I write this as a feminist activist whose highest values include freedom of expression, freedom of choice and freedom of association. It scares me that we still live in an age where those freedoms can be taken away from us in an instant, and that anybody who places his or her head above the parapet can become a target for state repression. State violence can be found everywhere, whether in Ferguson, Accra or Cairo. You and I, should we choose to step out of the norm, can be subjected to the full force of the state. That is what has happened to Yara Sallam, an Egyptian feminist activist who is currently in prison for participating in a peaceful protest.
I first met Yara in 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Open Forum organised by the Open Society Africa Foundations. She was a speaker on a panel dubbed, ‘Are women occupying new movements?’ Yara spoke about the Egyptian people’s revolution, and the active role that women were playing in that process. Yara was one of thousands of Egyptian women who had been out in the squares and streets protesting the corrupt Mubarak regime. She knew that overturning the Mubarak regime was not a silver bullet for revolution. During her presentation on the panel she stated, “…we see the overturn of the Mubarak regime as the spark of revolution, not the completion of it. The Egyptian people’s revolution has just started.”
Her comment that day – May 24 2012 – seems prescient today as Yara and hundreds of other Egyptians lie behind bars imprisoned by the very people who are in power because of the revolution that she and millions of other Egyptians fought for.
Yara’s struggle and the struggle of Egyptian women for a better Egypt began long before the North African springs. In a webinar I convened in December 2012, she shared how Egyptian women had used online technologies to complement their community-based activism. I remember that just before the webinar started Yara had dashed inside from the streets where she had been part of a protest in progress. I thought then, as I do now, “That’s a real activist.”
Yara works as a women’s rights manager for Nazra for Feminist Studies. On June 21 this year, she along with Sanaa Seif, Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Salwa Mihriz, Samar Ibrahim, Nahid Sherif (known as Nahid Bebo) and Fikreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh) were arrested during a peaceful protest against the Protest and Public Assembly Law.
On June 29, Yara and her colleagues appeared before a judge who, without notifying her lawyers, adjourned her case by postponing it to September 13. By then Yara would have been in jail for 83 days. 83 days in prison without trial for the simple act of taking part in a peaceful protest. 83 days in prison for wanting a better Egypt. An Egypt in which Yara, Sanaa, Hanan, Salwa, Samar, Nahid, Fikreya and all those who sacrifice so much for the rest of us can live in peace and with dignity. It’s time for the Egyptian authorities to do the right thing and #FreeYara and all the human rights defenders in Egypt.
UPDATE – September 15: The trial of Yara Sallam and other defendants has been postponed to October 11. They remain in prison.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is a communications specialist who currently works with the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana. She is a feminist writer and co-founder of the award-winning blog ‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women’.
One of the most popular shows on Ghanaian television in the 80s was Obra. A common scenario in the show was that a young teenage girl would get involved in a relationship with a man and inevitably fall pregnant. This would lead her to drop out of school, the man who had impregnated her would abandon her, the young girl would become an embarrassment to her family, and the rest of her life would be a misery. Whenever we watched this happen, my mum would turn to me and say: “You see what happens when you mess around with guys?”
That was the type of sex education I received growing up in Ghana. Sex as taught to my generation of Ghanaian girls was always ‘bad’, and only ‘bad’ girls had sex before marriage. At the boarding school I went to there were always rumours about the girls who apparently had sex – they were called names like ‘Kaneshie mattress’, suggesting anyone who lived in that area of Accra had slept with them. I myself always believed these rumours about the ‘bad’ girls. How could you doubt stories told with such confidence? It was only when rumours about my own sexuality reached my ears that I began to question these myths.
After a growth spurt one summer holiday, I returned to school with gigantic boobs. One day while walking to my dorm, I overhead a group of girls chatting. “Have you seen Nana Darkoa’s breasts? They have gotten so big. It means she had sex during the holidays,” one of them said. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the following summer a male friend of mine told my boyfriend that he had “fucked me in the gutter by my house”. That was when I stopped believing the ‘bad’ girl myth.
Fast forward to my early 20s. My knowledge of sexuality hadn’t improved greatly. Yes, I had been sexually abused as a child. Yes, I had kissed girls in my boarding school. Yes, I had kissed a boy for the first time in the summer before my O-levels and gone on to kiss two other boys that same summer, but I still knew nothing about sex and sexuality. Until I went to university abroad I had no idea that girls who kissed girls were called lesbians. In my boarding school we called our girl lovers ‘dears’. (Not everybody who had a dear had a sexual relationship with their dear. Having a dear implied an added closeness and relationship with a certain girl/young woman. Your dear, for example, could be a fellow student in your year or a senior who had propositioned you).
I was an avid reader of romance novels while growing up. I would wrap the salacious covers of Mills & Boon, Harlequin and Silhouette novels with old newspaper and read furtively in between classes or in my bed at night. These novels taught me that women could have unimaginable pleasure when tall, dark handsome men ‘took’ them, but they didn’t break down how exactly this happened. When I was 20 and living abroad with my best friend, she seemed wildly mature to me because she was sexually active with her boyfriend and would walk around our shared flat naked. One day she asked me if I ever masturbated. I was beyond embarrassed. She used to tease me that I was going to remain a virgin until I turned 30. When I met my future husband two months shy of my 23rd birthday I knew instantly that I wanted to have sex with him. That was when the process of learning about sex and my own sexuality began. It is an ongoing journey of sexual self-discovery.
Starting Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women in 2010 has been an important part of documenting my own sexual journey. The blog has created a space for African women to learn from and share our stories of sexual agency and the horrific experiences of abuse and sexual assault that have attempted to take away our power.
I was inspired to start the blog after a life-changing holiday to Axim in the western region of Ghana. I was with a group of three other African women. One evening while lounging around the beach we began a frank and open conversation about sex, which continued throughout the holidays. We talked about our sexual experiences, reminisced over past relationships, recounted good and bad sex, and shared our fantasies. I was buzzing with excitement when I got back and rang my best friend in the US.
“Malaka, I’ve just come back from holiday and I had the most amazing time talking about sex. I think we should start a blog about African women and sex.”
“Ha! Its uncanny you should say that. I was just thinking of writing a book called ‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women’. If only people really knew what went down in our bedrooms.”
We split our sides in laughter. We laughed because we knew that the images people had of African women’s sexuality were myopic. We recognised that people saw us as victims of female genital mutilation and sexual subalterns or, on the other extreme, as over-sexualised women with extra-large genitalia to boot. We laughed because we knew our stories were more diverse than the outside world knew. We laughed because we knew we were continuously negotiating our sexual agency, while battling with the traumatic effects (in some cases) of child sexual abuse. We laughed because this was our opportunity to tell our own stories.
And that’s exactly what Adventures has succeeded in doing. The blog, which receives about 35 000 visitors a month, is a safe space for African women to share experiences around sex, sexuality and relationships. Many contributors remain anonymous because of the social censure that surrounds women who express their sexuality openly. Readers have told me that Adventures has enabled them to have open conversations about sexuality that they were never able to have with parents, friends or in school. At Ghana’s first Social Media Awards in March, Adventures scooped awards in the categories of ‘best overall blog’, and ‘best activist blog’. I felt especially proud that people recognise that providing a safe space for African women to talk about their sexualities was an act of activism.
African women across the continent and diaspora have boldly taken ownership of the site and share their stories of sexual fantasy, sexual experience and sexual abuse. The site’s policy has been to focus on women’s stories, while allowing the occasional contribution from African men. Roughly 60% of our readers are women while 38% are men and 2% identify themselves as transgendered. One of the most popular posts on Adventures is on how to pleasure a woman orally, written by a male contributor. There are other posts that have aroused anger and sadness and highlighted the need for supporting survivors of sexual abuse. These stories and the large number of comments they inspire show that comprehensive sexual education is important not only for women (and men) to gain bodily confidence and an understanding of their right to sexual pleasure, but also so that children do not grow up with a sense of shame around sex, which can lead to silence when sexual abuse occurs.
The fact that most of the stories on Adventures are based on women’s personal experiences refute popular myths such as homosexuality being a Western import. Here’s one comment from a reader:
It’s very refreshing to find like-minded individuals who speak so freely and openly about homosexuality. I think I’m bi-curious. I have crazy girl crushes and love lesbian porn. Having never been off the shores of Ghana, you know the general perception about these things, so I’ve never really talked about it to anyone .
Now run and go tell that to the African conservatives who claim that homosexuality is un-African.
One of the most popular contributors to Adventures goes by the moniker Voluptous Voltarian. She shares:
The reason why I started reading and writing for Adventures was because the very first comment I read was from a man. I realised that Adventures had created a space where African women and men could have an honest conversation outside of a regular face-to-face context where negotiations about sex can be very conflicted and transactional. I think that’s the real revolution. Adventures provides the space for people to work through this conflict, and for people to be their better healthier sexual selves.
Personally, I am still working on being my best sexual self. I choose to do this openly in a world that still judges women for the sexual choices they make; in a world where calling a woman politician a ‘prostitute’ does not provoke the kind of widespread criticism I hope it would. I do this in a country where the Ghana Journalists Association recently exhorted journalists to adopt an anti-gay stance in their work. As a single African woman I choose to blog openly about my sexual life in order to create community with other African women who were also told that having sex outside of marriage would automatically lead to pregnancy, familial disgrace and a subsequent life of ruin. Today it makes me incredibly proud that our sexual revolution is being blogged.
I’m the biggest I have been in five years, almost back full circle to the size I was six years ago. I managed to drop from a UK size 16 to a UK size 12 but now all my size 14 clothes fit a little too snugly. I suspect I’m right back to being a size 16 but I can’t be sure because I haven’t bought any new clothes. I’ve merely stopped wearing the clothes that feel too tight and choose only those items that were once loose on my body.
It’s horrible being overweight in Ghana. Everybody will readily tell you how obolo (fat) you’ve become. Aunties will screech, “Ei. W pai o!” (You’re bursting at the seams!) even though they themselves are spilling over their kaftans and are probably twice your size. Once when I was working out with the office trainer, my manager exclaimed, “Ei Nana. Look how fat the back of your neck has become.” “That’s why I’m working out,” I muttered under my breath. She had the nerve to comment on my body when she’s at least a size and a half bigger than I am. Maybe it’s because she has children – women with children get a pass, I think. But from what my friends with children say, that pass doesn’t last very long.
Many years ago, before the white man came to the Gold Coast, it was a good thing to be fat. Fat women were treasured. Being fat was a sign of prosperity and wealth. Times have indeed changed. The last time I visited my farming village, Kwadarko, in the eastern region of Ghana, one of the women who lives in the community said to me, “Ei. You have become fat. She must’ve seen the reaction on my face because she swiftly added, “But it really suits you.” So even in a small farming village of less than 100 people, 50% of whom I’m related to, it’s not a good thing to be big.
I’ve always had issues with my weight. I was a skinny child, mainly due to the asthma that frequently racked my body. In secondary school I developed breasts really quickly and generally felt uncomfortable with my body. In sixth form, my friend Lauren and I would wake up early, jog around the football field, and do countless sit-ups in an effort to control our weight. When I look back at photos from that time I realise how “normal” my body was. I definitely wasn’t overweight as a child or teenager.
The weight gain happened in my early adult years when I moved from Ghana to London. I was initially unhappy there, living with relatives but not really feeling at home. I got a job at Pizza Hut, and was entitled to a free meal every shift I worked. Another perk was a 50% staff discount on products sold by Pizza Hut, including Häagen-Dazs ice cream. That was when I began to gain weight. Food became my emotional crutch. When I eventually rented a flat with a friend, I had crept from a size 10 to a size 12. She was a size 8 and proud of her body, perhaps too proud. She’d walk around our flat naked and tease me about my weight gain. We stopped doing the weekly grocery shopping together after she complained, “You’re eating us out of house and home.”
Years later, I got married to a (slim) man. He was one of those people who sometimes forgets to eat but I have never forgotten a meal in my life. When we began having problems in our marriage, he kept losing weight and I kept gaining it. I remember him saying, “You don’t even care. Look how much weight you’re gaining while I keep getting skinnier.” The fact that he is now my ex-husband has nothing to do with the different ways in which we dealt with emotional issues.
The worst bit about my weight battle is that I know being fat is a feminist issue. I recognise that women are fed images of ultra-skinny models, actresses and other unattainable ideals via television screens, magazines and billboards. I know that I am not as fat as I feel. When I was at my skinniest I didn’t automatically feel happy, even though I had assumed that being able to buy size 10 clothes would have brought me automatic joy.
I know the roots of my over-eating are emotional. When I’m happy, I celebrate with a posh dinner with a friend. When I’m down, I take refuge in a large bar of chocolate. I recognise that I should drink water, eat almonds instead of chocolate, drink less wine. I start diets all the time and I’m sick of them. Why can’t I be one of the metabolically blessed who can indulge as much as they want without picking up weight? I watch my skinny friends when we go out for meals. The break off half a roll from the bread basket; I keep dipping into it. They order baked fish with a side of veggies; I choose the rich grouper provençal (fish in creamy sauce). Iknow I should but I just can’t seem to imitate them.
Surely I’m not the only woman who feels this way; who hates being called fat; who worries, perhaps unnecessarily, about what the scale tells her. I’m not the only woman who gets quizzed about her weight as if her body is public property. My friends tell me that in Freetown, Sierra Leone, you could be chilling at Lumley Beach only for a passing driver to stick his head out of his car and yell, “You bomp!” You could be in a boardroom in Lagos and be called “orobo“. Stroll down Electric Avenue in Nairobi and you may overhear someone say, “Eno ne momo.”
What’s this obsession with fat shaming?
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah works as a communications specialist at the African Women’s Development Fund, is co-owner of MAKSI Clothing and curates Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, a highly acclaimed and widely read blog on African women and sexuality.