If women ever really went on strike and refused our assigned roles, “Everything, everything would have to change!” So wrote my mentor, Barbara Deming (1917-1984), pacifist, lesbian-feminist author-activist.
This week, the focus of my writing has been a chapter about women’s use of strikes — the collective withholding of labor, symbolic strikes (Women’s Strike for Peace), and Lysistrata actions (withholding sex or birthing). It’s an exciting action-packed chapter, fun to research. I love reading about Annie Besant and the Matchgirls’ strike in London in 1888 and the Uprising of the 20,000 shirtwaist workers in 1909 NYC and the garment workers massive actions last year in Bangladesh. All of it — inspiring!
This month, I will share tidbits from this chapter-in-progress. Today — the story of a one-day woman’s strike in Burkina Faso, the little landlocked nation in West Africa. Enjoy!
President Sankara’s “Mad Act”
“You can’t make fundamental changes in society without the occasional mad act.” That’s what President Sankara boldly proclaimed when he came up with the idea for “Market Day for Men.” Indeed, it seemed a mad act.
In Burkina Faso, in 1984, women went daily to the market, rain or shine, having no way to preserve food at home. They left early in the morning, often walking long distances. At the market, they selected produce and haggled with vendors to get the most out of their food money, doled out to them each day by their husbands. Then, they carried the heavy loads back home and prepared the family meal.
Joséphine Ouédraogo — On Board with the Bold Experiment
In the few years before his assassination and the coup, President Sankara appointed several women to high positions, including second in command at the Ministry of Defense. For Minister for Health and Family Welfare, he appointed Joséphine Ouédraogo. She was trained as a sociologist and worked for the revolutionary government from 1984 to 1987.
Inspired by Sankara’s commitment to speak for the “great disinherited people of the world,” Ouédraogo worked to eradicate the custom of female genital mutilation, helped develop new laws governing family life, promoted the distribution of contraceptives, fought against discrimination, and advocated for marginalized groups. After the overthrow of the revolutionary Sankara regime, she was out of a job. In 1997, she was appointed head of the United Nations’ “African Center for Gender and Development” and, in 2007, was named Executive Director of Enda Third World, an international organization based on Senegal.
Market Day for Men — The Revolution Bursts Into the Family!
The mid-1980s was a time of great change in Burkina Faso, a country that traditionally had a strict division of labor along gender lines. In September, 1984, with the blessing of both President Sankara and Minister Ouédraogo, the women in the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution called for a one-day women’s strike and, simultaneously, a “Market Day for Men.” They urged community leaders — priests, imams (Muslim prayer leaders), teachers, and news reporters — to encourage support for the experiment.
The people in the capital city of Ouagadougou were given fair notice of the event in a media campaign, but the date was kept a secret so that women would not do extra shopping the day before to spare their husbands. At eight p.m. on Friday night the word came: the strike was to be the next day, September 22.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the experiment began. Women handed over their shopping lists, and the men were on their way — in a torrential rain.
Where Are the Cashews? How Much for Mangoes?
At each marketplace, the men were greeted by teams of militant women from the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. They stopped women from entering the markets unless they were single or had husbands who were ill that day.
The marketplaces proved alien to the men, most of whom wandered in confusion, as if they were lost on a strange planet. They asked about prices and were alarmed at the figures quoted. Not adept at bargaining, they handed over the money and hurried on to buy the next item on their lists. Finally, they carried their heavy loads home, realizing from their aching backs, tired feet, and pounding heads the frustrations and fatigue the women lived with daily.
Joséphine Ouédraogo later wrote of that day:
The atmosphere was fantastic, as much for those who “played the game” as for those who found it “absolutely ridiculous.” It was well worth it. It provoked unexpected debate in all quarters. The revolution had burst into the family and pointed an accusing finger at the masculine conscience!
To Go Deeper:
“Everyday Heroes — Joséphine Ouédraogo (Burkina Faso)” on the blog: Trust Africa.
“Women of Vision — Burkina Faso” on the blog: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.
“The Revolution Cannot Triumph Without the Emancipation of Women: A Reflection on Sankara’s Speech, 25 Years Later” by Amber Murrey, Speech given at Oxford University, June 8, 2012, published in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal
BOOK: Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle by Thomas Sankara, Pathfinder Press, 2007