Well, this 3 week trilogy of posts has turned into more of a 2 month trilogy of posts, but that’s usually how work here goes. The more important part is that it gets done well. Just like a project here, I’d rather it take twice as long as scheduled and be good, than get rushed through and not be worth the time to reflect upon.
So here I am, having deviated drastically from the original planned trilogy, but hopefully better for it. This will be the final installment, focusing on gender here in Senegal as I see it based upon my personal experience. I know this will be by far the touchiest subject I’ve addressed in a while, so please take this all with a grain of salt, understanding that I have a experience here that is unique to the individuals I’ve met throughout my service, and therefore is not something that can be extrapolated to all of Senegal, let alone all of Islam.
A couple things have been spinning in my head as of late, about gender roles here, how they differ from back home, and also how they stand up to the grander dialogue between theory, culture and practice.
I understand to a degree that culture defines gender roles, but in order to think that the dynamic isn’t constantly shifting is to go a step further and assume that culture exists in a vacuum, is monolithic and static… none of which are true. Within the same country you have men who will refuse to shake the hand of a woman sitting alongside men married to women with careers. And, I hate to say it, but on the other side of the pond you have men who claim women should be forced to raise children conceived by rape alongside groups that light bras on fire.
The impetus for prefacing the conversation in this manner is due to the idea that writing this post came about during a recent discussion I had with one of my host brothers as we sat around and watched one of my host sisters taking care of all of the post-lunch chores. My host brother is Senegalese to be sure, but a young man enrolled in his last year of high school in one of arguably the most liberal regions within the country in terms of religion and cultural norms. Meaning: he does not quite represent the Senegalese norm, but is still very much Senegalese.
As we sat around watching my host sister clean up the dishes and sweep, I decided then would be a good time not only to practice my “conversational” Pulaar, but try to have an honest conversation about gender roles with someone who I knew had the capacity to be open to new ideas. I started out the conversation quite gently, and then posed the question that, when he gets older and finds himself a wife, why should she have to do all the chores and cooking while he just sits around and does nothing? Why couldn’t he cook/clean as well and share the burden? Surely he could learn how to cook? As we talked more about it, he came to understand my line of reasoning, but then took it into a realm where I faltered.
He said quite simply that he understood where I was coming from, why it seemed unfair… but if he was out working all day and she was at home all day, then shouldn’t watching over the house, the cooking and cleaning, be her responsibility? He was working all day to support the family; shouldn’t it be her responsibility to maintain the house in his absence? He also took it a step further, saying that if his wife was out working too, then it would only be fair that the burden be shared, or that they hire a housekeeper. But if the woman isn’t working, shouldn’t that be her job, her role in the family unit?
I stopped, finding myself unable to do anything more than agree with him. If my line of argument against her doing all the work was household burden sharing, then I couldn’t really fault him on that line of reasoning. The logic was sound and egalitarian, and rebounded the question at me, forcing me to think about the very issue I was trying to get him to think about: “what is fair?” If the situation demands burden sharing, then of course, but isn’t the role of a housewife to do those things, and is it really sound reasoning to say that he should help out around the house that much if he’s constantly working to support his wife?
Far too often I think we apply this broad brush of misogyny and gender inequality to both Africa and the Muslim world without giving due attention to the much deeper nuance of the issue. We treat the issue with a perceived moral superiority we only recently possessed, treating those who don’t think like us as dinosaurs of a bygone era who need to get with the program. While I understand that logic to a degree when addressing people in our good ole’ US of A, to export that attitude abroad is not only wrong and ineffective, but patronizing.
I’m not saying this as though it’s some new idea, but rather something that everyone who lives, works or travels abroad needs to forever keep in the back of their heads. It wasn’t all that long ago that we weren’t much better. Hell, we didn’t even deem women fit to vote until less than a century ago, and even more recently it was thought improper for women to have any job other than child bearing. It could even be argued that women gained those rights due in large part not to us realizing how misogynistic we were being, but by WWII and later by the eroding of middle-class factory jobs and the rise of dual income families.
And it’s only on those same strings that any true change is going to come here. Economic growth and diversification, and the slow arduous protest against social norms are the only way that these tendencies are going to change.
But this isn’t to say that there is nothing that we can do, just that we need to temper our frustrations. Change doesn’t come over night, and we will continue to see things happen here and elsewhere that make us seethe. But we can still have these conversations, share our views, show people here how we do it, and why we think it works better. We can show them that men can cook and women can work, and how such an idea can not only make the world a better place, but make them more prosperous as well. What we can’t do is tell them that they’re wrong, inhuman dinosaurs, and that they HAVE TO CHANGE… NOW. Not only is it ineffective, but as I’ve stated earlier I also feel that we lack such a moral high ground on this issue.
This battle is still being fought on our own home front… and, just like there, we have to fight the battle with the humility that reflects morality, not the arrogance that proclaims it.