Between woman and nation

The government of the youngest president in Senegal’s history already seems to embody retrograde views about women.

Photo by david ndao on Unsplash.

The election of Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye as Senegal’s fifth president seems to have reinstated the country’s status as a beacon of democracy in the West African region plagued with coups. The Senegalese are hopeful that this new wind of change will bring a paradigm shift in governance. However, the small number of women in the new government leaves many to wonder: Whose democracy is it anyway?

On March 24, Faye won in the first round with 54.28% of the votes. Faye was in jail until 10 days before the elections when he and Ousmane Sonko, the populist leader of his party PASTEF (The African Patriots of Senegal for Work, Ethics and Fraternity), benefited from a last-minute amnesty law by then-President Macky Sall who attempted to postpone the elections indefinitely. On April 2, Faye was sworn in at an elegant ceremony attended by many West African heads of state. At 44, Faye is the youngest president in Senegal’s history, and as a proxy for Ousmane Sonko, who was barred from running, brings no experience of public office to the presidency. 

Faye chose Ousmane Sonko as Prime Minister, who, after days of suspense, unveiled the first government comprising 30 secretarial positions, of which only four were women. To add insult to injury, the Ministry of Women is eliminated and absorbed into the new Ministry of Family and Solidarities. This leaves many, especially women’s rights activists, to wonder whether the “rupture” or radical breakaway that Faye’s party promised during the campaign means a backward movement that excises women from leadership positions and confines them to the home and family. The underrepresentation of women is glaring in the first official group picture of the government, which included the President and Prime Minister. As if to emphasize their presence, the women adorning traditional clothing in light colors are sprinkled, like pixie dust, over the mass of men in black and dark blue European suits.

Feminists and civil society organizations have published statements denouncing the small number of women in the newly formed government and the elimination of the Ministry of Women. Still, they are met with backlash from PASTEF loyalists who argue that claims of parity and equity are imported and that the choice of government members is based on competence, not gender. The Senegalese were waiting to see if the President would correct this first blow to women by nominating more women to other significant leadership roles in the coming weeks. However, on April 24, the nominations of 17 directors of national agencies included only two women. So far, over 50 nominations have been made and only eight of them are women.

 For women, who constitute 49.4 % of the Senegalese population, this change is a backward move, stepping over their rights gained during years of struggle for equality in this hetero-patriarchal majority Muslim country. Senegalese women have fought alongside men to maintain the country’s democratic tradition. During the last couple of years of Macky Sall’s regime, many women, especially PASTEF supporters, were imprisoned. Still, when assigning leadership positions within the government, they are slighted under the pretext that competence trumps gender. As usual, competence is invoked only when it comes to women. Senegal and its diaspora count many competent women, including in PASTEF, who could have been tapped for better representation and equity. The government of Macky Sall counted eight women secretaries, and Mimi Toure became the Prime Minister.

In his speeches, President Faye only mentioned women once when he emphasized the urgency of “employment for youth and women,” two entities often lumped together, with women always coming last. The Ministry of Women was the umbrella entity that conveyed to women that their rights mattered and that the state was dedicated to curtailing the stark gender inequalities within Senegalese society. Through the Ministry of Women and Children, Senegal was a leading actor in global efforts for gender equity. Taking it away will exacerbate the already precarious situation of women in Senegal. Another ministry that has been eliminated is the Ministry of Community Development, National Solidarity and Equity. The elimination of the Ministry of Women and the removal of the words “women” and “equity” from the new Ministry of Family and Solidarity conveys a deliberate intent to undermine the importance of women’s rights and consider their role only within the family. In the decree stipulating the denominations of the new Ministry of Family and Solidarity, the definition of the family seems to be reduced to women and children.

In Africa, the nation-state is a colonial model whose benefits are only attainable to a few and do not give the majority the tools for self-actualization. In Senegal, women are outside this imagined community. They are the “other” in the “we,” generally considered male. Women have constitutional rights, but they are not treated equally. Feminicide, sexual violence, child marriage, and other gendered discriminations are rampant in the country. For example, rape was a simple misdemeanor until 2020, and even after it became a crime punishable by a minimum of 10 years, judges, who are in the majority male, fail to apply the law entirely. The archaic and sexist family code inherited from the French colonial administration has not been revised to reflect the gains and promise of gender equity. Women still do not have full parental rights over their children and cannot travel with them without the authorization of the father. The search for paternity is not allowed, and women are left to bear the responsibility of their children born out of wedlock if the father refuses to acknowledge paternity. The age of marriage for girls is 16 compared to 18 for boys. 

Senegal still has not applied the international conventions related to gender equity it has signed, such as the Maputo Protocol, which allows women the right to abortion. Abortion is illegal in Senegal, even in cases of rape or incest. Women count higher rates of illiteracy because of the factors cited above that keep them out of school. Although under Abdoulaye Wade, women gained a parity law in the National Assembly, they are still less than 45% of that entity. This misogyny from the state considers women outside the democratic enterprise and is at the core of the increasing subordination of women in Senegal. 

PASTEF sold to the Senegalese people an agenda to decolonize the relationship with the West, especially France. However, this decoloniality is shrouded in coloniality. The composition of the new government and the dissolving of the Ministry of Women augur a regression in women’s rights that seems to be a trend in the region. This is the case in the Gambia, where Islam and culture are weaponized to push for the repeal of a law banning FGM. In the name of culture and religion, women’s rights are increasingly eroded. This gendered decoloniality is clad in colonial garb and accessorized with a patriarchal Islam yet claims an Africanity that exists only in the imaginaries of the men who want to implement it. Accusations that notions of parity and gender equality are Western imports ignore the roles that Senegalese women played in anti-colonial struggles and how African women contributed to decolonizing knowledge. 

The underrepresentation of women in the government and the elimination of the Ministry of Women do not reassure those who fear that Faye’s term will be a Salafist one with fundamentalist ideas about the role and place of women, notwithstanding that Senegal has a secular constitution, and the peaceful cohabitation between Muslims and Christians (mainly Catholics) is part of the foundation of its strong democracy. Faye has visited religious leaders from both faiths.  He also announced at the Council of Ministers on April 17 that he had created an office of religious affairs within the presidency and would prioritize the employment of teachers of Arabic. It is unclear whether this office of religious affairs will cater to all religions; however, prioritizing Arabic does not suggest fairness to all religions and undermines the importance of local languages. Furthermore, creating an office for religious affairs and eliminating the Ministry of Women sets the tone of this presidency and where the priority lies. One wonders whether Senegalese women will soon have to adopt a burqa as a state-mandated style of clothing.

Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko has a problematic relationship with women, and his ascent to the second-highest position in the government is a violent blow to victims of sexual assault. In 2021, he was accused of rape by Adji Raby Sarr, a young masseuse, allegations that he denied accusing the regime of Macky Sall of plotting to disqualify him for the 2024 elections. The cases plunged Senegal into two years of violent crisis during which at least two dozen people lost their lives. Sonko refused to undergo a DNA test and did not attend the trial. His charge was ultimately reduced to corruption of the youth and he was sentenced to two years in prison, which he never served. In an address after the court hearing, Sonko made aberrant misogynistic comments about his accuser, stating: “If I were to rape, I would not rape someone who looks like a she-monkey afflicted with a stroke.” 

Following the election of Faye, Sonko’s accuser fled to Switzerland. In a viral video, PASTEF loyalists are seen in the lobby of a Geneva hotel where Sarr was rumored to be staying, questioning staff about her whereabouts. One of them is heard telling the hotel staff that Sarr was responsible for the deaths of many people in Senegal.  Sonko, a member of parliament then, never denied violating a Covid-imposed curfew to visit the shady massage parlor where Sarr worked and where he was a regular customer. He also never filed defamation charges against Adji Sarr. 

The lack of women in the government contrasts with the many women in the personal lives of the President and Prime Minister. Faye is the first President in Senegal’s history who is a polygamist (he has two wives);  Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko is rumored to have three wives. Faye’s election puts polygamy at the forefront of national and international debates. National and international newspapers published pictures of him flanked by his two wives as the new image of a Senegal journeying back to an imagined Africanity. The day after the election, a French journalist contacted Senegalese sociologist and feminist Fatou Sow Sarr on X for an interview about polygamy. The professor responded: “Polygamy, monogamy, and polyandry are matrimonial models determined by the history and culture of every people. Today, these models are rivaled by homosexual (same-sex) marriages.” When pressed by critics, Sow Sarr added: “My deep thought is that the West has no legitimate right to judge our (African) cultures.” Sow Sarr evaded a critical engagement with polygamy by diverting to what Sokhna Sidibe and Amina Grace called dealing in “sexual panic” as homophobia is rampant in Senegal. Sow Sarr’s statements gloss over the abusive aspects of polygamy and pull the “culture” and “decolonial” cards to justify the president’s polygamy. 

We, of course, would not want the West to make polygamy the “single story” of Faye’s election. However, it is not a game of “you are doing it worse than us, and therefore, we are justified in our practices.” Africans should engage with each other and not make the West our interlocutor. In Senegal, polygamy has been corrupted and turned into a practice of collecting women. What is practiced in Senegal is polygyny because women are not allowed multiple husbands. Both in Africa and in Islam, polygamy was not for the sexual fulfillment of a man. Historically, in Africa, it was for affluent families to have more children for manpower in farming and other activities. In Islam, polygamy is for the protection of widows and orphans. The Prophet Mohamed was monogamous until the death of his first wife Khadija. Except for Ayisha, all his other wives were widows or divorcees. Furthermore, in Islam, the verse that authorizes polygamy warns that if a man cannot love and treat his wives equally at all levels, monogamy is best. 

Today, polygamy is in fashion in Senegal and accounts for 35% of marriages compared to 17% in the 1970s. It is a marker of patriarchal masculinity in which men with more than one wife are perceived as courageous and called góor dëgg (real men). Guy Marius Sagna, a member of Sonko and Faye’s coalition, who until recently was a Christian, converted to Islam and married a second wife, the woman with whom he had a baby out of wedlock, imposing polygamy on his first wife. He was congratulated for being a strong man. Men marry younger women as second, third, or fourth wives, collecting several archetypes of women. For example, President Faye’s first wife wears the hijab, has darker skin, and is said to be pious and humble. In contrast, the second wife adorns wigs, has lighter skin, and is represented as sassy with a heavy social media presence. 

Polygamy is widespread in urban areas where educated women would rather be in a polygamous marriage because it offers them more time and flexibility. They’d instead share a husband with other women because they are not left to care for him exclusively. There is cause to wonder whether this is a natural choice, given that in Senegal, marriage is still upheld as the ultimate accomplishment for a woman and a symbol of social respectability. Men often marry younger women, leaving women in their age group with fewer choices for whom to marry. Because of high unemployment rates, many men of age to marry cannot afford the financial responsibilities of a marriage. Women who are socially pressed to get married revert to men who are already married. Also, because of the gaze of society and how it frowns upon female sexual activity outside marriage, many women enter polygamous marriages to validate their sexual lives. 

As practiced in Senegal, polygamy is imposed on women who are made to believe that there are more women than men, even though the recent census shows that the opposite is true. They are also told that a good man must be shared. Men use polygamy as a weapon to impose their will on their wives, threatening to marry a new wife if the latter does not satisfy their patriarchal demands. Although couples can choose between monogamy or polygamy, the latter is the default if they cannot agree. Men use the excuse that they are allowed to marry more than one wife to justify their infidelity, and women are resigned that they will eventually share their husband and hence accept their infidelity. There is also the practice of takku suuf (underground marriage), in which men marry without publicity or official recognition. 

Polygamy is abusive to first wives, who are often forced to take a romantic and sometimes sexual retirement while the husband starts a romance with the new wife. In one of the campaign pictures, the future president’s first wife is shown witnessing him having eyes only for the second wife, his former student whom he married a month before going to prison. When there is conflict in the marriage, most men choose polygamy rather than divorce, emotionally and sometimes financially abandoning their first wife. To manipulate them into resigning to their emotional and romantic abandonment, first wives are given the title aawo-yaay (first-wife-mother), relegating them to the role of equalizer, the one who must mother everyone, including the husband and his new trophy. In the photos from the induction, the president and the second wife are wearing color-coordinated European clothing. In contrast, in traditional attire, the first wife appears as the elder female figure. 

Polygamy pits women against each other. Through the concept of defante (competition), their physical, emotional, economic, sexual, and reproductive labor is exploited in a hypocritical game of catch-me-if-you-can that benefits only the husband and his kin. Co-wives use the notion of jonge to top each other in satisfying the husband and coercing his family to have the latter on their side. Popular opinion in the country chastises Faye’s second wife for having a social media presence and for doing it too much when she performed a knee bend, a sign of respect and devotion when congratulating the newly elected president. The first wife is depicted as having class and conveys grounding and serenity.

According to the recent report of the National Agency of Statistics and Demographics, polygamy impoverishes families. It reports that 46.49% of polygamous families live in poverty compared to 36.3 % of those in monogamous households. Also, women spend a lot of money and time in supernatural wars with the help of charlatans. They physically and emotionally harm each other, and their children are also victims of these conflicts. Interestingly, as Faye’s polygamy was being glamourized in the news a tragic story of a 25-year-old herder who killed his second wife, aged 16, and burned her body was also in the headlines. Even those who cannot afford it now engage in polygamy. Having a polygamist as head of state will institutionalize the practice.

Such is the concern that the Faye presidency embodies backward views about women that a group representing more than 1000 Senegalese women is seeking a meeting with the President to press him on these issues and make clear that women have much to contribute to running the country.

Further Reading