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Celebrating International Women’s Day 2012

Mar 8, 2012, 1:04 PM | Article By: Dr Cherno Omar Barry, UNESCO-NATCOM

On this occasion of International Women’s Day, I wish to share my humble contribution to the present debate on the state and role of women in our society. I also intend to use The Gambia as a case study to give indicators on how much we have progressed in promoting the question of the Woman.

There is no question that once the issue of the Woman’ Right is mentioned, it makes most of us Gambian men uneasy and uncomfortable. This is quite understandable. Unfortunately, the message has carried with it too much baggage that it has created more controversy mainly because it is not being treated objectively. Another reason is because it is seriously misconstrued or badly interpreted. How can it be objective when whoever speaks is either a man or a woman? What needs to first be understood is that this is not a fight between Man and Woman. It is simply an evaluative trend we should go through in a world that calls for it. The era is that of the Woman as the main focus. It is time we change certain habits and practices.

To quote the American feminists and women’s rights activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her essay ‘Declaration of Sentiments’, « The history of mankind is a history of respected injuries and usurpation of the part of man towards woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her”.

Literature is a powerful weapon through which women are able to voice out their pains and worries as well as enlighten their women folk. They are able to express feelings of love, anger, fear and confidence nobody knew they have. With the use of poems and short stories, essays and novels, they speak out. Betty Rollin wrote, “Women are now beginning to think and do more about development of self, of their individual resources.”

And a very famous and successful writer and poet of her time, the American Adrienne Rich added “…women can no longer be primarily mothers and nurses for man: we have our own work cut out for us.”

The women above arouse feelings to the world; feelings of anger and betrayal, feelings of oppression and domination, and particularly feelings for freedom, self-recognition and identity. Fiction writers, essayists and poets take up the pen fully backed by feminist’s movements who give them moral and intellectual support.

In her essay entitled ‘Hunger’, the Canadian writer Maggie Helwig wrote, “Women are taught to take guilt, concern, problems, onto themselves personally; and especially onto themselves”.

In the Marital home

One of the most discussed topics under social domination is marriage, which is labelled as the institution of hell. The husband is lord and master in the home. The simplicity and explicitness of the meaning above is easily grasp by someone living in our part of Africa where the man not only constantly asserts his authority in the home but also finds all the necessary means of maintaining that authority and not lose it. Our African cultures have always given the man an overprotective status. Overprotective because he believes even where the woman gets to his house as a wife, she remains a child to be admonished and corrected continuously. In short, the expressions “women are not mentally complete” has become quite a common excuse to continue given the man that power.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “In her covenant of marriage, {the woman} is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intend and purposes, her master – the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.”

Mary, Lady Chudleigh stressed on the same point in her poem entitled “To the Ladies” an excerpt of which is:

Wife and servant are but the same/But only differ in the name:/For when that fatal knot is tied,/Which nothing, nothing can divide,/When she the word ‘Obey’ has said,/The man by the law supreme has made,/Then all that’s kind is laid aside,/And nothing left but state and pride.

Despite few improvements in recent times, in polygamous marriages, as in monogamous marriages, we men continue to decide the marriages alone. The consent of the woman is less important or not sought at all. This is reflected in So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba and in Xala by Sembene Ousmane where women find themselves in a situation where their husbands chose a second or third wife, without being consulted or their opinion sought. In So Long a Letter, however, the man hardly considers an educated woman useful elsewhere despite the growing number of educated women. In a conversation between Daouda and Ramatoulaye, the first nurtures the idea that women are destructive once outside their homes. A large number of women in the National Assembly would be disastrous to the country. Ramatoulie retorts, “No, we are not incendiaries, we are stimulants! We have a right, just as you (men) have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities.”

Adrienne Rich – whose principal strength lies in social and political issues – centred her themes on women’s consciousness and their societal roles. With a firm and clear voice, this very distinguished lady reflected in her work a necessity in change of the social conditions by altering social, political and philosophical attitudes toward women, especially Americans. Snapshots of a Daughter in law, one of her most successful poems, pictures a woman haunted by voices telling her to resist and rebel, voices which she can hear but not obey. This is a clear image of the caged woman. ‘Until we {women} can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge for women is more than a search for Identity: it is part of her refusal of the destructiveness of male dominated society’

(A. Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Revision)

This can be related to the African context where parents decide who marries their daughter, the daughter obeys and never complains. In fact in some cases, the daughter is bartered for financial gratification for the family. Amie Sillah, in her collection of short stories Silent Voices has adequately reflected this.

Even in marriage, it is sometimes too difficult to cope and thus the rebellious actions of certain women ensures. Where she endures, such traditions weigh heavily on the woman’s shoulders. In most cases the husband hardly cares for the family, leaving the mother at home to handle the children. In D. H. Laurence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums, a woman is portrayed living in a loveless marriage and becoming a mother and a servant. The Wolof will call this ‘meubal’ meaning a decoration of the house. “He and she are only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children.” Betty Rollin, in her essay Motherhood, who needs it firmly, states that “It doesn’t make sense anymore to pretend that women need babies when what they really need is themselves.”

Women eventually found such situations encumbering and uncompromising. They are not objects or toys. They need freedom and consideration, but above all they need to establish an identity. She is not there to be reduced to an object, her soul and individuality discarded, thereby enabling the man to handle her with greater safety, and making her a toy. She may well prefer to live alone and rebel against such treatment. One can then say there is little harm in living unmarried. If marriage does not promise happiness, then living alone could be the most advantageous.

 Yet, in most socio-cultural contexts, living unmarried is more difficult for the woman than the man. Evelyn Fox Keller, in her essay “Women in Science: A Social Analysis” clearly confirms this when she writes, “Our society does not have a place for unmarried women. They are among the most isolated, ostracised group of our culture.” Is this not a fact too in the African context? People tend to be shocked once an elderly respected woman is found unmarried. In most cases, one may be labelled a witch, abnormal or unmarriageable. Like a songbird, the woman is caged and her freedom – which cannot be considered as freedom at all – is to obey and accept social domination and cultural oppression.

Intellectual pursuit

Through the last three centuries, intellectual oppression has been one of the most powerful force against women’s domination. For instance in A Wife’s Story, Panna succeeds in getting educated but her mother was deprived of going for French classes at the Alliance Française. Exposing this point in her essay entitled ‘Declaration of Sentiments’, Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes; “He has denied her the faculties for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.” The little right women had in education was so minimal, so insignificant that there was no right at all. Gradually, women began to get access to education and time proved that educated women can be as productive as men and in some cases more responsible. Adrienne Rich in her essay ‘Taking Women Students Seriously’ gives a confirmatory note when she writes, “But long before entering college, the woman student has experienced her alien identity in a world which misnames her, turns her to its own uses, denying her the resources she needs to become self-affirming, self-defined.”

Today, educated women have proved beyond doubt how resourceful they can be and have shown quality in their work. Where the man is pompous and proud, the woman is gentle and simple. Where the man, though educated, feels it more advantageous to oppress the woman, she on the contrary uses her education to build an understanding and create a harmonious life between them. The man believes the woman cannot live in a man’s world. The woman believes the man alone will find the world a burden without her intellectual assistance. Isn’t it said that educate a man and you educate an individual but educate a woman and you educate a whole nation?

The Gambian Woman today makes the news

The theme this year at the UNESCO is celebrating women and their access to media as well as giving them the chance to make the news. According to the UNESCO data, despite what has been achieved since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, only 24% of the people questioned, heard, seen or read about in both the written and the audio-visual media are women where 76% are men. Only 16% of the stories focus on women issues. UNESCO has released this year a Global report on the status of Women in the media.

In The Gambia however, a tremendous stride has been achieved in giving the women the chance to excel in the media. The Gambia Radio and Television services can boast of having more female broadcasters than men giving the National news on the television. A break-recording feat is having the first female professional camerawoman. As for television programmes, the most successful are the Fatou Show and Nyuni neenla which are all anchored by distinguish ladies.

One cannot deny that the status of the Gambian woman has been elevated. The Women Act has been billed and passed to law. The Women’s Bureau has continued to function effectively pursuing its mandate to empower women. Women associations have sprouted out in all corners of the country. Projects for women in different forms (literacy programmes, micro-finance, and horticulture) have been given a great boost. In politics and education women have been given the front line and are proving not only trustworthy partners but exceptionally skillful leaders.

The establishment of FAWEGAM, WODD and GAMCOTRAP have given a voice to the women and have raised controversial issues pertinent to change some of our views and practices that have for so long affected our societies. There is no question that violence against and abuse of women, in whichever form, should remain unacceptable and punishable by law. Every effort should be deployed to help our societies understand that most of our socio-cultural practices harmful to women cannot be promoted at any cost.

Gambian women such as Dr Isatou Touray, Mrs Adelaide Sosseh, Mrs Hannah Forster, Mrs Emily Sarr, Mrs Amie Sillah and a host of others have raised concerns about women’s rights, the future of women in national development during their consultative workshop of the AU Women’s Protocol. Today, giant strides have been made with the support of national and international organisations. Beijing has begun to move women issues much further. Issues raised are quite pertinent and they need serious reflection. Up to this moment, it has been proven without doubt that women have the motivation, the determination and the will to make Gambia paradisiacal.

With all due respect to my men folk, we excel in self-aggrandizement and personal gratification. With an equal dose of the two, equilibrium between the man and the woman might be created where the tasty and the sour can douse life’s vicissitudes. Women should be given all the chance they need at all levels of national development.


Even where the call to promote women issues remains quite an important one and a task, a challenge, and where The Gambia continues to register success in its efforts in this sector, we should bear in mind that caution must be taken in the methodology used in promoting these concepts. We have established that violence is unacceptable so there cannot be a compromise in this area. However, issues such as female excision should require constant sensitisation and education to gradually eradicate it. The process will surely take time because of the erroneous religious nature it is associated with.

Polygamy is another controversial topic but it is fundamental to first educate people on the dangers or inconveniences of being in a polygamous marriage. The choice should remain with individuals to choose to be polygamous or monogamous despite the complications. As long as it is a religious recommendation – not without conditions surely - it behoves the married couple to make that decision.

On a final note, we should keep in mind that we have excellent values that have made our societies unique. In combatting the socio-cultural ills, as long as we do not forget that in our definition of rights and privileges, roles and responsibilities, we do not forego those values that make us humane and imperfect, progressive and dynamic then there is little doubt that we will continue shining out as the model for all other societies. In the process of defining what rights are, some societies have gone decadent and are more or less becoming inhumane and lifeless. A harmonious existence full of tolerance and love in a society of cultural diversity and multi-ethnicity has become our identity so also should it be our forte. Every effort must be taken to uphold those values at any price.

(Kindly send your reactions to cobarry@cobarry.org)