18 Mar 2017 Her only holiday
She shines the flashlight into the well. 5:00 before sunrise, she fetches water so that her husband can wash and perform the Morning Prayer. Her family is Muslim. Muslim men are allowed 4 wives – She is the second. She still has to care for all children of the household, even if they’re not hers. She sweeps the leaves out of the compound while the kids wake, then she prepares breakfast and heads to the corner store for bread, butter and milk powder. The kids go off to work or school, and she has to fetch water again to wash the dishes and the clothes. No dishwashers or washing machines here, so with a rag she scrubs the plates clean and with her hands she squeaks the dirt off the clothes. Once she finishes hanging the clothes on the lines, she walks to the nearest market to get groceries for lunch and dinner because there isn’t much refrigeration here. By the time she sets off for home, its noon. The sun scorches and the plastic bag of fish she holds reeks of day old blood, her sticky hands swarmed by flies. She prepares lunch: dicing onions, cutting vegetables, crushing herbs, stuffing fish, boiling broth and cooking rice. She sets the dining cloth and the stools. Her children and her husband return home, complaining about how tired they are from their morning endeavors. After lunch, the family siestas to avoid the vicious afternoon sun. She does the dishes yet again. Once she is done, she has her only break of the day, provided she doesn’t have any other errand to run, like babysitting the neighbors’ baby or sewing broken clothes. Her family members go back to work or school. She takes the clothes off the line and folds them, ironing the fancier pieces. The iron is charcoal operated, so she fans and tenders pieces of coal to temperature. It’s almost dinner time and cooking begins again. Sometimes she would cook dinner and lunch together and serve up reheated sauce with couscous, other times special occasions such as birthdays, religious holidays or anniversaries mean defeathering a chicken, sautéing beef or dressing a salad. She is tired now, and falls asleep while the family watches Wiri Wiri. In her half-awakened state, she hears her family leave to sleep, until she is alone in the saloon. She dusts the room, locks the doors and windows, making sure everything is in order, before finally finding her way to the side of her snoring husband.
International Women’s Day is a bizarre day in Senegal. Senegal is a conservative nation with strict gender roles. Senegal is also a zealously religious country with a Muslim majority. Hold those projections of hijab clad women submissively trailing behind the flowing robes of a marabout’s boubou. Senegalese women are anything but submissive. While it remains reality that most Senegalese women work at home and are inferior to men in all aspects of social and economic status, these women are fierce in their ‘inferiority’. My language tutor would order, in vain, for his daughter to clean up after his meal, and Sophia would eventually but reluctantly walk over with a deliberately exaggerated stumble and an aggressiveness to her sweeping that screams: “Watch out, I cook your food.”
I’m a man here. After all, I work at a carpentry’s and that’s ‘manly stuff’. But as the workshop is my supposed domain, the kitchen and the drying lines are domains inaccessible to me. I have to wash my clothes in secret, and only until recently, I feared my mom’s inspection of the kitchen whenever I was secretly boiling water for tea. I had to argue with my mother over the right to clean my own room. Generally speaking, men monopolies occupations with highest incomes, most respected social positions and get-out-of-chores passes; while women work lower paying jobs, have less representation as civil servants, no representation as religious figures and are traditionally obliged to take care of all the needs of a household. Not unlike everywhere else around the world really, aside from the magnitude of the inequality.
I’ve been dreading to write about gender dynamics for some time now, because it is a complex issue with cultural nuances difficult to describe, but also because I enjoy the privileges of being male in this society. There are so many benefits for having one type of genitalia and not the other: I can go out at night, I can ride a bike without ridicule, I don’t have to clean anything really, all that is expected of me is that I sit in the house and order my younger female household members around and what more, I’m not sexually objectified on a daily basis. The lives of female GCY fellows are indisputably many times more demanding that those of male fellows. Yet as I describe the injustice, I insist that we mustn’t assume the position of our Western liberalized ideology and impose our version of feminism on the narrative of Senegalese women. The inequality between genders in Senegal, which only seems unjust to us, is perceived to be natural by most Senegalese. There are sometimes the off handed remarks on how difficult life is for Senegalese women, but ask a women what she thinks is wrong about how things are, and she’ll be taken aback by the question. Women’s status in Senegalese society wasn’t determined by a scheming group of marabouts and politicians (disputable); it came to be through a myriad of social and religious reasons: The influence of Islam and its dominance in Senegalese society, the revered status of elders and their collective wisdom, the celebrated value of tradition and a cherished history of women being the essential auxiliary fulcrum that rallied their critical support behind men time and time again (most notably in the 1947 railroad strikes, when the Women’s March on Dakar forced the French colonial regime to capitulate to the strikers’ demands, immortalized in Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood).
International Women’s Day encapsulates everything right and wrong with Senegalese women’s march towards emancipation and equality. Just some of the thought provoking ridiculousness of my day.
I woke to the crackling laughter of my mother. She was in a good mood in the morn and she glided around the saloon. I didn’t yet realize it was International Women’s Day until she jokingly mentioned that she wasn’t going to work the entire day because she was “on strike”. She said this while tying her headscarf in preparation for work. As my mother left for work, our housemaid Elie entered the house. They greeted each other with loud and celebratory Bon Fêtes. Elie also said she wasn’t going to work the entire day, then she grabbed the broom and swept the breadcrumb battlefield my brother leaves behind every morning.
The Bon Fêtes were everywhere in school too. All the female teachers received long messages of gratitude from male teachers as they greeted one another. My English teaching supervisor, taught our classes a text about young children giving thanks to their mothers and the importance of honoring women for their domestic work. The boys in class were not enthusiastic.
English club in the afternoon! The kids were practicing a sketch they wrote themselves. The premise of the sketch was a comedic interpretation of men’s reaction to women refusing to work the household on International Women’s Day. There was one scene where the wives were swaying their hips, threatening their husbands that if they refuse to go to the market, they “won’t touch these nice bindbinds (waist beads) at night”. It was hilarious. A tiny pick-me-up that these women in the sketch have their victory for a day, even if it was only just an act.
Before I left for home, I had a long conversation with Madam Coly, a teacher of familial and civic sciences. We discussed women’s rights in Senegal and I felt like I was trying to bait her into saying, “Yeap, men are oppressing us. Begin the purge!” I failed. She instead gave me informative facts about how, compared to neighboring West African countries, Senegal has an impressively developed civic society and how there are multitudes of government and independent organizations that advocate for and educate on woman’s reproductive rights, the scholarisation of young girls, protection against domestic violence and family planning to give women of all ages liberty when it comes to their bodies and their education. Purge could have been a little overboard, maybe I should have settled for Revolution!
I tried my hardest to convince my mother that I should cook dinner since it was her day off, but she was having none of that. She even came up with the excuse that today was a special day for women, so she needed to prepare a special dinner. 3 girls named Awa, Aida and Abi joined us for dinner. They come during weekdays to have extra class with the teacher that lives next door. We feasted and witnessed the Barcelona vs. Paris football game unfold. Football fans crowded the television in every boutique. After the meal, my brother Mohameth and I were tasked to buy the usual special occasion drinks – since the women weren’t working today of course. We even cleaned the floor afterwards, I swept the saloon floor to the shocked expressions of the 3 A-girls, while Mohameth mopped how a 4 year old boy would mop a floor, much to everyone’s entertainment. As our guests left and my family went to bed, the football game came to an end with a stunning Barcelona comeback. Triumphant Barca fans wandered the streets, shrieking shouts of victory, some even thanking God. And thus International Women’s Day came to an end, with my mother last to bed as usual, filling buckets full of water and locking the door, to the howls of victorious men.
Who is the ‘she’ I described in the first paragraph? Who is she?
Like my host mother Aida, my housemaid Elie, my neighbours Asuma, Bernadette and Looney, she is a Senegalese woman. A Senegalese woman might not speak French, might not have been to school or maybe she didn’t have time to look at the papers or the television. She might have not known that it was International Women’s Day. She might have missed her only ‘holiday’ of the year. But even if she did, she might have missed it anyways.