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Picture what it means to be a Chadian woman

By Christina Okello

They work as pilots, potters or footballers, sometimes against incredible odds, to build a better future for themselves and their families. Now for the first time, more than two hundred women are being honoured in a new book called "Portraits of Chadian Women", by artists Salma Khalil and Aché Coelo, who are challenging the way society sees African women.

It was a sweltering day in March when Salma Khalil first began work on her joint project with fellow artist Aché Coelo to capture the beauty of Chadian women.

One stood out in particular.

"I saw her sweating in the middle of piles of sand," says Khalil.

"In the beginning I thought she had used a machine, then afterwards I discovered that she had dug the ground herself, using just a shovel and a pick."

The woman she describes is Ambaddo Dana, one of two hundred women captured by the photographer for a new book called "Portraits of Chadian Women."

"We tried to show the world that women in Chad, of course are equal and able to work like men, but we are not in a competition," explains Coelo, who provided the text accompanying the photos.

"We just took the opportunity with this project to promote the powerful and the daily fight that women in Chad are facing to live, to survive and to take care of their family," she told RFI.

The women are potters, fish-sellers, and also pilots, who have succeeded thanks to the support of their parents.

Fighting prejudice

"Being a Chadian woman is first of all being a strong person, because life here is sometimes very hard, and this is what our book shows," comments Khalil, who's also the founder of an association called Positive aimed at empowering women.

The 35-year old painter and photographer is positive herself. That's who the Chadian woman is, she says, "because every day you have to fight hard to live."

What is she fighting against?

Prejudice replies Coelo. "One of the ladies in the book was turned down the first time she went for a job interview. She was told this is not for her, this is something for men. She said let me just try and you will see if I am not able to do it."

Three months later, she proved her worth. "The employer was like wow, I need you to do this job," exclaims Coelo.

"We have to prove to people that we are able to do something before they can trust us and this is very challenging."

Changing perceptions of the Chadian woman

The 32-year old film director and sociologist says she's grateful to the French embassy in N'djamena for funding the one-year project.

Just as she is towards the First Lady of Chad for attending the book's launch on Saturday 16 December.

"It was a big surprise for us to see the First Lady coming for the launching," says Coelo. "This meant a lot to us, and personally for me, as an artist, as a woman, as a young person."

Since the book's launch, reactions have been flooding in.

"Most of the people will call us to congratulate us, and they say so this is what a Chadian woman can do," jubilates Khalil.

"This the first time that we’ve had books like it in Chad I have to tell it, and people for example on Facebook, on the Internet, they keep on encouraging us to work in this way because in Chad we have problem of education."

Cultural barriers and tradition continue to bar so many girls from getting a good education.

"We cannot fight for our rights when we are not educated," insists Khalil, "but if we can leave an example to our young brothers and sisters it’s very important."

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