In Conversation With: Junayna Al Sheiban from Tanzania Feminist Collective
In Feminism Is For Everybody bell hooks talks about consciousness-raising groups, where women would organise to meet and discuss matters of sexism and patriarchy. These would often be someone’s house, a café, anywhere that could safely host a group. The idea was that in order to fight the patriarchy, one would need to learn how it worked and affected them. In the last few decades, these sites have become more expansive, finding homes on various corners of internet and inviting larger groups of women to learn from each other. One such site is the recently founded Tanzania Feminist Collective, which consists of women and non-binary people, with the “goal of wanting to provide education on rape culture, misogyny, women’s rights, and the nuances surrounding bigotry and how this is harmful to the fabric of Tanzanian society.”
An bi-lingual online resource through Instagram infographics, articles on their website, on-the-ground collaborations among many other mediums, the Tanzania Feminist Collective is focused on educating. And although their delivery often attracts women and genderqueer, the perspectives are invaluable to all Tanzanian demographics. APN caught up the Executive Director of Tanzania Feminist Collective, Junayna, to discuss the making of the collective, being a young Tanzania feminist and the collective’s commitment to a better future.
On the ethos of Tanzania Feminist Collective
The collective was never meant to be anything formal. It was just meant to be a community of TZ women, girls, non binary people who share the same perspectives on contemporary feminism. And also, a place where we can build our own definitions on what Tanzanian feminism is. There wasn’t much discourse in our spaces and that’s the whole point. On our online space, we’ve managed to look palatable, but we are not palatable. Because we honestly do try our best to touch on things that have not been touched on by Tanzanian feminists. We try to make our feminism pan-African as well as inclusive of other schools of thought like socialism and abolitionism. And I’ll be honest and say that I’m not fully there yet, but I want the collective to be a place where young Tanzanian women and African black women in general can just sit down and think what does the future we want look like. I don’t believe we can’t really involve ourselves in social issues and pretend that we can’t think about abolitionist, because at the end of the day a lot of these structures are not ours, they are not inclusive of us. They are not inclusive of disabled people, of intersex people, they are just not. So what would it look like for them to be inclusive? and that’s basically the kind of space that we want to have.
On the feminist lineage in Tanzania
I have so much respect for what older feminists have done in the past to lay the foundation. Without them having set a lot of the foundations for us, we [the collective] wouldn’t be able to be as well received as we were. So whatever they did, in whichever capacity they were able to do it, it was necessary. I think the criticism I have about a lot of older feminists is their loyalty to a lot of the systems. They’re still clinging on to these systems. Whereas I think a lot of us have no faith in them. And even the ones who admit they don’t like these system still want to be practical and ask ‘if you don’t want this system, what are you going to do?’ To be honest, although we don’t know what the alternatives would be, we don’t cling on to them. A lot of us don’t care that we currently don’t know what the alternative is, we just want to have the freedom to think about what that might look like. I just hope that as I get older, I’ll keep refining my thinking as much as possible because I am nowhere near perfect and I have a lot of learning to do because learning never ends.
On prioritising imagination for a better future.
You make time for it, you simply have to make time for it. You need to have conversations with people that also want to think about those things, and you have to make time to read abolitionist theory by people who are well-read on these things. You have to make time to attend events that you could learn from and listen to people like Angela Davis speak. Just having those conversations with people and thinking about how you could organise that in your own space. You also try to avoid systems that would hinder that. The reason why I don’t think I could ever do this as a career is because I still feel like it is within a system, and there’s still going to be a lot of restrictions. When you are doing it on your own terms, that feels more appropriate because you are able to define everything by your own terms and it’s not a corporate setting or anything. It’s just a community of people who are raising their consciousness in whatever way they can- and just being young people really.
On feminism and mental health
Mental health is everything. Especially as an activist, mental health is everything. For you to be able to live a dignified and adequate life, your mental health needs to be in good shape. It’s not looked at as important but especially being from Dar es Salaam, and having lived in cities with a lot of hustle and bustle and not a lot of mindfulness, you can burn out. Especially if you are a victim of sexual assault, there is a lot pent up emotion and stress that comes with that. You being able to deal with that, is the first step to a stronger and better you, which is the most important thing. Being a woman of color and being a black woman, you will be affected living in a white supremacist, partrtiarchal society, and it wears you down. So the best bet you have is to protect your mental health. Working with safe space is good because Araika [Mkulo- founder of Safe Space] is awesome. She is a black Tanzanian woman who is a feminist, and she gears her solutions towards audiences who look like her, which is a good thing because a lot of what we interact with doesn’t always cater to us. Even with things like going to the doctors office, there is a lot of bigotry that goes on even in medical spaces like that, that are supposed to be neutral. Same with psychology- having a psychologist that deliberately acknowledges that racial perspective, and that African perspective, it’s special I would say. But yeah, I believe that good mental health ni kama silaha yako because if you don’t have that, you can’t have anything. And it’s very easy to wear down if you don’t take care of it.
On the first woman president in Tanzania
I think it’s good that she is there. Not because she is a woman- it’s obviously good to see a woman in a position of power, but I don’t want to assume that just because the president is a woman that everything will change-that would be gender essentialism. But as we know you can be a woman and you can be black in a position of power, but still not do much for those who are women and who are black or both of those things. I mean, how many presidents are there in Africa who have done nothing for people like them, maybe for the rich ones but not really the average person. But still, it has been good to see a woman in a position of power because we’ve never had that but also because she is qualified for this position, *really* qualified for this position. She’s been working in the political global development space since she was my age.
On being nurtured by other women.
When I was in highschool in Tanzania I had two friends, and to be honest, they kind of raised me. A huge part of my personality and my confidence, my humor to this day comes from my friendship with them. They shaped my ideals, not on purpose just because of the people that they were. People couldn’t really place us, we werent girls or boys, just sort of there, just doing whatever that we wanted. I will always credit those two friends for the person that I am today. It’s the most important thing any woman can ever have: real friends. Not just friends you go out clubbing with, but real friends that will nurture you. As women, many aspects of society isolate us and gaslight us, we need friends for those situations. Like if it turns out that you are being lowballed at work, you can talk to your friends- especially if you have friends that are older who can help you figure out how to deal with it. Also in romantic relationships, when you are being treated in a way that you can’t quite name but you know you don’t like it. Realistically a lot of women won’t go to their mothers or their siblings, it’s their friends who would tell them if something’s wrong. And that is so useful, and special and just super important. In my opinion it’s the most valuable thing ever, more than a husband or boyfriend or whatever.
 Translation: I believe mental health is like your weapon