Quietly queer in Senegal

How do queer women in Senegal navigate the simultaneous desires of same-sex intimacies, family life, societal expectations, and urban success?

Cristian Leonardo, "Dakar." Via Flickr CC.

When in April this year, a video went viral of two high school girls kissing, Senegalese media reported about the “scandal” and the Islamic NGO Jamra was quick to accuse Sourire de Femme, the country’s only known organization for queer women, of promoting lesbianism. Over the past decade numerous of such “scandals” about the immoral behavior of women and queer persons (both male- and female-bodied) have featured in the media, causing strong reactions from society that warns of the moral decay of Senegalese society.

In the West, such reactions feed into the imagination of Africa as the most homophobic continent. Over the past two or three decades, dissident sexualities and gender identities have taken center stage in debates in and about Africa. Western conceptions of Africans’ problematic relation to sexuality is not new. When HIV/AIDS was discovered in Uganda in the mid-1980s and quickly spread to all corners of the African continent, sexuality became a serious concern and reason for action for many international donors and NGOs. Today, such global health interventions in Africa are accompanied with concerns for human rights, and LGBTQI activists in several African countries, supported by larger international financial solidarity and support networks, have been fighting for the recognition of their sexual rights with some measure of success: on 23 January of this year, Angola decriminalized homosexuality, and immediately criminalized discrimination based on sexual orientation; Botswana followed on 11 June of this year. Meanwhile the effort has met resistance in others: in May, Kenya’s High Court ruled against the repeal of colonial laws that have criminalized same-sex sexual conduct.

Whether successful or not, these cases demonstrate a growing international concern for sexual rights. The world seems to be  on a quest to rescue the “closeted,” vilified, rejected queer African. But what if Senegalese tell a more complicated story of being queer, one that is not just dictated by homophobic colonial laws and utterly restrictive sexual normativity? I do not want to gloss over the serious violence, both psychological and physical, inflicted on non-conforming individuals, as an earlier article about gay life in Senegal explored. However, I want to expand our perceptions of queer life in Senegal, because mediatized attacks on homosexuals do not provide a complete story. What does queer life look like for the majority who never find themselves part of a mediatized “scandal”? In particular, how do queer women give shape to their queerness, navigating the simultaneous desires of same-sex intimacies, family life, societal expectations, and urban success?

Homosexuality is criminalized in Senegal, and the Senegalese sexual imaginary stresses the importance of heterosexual marriage and its concomitant proper (deemed natural) gender roles and behavior. Yet, when I visited one of my interlocutors, Fama, one last time before returning to the Netherlands, she told me that should she leave Senegal one day—a dream that she held and expressed to me in relation to the possibilities for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands (where I am from)—what she would miss most about her country were “the meetings of the koba” (urban slang for homosexual, in use since the release of Wally Seck’s song koba yi). Despite official and societal denouncements of homosexuality, for Fama and many others it is the extensive network of friendly and erotic relationships that queers maintain that precisely makes Senegal the country they love. It is only if we move beyond the discourse of sexual orientations and gender identities, which has shaped both sexual rights activism and its antithetical political and social discourse of homophobia, that we can come to understand what it means to live a queer life in Senegal. Why? Because much of the everyday lived realities of queer persons in Senegal escapes discourse.

Queerness-beyond-discourse rests for a large part on the Senegalese value of sutura. Sutura does not have a direct, singular translation from Wolof into English, but it connotes discretion, modesty, privacy and protection. It signifies both an attribute you have and something you do: you can give someone else sutura by hiding their misbehavior, and you can show your sutura by avoiding certain practices, such as discussing sexuality with elders, or discussing homosexual practices in general. Sutura is easily seen as limiting the space for non-normative sexualities, but queer women in Senegal strategically employ sutura to navigate their same-sex intimacies, resisting precisely the normative framework that tries to deny their existence. This is enabled by the fact that, according to Wolof morality, shame is declared upon public exposure, and a bad deed that is not visible to others does not lead to dishonor. Opening up frontiers in the interstices between normative frameworks and individual autonomy, the juxtaposition of queer with sutura calls for a nuanced notion of dissent.

A mastery of the ethical practices of sutura thus allows queer persons in Senegal to navigate both personal desires and societal expectations while maintaining their status as jigéen bu baax (Wolof for good women). Quite different from the frontier that sexual rights organizations form in the public sphere, the queer frontier that young queer women in Senegal imagine and construct, is one that is flexible and responsive in time and space. It expands wherever it can, and it takes a step back whenever needed. The challenge is to know when and where to take a step back. Instead of getting involved in overt discussions in the public sphere, queer women choose a tactic that gives them more space to negotiate norms than the public sphere does: they do not speak. As many of my interlocutors regularly reiterated, in various versions: “the first enemy of your life is your mouth. If you want to succeed and live a long life: close it!”  Instead of seeing such acts as straightforward surrenders to heteronormativity, we should see them as acts of social navigation that open up queer opportunities elsewhere. The following examples illustrate how different types of silence are used to negotiate space to enact same-sex intimacies. Another interlocutor, Lafia, was known by her friends and family for exclaiming “vie privée!” (private life) whenever someone asked her about her love life. And Hawa, a 30-year-old football player who dresses in masculine fashion and has shaved her head, always covers her head with a scarf whenever she visits her father, who is very critical of everything “un-womanlike” that Hawa does. Such demonstrations of sutura in public performance enables women to create space in the private domain, as well as allowing for the creation of queer public spaces such as organized clubbing, (birthday) parties, and sports like football.

By transforming sutura from a restrictive normative framework into an enabling asset, these women pave the way for a broader understanding of queer: as a constant, yet indeterminate, possibility to negotiate normative frameworks. They propose an alternative to an international queer frontier of overt resistance and protest, and suggest that the silences that sutura prescribe are productive for queering their urban environment. By navigating the simultaneous desires of same-sex intimacies, family life, societal expectations, and urban success, these women are exemplary for what Nyanzi (2014) calls Queering Queer Africa: a plea for queering Africa beyond the discourse on sexual orientations and gender identities, and recognizing instead how queer erotic desires and gendered subjectivities are embedded and played out in people’s diverse engagements in everyday life.

Queer does not necessarily mean fierce resistance and blatant rebellion against restrictive gender and sexual normativity.  Queer in Senegal means making use of the ambiguity of normative frameworks like sutura, to negotiate these and to seek room for dissent in the vicissitudes of everyday life. Women may be quiet but they are also very queer.

Further Reading