Senegal’s fear of outspoken women

Religious authorities in Senegal are organizing protests against a popular TV series. The outrage could be related to the challenges the series provokes of the "proper" place of women in society.

Still from Maitresse dun homme marie

One would think only a few weeks after very heated presidential elections, which saw President Macky Sall re-elected, Senegalese would be spending their time reflecting about issues like the chronic youth unemployment, a failed education system, precarious healthcare, and the ever-present violence against women and children. But no, not really. The main conversation topic on TV, online and socially, is the new drama series Maitresse d’un homme marié (Mistress of a Married Man) produced by Marodi TV, which airs on the private channel 2STV. Only in its fifteenth episode, Maitresse has garnered millions of views on YouTube and Senegalese social media buzz with debates about whether the series should continue or not.

Maitresse follows the lives of five women in Dakar, some married, others not. Played by rising star Khalima Gadji, the lead character, Marème, is the mistress of Cheikh, a married man and father of one with whom she has sex.

Though the title of the series focuses on the mistress, the content is equally divided across the lives of the four other female characters who in their own right are multifaceted representations of contemporary urban Senegalese women. There is the guarded Racky, a construction professional who lives with her controlling mother, and has never been on a date because she has PTSD from being sexually abused as a child. Lalla is the devoted wife of Cheikh and lives in a bubble because she believes that her husband is a saint. Dialika is professionally successful, yet she is married to Birame, an alcoholic narcissist pervert who cheats on her and beats her, while his mother with whom they live, watches. But some might view these other female characters as minor profiles whose purpose is to detract attention from what they call the series’ apology of promiscuity in the character of Marème and her relationship with Cheikh.

In a majority Muslim country where women’s sexual desires and fulfillment cannot be conceived outside of marriage, Marème’s character is a courageous representation of a Senegalese woman who does exist in real life, but whom the male-centered culture does not want to publicly acknowledge on the grounds of religious morality. In one episode, Marème points to her sexual parts and proclaims: “Sama lii ma ko moom, ku ma neex laa ko’y jox (My thing is mine, I give it to whomever I want.).”

Much has been made about the pleonasm in the series title. But there is more to the opposition to MaitresseSome religious clerics are outraged by the series because of its representation of adultery in Senegal. But recently, what many viewed as a passing indignation by a few, is taking a serious stand as the Islamic NGO, JAMRA, announced a march to protest the series. JAMRA accuses the film of perverting the morals of young people. However, since Maitresse is the first series in a budding local film industry attempting to break away from the one-dimensional representation of Senegalese women as hapless wives whose sole existence is to be pretty and cater to the needs of their husbands, one cannot help but ask whether the outrage is about religious morality, or is it because of a phobia for the independent and outspoken women that the series profiles.

Since 2011, Senegalese television have gradually severed ties with South American novellas in favor of locally produced serials. However, the first franchises of this “consommez Sénégalais” film industry, which are produced and written by men, often represent Senegalese women as subordinates to men. Characters like Marichou in Pod et Marichou or Soumboulou of Wiri Wiri go to great length in order to keep their husbands regardless of whether they are chronic serial cheaters or abusers. Then came Maitresse whose executive producer, Kalista Sy, is a young woman with a mission to give women a voice and represent Senegalese society in a more realistic light, especially as it pertains to Senegalese men’s sense of entitlement and their treatment of women. Her female cast does not practice the widely accepted skin bleaching prominently featured in earlier series as the standard of beauty for Senegalese women. More importantly, the series puts women’s experiences at the center of its storyline. Marème and her cohort are ambitious women with jobs and their lives do not center exclusively on their relationships with men.

In Senegal, Islam is often heralded as the monitor of all behaviors regardless of the fact that the republic is not an Islamic one and has a secular constitution. Despite the fact that the series raises awareness on sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abduction, parental irresponsibility, and evil mother-in-laws—all of which are rampant in Senegalese society—critics are fixated on Marème and Cheikh’s adulterous relationship, something that is also widespread in Senegal where men wield polygamy as a religious right and are quick to say that Islam allows them to take up to four wives. It is indeed possible that many second, third, and fourth wives have once been mistresses or not with their husbands prior to marriage.

While the series’ critics acknowledge that men sleeping with women who are not their wives is common, seeing it represented on national television and by Senegalese actors brings them too close to a reality they’d rather cover under the dark sheet of sutura (discretion) and religious morality. Yet, the problem is not with the character of Cheikh who is having sex out of wedlock. The outrage seems to be about an unmarried woman owning her sexual freedom.

Maitresse is just putting a mirror in front of the Senegalese and the image they see is perfectly theirs. The real problem is that the producer is a woman, and the female characters are not like the ones Senegalese audience have been seeing. In Senegal, anything that does not view men in a positive light or cater to their self-fulfilling understanding of women’s roles is accused of detracting from religion or culture. All too often, anything that gives Senegalese women agency or casts them in positions that differ from their widespread subordinating roles is labeled as a copycat of Western models as if Senegalese women have not been empowered before their society’s encounters with the West. It is absurd that the country’s claim of respect for women does not consider giving them a space in public discourse in order for them to voice their own viewpoint on matters that directly affect their lives.

It is interesting that this policing in the name of religious morality happens often when women attempt to have an opinion that is different from the patriarchal roles that the culture imposes on them. There are many issues in the country that warrant a stand from religious clerics, such as the precarious conditions of the talibés, these children as young as three who are sent to cities in the name of Islamic education but who end up as street beggars, making them vulnerable to all kinds of abuses, including sexual ones.

Furthermore, the Brazilian and Mexican novellas that the Senegalese have been watching for decades and the American films that are shown on national television during daytime have heavy sexual content as well as gun violence, but no one ever organized a march to protest them. It is easy to say that a telefilm is corrupting the morality of young people when in Senegal children have unfiltered access to the internet where they are privy to indecent content including pornography. What is the role of parents in all this? Since when is it television’s responsibility to educate children? Have Senegalese parents given up their role to the point that a telefilm is liable for the education or miseducation of children?

Further Reading