Gisele Rabeshala, born Marie Gisèle Aimée Rabesahala on May 7, 1929, was a Malagasy politician and activist who was the first woman to hold a ministerial position in the government of Madagascar. She ventured into politics at the age of 17, when she campaigned on behalf of political prisoners.
She became Madagascar’s first woman municipal councilor, before becoming the first Malagasy woman to establish and lead a political party. She co-founded the communist Congress Party for the Independence of Madagascar, which took power in 1975.
In 1977 she became Madagascar’s first female minister, responsible for promoting revolutionary art and culture, until 1991 when her ministry was terminated during Madagascar’s return to multi-party democracy. She remained an active political campaigner and journalist until her death in 2011.
GISELE RABESHALA’S BACKGROUND
Gisele Rabeshala was born into a politically active family in the city of Antananarivo. As a result of her father’s enlistment in the French Army, she and her family often moved between France, Tunisia and Mali.
Her family moved back to Madagascar in 1942 upon the passing of Gisele Rabeshala’s father. She is regarded as a pioneer in Malagasy politics and obtained work as a shorthand typist and began her involvement with Malagasy nationalist circles, at the age of 17.
Gisele Rabesahala became the secretary general of the Comité de Solidarité Malgache (Malagasy Solidity Committee), an organization created sequel to the events that bloodied Madagascar, which at the time was still under colonial administration.
The objectives of the association were to create a broad movement of solidarity that worked to defend the victims of French colonial repression following the 1947 Malagasy Uprising. The success was the culmination of nine years of uninterrupted struggle for justice, freedom and national dignity, which was joined by people of heart in France and throughout the world.
In 1960, when Madagascar regained independence, the association changed its focus to development activities, giving priority to the fields of education and health, in addition to helping the most destitute and the victims of natural disasters.
Gisele Rbeshala worked to secure the freedom of thousands of prisoners, writing articles for the press and attracting international attention to their plight. She created a liaison with left-wing members of the French National Assembly to organize petitions to the French President, Vincent Auriol, while her Solidarity Committee worked to provide support to the families of the prisoners to help them cope with the hardships that they were experiencing.
Gisele Rabesahala became the first Malagasy woman to be elected as a municipal councilor in 1956 and was also the first woman to become the leader of a Malagasy political party, the Union of the Malagasy People, which she founded in 1956. She also served on the editorial board of Imongo Vaovao, a nationalist newspaper that took a fiercely Opposition stance to French colonial rule in Madagascar; she retained this position until her death in 2011.
She was unequivocally Marxist as well as nationalist, and in 1958, she was a co-founder of the Congress Party for the Independence of Madagascar (AKFM), uniting five nationalist organizations.
GISELE RABESHALA’S POLITICAL CAREER
In 1975, fifteen years after Madagascar’s independence from France, the AKFM took power and established the socialist-Marxist Democratic Republic of Madagascar (DRM). Rabesahala represented the AKFM on the National Front for the Defense of the Revolution, which was a coalition of six Marxist-oriented political parties.
She also represented her home town of Antananarivo as a deputy in the National Assembly. In 1977, she became Madagascar’s first female minister and served as minister for revolutionary art and culture until 1989, and as minister of culture from 1989 to 1991.
In August 1991, the incoming government of Guy Razanamasy abolished her ministry as part of a transition to multi-party democracy, causing her to leave office. As at then, the AKFM had split between communist hardliners and reformists, with the latter supporting democratic reforms.
Gisele Rabesahala opposed the new government of Albert Zafy through journalism and pamphleteering, and when Ratsiraka returned to power in the 1997 election she again returned to political prominence.
She worked behind the scenes to build a multi-party coalition to support President Ratsiraka and was appointed by him as a senator and one of six vice-presidents. In 2002, after Marc Ravalomanana took power, she became a consistent voice of opposition to what she saw as foreign intervention and neoliberalism in his policies.
She died on 27 June 2011, aged 82 years. She never married and had no children, saying that she preferred to “serve my country, rather than one person”.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.