About two weeks ago, I got home tired, after a day of rigorous school work. In one of my classes, the lecturer had digressed into the growing relevance of e-reputation as a criterion for employment. Once I’d completed my daily routine, I turned to the all-efficient Google to see what traces I had left, and continue to leave on the Internet. An article in the Daily Observer caught my attention and I got even more excited when I read the signature: that of The Gambia’s Pen, Momodou Sabally. It was an opinion piece (“To Gambian Women: Love, Honour And Respect!”), written to celebrate Gambian women on the occasion of International Women’s Day. In one paragraph, the author wrote “To the young ones, the up-and-coming I say keep it up and don’t you ever give up! There are thousands of young Gambian girls with great promise but let me mention a few I’ve recognised of late: Jama Jack, Aisha Sulayman Keita and Satang Nabaneh. To them I say keep pushing, the future is bright adorned wih starry lights.” I was honored to receive such encouragement as I, together with my colleagues, continue to advocate for the cause of women.
In today’s Daily Observer, the author sings…but with a different tune. I couldn’t help noticing the disclaimer at the top of both articles, detaching the author from the feminist circle, but that is of little significance in the face of the contents of today’s article. “To Gambian Girls: A Message For Self-Preservation And Empowerment“, this title read. I braced myself for yet another inspirational read; one I could draw lessons from. After reading the introduction, however, I was forced to close the tab and set off for school. It was to be completed upon my return, and after proper assimilation of its contents.
I read and re-read the article and attempted to summarise the contents in a few lines. In short, the author’s message was: Dear Gambian girls, the world has changed and you have bigger opportunities to excel now. Grab them all, succeed in whatever you do, but remember that even with that success, you can never be equal to men and society expects you to remain chaste till marriage.
I marvelled at the double standards our society strives on. I wondered if the encouragement received in the first article was also to be taken with the notice in the second. The author tells Gambian girls that “you can and should be bigger and better than any man in any calling that suits you, including leadership roles”; a direct contradiction of the opening paragraph, where the author unreservedly declares that “…men and women at some level are not equal for man was made to be the leader and woman the follower”. You wouldn’t blame me for my confusion, would you?
At the MILEAD Institute in Accra last year, one of the dynamic resource persons highlighted the importance of redefining gender roles and doing away with the patriarchal and mysogynistic norms our society lives by. Being born female means only one thing: that one is a human being and is equal to all others in the eyes of the Creator. In our traditional societies, however, being born female means being raised as a woman…a lesser being automatically condemned to certain expectations that clearly infringe on one’s liberty to live as one pleases. Our biologically-defined organs become an instrument for the socially-constructed notion of gender, allowing us to create variables which identify differences in roles, responsibilities, opportunities, needs, constraints etc. I dare say that these roles, which end up as natural elements in our daily living, are designed with little regard for the person’s interests or social orientations. The status of females, determined by (a patriarchial) society must change to accomodate the evolution of our times and acknowledge the capabilities of our womenfolk, without restricting them to traditional roles, while asking little or nothing of the opposite sex, as far as society’s expectations are concerned.
After ‘advising’ Gambian girls to “preserve our purity and delay our biological urgings”, the author turned to the boys, perhaps as an afterthought and in an attempt to avail himself of any accusations that might be advanced by the girls. How difficult is it to instill the same moral values in ALL of our kids REGARDLESS of their sex? Why should chastity be a priority only for girls, who risk great condemnation if they are found wanting in that department? How would the Gambian public have received that song quoted in the article if, instead of advising the girl to “baayi goor yiko jaii jiko chaii chaii”, the artists had opted to ask of the boys that they “baayi jiko chaii chaii yinyor jaii haleh yu jigeen yi”? Afterall, doesn’t the act of premarital sex go both ways for heterosexual individuals? Wouldn’t it be fair that where we ask girls to guard their chastity, we also ask of boys to lower their gazes, if spirituality is the backing we use for our ‘advice’?
I couldn’t help noting another contradiction in the poem which ended the article. The author tells the young girl to “dress up and parade”, to “do your thing with checkess”. I assumed this would be done in those same high heels which are “more suitable for girls than boots and overalls”. Isn’t this an evident, if even subtle portrayal of the woman as a sexual object, made to beautify herself and parade for we all know who? Yet, she still must guard her chastity and be “mindful of her reputation and that of her clan”. Hmmph!
We live in the 21st century and the feminist movement still faces enormous challenges, despite the milestones gained in the years since the Beijing conference. I’ve always been of the belief that we can only register significant success if we break the gender barriers and work together, both men and women, towards creating a better world for the human being. I believe the women’s movement cannot and will not make a breakthrough if there is no collaboration and solidarity among men and women, especially in revisiting and redefining the patriarchal norms and values by which we are expected to live our lives. I understand that the author has the right to an opinion, just like I do, and he has put it forward, even with the disclaimers. However, when one attains a certain status in society and is looked up to as a source of inspiration for young people, I think it is only right that one pays attention to the messsages put forward and the implications it might have.
To conclude, I throw a last look at the first paragraph where the author declares, “I am not a feminist” and that I ” am free to call him chauvinistic…”. I’ll honorably pass on that offer and , instead, suggest a very powerful video by the amazing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at one of the TedxEuston events. The title ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ is enough for me to rest my case.
Link to Daily Observer article: http://observer.gm/africa/gambia/article/opinion-to-gambian-girls-a-message-for-self-preservation-and-empowerment