What does this picture say to you? Laden with piercings, covered in brass, with skin like midnight leather, she sat before me. She being a Bedik woman of considerable age appeared to me as an image. From her high cheek bones, to the beads that clung with all abundance of color to her neck, her face spun a story. It is a story of which I am well acquainted. The story of the proud and yet somber, aged “African” woman, tied to systems of patriarchy and accounts of FGM, marginalized in her own queendom. She labors on into a dying African sunset regal, perpetual and silent. What this photo cannot tell you is that the woman in this photo was fully conscious of her body as a relic, and a single tile in an antiquated mosaic; she was aware of how she is prized. What this photo also does not inform its viewer is that the woman in this photo capitalized off of the commodification of her body. This image was paid for.
I took this photo within my first three months in Senegal and have long since marveled at it, considering this woman and the stories of those like her. Often wondering, what defines her womanhood? What are her plights and struggles? What portion of the typical narrative regarding African women is true and what portion is extreme romanticism? Who is the Senegalese woman?
I must begin this piece by saying that Senegal is not a single country, nor are the Senegalese a single people. Here, the vast identities, tongues, labors, and spaces are barely contained within the confines of the word “Senegalese”. This means that defining the Senegalese woman is a truly impossible task, as she is a they. I will therefore only speak to the women of my region, the women of the Pulaa-Fuuta. Not wanting to rob these women of their agency, I asked the women. Interviewing and recording their opinions regarding the questions, “what makes the Pulaar woman?, what is the nature of her work?, and what is the future of the Pulaar women?”
The following are their responses.
“We cook, clean, fetch water, mortar and pestle, and take care of our families, this is our labor”
“We are the supports of the community”
“Education has not changed us, we are the same, our future will be our past. We will continue to work, Life is hard, but good.”
Their answers to my questions have weighed on me for the following months. I have observed girlhood, womanhood and even women in their final stages of life, noticing their work. I have come to the conclusion that the Pulaar woman is a woman in transition. Against the tableau of modernity her work is a paradox. It is the same, yet changing increasingly. She now goes to the pump to fetch water into Chinese manufactured buckets, she increasingly wears pants constructed oceans away, and learns languages her mother’s mother has never heard. But the most miraculous and impossible part in this new, and shiny world, is that her counterpart (the Pulaar man) is experiencing the same uneasy transition. At first glance they seem to operate in separate worlds, divided by a line of sex. However, they are bound to each other in space. He alongside her endures the miscarriage, the lack of transportation, is confined by the same medical bills, indeed they live their lives side by side. Living in and from the land.
Feminism in Senegal
My perception of feminism since coming here has been, twisted, flipped, and turned inside out. I do not argue that Senegal has no problems with oppressive gender norms that limit women’s access to education, independence and therefore agency. My argument is that at this moment, the most feminist cause, is a cause that is not specific to women. It is a cause for humans. Healthcare, transportation, and education across the board must be improved in order for the lives of women to improve. I can not speak to cultural shifts, or comment on the directions and actions that women should take to ensure an equal future. Coming to Senegal has shown me first hand the effects of the imposition of western feminism outside of its context. To be frank, to tell a people that their work, culture and mindset is limited or incorrect robs them of their humanity. Allowing Senegal to discover its own feminist voice allows for these women and men to determine their own futures. Allowing these women to determine their own womanhood is their womanhood.