Kaouthar Darmoni is the new CEO of Atria, Institute on Gender Equality & Women’s History. It is her honor to carry on the torch of former director Renée Römkens.
“Improving the situation for women is better for everyone: men, women, the whole world.”
Welcome, Kaouthar! Tell me, who are you?
“I was born and raised in Tunisia, North Africa. I come from an Arabic Islamic culture. I grew up among harem women who suffered from patriarchy. Ever since I was seven, I dreamed of improving the situation of women. That is better for everyone: men, women, for the whole world. From an early age I resisted the violence that I saw and that came from that patriarchy. That has touched me so deeply. “The personal is political”, that slogan from the feminist movement also applies to me! After my childhood in Tunisia, I studied gender studies at the Université Paris-Sorbonne and obtained my PhD at the Université Lumières Lyon on the thesis L’univers Féminin et la Drôle de Guerre des Sexes.
After my promotion I came to the Netherlands. I have twenty years of scientific knowledge and experience in gender and media studies, various (academic) publications to my name, and I am an experienced entrepreneur and speaker, amongst others in the media. I have also been active in various international women’s movements. In recent years, I have been mainly committed to strengthening women through the art of Raqsat Al Ilahat (the goddess dance). That is a more than 3.000-year-old matriarchal tradition that I take with me and that is anchored in me.”
Why are you passionate about women’s emancipation?
“In Tunisia, I was part of the solidarity of women, who met every Friday afternoon in my birthplace to discuss strategies of playful rebellion against the patriarchal system. I wanted to go to Europe to gain more knowledge and then back to Tunisia to have more “weapons” to fight the patriarchy. “
“As a young woman, I fantasized about studying at Sorbonne, the Parisian university. Taha Hussein, a famous blind writer from an illiterate family, has written beautiful books. He graduated from the Sorbonne. I thought: if he can do that, then I can go to the Sorbonne as a girl. That seemed really impossible in my situation. But after a lot of effort I went to Paris and this dream became reality.
“I thought for a long time that the West was very emancipated and that we were behind in Africa. But I soon realized that that was not the case at all. The more I traveled, talked to people, gained knowledge, did research, the more I discovered that the patriarchal system is not just about Africa or Tunisia. The patriarchal system is an epidemic. Everyone is trapped in the patriarchal system: it suppresses not only the women, but also the men. Wherever I am in the world, I want to ensure that the emancipation of people is high on the agenda. I am very passionate about that. “
Why are you enthusiastic about working at Atria?
“As a scientist I often saw that science is being practiced but is not socially relevant. What makes Atria special is that it uses science that is anchored in society. Research is being done into themes that are socially relevant. An institution like Atria can really make an impact and build a bridge between science and society. What else is the use of science? “
What management experience do you include in your new position as CEO?
“I don’t see myself as a CEO, but as a leader – that’s really my thing. I believe in collective leadership. A combination of horizontal and vertical leadership – the so-called matrix leadership – is the leadership of the 21st century, in combination with a balance between male and female qualities. I have a lot of experience in the field of strategic advice where my experiences from the academic and corporate world come together hand in hand. “
And what do you add to Atria on a personal level?
“A lot of knowledge is available at Atria, in the collection and library, but also among employees. This is an indispensable source in current discussions about women’s emancipation and women’s history. In addition to my own knowledge, experience and entrepreneurship, I also add charisma and passion. In recent years my mission has been to empower women through women empowerment and the goddess dance. The power of women is in the connection that women make between their brain, their heart and their belly.”
“I also think sisterhood is essential. For women seeking support from men it is important that women also support each other. Patriarchy has ensured divide and rule, competition with each other. Women can make it very unsafe for each other. We must investigate and discuss that taboo. So much social gain can be achieved there. In my role as CEO at Atria, I want to be actively committed to sisterhood. “
The IAV, the predecessor of Atria, was founded 85 years ago by three women who felt that the history of the women’s movement should not be lost in the light of the economic crisis and the emerging fascism in 1935. Do you have an affinity with women’s history?
“I see the power of female origin: we all bear the legacy of the women who fought for women’s rights before us. We stand on their shoulders. I come from a culture where oral tradition is very strong. The matriarchal history, the voices of all women for me, plays an important role in this. Atria has many sources that tell the stories of the women before us: beautiful, inspiring and motivating stories that we need to bring to the fore even more broadly and visibly, so that they become part of our shared history. We will work hard for that.”
In her farewell interview, Atria’s former director Renée Römkens told the Volkskrant about the gender backlash. Acquired women’s rights can easily be reversed, also in 2019. How do you view this?
“Renée Römkens has formulated the point that women’s rights are currently the ‘canary in the coal mine’. We must remain very vigilant and alert to this. In addition, we must pay extra attention to vulnerable women in society, women of color or with a migration background, people who identify themselves as women and women outside the big cities. There is a young generation of feminists who are committed to women’s rights, rights of LGBTI people, to the climate change. Look at Lillith, De Bovengrondse, S.P.E.A.K. Atria must continue to support these groups with thorough research, facts, figures, advice and knowledge, so that they can continue to make a strong fist. “
What is your vision on intersectionality?
“As said,” the personal is political. ” I am African, Arabic, Muslim and feminist. As a Tunisian woman in Paris I was only allowed to do work that a “real French woman” could not or would not do. So I worked in cleaning, as a caretaker, to pay for my studies. I worked as a cleaner for four years, I am proud of that. At my cleaning addresses I was always seen as a submissive woman from the Arab world. I thought “never mind”, but judgments and stereotypes did hurt. That is why I find a great awareness of intersectionality, people with different stories, people with different backgrounds – people who come from a minority because of sexual orientation, poverty, disability – very important. It enriches feminism. “
“A good understanding of intersectionality is crucial at this time. Only with an intersectional view can an institution like Atria chart the role of women in social and political developments and contribute to the realization of equal treatment and opportunities for girls and women, and of course also for men. It is also about collecting the many diverse women’s histories and women’s movements. “
“What I think it is important that we are fighting the patriarchal system together with men. They are also victims of the patriarchal system. A man also has a lot to gain from feminism. That is why I like to speak of “femanism.”
“Feminism alone with your brain is poor,” you said in an interview in Het Parool. How does this statement relate to a scientific institute such as Atria?
“The goddess dance is a big part of my life. I have always taken that with me everywhere. That raised questions in science such as “can we take her seriously?” At the same time, the dance world saw me as “too academic,” and I was told that I was too much in my head. What are you, people wondered? I never wanted to make a choice. “
“We are so used to thinking in boxes. I am a Muslim, but I am also different things. I am an academic, I am a teacher, I am a mother, I am an entrepreneur, I am a girlfriend, I am a dancer, I am Tunisian, I am Dutch. You consist of several layers as a person. I think it is nice to give those layers the space, especially on the work floor. You will see that in the coming years we will increasingly work from the belly, heart and head. That is the new form of leadership, so that people feel seen and heard on different levels. “
Earlier you spoke in favor of a burqa ban. How does your personal feminism relate to your position as CEO of Atria?
“First of all I think it’s important to state that polyphony and multiformity provide oxygen. We continue to learn from each other. I made this statement when I was not yet a CEO of Atria and my personal opinion was asked. Now as CEO I naturally relate to the organization. Atria sees it as his role to facilitate dialogue and to evaluate the discussion. I will certainly discuss this with Atria’s employees. I already understood that there is a need to discuss this further in a safe setting with various women’s organizations involved. I think it is important to listen to the different perspectives in this discussion. I understand very well that there are people who have difficulty with the Law of prohibiting the ‘partially face-covering clothing’ and especially the impact that this has on the sense of security of Muslim women wearing only a headscarf.”
At Atria we are aware of the impact of role models. Who is your role model?
“My grandmother is my great source of inspiration. She was illiterate, grew up in a harem. She passed on the stories of her mother and the mothers of her mother. That is how she passed on the torch of feminism to me. But there are many other women who inspire me. For example Máxima, the Queen of the Netherlands. And Christine Lagarde, the formal CEO of the International Monetary Fund, and now CEO of the European Central Bank. I have been following her in the French media for years. She is a lawyer, not an economist, and though working in finances. She is a team player and especially knows how to surround herself with the right advisers. And more importantly: she listens well to these people. That appeals to me, that’s how I want to tackle it at Atria.”
How are you going to fill the first few weeks at Atria?
“I will of course dive into all the wonderful sources and books in Atria’s archive and library. In addition, I want to get to know the people who make Atria what it is today. Together with them I want to talk about the future: where do we want to go with Atria? The mission and vision are in the DNA of Atria’s employees, I’m not going to do that on my own. “
“Compare it with the Olympic Games: I am taking over the torch that, thanks to Renée Römkens and the entire team, has made a very good journey. The same flame that was worn by Aletta Jacobs. Feminists then, feminists now, we all carry on the flame. I see it as an honor that I can now continue that flame, together with the Atria employees. Fight with each other in interdependence and coherence, but also shine. Anchored in the heritage of Atria, in the spirit of Aletta. Together! With the LGBTI community. With people from different cultural backgrounds. With men. With everyone.’
Thank you, Kaouthar! Good luck at Atria.
“Thank you, I’m looking forward to it!”
Kaouthar Darmoni profile
Kaouthar Darmoni (1968) is originally Tunisian. She graduated in gender studies at the Université Paris-Sorbonne and obtained her PhD at the Université Lumières Lyon II. She has been living and working in the Netherlands for many years. She has several (academic) publications to her name, almost twenty years of experience with gender and media studies and is also an experienced entrepreneur, speaker on female leadership and media personality.
She is active in various international women’s movements. In recent years she has also been active as a goddess dance coach, to strengthen women. As of October 1, 2019, she is the new CEO of Atria, Institute on Gender Equality & Women’s History.
Photos: Jaap Beyleveld
ADD: original Interview in Dutch https://atria.nl/nieuws-publicaties/overig/atria-berichten/ontmoet-dr-kaouthar-darmoni-atrias-nieuwe-directeur-bestuurder/