The Revolutionary Feminism of Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, is well known for opposing the neocolonialism of the Global North. But on International Women’s Day, we should also remember his strident commitment to women’s liberation.

Thomas Sankara, photographed on February 1, 1985. (William F. Campbell / Getty Images)

On March 8, 1987, Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, spoke to a rally of thousands of women in the capital of Ouagadougou to mark International Women’s Day. Calling for the collective transformation of society, Sankara placed the fight for gender equality at the heart of his socialist project in the former French colony.

As we mark the 113th celebration of International Women’s Day, Sankara’s revolutionary words are a bold reminder of the day’s socialist foundations.

“The Revolution and Women’s Liberation Go Together”

Sankara came to power in 1983 during a period of immense upheaval. A revolution had been unfolding across the African continent as country after country threw off the shackles of colonialism. But despite the liberatory aspirations of anticolonial movements, women too often remained cast aside.

Sankara saw women’s emancipation as not only an ethical necessity but as intrinsic to the success of Burkina Faso’s revolution. “[Women] have been excluded from the joyful procession,” he told the crowd at his March 8, 1987, address:

And yet the authenticity and the future of our revolution depends on women. Nothing definitive or lasting can be accomplished in our country as long as a crucial part of ourselves is kept in this condition of subjugation — a condition imposed . . . by various systems of exploitation.

He called on male comrades to treat women’s liberation with the same urgency as other matters, insisting that patriarchy kept both men and women trapped in a system of oppression, violence, and domination: “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph.”

Sankara’s International Women’s Day speech addressed not only the concerns of Burkinabe women but the systematic oppression of women globally. “Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society,” he declared, “where men and women will enjoy equal rights, resulting from an upheaval in the means of production and in all social relations. Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them.”

On an issue often marred by empty rhetoric and hollow gestures, Sankara’s stance on gender equality was forceful and uncompromising. He denounced patriarchy as a “male-imposed system of exploitation” reinforced by socialization into sexist norms: “This inequality was produced by our own minds and intelligence in order to develop a concrete form of domination and exploitation.” He called for a radical transformation of the hearts and minds of men across the globe in solidarity with women.

One of the many social realms in need of transformation, Sankara argued, was the home. He critiqued the gendered distribution of domestic labor and the role of the traditional family in reproducing gender inequality.

“The patriarchal family made its appearance, founded on the sole and personal property of the father, who had become head of the family. Within this family the woman was oppressed.” He continued: “She is not paid for her domestic duties. Referred to as ‘housewife,’ [meaning she has] no job . . . [women are] putting in hundreds of thousands of hours for an appalling level of production.”

Sankara bridged the gap between public and private spheres, revealing the ways gender inequality revealed itself in both — and how Burkinabe society might root it out.

“Making Women Equal to Men”

Sankara put his strident words into practice.

In 1984, he proclaimed September 22 “the Day of Solidarity with Housewives,” urging men to partake in housework, prepare meals, and look after their children. In an interview with Cameroonian historian Mongo Beti, Sankara explained: “We are fighting for the equality of men and women, not of a mechanical, mathematical equality, but by making women equal to men before the law and especially before wage labor.” He called for a collective recognition of “women’s work” as work, echoing the demands of the feminist International Wages for Housework Campaign that had come to prominence in the Global North in the previous decade.

Even more impressive were Sankara’s health, education, and family development policies, which brought huge strides toward gender equality in the West African country. In his first year in power, Sankara established the Ministry of Family Development and the Women’s Union of Burkina to “give the women of our country a framework and sound tools for waging a successful fight.” He restricted polygamy and dowries and prohibited forced marriage and female genital mutilation. He granted new rights to women, including introducing inheritance for widows and orphans.

One of Sankara’s earliest initiatives was ensuring that the Ministry of Education made women’s access to education a reality. “Girls have proven they are the equals of boys at school, if not simply better,” he said:

But above all they have the right to education in order to learn and know — to be free. In future literacy campaigns, the rate of participation by women must be raised to correspond with their numerical weight in the population.

By highlighting illiteracy as an impediment to women’s freedom, Sankara spoke to the parents of girls across the country in a way that many male leaders had failed to do.

Sankara’s government sought to unleash the immense potential of Burkinabe women in fostering national development. “The women of Burkina are present everywhere the country is being built. They are part of the projects — the Sourou [valley irrigation project], reforestation, the vaccination bridges, the clean town operations.”

During his presidency, he appointed women to government positions and amended the constitution, making it mandatory for presidents to have at least five women ministers in cabinet at all times. For Sankara, “Conceiving a development project without the participation of women is like using four fingers when you have ten.” Political representation of women was not a tokenist strategy but rather a fundamental step toward the emancipation of Burkinabe women.

“You Cannot Kill Ideas”

At its core, Sankara’s socialist program was about liberation from exploitation, whether the debt bondage forced on the Global South or the domination of women by men.

Sankara was unparalleled among postcolonial African leaders in his commitment to women’s emancipation. He recognized women in their full humanity and as agents of transformative change.

A week before his assassination in a France-backed coup in October 1987, Sankara declared, “Whilst revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas.” His words ring out today as we continue the struggle for a radical transformation of society, one that uplifts and empowers us all.