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Dear Gambian Feminists

 Language is indispensable in the preservation of culture and cultural identities and offers a window into the past.

Gorr baah na jiguen baah na.” this common saying that has found its way into everyday musical lyrics, literally means that being good is not determined by one’s gender.

We find similar sayings within the Jali traditions of the Manding people; “musu yaa teh dangbay yaa tinyaa la”; meaning being female does not equate to the dishonoring of a lineage.

When the Charter of Manding (Kourugan Fuga) was made a governing instrument in Manding (circa 1235), it relied on existing societal norms, values, taboos etc. and essentially made them statutory provisions. The prohibitions found in these articles are nothing other than those things considered “tanno” (prohibitions) based on societal values dating back much further.

Article 16 of that charter reads;

  • Women, apart from their everyday occupations, should be associated with all our managements.

Gender roles may have evolved over the years but a lot of what is seen as norms owe their normalcy to the realities of the context in which they were formed. Women’s “everyday occupations” were defined by the subsistence means of livelihood that were common place and they became traditional roles, a lot of them preserved to this day. Besides those assigned roles, anything having to do with the general welfare of the community, women had a voice in. In fact some aspects were assigned entirely to women without any input from men, especially those issues related to their health, childcare, managing pregnancy etc. This is one of the reasons why a newly married girl, after conception of her first child, either returns to be with her mom or her mom comes to live with her. In fact, in many cases, until the first child is born and weaned, the girl remains with her mother and does not relocate to her husband’s home/family.

These are seen as mere tradition today but there’s a much greater significance to it. To understand why tradition assigned certain aspects to be entirely within the domain of women, especially when it comes to issues related to their bodies and health, ask any male gynecologist within The Gambia what his experience has been with his patients. In essence, women were allowed total control over their bodies and health to manage as it suits them best; this is true in so many other aspects of daily life. “Musu Kunda” (literally meaning women’s domain) is still alive and strong in almost all rural communities playing similar roles as have been played centuries ago and men who are familiar, know not to encroach on anything traditionally assigned to “Musu Kunda”. And no, it’s not discriminatory

One can argue that a lot of these traditional roles are ancient and have no place in modern society, which may be true to a certain extent and in certain aspects. But to effectively fight for women’s rights, or reverse some of those traditions as are deemed irrelevant today, a thorough understanding and appreciation of factors that underlie certain norms with all their attendant subtleties is a requirement, otherwise you risk offending and alienating the greater chunk of the very people whose welfare you are seeking to advance.

The solutions we proffer for a problem are usually based on how we see the problem. Therefore, the effectiveness of a solution will be based on whether we diagnosed the problem accurately. We often bemoan the failures of our governance structures in addressing our problems, but if we stop to consider that the governance structure inherited from the colonizers was never designed for our advancement as a people, but was put in place to safeguard the power and interest of the colonizers, we will realize that a lot of those structures need redesigning if not completely dismantled. Our worldview as a people was never factored into the setting up of the governance or education structure and that is a greater part of the reasons why we have failed for so long.

In a similar vein, some of the issues that our feminists seek to address don’t seem to be appreciated or understood in their full scope or context. There is a great degree of structurally induced problems that exacerbated some of the cultural issues that would otherwise not have been seen as a problem needing to be addressed.

Take the issue of education for example. A lot of campaigners hold the notion that there is a preference for boys over girls’ education, as a result of which girls are kept at home while boys are sent to school setting the stage for less empowered and more disadvantaged women with fewer opportunities than their male counterparts later in life.

There may be some truth to that at some individual family level, but in the wider scheme of things, it is not a culturally sanctioned notion or value that boys be given better opportunities than girls.

Until very recently, access to education was very limited and limited even further when it comes to post primary school education. It was very common place that girls dropped out of school at a much higher rate than boys. The reason for this is not the often touted and simple line of argument that our culture created a belief that “the woman’s place is seen as being in the kitchen and raising a family hence no need to spend on her education.” This is a misleading notion that does not stand true.

Our culture absolutely shuns pre-marital conception, and because modern/liberal values have a different view does not make the liberal view right. One only has to look at the various challenges faced by single parent households to understand why. That underlying value and belief is considered in every decision a parent takes for his/her daughter.

Parents (fathers) largely have no issue sending their daughters to school, in fact most do so gladly. The girl will be sent to school, which until very recently required her to walk miles both ways to get to and from school; this is at the elementary stage. Once that stage is completed, the students will have to travel even further to access the next stage of their education. This is where the issue starts from.

Post primary school education was concentrated in the urban areas, almost entirely in Banjul to be precise. Besides Nusrat High School, Bottrop and SOS Herman Gmeiner and a couple of others, which were all private schools; the urban areas only had technical secondary schools. Armitage was the other option. In all cases, people from most rural regions had to send their daughters and sons away from home just to access education beyond primary school. Considering this is at the age when girls and boys have just transitioned into their teenage years, most parents would rather have their daughters drop out of school than send them away to some distant relative, away from their watchful eyes where they could potentially bring them shame.

That leads to the twin advocacy against child marriages. Unlike Western cultures, a key determinant for marriage age is visible signs of sexual maturity, which of course comes at different ages for different individuals. These visible signs of puberty trigger alarm bells in the conservative parent’s minds of sexual activity, which ties back to the potential for breaching the moral code of early pregnancy so they invite or welcome suitors to avert that.

With advances in science, it is now clearer that puberty alone is not enough reason to rely on as a determinant for child bearing, that knowledge needs to be utilized efficiently to bring parents on board in delaying marriages. A lot of issues will factor into that; educating girls about the changes going on in their bodies, more awareness about things considered as social ills and how to avoid them etc.

These are just two of the issues that women’s rights campaigners deal with and the perspectives shared above don’t even begin to scratch the surface of why certain values and norms viewed as ill-suited to the twenty first century still persists.

A lot of what we consider as norms and tradition can be found at the intersection of cultural values, beliefs and religious doctrine. Navigating this proverbial intersection requires tact, knowledge and familiarity with every component thereof and how they each tug at every issue.

The feminist movement may be a global movement, but what is true for one region of the globe may not necessarily be true for another and cultural sensitivities need to be factored into the issues we view as needing to be addressed. But like most things Africans emulate, a copy paste approach will do little to nothing in the way of progress.

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