By Ange Theonastine Ashimwe
Editorial note: this is the first piece published by EA Scene’s newest part time contributor: Ange Theonastine Ashimwe, an award winning poet and writer. Her takes on everyday life are not to be missed, make sure to follow her on all of the social media platforms you can think of.
She’s the founder of Abigaelle Closet where she uses fashion to empower lives, and also the founder of Choose Yourself, a women’s rights organization, and Girl Talk. Judicaelle herself, Burundian, started a program to support Burundian women in refugee camps in Rwanda.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Judicaelle Irakoze. I am a feminist doing disruptive political work centering women’s liberation. I do a lot of things to be honest. I am a community organizer, an advocate whose work exist at the intersections of human rights and social justice. I facilitate different conversations centering feminisms, gender and racial equity and the decolonization of Africa. I am a published author and a contributing writer at African Feminisms. I do consultancy work with different multilateral organizations invested in new mechanisms centering the voices of the youth. I am an entrepreneur who believes in women accessing economic power as one tool to challenge patriarchal power. I am the founder of Choose Yourself Organization and Abigaelle Closet.
How would you describe your own political beliefs?
My political beliefs are clearly simple: I hate injustice with my whole heart. I believe in free and just world for all. And freedom for me is the possibility to exist decently and cared for. My politics challenge every oppressive system which sustain inequalities.
How do you want your work to impact other women?
I want my work to inspire of a sisterhood so liberating, so free and so honest. I want women to depend on each other as a political resistance. But I also want my work to be a safe space for women trying to break free from patriarchal oppression and violence, to feel seen, validated and accepted
If you had to choose three books from the library shelves for women, which books would you pick?
I would choose ‘Sister Outsider’ by Audre Lorde, and ‘All About Love’ by Bell Hooks.
So far, what have been the highlights of your career?
‘Girl Talks’ is and will continue to be the highlight of my career, the conversations and the organizing we have started and continue to carry. I’m so proud to have been part of a collective resistance. ‘Girl Talks’ are spaces for all women to humanize their experiences, own their narratives through conversations aimed for sisterhood to be formed and challenge patriarchal oppression in their communities.
What is one thing you’ve seen progress the most?
Young women feminists rising as collective. I love to see it, it keeps me going. There is a collective resistance happening both online and offline. Many needed conversations are happening at the center of many movements. And that’s progress, the collective breaking of many silences happening, is the foundation of a bright future.
Looping back to the gendered culture of violence, and its effects on mental health, do you think the conversation about mental health has evolved in the direction you were hoping?
I am very much thankful and happy we are unpacking on “ mental health”. It’s a trending topic, it has gotten a lot of attention. And that was a needed step. But there is more to it that needs to be done because the stigma wasn’t abolished due to many uncomfortable conversations we are not having. Especially on trauma and pain and how collective care is needed in any conversation around mental health. The other thing is we have to constantly check on how our mental health is tied to how this world gets unfair and unjust with all the inequalities. But mostly we are still very superficial when talking about mental health. We are very often dishonest on how help needed is not accessible to anyone.
How would you define feminism in one sentence?
Feminism for me is justice and freedom for all starting with women’s liberation.
What inspired you to start ‘Choose Yourself’?
The name is a reminder for women to put themselves first, to dare to be the center of their own lives, to choose themselves first and that requires an honest and authentic relationship with themselves. The organization came right after we started ‘Girl Talks’, I saw the opportunity to do some work in different communities and I needed an institution for it.
Tell us a little bit about Abigaelle Closet?
It’s an online store. We started it 4 years ago. We started very bad, we started unsure, but we did start. We are hoping to one day be the biggest fashion house one day. We work with wholesales where we get our products and we ship worldwide.
What are the experience of being a woman in Burundi, and how is it different from where you live today and how is it the same?
An interesting question. I will speak on my behalf as someone who grew up in Burundi then immigrated to the US. Being a woman in Burundi is existing in a very patriarchal society bound with a lot of oppressive traditions and ways of existing hidden under culture and then leaving Burundi, gave me an option to be a woman on my own terms and away from the bubble I grew up in but patriarchy is everywhere in different forms.
What would you tell young women following your steps?
Allow yourself to make mistakes either loudly or privately. Make tons of, millions of mistakes, reject perfection expected from women. You are allowed to be ambitious and weak. You are allowed to fail or make mistakes. Be kind of yourself as you learn. Often the most radical thing we can do, is to allow ourselves as women is to allow ourselves to be humans and reject the idea that we have to constantly be super beings. Make mistakes, fail, exist and just be authentically.
What the best piece advice you have been told?
One day I went home, crying because my classmates had bullied me with unnecessary jokes. My mom looked me in the eyes with so much love and empathy and say “I am not raising a woman who will care with what people think or say about her. I am raising a woman who will live her life to the truest and un-bothered”. There she sets me free.
What stories do you think must be told, but are not being told enough and why do you think they must be told?
Our stories. African women’s stories that don’t center the white gaze and the male gaze. Our lives as African women, always have to evolve around Eurocentric beauty standards. Our lives have to evolve around the male gaze that we deserve another reality. we must imagine such realities and narrate them. Tell and mainstream our stories centering ourselves, African women entirely.
If you could tell one thing to the world, what would that be and why?
There is a revolution happening. It’s bloody, it’s painful but it’s full of life and it’s full of love. And don’t miss to be part of the change happening around you.