Thomas Sankara on the Emancipation of Women, An internationalist whose ideas live on!

by Nathi Mthethwa

"…We, who have walked with giants know that Moses Mabhida belonged in that company too". (O.R. Tambo at Mabhida’s funeral)

I am certain that those who knew and struggled with Sankara would have expressed similar sentiments at his funeral. Sankara’s insight on the complimentary role between National Liberation Struggle and a socialist construction is demonstrated by his thoughts on a variety of social motor forces and sectors of revolution like the working class, youth, peasants, intelligentsia, women etc.

August 4, 1983 witnessed a popular uprising in one of the poorest Western African country of the Upper Volta, thus ushered in potentially one of the most far-reaching revolutions in African history. The leader of this revolution was Thomas Sankara who became the president of the new revolutionary government at the age of thirty-three. Upon the triumph of the revolution the country was renamed Burkina Faso.

For the next four years the Burkina revolution, carried out the most ambitious programme that included land reform, fighting corruption, reforestation to halt the creeping desert and avert famine and prioritising education and health. For this programme to succeed, the government pressed on with the organisation, mobilisation and political
education of especially the working class, youth, peasants and women. The government also focused on solidarity with freedom struggles around the world – from solidarity with the battle against apartheid in South Africa to friendships with the revolutionary movements in Cuba, Nicaragua, Palestine, Western Sahara and so forth.

On October 15, 1987 Sankara was assassinated in a counter-revolutionary coup that destroyed the revolutionary government and thus destroyed the acceleration of the program of change in that country. Ironically, a week prior to his death Sankara addressed people about the slain Cuban revolutionary leader, Che Guevara and said that "while revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas."

Sankara has become a symbol to all those who were inspired by the Burkinabe revolution and who are committed to the total liberation of Africa and indeed of all humanity the world over. For the purpose of this pamphlet we will confine ourselves on his thoughts on women’ s emancipation.

Sankara’s Thoughts on Women’s Emancipation
From his experience as a revolutionary leader and convinced of the need for a Marxist – Leninist understanding of human society, Sankara explained the origins of women oppression and the importance to eradicate it.

Dorotea Wilson, a then member of Nicaragua’s National Assembly and a Sandanista leader, paid tribute to Sankara’s speech against women oppression, thus: "This speech is not just a declaration of principles. It also shows a profound understanding of, and active solidarity with the struggle of women which in fact belongs to and involves all of humanity."
(Referring to his speech to a rally in Burkina Faso’s capital of Ougadougou on March 8, 1987, commemorating International Women’s Day)

Thomas Sankara, putting his case before thousands of women, moved from the point that the revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women. Whilst the night of August gave birth to an achievement of freedom, honor, dignity and happiness, he argued, this was selfish happiness for something crucial was missing: woman. She has been excluded from the joyful procession. Though men had reached the edges of the great garden of revolution, women were still confined within the shadows of anonymity. He further charged that nothing whole, nothing definitive or lasting could be accomplished in Burkina Faso, as long as women are kept in condition of subjugation, a condition imposed in the course of centuries by various systems of exploitation.

Men and women of Burkina Faso were urged to profoundly change their image of themselves, for they were part of building a society that is not only establishing new social relations, but is also provoking a cultural transformation, upsetting the relation of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. In order to achieve this, which was immediately acknowledge as formidable but necessary task, you need correct tools to equal the task.

"The human being," he said, "this vast and complex combination of pain and joy, solitary and forsaken, yet creator of all humanity, suffering, frustrated and humiliated, and yet endless source of happiness for each one of us, this source of affection beyond compare, inspiring the most unexpected courage, this being called weak but possessing untold ability to inspire us to take the road of honor, this being of flesh and blood and of spiritual conviction – this being women, is you.

You are our mothers, life companions, our comrades in struggle and because of this fact you should by right affirm yourselves as equal partners in the joyful victory feasts of the revolution. We must restore to humanity your true image by making the reign of freedom prevail over differentiations imposed by nature and by eliminating all kinds of hypocrisy that sustain the shameless exploitation of women."

The first step is to try and understand how this system works to grasp its real nature in all its subtler, in order to then work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation.

The evolution of society and the worldwide status of women Dialectical materialism has shed light on problems and conditions women face, which is part of a general system of exploitation. Dialectics defines human society not as a natural, unchangeable fact, but as something working on nature.
Human kind does not submit passively to the power of nature, but takes control over it.

This process is not internal or subjectively in practice, once women ceased to be viewed as a mere sexual beings and we look beyond their biological functions and become conscious of their weight as an active social force. In essence the difference between men and women revolves around biological functions, of which women have more functions than men, anyway.

The importance of dialectics lies in having gone beyond essential biological limits and simplistic theories about our being slaves to nature and having laid out the facts in their social and economic context. From the beginnings of human history, humankind mastering of nature was extended beyond his or her bare hands or his or her physical organisation.
The hand reached out to the tool, which then increased the hand’s power.
It was thus no physical attributes alone, musculature or the capacity to give birth for example that determine the unequal status of men and women.
Nor was it technological progress as such that institutionalised this inequality. It was rather the transition from one form of societal evolution to the which institutionalised inequality breeding exploitation of women by men. From slavery, feudalism, capitalism etc. the common denominator has always been the subjugation of women folk.

Frederick Engels explained that for millennia from Paleolithic to the Bronze age, relations between sexes were positive and complimentary in character. He (Engels) further charged that relations were based on collaboration and interaction, in contrasts to the patriarchy, where women exclusion was generalised characteristics of the epoch. Engels traced the historic enslavement of women to the appearance of private property, when one mode of production gave way to another and when one form of social organisation replaced another. So, for eight millennia property was handed down from a woman to her clan, unlike now where property is from father to son, a historical and contemporary patriarchy.

Humankind first knew slavery with the advent of private property. Man, master of his slaves, land, cattle and in addition elevated himself to be the woman’s master. This was the historic defeat of the female sex. It came about with the appearance of the division of labour as a result of the new mode of production and the revolution in the means of production.

The patriarchal family emerged with the father as head, within this family the woman was oppressed. The family was founded on the sole and personal property of the man. Reigning supreme, the man satisfied his sexual whims by mating with slaves. Women became his booty, his conquest in trade, for he benefited from their labour power and took his feel from myriad of pleasures they afforded him. For their part, as soon as masters gave chance, women took revenge in infidelity. Thus adultery became a "natural" counterpart to marriage. It was the woman’s only self-defence against domestic slavery to which she was subjected. Her social oppression was the direct reflection of her economic oppression.

The status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them. Through the different stages where patriarchy has triumphed there has been close parallels between gender, class and racial oppression. Her status overturned by private property, banished from her very self, relegated to the role of child raiser and servant, written out of history by philosophy and the most entrenched religions, stripped of all worth by mythology, woman shared a lot with a slave who was nothing more than a beast in human face.

It is not surprising therefore that in its phase of conquest, the capitalist system should be the economic system that has exploited women the most brazenly and with the most sophistication. The woman, whatever her social rank, was crushed not only within her class, but by other classes too. This was the case even for women who belonged to the
exploiting classes.

The Specific Character of women’s oppression
Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men. The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by divine rights were superior to others.

We must pay close attention to the situation of women because it pushes the most conscious of them into waging a sex war when what we need is a war of classes, against gender oppression, against racial domination, wage together side by side. This war is one we can and we will win – if we understand that we need one another and are complimentary, that we share the same fate and fate and in fact that we are condemned to inter dependent. In order to win this war women must see themselves as part of an organic whole offensive against retrogression in society, not as a separate entity having to wage a struggle belonging to them alone.

The man, no matter how oppressed he is, has another human being to oppress: his wife. To say this is without any doubt to affirm a terrible fact. When we talk about the vile system of apartheid, for example, our thoughts and our emotions turn to exploited and oppressed blacks. But we forget the black woman who has to endure her husband as well.

There are plenty of examples of men, otherwise progressive who live cheerfully in adultery, but who are prepared to murder their wives on the merest suspicion of infidelity, yet thing nothing of seeking so called consolation in the arms of prostitutes.

There are also those more or less revolutionary militants – who don’t accept that their wives should also be politically active, or who allow them to be provided it is during the day only, who will beat their wives because they went to a meeting or a demonstration at night.

Oh! These suspicious jealous men! Said Sankara. What narrow mindedness!
And what a limited partial commitment! For is it only at nights that a woman who is disenchanted and determined can deceive a husband? What about on ‘revolutionary" who will remark on a woman as a "despicably materialist", "manipulators", "gossip", "clowns", jealous" and so on.
Maybe this is all true of women, but surely it is equally true of men.
When you are condemned, as women are, to wait for your lord and master at home in order to feed him and receive his permission to speak or just to be alive, what else do you have to keep you occupied and to give you at leas the illusion of being useful? The same attitudes are found amongst men put in the same situation.

Gender elitism: another enemy of women’s liberation
The continued oppression of women can as well be worsened by some other women who use women oppression to climb the social ladder. They use the gender ticket for narrow material benefit which has no bearing to the course of women’s emancipation. The different neo-colonial regimes, Sankara wrote, that have been in power in Burkina have had no better than a bourgeois approach to women’s emancipation, which brought only the illusion of freedom and dignity. It was bound to remain that way as long as only few petty bourgeois women from the towns were concerned with the latest fade in feminist politics – or rather primitive feminism which demanded the right of women to be masculine.

Thus the creation of the Ministry of Women, headed by a woman, was touted as a victory. Asked Sankara: "Did we really understand the situation faced by women? Did we realise we are talking about living conditions of 52% of Burkinabe population, away from town in the rural areas? The high and fast life of town has to be normalised to take into account of all women concerned with fighting hunger, disease etc."

Concluding remarks
It is evident form this account that the struggle against women oppression is a struggle that belongs to all humanity. Thus it is the fight for gender equality, which is interwoven with class and national questions.  The generation of giants like Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel and O.R. Tambo have pointed to the correct path – that the liberation of women is not an act of charity but a pre-requisite for the triumph of any revolution. This is the commitment of the ANC to fight for a non-sexist society with the same vigor used when we fought against apartheid system.

The future is revolutionary!
The future belongs to those who fight!
Forward to a non-sexist society!

source :

P.O. Box 61884
Telephone: (011) 376-1073
Fax: (011) 376-1134



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