Faat Kiné: Embodiment and Visualization of Senegalese Women’s Agency and Economic Empowerment

by Marieme S. Lo

A preamble

Ousmane Sembène’s 2001 film, Faat Kiné, offers a creative pedagogic tool for an interactive, collaborative, and self-reflexive feminist classroom. Juxtaposed with a literary text such as So Long a Letter (Bâ) and other illustrative readings (see “Suggested Readings” below), the choice of Faat Kiné is propitious to familiarize students with theoretical debates and critical analytics by grounding them in a specific context, Senegal, a postcolonial state under social, cultural, economic, and political transformations. Through the film, students can reflect on and challenge the status quo narratives, forms of representation, and knowledge making on a wide spectrum of intersecting issues: gender roles and social dynamics that relate to tradition, patriarchy, and social change in Senegal and across overlapping sites—the private and public spheres. They can gain a critical grasp of subject formation of entrepreneurial women and get a glimpse into the world of women and work; women in the formal economy and the negotiation of economic agency and subjectivity; the social urban life; and sexuality, through a critical feminist lens.

Faat Kiné retraces the complex and thrilling urban social life of a Senegalese single mother and self-made businesswoman, Faat Kiné. Sembène conveys with virtuosity Faat Kiné’s life world and entrepreneurial endeavours, as she navigates the public and private spheres and imprints her distinct mark in the male-dominated economic milieu of the oil business. As a successful businesswoman who manages her own gas station in a male-centric business world, Faat Kiné embodies an empowered feminine archetype, rupturing many tropes in development narratives. She asserts her power in her daily professional life and in her personal and familial life, as well as in her social circle of friends whose encounters and candid conversations reveal uninhibited women fully assuming their status and sexuality and sharing their provocative views on a wide range of issues such as polygamy, motherhood, marriage, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS.

Sembène captures the unusual image of a woman entrepreneur and inscribes new meaning to the entrepreneurial subject formation of “third world women,” often typecast as impoverished, subaltern, a victim of patriarchy and the economic man, and entrapped in the lowest strata of the informal economy with few options for capital gain and accumulation. The poignant visual images depicting Faat Kiné’s encounters with male clients and the bureaucracy, as well as how she manages the quotidian, signify an agentic self and offer a contextual grounding of empowerment in an embodied praxis. Faat Kiné reveals the growing visibility of businesswomen in the private sector and formal economy who actively subvert patriarchy,  the dominant norms, social codes, and taboos in this predominately Muslim context. Through Faat Kiné, Sembène nods to a feminist, cosmopolitan, and agentic self, deeply connected to a social milieu, yet in many subversive ways. Unrestrained by traditions and rupturing the status quo, this film inscribes a much-needed discontinuity in the portraiture of African women in the twenty-first century, while offering a powerful interrogation of their discursive and textual representations. Faat Kiné invites critical reflexivity, antiessentialist recounting, and a deconstructive gaze on women’s subjectivities, specifically regarding the material, economic, and social conditions of different class categories in post-colonial contexts such as Senegal.

Lesson Plan

A prerequisite for this three-hour seminar includes required readings and a preparatory individual research assignment to document and situate Ousmane Sembène’s filmography, enmeshed socially and politically in a critique of the postcolonial state.

Pedagogical Tenets and Approach

The pedagogical approach seeks to encourage students to develop a critical self-awareness of their own positionalities and to articulate a standpoint from which they can engage with underlying questions of difference, otherness, or sameness as they examine the trajectories, narratives, and experiences of the people in the film from a feminist and interdisciplinary perspective. As such, this lesson plan combines participative and collaborative learning through in-class activities with a take-home assignment to instil further exploration of, imagining about, and engagement with the broader topics and feminist questions raised in Faat Kiné. The structure of the class is conveyed in the following sections.

  1. Brief introduction of the structure of the class, Ousmane Sembène, and the context of the film— Senegal (10 min)
  2. Film viewing and interactive engagement with the film, its thematic motifs, and creative devices (121 min.)
    Break (5 min.)
  3. In class activity (30 min). Through in-class activities, you are encouraged to situate and engage the film in its own context and reflect on the feminist questions it raises and your own positionalities. You will trace the continuities and discontinuities in gender relations and representations portrayed across the epistolary novel and through the lens of the filmmaker, Sembène Ousmane in Faat Kiné. Think about the human and gendered experiences conveyed in the film and how they can lend to thoughtful and non-stereotypical comparative analyses.
    1. Mapping the main themes, issues, and characters: Individual exercise (15 min.)
      • Map the main characters in the film, their characterization, and representation.
      • Identify and rank five critical feminist issues raised in the film.
        You can rank the issues based on their substantive importance in the film. Keep in mind that ranking has subjective and interpretive dimensions that give you a degree of creative licence.
      • How do the issues of female-headed household, single mothering, and youth resonate in different contexts? When responding to this question, pay attention to the household configuration and dynamics, the decision-making processes, and who holds decision power; then compare and contrast depictions of female-headed households in Senegal with female-headed households in your own community or country.
      • Additionally, interrogate the broader issues of women at work in the business world and the formal economy, the tensions and power dynamics.
      • Lastly, identify the cinematic devices.
    2. Think, pair, and share: a collaborative learning circle (15mns)
      Pair up and discuss the following questions: Who and what struck you the most, and why?
      How does Faat Kiné compare with the issues raised in the Senegalese novel So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ?What changes in women’s representations emerge in Faat Kiné? In what way does Faat Kiné embody agency and empowerment or not?
      The goal of this activity is to use collaborative and participative learning to critically engage the film and its representational power. To guide students through this activity, I write the questions on a flipchart, post them electronically, and provide posterboards. Students make a collage in class based on their responses and share it with their peers. Then I post the students’ collages online, which can not only help students visualize and interpret the multiple meanings of Faat Kiné and So Long a Letter but also facilitate a moderated online discussion after the class period ends. In addition, these collages create a mosaic of thematic motifs and feminist questions and issues across intersecting registers—social, political, economic, and cultural—and sites, such as the public and private spheres, and the space in between.
    3. Final remarks and critical reflection essay (15 min.)
      The film offers creative possibilities of (re)telling and feminist interventions. Drawing on the film and the course material, provide your own narrative in a short essay responding to the following question: How do Faat Kiné and Ramatoulaye convey the “everyday heroism of African Women” similarly and differently? In your essay, please use specific examples from the film and the book that address and illustrate changing gender roles and social transformation in Senegal.
      The essay should be two pages long (excluding references) and a maximum of one thousand words. To experiment with creative art-based and non-textual modes of content delivery, and to complement textual representation of content and knowledge making, students are strongly encouraged to use visual illustrations, multimedia support, an art installation, or photography to illustrate the essay (audio and/or visual work can add up to five points of extra credit).


Primary Sources

Bâ, Mariama. 1981. So Long a Letter. (Trans. Modupe Bode-Thomas). Nairobi: Heinemann

Faat Kiné. Directed by Ousmane Sembène. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2001. 121 minutes.

Additional readings

Akudinobi, Jude Gerald. 2006. “Durable Dreams: Dissent, Critique, and Creativity in Faat Kiné and Moolaadé.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 6(2):177-94.

Gadjigo, Samba. 2010. Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist. Trans. Moustapha Diop. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Keating, Christine, Claire Rasmussen, and Pooja Rishi. 2010. “The Rationality of Empowerment: Microcredit, Accumulation by Dispossession, and the Gendered Economy.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36(1):153-76.

Lindo, Karen. 2010. “Ousmane Sembene’s Hall of Men: (En)Gendering Everyday Heroism.” Research in African Literatures 41(4):109-24.

Lo, Marieme S. 2013. “Confidant Par Excellence, Advisors and Healers: Women Traders’ Intersecting Identities and Roles in Senegal.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 15 (Suppl 4): S467-81.

Orlando, Valérie. 2006. “The Afrocentric Paradigm and Womanist Agendas in Ousmane Sembéne’s Faat Kiné (2001).” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 26(2):213-24.

Roy, Ananya. 2010. Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York: Routledge.

Marieme S. Lo (Marieme.lo@utoronto.ca) is an assistant professor with a joint appointment in Women & Gender Studies and African Studies, at New College, University of Toronto. One of her most recent publications is “Confidant par Excellence, Advisors and Healers: Women Traders’ Intersecting Identities and Roles in Senegal,” published in 2013 in Culture, Health & Sexuality.