Fatima Bio - The Woman! The Threat!

Fatima Bio is a force. I am fascinated by her in as much as I fear for her.

Sierra Leone dances on the fringes of progressive democratic principles yet clearly panders to a paternalistic approach to governance where notions of civic autonomy, agency, empowerment and gender equity are severely loose ideologies. Ideologies, we enjoy picking up from time to time, off the mantle of global pressure, to engage with. Despite the immense efforts of local activists and a handful of civil servants who still believe in working for the greater social good, calls for strengthened public institutions, deepened commitment to eradicate extreme poverty and of course, my personal favorite, a push for gender equality as the basis for true economic and social transformation, remain unanswered.  Our country almost always halfheartedly responds to these demands and needs.  It is from this struggle that the emergence of Fatima Bio is unequivocally disruptive to the status quo.  Let me tell you why. 

A couple of months ago I attended the Mo Ibrahim Governance weekend where Ellen Johnson SirLeaf, the first democratically elected female president in Africa, was honored with the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.  I sat in the audience as SirLeaf,  now in her 80’s, walked up to the podium with such grace, to address an audience of gawking young aspiring Africans, her contemporaries and the world on the impact she’s made as a woman, and more importantly as a leader.  

Her win occurred at an interesting time for me as a Sierra Leonean. We had just elected a new President, Maada Bio, and at the time I was deeply vested in returning home to serve in some capacity. Not only was the impetus drawn from SirLeaf and the many influential women I met during the Mo Ibrahim Governance weekend; it was also because I felt a notable resurgence of female leadership uptake in our global ecosystem. From the MeToo and TimesUp movement, more women taking up senior positions in the biggest multinational companies around the world, to Botswana, where the newest cabinet appointee is a 30-year-old woman. At 30, Bogolo Joy Kenewendo isn’t just a young African woman so highly placed in public service, she is the minister of Investment, Trade and Industry. In a place like Sierra Leone where I often see female ministers relegated to what many consider ‘feminized’ ministries, nearly not enough women are ever appointed to ministries like finance, trade and industry or energy.  Bogolo's appointment feels like a breath of fresh air. 

That weekend left me awakened, inspired and very open to returning home. I sat keenly watching the political appointment lists from Sierra Leone release to the public. With the release of each list, my heart sunk a little further, not only were there a limited number of female appointees to cabinet, but the backlash against our country’s First Lady was disturbing. The visual and verbal attacks on digital platforms were lazy, often referring to her ‘ impoverished background’ and her ‘colorful dating’ past and her current 'energy and power'. I use the word ‘lazy’ because the easiest way to undermine a woman is to ‘slut-shame’ her. Patriarchy’s easiest laziest and yet power weapon utilized to undercut a woman's legitimacy. 

The rise of Fatima Bio is a tale of love and hate. At one point she was dubbed the 'ride or die' chick every man should aspire to attain due to her heavy-handed support in her husband's campaign. Then there are the unassailable voices who dislike her existence, only because they perceive her as too powerful. But what do they really mean?

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Fatima Bio is bold and expressive. She doesn’t fit into a neat package, she drums to her own beat as an artist and creative being. Her history isn’t squeaky clean enough for a country that loves erasure, any sign that a woman has lived and come out on the other end a winner. She is unafraid, a trait that garners both hate and admiration, the very same coin everyone wants to toss out. More importantly, her husband explicitly shows his love and respect for her. For a country obsessed with ‘gender equality,' as a theoretical exercise,  a man’s explicit affection towards his wife feels affronting to masculine identity, often drawing murmurs of weakness on the part of the President. Yet, we also looked favorably on Obama's highly visible affection for Michelle, as though that is a norm exclusive to an America and not a Sierra Leone.  Fatima Bio is not shy about wielding power. She is explicit in expressing that she sees herself as an equal, and for that she is a threat to the men who surround her husband, to men in the country and to women who aren't accustomed nor comfortable with this level of audacity. She is hated, loved and feared. Most of it I think is jealousy. On a much more nuanced level however, she is a threat to the status quo not only because she is intentional about garner visibility in this government, she is also clear about increasing her sphere of influence. Unapologetically, she refuses to be relegated to the margins. She challenges notions on a woman's place and exposes our country as still not ready, and very much still unable, to embrace an empowered female in the highest cadre of power.

I find Fatima refreshing, yet her humanity shows when she becomes defensive, over justifying her actions. This is when she poorly handles negative press. It is in those times, that I see she is still very much a product of her society because she responds brazenly in attempts to over-prove her worthiness. This is when she allows her society to win, to shrink her power even if ever so slightly. She needs to learn to respond with grace, because the attempts to shrink her being will only grow as she expands her sphere of influence, for better or worse, in Sierra Leone.  Our country however needs a Fatima Bio at a time when we are considered as, internally and globally, woefully neglecting the needs of our women and girls’. We don’t have many role-models that are bold and unafraid. That are human and colorful and not perfect, anything but the typical and restricting ‘good-African woman’, a caricature forced upon all of us, women and girls. Even if Fatima never achieved a single vision she's set out in terms of policy and change, just by being herself, she's changed the way women can be positioned and consumed. However, as a friend recently said to me, " we cannot rest all of our hopes on one person". My friend is right, we need more. I am also certain that we do have these women orbiting somewhere in the 'Salone space'. 

I have a couple of of wishes for Fatima Bio and for all of us, Sierra Leonean, woman and girl. My hope for Fatima is that she doesn't get sucked into the superficiality of global conferences and meetings, but rather works to affect real change locally for the women and girls she purports to support. That is where the hard and real work lies.

As for the rest of us,  even those of us who claim ‘fierceness’,  I wish us to be more forgiving of Fatima’s transgressions, even when she over-zealously tells us how amazing she is. Instead I beckon  us to enjoy her energy and force. Yet we must hold her accountable when she fails. Her own growth and humanity rests on this. My hope is she gets serious about creating and gestating spaces for a real centering of women and girls' issues on the agenda of her husband's government. That she joins us on the continued fight for agency over our bodies, the protection of our well being in policy implementation and the interrogation of a culture that is committed to our silence. My hope is that she moves past rhetoric and truly recognizes that her power and influence, when harnessed strategically, can transform the lives of women and girls in Sierra Leone.  She may pose as a threat to many, but she can also be the threat to unlock the type of female-centered paradigm shift so badly needed in our country.

 

The New Direction Is For Young Men

My issue with the previous political party, the APC,  often dubbed as ‘youth-friendly’ because of its political appointments, was the manner in which it only enhanced the political careers of young men. The SLPP's New Direction movement signals a very similar process. Like its predecessor, its recent political appointments very much center on the growth of young men. The rise of 'young men' in government is been conflated for a 'youth-friendly' rise in leadership. The truth however is, this government, like the previous government, is youth-friendly for young men. 

This isn’t just a political party issue, it is social and cultural, speaking to the very fabric of our society. A society very loyal to the centering, enhancing and progression of, middle-aged and young, men. This prioritization is what I like to refer to as  patriarchy unchecked. 

You cannot tell me that in a country where women make up a littler over 50% of the population, meaning  there are statistically more women and girls in country and in the diaspora, that our government is  unable to attract, position and nurture women in political leadership positions. I don’t buy the arguments that a) women don’t come forward b) there aren’t enough educated women c) women aren’t gunning for these positions d) women don’t want this. I don’t buy into the arguments because it is Sierra Leonean women and girls who are the bedrock of our country.  There does exist a plethora of Sierra Leonean women who are highly educated, highly skilled, highly innovative and highly progressive. Yet, we are continually failed. We still face significant barriers to political participation, economic opportunities and in country, we are still disproportionately under-educated with youth female illiteracy rate growing at 1.82%, meaning over 60% +, of our adolescent girls cannot read or write. However, in my six-years of working at community level in Sierra Leone and visiting every district in our country; I've spent time in over 100 hospitals, schools and chiefdom's, I know it is the women who uphold these communities. It is women and girls who bury their dying husbands, brothers and fathers, who find ways to survive when they are abandoned, who keep their families and communities moving - nurtured and alive. It is women, hundreds of women, who worked with a female politician to introduce the safe-abortion bill, a very mild bill by the way. Yet it was pushed forward into fraught politicized territory because we understood that thousands of women and girls in our country die from preventable causes. Yet, we knew that it is stigma and deeply held patriarchal laws and policies that hinder the saving of our lives. It was patriarchy and matriarchy that resulted in the failure of the bill, starting with the president at the time. He could have stood up for the women of Sierra Leone.

I digress. All of this is to say, although I am very happy for all the young men on their political appointments and may they go forth and rule etc confidently. The operative word being confidently. In our country, we allow our men to aspire, to build networks, to play nice with each other, to lead, to dream, to know they are worthy and most importantly the culture PROTECTS their well being. They are worshiped by their mothers, girlfriends, wives and everyone else, with minimal effort. Inflated egos without recognizing just how so very privileged they are to live and thrive in a landscape that nurtures and protects their well being, only because they are born male. That is patriarchy unchecked. 

These are not the same type of access afforded to young women. We are never given the chance to start on equal footing, and the playing field doesn’t want to level out either.  Even when we aspire to achieve moving the needle of progression, the landscape is harsh and does not protect us. It intentionally hurts us (physically, politically, emotionally). Let's keep that in mind when we make excuses for why more YOUNG WOMEN and women in general, aren’t occupying leadership positions across all sectors, especially in the political sphere. Sometimes it is because we aren’t being appointed or given the opportunity, most times however, it is because we know we won’t be protected either - our lives are at great risk. 

I write this today in solidarity with my Sierra Leonean sisters who I know are hurting too. My hope for us is, 

We begin to organize ourselves,

work collectively and collaboratively

to uplift each other into leadership positions across government and private sector.

That we create and sustain inclusive local, regional and global networks amongst ourselves, and only include men when it is necessary and advantageous to the sisterhood – and yes, we can still love up on male-allies that push for equity and equality. Earnestly. 

We need each other to WIN. The status quo must change. 

No one need tell our stories but ourselves. 

No one need create policies that impact our social economic and political empowerment but ourselves

No need to endure man-splaining on the principles and ‘well-meaning intentions’ on gender-equity, equality or gender-parity and representation across all industries. 

I am not home but I’ve been watching. I am for the most part disheartened at the lack of young-female leadership across every industry and sector, outside of women acting as cheerleaders to men who are taking up these positions. And maybe, depending on the day and time, keeping the doors open for us. 

We need each other to BOSS UP on levels beyond imagination. I only wish this goodness for us. The status quo much change. If not for us, but for the generations to come. 

In Love & Solidarity

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Sexual Harassment - Time to break the norm

It only takes one woman to stand up and speak out on her experience with sexual harassment or gender based discrimination for women like myself to also raise our hand up and say me too. It happened to me too. Susan J. Fowler an engineer at Uber recently wrote a personal blog post that went viral. Her blog, ‘Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year At Uber’ not only signals her strength to speak out, but also her privilege to do. Uber CEO has quickly reacted by launching a full independent investigation into the matter. Regardless of what the outcome may be, she has reminded corporate America and perhaps even the world, that sexual harassment is still pervasive and that very little has changed to protect women against it. For many other women in other parts of the world, speaking out is not an option; in fact the act of being verbally or physically sexually harassed is normalized often attributed to ‘culture’, making women less likely to report or take action against their harassers. 

In a world where women are increasingly entering positions of power in every possible field, graduating from universities at unprecedented rates and are breadwinners in their families, women still face a wage gap and are forced to operate within systems (educational or professional) that aren’t responsive to verbal or physical sexual harassment. Sexual harassment at work or in educational spaces can take many forms; inappropriate comments and jokes directly or through social media platforms about a colleague’s sex life to unwanted touching, hugging or kissing and even to demands for sexual favors.  Often reported in the media are criminal acts of rape, assault and molestation, while ostensibly ‘less severe’ forms of harassment like verbal abuse, repeated lewd emails of texts, physical touching or unwelcome comments on behavior or dress are given free reign. Even where the law is strong, where such acts may qualify as criminal acts, it is very difficult to collect incontrovertible evidence. It is difficult to establish or prosecute feeling “uncomfortable” or “violated”. Also, the process of prosecution or internal investigation can be very painful for the woman. She is made to relive the experience constantly; grilled about it, asked about past sexual history and other character related issues, which are inexplicably considered relevant to the proceedings, as also her attire as well as her behavior, which is believed to “provoke” a reaction from the men. Often, this can be a career-damaging move. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), sexual harassment is a clear form of gender discrimination based on sex, a manifestation of unequal power relations between men and women. It is also one of the most difficult experiences to talk acknowledge, to articulate to address, and to seek legal action on.

I frequently write about what returning to Sierra Leone at age twenty-four felt like, the complicated process of learning and growing from an emotional and spiritual perspective, I have yet to speak frankly about my experiences of being a young professional. My story, very much like Susan’s, transcends borders and I am sure that women, regardless of geographical location or background, can relate to many facets of these experiences.

In my experience, being young, female and ambitious is as much a blessing as it can at times feel like a curse. Patriarchy has no boundaries and operates more explicitly in some settings and in others more insidiously. I remember the first time a male colleague and I were introduced; he starred me up and down only to quickly dismiss anything I said from that point forth. In the two years we worked together we never got along, purely because I refused to agree with many of the ideas he put forth and resisted the manner in which he would impose an approach to the work we did. I was unlike the many young girls he would invite to the office for ‘meetings’, I spoke out and I often called him out on his inconsistencies. However, what ensued was two-years of sometimes very volatile confrontations and from his end, any opportunity to sabotage my work was swiftly taken. My boss, also male, often appealed to me to ‘soften’ up and understand this male colleague’s perspective. Never once did my boss take the necessary steps to make me feel safe despite openly sharing with him that I felt physically and emotionally unsafe around my male colleague. Instead, I was told to ‘stop overacting’.

I continued to endure a difficult work environment, often times suffering from major anxiety attacks but convincing myself that I would have to simply work through my anxiety. What was worse was that I often sought to locate the problem within myself; as women are often told to do; to second guess themselves; to victim blame. This is what prevents us from reporting incidents of harassment or even violence. My boss and the many men I encountered during my professional career would cross all professional boundaries without reservation. My situation was not unique; many women in my country have similar experiences. What compounded my situation was that I was single – unmarried and not in a relationship, which for the many men I encountered made me fair game. My boss would often pass inappropriate comments and many times intimidate me by standing extremely close without actually touching me, close enough for his breathe to remain on my clothes after a conversation. I remember very vividly, walking away feeling dirty, like I had done something to induce this types of interactions especially because an hour or two later, any inclination of such behavior completed disappeared and all would feel professional again. It also did not help that the cultural attitude towards verbal and physical sexual harassment places the burden on women. These unwanted advances from my male colleagues, boss, other male counterparts that I would meet due to my job felt like very insular experiences, there was no where to vent, to talk through what I was going through, to even begin to unpack the level of emotional damage that was occurring and the slow and steady erosion of my mental wellbeing.

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) notes the seriousness of sexual harassment and urges for “measures to protect women from sexual harassment and other forms of violence or coercion in the workplace.” This is rarely enforced and even ‘progressive’ institutions still fail to protect their female students or employees, I went through it during the early years of my career, and I am currently witnessing it wherever I go.

Currently in my late twenties, my confidence and self-preservation habits have vastly improved and I am much better at defining my boundaries. I am even quicker to express discomfort, and I also have little fear to speak out against feeling harassed, and even less fear to engage with the institution on my safety. In short, I am unafraid to walk away if I do not feel safe; this very definitive approach to protecting my emotional, physical and mental wellbeing comes from about three years of being sexually harassed in a professional setting. My zero-tolerance policy towards any harasser, whether I am directly impacted or a witness to it, is informed by knowing the importance of setting precedents so that other women do not have to go through similar experiences. I now know the importance of speaking out, despite how challenging it can be.  Reminding professional and / or other public institutions that having clear enforceable policies against sexual harassment is crucial to building a healthy work and learning environment is an ongoing battle. It is for institutions to realize that they are often more powerful and capable of taking action than the individual victim. While it is important to respect the agency of the woman, institutions must have a zero tolerance policy to certain kinds of behavior; penalise harrassers while protecting victims and their identities. And sometimes it just means openly sharing our experiences so that other women can raise their hands up too and say ‘me too’. This happened to me too.

Note: I also recognize that men go through similar experiences in both educational and professional settings.