I grew up in a family of independent, empowered women. My immediate family consists of my sister, my mom, my father and myself so it is safe to say that the women usually have the final say. Growing up, my father would never let me believe that I was any less than someone else, especially a boy. If a boy ever messed with me, my dad just told me to knock ‘em in the nose. In my world, gender inequality was something of the past.
Subconsciously, I brought this belief with me to Senegal. I knew that women had a much different status here in Senegal than in the U.S., but I suppose I thought being an American exempted me from that cultural implication. I could not possibly comprehend being considered less simply because I was a woman.
The host father of GCY fellow, Madeleine Balchan, has a horse that he only uses during harvest season. When harvest season ended, I asked him if I could ride it. Without a second thought, he said, “Of course!” So one day in the afternoon I went over to his house where he was waiting with a barebacked horse with a bridle around its head. He simply told me to jump on and then watched me ride off.
The sun was setting and the temperature was perfect. I was on top of the world, oblivious that I was currently creating controversy. The first villagers I rode past were three men who immediately told me that a woman riding a horse is bad. They shook their heads at me and said, “Dow na ci faas pour goor rekk (Riding horses is for men only).” I didn’t take them seriously and simply retorted with a joke and continued on my way. Soon, I had a giant following of little kids. When one of my little brothers saw me, his face lit up and he started chanting my Senegalese name, “Matel, Matel, Matel.” A little girl wanted to jump up on the horse and ride with me. I was the lead in a parade of uproar. Then, I began to see women and men peek out of their compounds and shake their heads in disapproval.
The moment of true realization was when I passed an old woman who was on her way to the market. With a distorted grimace on her face she started wagging her finger at me angrily and scolding me in sharp, rapid fire Wolof. The words felt like they could actually cut me. My heart sank into my stomach. I became nauseous, embarrassed. I wanted off the horse immediately. I felt like I was going to throw up. I quickly jumped off the horse and returned it to the owner.
I caught a quick glance at all my followers, the smiling children who had no idea why a woman riding a horse would be wrong. Equality exists in the minds of children, but where does it go? I thought about the little girl who wanted to ride with me. I knew someday, someone will tell her what a woman can and can’t do.
I knew the entire village was talking about me. I could hear my name whispered. I dreaded walking home. Finally, I gathered the courage to make the journey through the criticisms. I had almost made it to my house before a group of women called me over. I grudgingly walked to where they were sitting. One asked me if the rumors were true, if I had ridden a horse today. I answered yes. Before continuing on my way I shook all of their hands in a line. A family friend who often comes to visit my house and always greets me was at the end of the line. When I extended my hand to greet her she swiftly pulled her hand away, out of reach and snapped, “Lan nga defoon, baxul (What you did was bad).”
As I walked home, my feelings slowly transformed from embarrassment and shock to anger. I thought about all the difficult work my host sisters do. The way they rise with the sun, scrub laundry, cook and clean. Last week, one of my sisters had a baby and only an hour later, walked home and was back to cooking. Of course I had heard of gender inequality, but I had never experienced it so directly.
I keep thinking about the little girl who wanted to ride the horse. She will probably never get to.