and open. I have the impression that I am giving back everything they gave me for the good of others. It is that which allows me to stand on my feet and to struggle and not to have this weight on me or to complain too much in my life.

Yes, there are moments where it is very difficult. For me, what is most difficult is when people lose their children because they were beaten by a man. That is something that stabs me in the stomach. I say to myself, That was me in the place of that person. I escaped that also in my life. That is difficult. 

The message I often give those women there, I tell them, whatever the pain and suffering you live, try to fight to escape it. Find work or find a way of reeducating yourself. For those who haven’t yet, getting a diploma is a way to become an actors in one's life. What I would say to women is go to school, get a degree. A degree is autonomy. It is also a barrier against submission. In my country, women are submissive. They must ask their husband for everything; they don’t go to work; they are not valued in society.

It is a big problem in certain African countries, the girls are educated for some years but they know that they will be married off very soon. The mentality of my country is that the ideal woman is she who is married young. It is she who has children, she who obeys her family and her husband. Instead, I think it is necessary to send that girl to school.

School is something so important. I tell you, the day I learned how to read A, B, C, D—it is truly a liberty. I had the impression of participating in a world, entering into a new world and understanding otherwise.

It is this that one must work for: so that women and children go to school. Me, I tell you, a woman even if she is sixty years old, she must not be ashamed to learn how to write because it is a liberty given once in our life.

For change, it’s necessary to put education as a priority. Civil society must have the willingness to put that priority in place. There must be laws that help young girls so they don’t get married at sixteen or younger. There must be a political willingness. Without that, education for girls cannot move forward.

If you go to Europe where things have advanced for women, it’s because there are laws. There are people who fought for these laws, and there is also democracy, a mentality of politics that is not the same as in Africa.

After the laws, education at home is very important. At a very young age in my house, the girls were educated that girls are the ones who must do the housework. My little brother was always served at the table like a king. A woman who treats her male children like kings participates in violence because this man will have the idea from when he is very little that he is above the woman. That man there can become violent because he has this superiority and feeling of being stronger than a woman and more valued.

That tradition, I believe, we must break. The women of today who raise our children of tomorrow must tell their sons that they are a human beings just like women. He must also bear responsibility in the house like a woman. Everyone must show their daughters, their children, men at the house that they are all equal, and it’s not because a girl is a girl that she must do everything in the house. I think from there, everything will move.

To change things in my country, it is to change mentalities, it is to push people towards education. I hope that we will have a good government one day who will push children and women to education because it is that which is emancipation. It is that which is liberty.

In Guinea, we are far from being an exemplary country. It is a catastrophe. It is dictator upon dictator. For centuries, they have trusted the people who have never wanted to reinvent the society. They have given money to people who put it all in their pockets. If someone is going to help Africans, they must live with them, must see their real needs, and the real needs are not just money.

Money is something material, but reeducation, knowing the mentalities, that is reality. Our reality is schools. It is the daily life. It’s not just to send a million Euros to reconstruct everything. It’s not money that is going to change Africa. Money is important but it is the mentalities that must change. It is the minds of people that you must attend to so that they grow. 

For example, growing up in Africa, I believed that excision was normal. They excised me because everyone did it and one did not ask questions. Today, I understand it was not fair. It was not normal. We must be able to change mindsets. For those who live in that tradition, we must be able to say, “I don’t condemn you, but it’s necessary to know that it is pain, it is suffering, and there are consequences.”

In my country, 95% of women are excised and have lived this suffering. There are also countries like Senegal that have evolved a little and would have excised maybe 75% of women. It all depends on the country, the development of their mindsets, the education of the society.

Why not open a center there to help women and children? It is women who continue the tradition because they were taught to do this and transmit the education. They think they are helping their children. They believe it is justified. One idea is that these girls who are excised, when they grow up, they’re going to be faithful to their husbands. They will stay virgins until they are married. It is these injunctions of morality. To arrive at changing that, there must be a method for explaining that what they do is harmful. If one believes that what one does each day, it is for the best, one cannot change tomorrow.

It is we who continue the traditions, which is difficult. It is hard for the women there to evolve. It’s necessary to go there with explanations so that people can be made aware and eliminate certain practices. To go towards that, one must put oneself at the level of others to explain to them in the end that what they do is not just.

It is going to be a little difficult. That is normal, but I think that there is a willingness. The desire is there. We will be able to change mindsets but one must go there softly. One must not come in with the desire to impose oneself, to say, “You are stupid.” No, one must be at the level of others. Put yourself in the place of that person. Why did they create such a thing? To make us change, one must give details. One must relax.

Me, my objective is to be able to take this social aspect of education to help these women and these children. It is to go to Guineans, the men and the women, and make them aware of the system there. Yes, the women and the men. It’s necessary to have gender diversity to arrive at full awareness about excision.

I have begun to work on this goal. In 2008, I made a trip to Guinea, and I met the people in the government. I made radio and TV broadcasts to educate about the excision and forced marriages. I met 27 NGOs in Guinea. It is not simple because no one cares truly where they must. When there is no willingness, you can’t make things change.

Involvement of the government is necessary first because the laws are voted upon. Then, to be put into practice, associations are necessary. To make a civil society, there must be political willingness as well as a willingness of people who want to change these mindsets.

In the end, like in France, equality does not exist. For us, the man is stronger than the woman. So, like in France, we fight for equality. There is always injustice, even in France. If I could change one thing, it is that there would be more justice because if there is more justice, there wouldn’t be as much sadness

In African countries, like my home, everything is beginning. If you leave France and you go there, you see a man has four wives, forty children in the same house; young girls at age twelve are married off. There is still everything to do. It is always a culture shock. It is necessary to open up their spirits and say, there are things that are good within our society, we must keep them; and there are things we must set aside.

I can say as an activist, who advocates for the lives of others, who advocates so that what happened to me won’t happen to others, I believe it’s necessary to have courage and tenacity for this. It’s necessary to have a solid morale so that one does not self-destruct at the moment one is faced with a difficult fight. As someone who desires to be an actor in the world, I think each person who pursues this path pursues it also because she has some of that fight inside herself.

What gives me the desire to fight, it is the name of my family, the name of my mother who will never receive her liberty, who is locked in the world where she lives. It is that, in fact: To change things here and at home.

All they who write history for women, they are models for me. For women in the world, I think already my path up to here must be hope for many women. I'm proof that you can be beaten and raped repeatedly, but it’s possible to lift your head and arrive at living otherwise. But you must have the courage, the strength, the tenacity, which is not always easy to have.

Women must be able to listen, be ambitious—to change things—and have this strength, this ability to combat all sorts of injustice. When we fight for the rights of women or human rights, it is to fight for the right of all people, so we can live in a world a little more peaceful.

And I don’t describe myself as a feminist because feminist is a huge word that sometimes goes beyond certain limits. But, when I was little, I lived at the end of the world in a village with animals and nature; I would never have imagined, even when I was twelve years old, that I would be here one day.

Me, I say, it is that.

[1] Ni Putes Ni Soumises: Neither Whores Nor Submissive, a vocal feminist organization based in Paris. 

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