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?
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.