Feminism, religion and culture in Senegal

Maimouna Thior
Adama Pouye
Oumar Ba

Islam is interpreted to establish the dominance of men, and this male supremacy is at the root of all our problems.

Two women walk to prayer at the mosque in Touba, built in honor of Cheickh Amadou Bàmba, founder of the Mourid brotherhood. Image credit Jay Galbraith via Flickr CC.

Interview by
Rama Salla Dieng

Following yet another TV show in Senegal which featured intolerable misogynous and sexist content, I had a conversation with two impassioned feminists, Maimouna Thior, a France-based doctoral researcher on gender and religion in Senegal, and Adama Pouye, a communications student. We decided to focus on gender norms and values and their intersection with discourse on religion and modernity, as well as Maimouna’s and Adama’s views on what it means to be young women and feminists in Senegal and its diaspora today.

Hello Maimouna and Adama, it’s a pleasure to have recently discussed with you about Senegalese current events. Could you please introduce yourselves?

Hello Rama, thank you for giving us this opportunity to debate these issues. My name is Maimouna Eliane Thior, and I am 26 years old. I am in my second year of doctoral studies in sociology, working on the political and socio-religious history of Senegalese women and their relationship to globalization: between Western feminism and Islamic feminism. I am interested in the evolution and/or the change of the identity of Senegalese women shared between Islamic tradition and the influences and legacies of Western culture accentuated by globalization and modernity through social media.

Hello Rama, it’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Adama Pouye, and I am 23 years old. I am an MA student in communications and a librarian by training. I started to get really involved in feminist issues recently. I am currently working, as part of my master’s thesis, on the place of the female body in advertising.

What is your definition of feminism? And what influences and inspires your feminism?

My definition of feminism is very simple. I will borrow Mariama Bâ’s answer in So Long a Letter: “If defending the interests of women is to be feminist, then, yes, I am a feminist.” I am inspired by African American women, who suffer all forms of discrimination that may exist. Beyond the discrimination due to the social relations that every woman in the world suffers, African American women are confronted with discrimination related to race, religion, capitalism, etc. I also see African immigrant women suffering these same injustices… I very often use the “intersectionality” framework, which in sociology is a notion of political reflection developed by an American academic (Kimberlé Crenshaw) to evoke the situation of people simultaneously undergoing several forms of discrimination. This concept allows me to analyze the different oppressions that Senegalese women face at a local level, but also to situate them in the global hierarchy in terms of race.

For me, feminism is a demand for women’s rights, an aspiration towards equity. Equity instead of equality to be more precise, equity will mean that in all areas we will see women beyond their gender, nothing will be based on sex. Feminism is a denunciation to move towards a more just and humanistic society. One of my great influences is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with her “happy feminism” [in which] she mentioned “We are all feminists.”

Every month, we notice sexist scandals on Senegalese TV shows. We all remember the Songué scandal—a prominent high school teacher saying on TV that female students make men rape them, without suffering any consequences while the rapists go to jail—and recently the Sen TV talk show, which also featured intolerable misogynous comments. How do you read these events?

I think that these TV programs reflect the reality of our society. These shocking utterances actually reflect what most of us believe. It shocks us because it’s on TV and we are able to put faces to these words. You have to watch these programs to know how people think in order to raise awareness and find solutions to change certain beliefs. The last talk show on Sen TV revealed that there are different categories of women in our society: those who defend polygamy, those who want a possessive and demanding husband, those who prefer to not work and to serve their husband exclusively, those who seek higher degrees, the radical feminists… not to mention the men who cling to their power. This should remind us that for feminists there is still a lot of work to be done in occupying the public space, the media and even impacting the national education system. We can’t give up and retreat; we must carry on the work begun by our feminist elders who have enabled us to go to school on a massive scale. Now that we have all been to school in large numbers, the challenge would be to make the next generation more autonomous and freer in their life choices.

These many outrageous debates in the media are, in fact, driven by the demand from the audience. The more shocking these TV programs are, the more viewership they attract. Also, these offensive discussions on women are not limited to the broadcast media. Last December, L’Observateur, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Senegal, had on its front page: “Object of all desires: the iPhone makes Senegalese women lose their minds. They are ready to sell their body for an iPhone.” Some young people protested here and there on Twitter, but that was it. The authors almost always come out of these scandals unscathed. Returning to the Sen TV talk show, there were women on the set who even seemed to encourage these statements, one of the women openly said “dama bëgg goor bu tang” (I like men with a bad temper); certain abuses suffered by some women are normalized and even appreciated. Five women were there and none of them reacted to a man comparing women to dogs. I denounced these statements on my Twitter account and on WhatsApp. Most of the reactions were like, “They only meant it figuratively.” Our society itself has associated women with acceptance and silence, and women have accepted this in the most natural way.

Are these statements merely a reflection of Senegalese society? Do you think they are due to the ambivalence of our society straddling Islamic and Western cultures? Should we speak of one patriarchy or many sets of patriarchies?

As I said earlier, these comments are not that outside of the mainstream, the people who expressed these views on TV merely shared their opinions on subjects related to our social relations. Indeed, Senegal is divided between its Islamic and Western [colonial] heritage. These comments are very often shocking because when debating women’s issues, we often refer to our religious texts to lock in the debate. A large number of the Senegalese people grew up with this religion-based rhetoric and ended up believing that there were no alternative debates outside of the confinement of the religion. But I believe that religious texts are subject to different interpretations depending on culture, time, context, etc. There are also those Senegalese who are fundamentally attached to the traditional practices and views, who can make amalgams between traditions and the precepts of Islam. They do not believe in any evolution of culture in the name of modernity or globalization. In the same way, they retain a rigid interpretation of a religious verse which, however, derived from a specific context or situation. In such cases, the cocktail of our African traditions and Islamic culture can be explosive.

In terms of Western influences, many Senegalese are allergic to modern concepts such as feminism. It is seen as a pervasive tool that seeks to destroy the Senegalese ecosystem. Dakar can exist apace with Paris in terms of fashion, current events, way of speaking, eating in a nuclear family, but retracts when it comes to emancipating or empowering women. Although the power of women in professional spheres may be well regarded, the phobia lies mainly in the repercussions at the household level or the distribution of domestic roles.

Indeed, as Maimouna said, these discussions reflect the Senegalese reality. The conditions of existence for the majority of Senegalese women remain precarious, despite the fact that the women themselves may think otherwise. Many anti-feminists use religion as a basis for rejecting the place that women should occupy in social, professional and religious life. Islam is interpreted to assert the dominant position of men, to satisfy the desires of an irresponsible husband—who refers to religion to justify his wrongdoings, to maintain his privileges that are not based on any merit. Yet, Islam can be viewed as one of the most feminist religions, wherein women occupy a central place. Some may think that women should not hold high positions of responsibility or lead men, but the Prophet Muhammad was employed by Khadijah, whom he later married. She was a very successful merchant at the time, and therefore an entrepreneur or businesswoman in her own right, and she is the model woman in Islam. See the contradiction with what preachers want us to believe.

Some sources, particularly the sociologist of religions, Bryan Turner, tell us that in some pre-Islamic Arab tribes there were practices of infanticide of girls and that the status of women was mediocre. It has been reported that Ibn Abbas, one of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH), spoke of it: “If you want to discover the ignorance of the Arabs (before Islam), read the verse of the Quranic chapter El An’am: “Those will have lost who killed their children in foolishness without knowledge and prohibited what Allah had provided for them, inventing untruth about Allah. They have gone astray and were not [rightly] guided” (Qur’an 6:140). Islam has made it possible to abolish such practices and to value women. Islamic culture cannot therefore be the reason for such a great misunderstanding of gender relations in the discourse of some Senegalese.

We must therefore look for the reasons for the subjugation of women on the side of Senegalese traditions and the values it inculcates. Kocc Barma, cited as a reference in the field of Senegalese traditional wisdom, said “Jigeen sopal te bul woolu” (Love your woman, but never trust her). The poet Oumar Sall, recently showed that this could be a distortion, and the correct saying is rather: “Jigeen soppal, du la woolu” (love your woman, who, by the way, will never trust you). Other expressions like these are repeated all day long to men and to women—such as the famous “jigeen moytul” (with women, stay alert) or “jigeen day mugn ngir am njabott bu baax” (a women must accept hardships in order to have successful children), or when the child misbehaves, “doom ja, ndey ja” (the child is a reflection of the mother). All these misogynous messages are conveyed in learning how to become an adult, at various stages in life, and especially in the allocation of household tasks; they all create a subconscious that cannot conceive of a certain equality in law and dignity between women and men. It is an implicit, subtle message that Senegalese people pass from generation to generation without necessarily realizing it.

In Senegal, what are the most established stereotypes associated with feminists (angry, sexually frustrated, anti-men)? What explains them? Do you think they are due to the supposed incompatibility between African or Senegalese culture with feminism?

I think they’re trying to rehash a cliché that comes from elsewhere. The first European feminists were called hysterical. Today they are accused of thinking too much because feminism has become an intellectual discipline that is accepted at the university level. In a society where marriage determines the value of women, I do not see how Senegalese women can be viewed as anti-men. In a society where sex education (even from a religious point of view) is taboo, where the erotic aspect of the couple’s life is reserved only for women, I don’t think those women actually know enough to realize whether they are well laid or not. Senegalese people need a specific definition of feminism that applies to our context. This is very normal because there are as many feminisms as there are countries. Feminism adapts to the needs and specificities of each society. If the Senegalese people need to be convinced that our feminism is not copying the Western model, then Senegalese feminists must be the ones making that case. It is very often said that African women have always been feminists in practice, where Europeans have had freedom of “speaking” their feminism. We then have a basis on which to add modern notions that reflect the realities of our times.

It is important to know that in the Senegalese popular mindset, the essence of the woman derives from her rapport with men. For them, a fulfilled woman is above all one that it married and has children. From this perspective, a happy woman does not need to complain and adopt feminist concepts that are “imported” from the west. The work of contemporary Senegalese feminists will have to focus on deconstructing that mindset. Feminism is broad and involves several struggles. It is up to us to contextualize each of our demands, so that the feminist issues we raise are ours, in line with our society and expressed in a language that speaks to fellow Senegalese. In this way, I think that as time goes by, the general public will find their way around and these clichés will gradually disappear. We must persist.

A word on gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence is increasingly being denounced, and people are speaking out thanks to social media and the mechanisms put in place by men and women to eradicate this scourge. However, it is also a matter of informing and educating women so that they know their legal rights for their own well-being, but also for their children. Many women are reluctant to leave their oppressive marriages, because of lack of means, they do not know whether they should receive alimony or not. It is encouraging to see that there is a growing awareness in this area because physical and sexual violence against women is an attack on their dignity, safety and autonomy.

News about gender-based violence is recurrent in the press, and in everyday stories. The work that needs to be done is, above all, to make people understand the limits of the “muuñ” (patience) and the “sutura” (silence) that keep some women in the households where they are victims. Violence is not only physical, it can be also verbal and just as destructive as the former. Every woman must be aware that it is an offense to her dignity that must be denounced; that the fear of “xawi sa sutura” or “I can’t afford it” is an obstacle to bringing the perpetrator to justice. Women’s associations must think about how to support these women, in terms of housing, vocational training or social, moral and psychological support.

In your opinion, how can we change the patriarchal discourse, norms and values, and realities?

Raise awareness, communicate, debate. These are the key words for a social paradigm shift. A culture is not fixed, but an abrupt change could offend. We have a lot of good values to preserve and share with the rest of the world, which should not prevent us from opening up to others to enrich ourselves and evolve in time and space.

I would also say that we have to go back to the roots, change our education system. It’s important to understand what patriarchy and feminism is. In the home, balancing each other’s rights and teaching both women and men household chores. It is also important to abandon or rephrase all the sexist proverbs in the Wolof dictionary and to have knowledgeable women interpret the Quran. Schools should also have courses through which messages of gender equality are conveyed.

What is the role and place of male hegemony, accepted and magnified by women, and of capitalism in this social critique of Senegalese society?

I very often say that patriarchy is a system perpetuated by men and women against all women. It is women who maintain patriarchy in a conscious and/or unconscious way, and they convey over many generations practices that undermine the moral and physical integrity of women. Even Senegalese men are victims of this system, because they are raised by mothers who treat them as kings who are not required to participate in any domestic tasks, among other things. The few men who do domestic chores for instance are seen as emasculated or “toubabs,” while some of them think that they are doing a “favor” to their wife when it is their shared household, and their shared children if they have any. This male supremacy is at the root of all our struggles, but I think that men are just as ready to fight against us to preserve their privileges.

I agree with Maimouna. That’s exactly what all this criticism is based on.

Why do you think it is taboo to talk about sex and female pleasure among younger Senegalese women?

Hmmm, personally I don’t see that it is taboo to talk about sex. In fact, I have the impression that sexuality is all we talk about in social media. Girls thinking of marriage have good plans related to intimacy. If in the past, girls were seriously prepared to face marriage according to the rules of their ethnic group or family, today they share “feem” or tricks to keep their man. This is my impression.

All that Maimouna said, in addition to the fear of being accused of being “caga,” of being a slut. The fear that what a young woman says about her sexuality could be reported to her parents, making them aware of the young woman’s active sexual life, in a society that values chastity. The debate about sexuality is confined to married women.

How, in your opinion, has the COVID-19 pandemic increased gender inequalities in Senegal where you live, Adama? And in France where you live, Maimouna?

In France, I noticed that those deemed “essential workers” tended to be women, black women or women of color. I noticed them in the supermarkets, the two women janitors in my building did not get to stay home, and a young student of Senegalese origin kept working at the gas station. There is also a spike in domestic violence, which has increased because of the stay-at-home orders. Toll numbers have been made available to denounce one’s spouse in case of domestic violence, or if one’s neighbor is in danger. Personally, I will not hesitate to call if necessary because there is no justification for any form of gender-based violence.

Women are already at high risk of this disease. The majority of health workers are women (53% of the total workforce, according to a 2015 study), so they are at the front lines and exposed to the virus. In households, it is also women who are often in charge of grocery shopping, who take care of domestic tasks, and are vulnerable to the disease. In a recent article, Dr. Selly Ba talks about the “feminization of poverty.” She argues that “the COVID-19 may further reinforce the feminization of poverty which in turn may limit women’s participation in the labor market and [increase] inequality in access to … resources.” In addition, domestic violence is exacerbated by the fact that household members are confined at home.

What is your self-care routine?

My first source of well-being is to communicate regularly with my relatives in Senegal. Constantly talking to my parents makes me feel good. They support all my projects and know all my activities. The simple fact of knowing that I can count on them despite my adult age is comforting.

I’m also passionate about vintage images and videos, I love everything that is images, films, old school music related to Senegal. I spend time collecting these beautiful archives.

Reading and writing are also therapeutic for the learner that I am. I wipe my tears with writing, because I often cry when I’m depressed by the loneliness, the gloom, the dull of France.

I also like fashion; I really care about my dressing style because it’s part of my identity. As soon as the weather warms up, I put on my Senegalese outfits. Knowing that I’m doing things, such as dressing up in my Senegalese clothes, makes me feel closer to home. And that does me a lot of good. I’m a Senegalese at heart, after several years in France, I still feel like I left my soul in Dakar, and that it only reconnects with my physical body when I’m back in Dakar. Basically, my life only makes sense in Senegal.

I don’t really have any, I’m a day-to-day person. My Monday routine can be different from Tuesday and any other day of the week. I follow my desires when I wake up, but I can say that a good night’s sleep, a good hot shower, and a perfect outfit make me feel the happiest!

My little pleasures revolve around reading, photos, fashion and conversations with my loved ones.

Adapted from Feminisme, religion et culture au Senegal. (Seneplus)

About the Interviewee

Maimouna Thior is a doctoral student in the sociology of equality and gender.

Adama Pouye is a librarian and master's degree student at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis. She is the founder of Buul Ma Riisu, the movement against sexual assault in public transports in Senegal.

About the Interviewer

Dr. Rama Salla Dieng is a Senegalese citizen and lecturer in International development and African studies at the University of Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom.

About the Translator

Oumar Ba is a member of Africa is a Country's editorial board and on the political science faculty at Morehouse College.

Further Reading