“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” Lois Wyse
A couple of weeks ago, a male colleague and I were having a discussion about gender roles in Senegalese society. I so appreciate this man, who loves his wife and who is committed to creating a just world in which male and female children can live “on earth as it is in heaven.” I told him that as Americans, the hardest thing for us to talk about honestly and truthfully is race. But in Africa, my perception is that gender is a most difficult matter to address with love and openness. This is not to say that gender equality has been achieved in the West. By no means. However, there is a space to argue, analyze, and criticize patriarchy. I am still searching for that space in West Africa.
As a proud graduate of the first college established to educate women, Mount Holyoke College, I see the difference between a woman who has been educated in an all women’s environment and one who has not. This is a not a critique of co-ed education. Nor am I suggesting that single sex education is for all women. There is an awareness and a power that is present when women join as a collective in sisterhood. And when females join together in single purpose, particularly education, everything changes, and patriarchy is challenged. Boko Haram knew this. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan know this. And at the grassroots level, men are acutely aware of this when they walk into their living rooms and a group of women are together – even if it is for the sole purpose of discussing the selected book of the month. Women have power.
Sadly enough as soon as we start talking feminism or gender equality, the assumption is that women want to take power from men or that they want to be men. Mary Wollstonecraft said it best when she said, “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” I do not know too many women who “usurp authority,” but I know plenty who want the power, the option, and the ability to choose. When I speak with Senegalese women individually, we both talk about the injustice, the antiquated traditions, and the pain women endure in this society. However, when in the collective and where there should be sisterhood, I perceive judgment and competition. I have too often witnessed women’s harshness, jealously, and suspicion.
I do not want to portray my sisters here as trite or caddy. There are brilliant, committed Senegalese women who are working on various fronts to create a more just world. But I do question whether we are telling our girls, on this continent and on the one that I come from, that they are priceless? Are we talking to girls about themselves – outside the context of boys or men? Are we discussing the importance of loving oneself unconditionally? I know in Senegal a woman would sound like a lunatic saying, “I love me! I love being with me! If I’m single, I’m whole! If I’m married, I am whole!” In my estimation, that message doesn’t translate well in French, in Wolof or in this cultural context. I assume that I would be told that the notion of “I,” “me,” the individual, is very western and as the Wolof expression goes “you are not your own.” You belong to a family, to an ethnic group, to a community. I just keep asking how can a community be healthy, if the individual members are ailing. I know that our sisters in the US are suffering from the same low self-esteem and the syndrome of defining themselves in terms of roles. However, there seems to be a vocabulary for women to have these types of discussions and to delve into ourselves, into our passions, and into our healing. There is a language and a safety zone for a woman “choosing” to remain single and “opting” to not have children. Opting out of marriage and motherhood do not seem to make women any less female in the American context.
Where is the space for the Senegalese or African woman to choose? I appreciate that family is highly valued on the continent. I understand that marriage is a means of uniting families and communities. In urban Senegal, marriage is also status. Everyone understands that the former “mademoiselle” is now a “Madame” to be revered. I get that children are viewed with pride as they insure posterity. I am wondering more about the girl who wants to continue her education beyond the socially expected child bearing age. What does it look like for a Senegalese woman to refuse polygamy because she knows that in a modern society, this practice wreaks insecurity for the entire family – even if the man purports to be able to “treat all wives justly?” More importantly, where is the place in Senegalese society for women to support a wife who refuses to accept a polygamous arrangement? When are women able to exercise control over their bodies in terms of deciding when to engage in sexual intercourse, when to conceive, or when to stop having children all together?
What I find fascinating, contradictory, and extraordinary about Senegal is this. This is the land of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene – Senegalese of the highest intellectual caliber and Senegalese who have made lasting contributions to the world. They were part of the reason I first came to this country as a student. But in modern Senegalese society, I long to hear the voice of the sisters saying “Ca suffit!” (That is enough!) I long for a new negritude movement with a feminine flair. I long for a space where women support, love, and cherish one another. I hope that Senegalese feminine society becomes a place where little girls see that their worth and their value are not determined by their ability to attract and keep a man. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with keeping the outside polished or being à la mode! But I am questioning whether the same amount of pressure is placed on women to focus on self-improvement, self-awareness, and self-love as on the external.
One of the things that happens when you live away from your home country for an extended period of time is that your perception of your native land is often idealized – or your images of home are from a time long past. I still remember when we were teenagers that my best friend made an observation about our family. She said that being female is celebrated (in our home). The fact that my mother, my sister and I had a voice and that my father was not threatened by this, never dawned on me when I was growing up. We were taught to be respectful and to honor our parents, elders, and authority. However, there were plenty of discussions and disagreements in our home about the meaning of Scriptures, politics, racism, and the like. One of my father’s fondest memories was when he told three boys that he and his two daughters would take them on in a game of street football (That’s American football for the non-US reader) and would win. I still see my father running into the in-zone and slamming the ball on the ground in victory. I am not convinced that my parents realized then that they were giving their daughters permission and courage to question and to formulate their own ideas about the world and their place therein. The notion that we could possibly be limited by our gender never entered our thinking.
My sister circle is composed of women who love fiercely, live compassionately think critically, and challenge without reserve. These women are of African, Latin, Asian, and European descent. They are Christian, Muslim, spiritual, seeking, and skeptics. This is the circle of women I know best. These women walked me through heartache, unemployment, and disappointments. These same women rejoiced with me when love and a baby came in my 40s. So when I hear these misogynistic, hateful, vulgar songs written by men, I wonder who are these women they are talking about. When I see the hyper-sexualized, scantily clad women in American music videos and even on the streets of Dakar, I scratch my head and ask, “Where do these women come from and who allowed them to lose their way?” What is my role as a woman, sister, mother and friend to these sisters? I then ask where is our collective outrage at how we are defined in modern society? When did we sell our image for basement prices? bell hooks has been criticized recently for questioning the extent to which Beyoncé had control over the photo that appeared on the cover of Time magazine and went on to call Beyoncé a “terrorist.” (Context: hooks argues that she sees a “part” of Beyoncé as “a terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” She explained that “the major assault on feminism in American society has come from visual media and from television and videos.”) What does it now mean to be female in the US and in Senegal?
One truth is evident: patriarchy is alive and well in the Diaspora. Women on both sides of the Atlantic struggle with remembering that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I remember a time when old southern Black folks would look at child gone astray and would conclude that “somebody ain’t pray that child over.” I concur with our elders in this regard. We stopped praying our children, both girls and boys, over. We stopped letting them hear us say aloud that “you are made in the image of a Loving and Majestic God.” We ceased telling them how we got over and started telling them how to get over.
As I reflect on the notion of gender and identity, I ask myself how can the bond of sisterhood be repaired among women. What are the steps that must be taken to heal our feminine souls so that we recognize and honor the Spirit that dwells within us? Until we address our brokenness, how can we have ownership of our bodies, our minds, our person, or our image?