Friday, November 10, 2006

Hear me roar

LeacC asks:

Is life different for women there than in the States? Since I started reading recently...what is your job there?

There’s a lot to say here and a lot of ways to go with an answer.

Do you mean is life as a Senegalese woman in Senegal different than life for an American woman in America? Or do you mean is life as an American woman in Senegal different than life as an American woman in America?

I’ll try to answer both.

Looking just at gender relations, there are some major differences for women born here versus women born in the states. For one thing, polygamy is widely practiced, so many woman have to get used to the idea of sharing their husband with as many as three other women.

In poor families, when there isn’t enough money to keep all the children in school, education for sons is often prioritized over that for daughters. As a result, women are much less likely to be found as skilled laborers (tailors, electricians, plumbers) which can pay a lot more than unskilled jobs, like being a maid or a cook.

And the birth rate is very high in Senegal, on average more than four children per family, so most women spend a lot of time taking care of babies.

That being said, Senegal is not the worst country in the world to be a woman. Women hold key government posts and jobs at various levels in private business. In cities, at least, women can wear whatever they want, go wherever they want, and do what they want. The more remote villages tend to stick to traditional dress, which isn’t any more or less restrictive for women than for men.

Women are often the most creative entrepreneurs and the real force in families. Recently, Senegal has made headlines because tens of thousands of its citizens have boarded rickety wooden fishing boats in the hopes of reaching Europe (usually via Spain’s Canary Islands off the western coast of Africa). They pay small fortunes to get their place, and yet many die en route. And even if they reach the Canary Islands, many get send home with little more than a sandwich and $20.

It’s a huge deal here, and in recent weeks a group of women in an impoverished Dakar suburb, many of whose sons have died trying to reach Europe, have begun advocating to slow the exodus.

Women have a voice in Senegal and they use it.

For me, living in Dakar, again, just talking gender, my life isn’t much different than it would be in DC. I get more marriage proposals than I used to get in DC, and that is gender specific. Women don’t hit on men as blatantly, not by far. But the desire for a toubab boyfriend/husband seems just as strong, just expressed a little differently.

I sometimes wonder, though, how I’m perceived.

In some ways, Senegal is a very socially conservative country. Most people live with their families until they get married. You don’t see people kissing in public, and in households crowded with tens of people, it’s hard to imagine how people get any alone time (although there are plenty of babies being born out of wedlock, so you know it’s happening).

Rose and I live on our own, with no family. I have a boyfriend who comes into my house, even when there’s no one else home. I go out late at night, to parties and bars, sometimes on my own (if I’m meeting friends) and come home even later, again on my own.

And there seem also to be some preconceived notions of western women and promiscuity, maybe because of what people here see in movies. That’s another part of the reason white girls get hit on so often, I think.

So I wonder. Am I respectable? I don’t mean, do my friends respect me because they do. And I don’t mean that I’m doing anything I feel is morally wrong or that I think I should change my behavior.

But Théo kisses me good-bye when he walks me to a taxi. Northing racy, but I still wonder, would he do that if I were Senegalese? Would a Senegalese girl do that?

It doesn’t so much matter what people think of me. As opposed to my friends who are Peace Corps Volunteers or missionaries, whose work depends on their reception by the community. And even if they wouldn’t let their daughters behave the way I do (which may or may not be true), nobody’s going to get in my way. Aside from the fact that I’m an independent adult, I’m a foreigner, and most people seem fine with believing that’s just how it’s done where I’m from.

So that was a fairly esoteric answer. Tomorrow will be more fun, I promise.

As for question deux, you’ll have to wait. Margaret asks kind of the same question, but wants a lot more details, so you’ll get your answer then.


Blogger LeahC said...

Wow! Thanks for such a nice long interesting answer.

11:58 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home