Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Second Wave Feminism and Toilets

With the enormous chasm between the cultures of Mali and America, it is quite difficult to describe the status of Malian women with the terminology of Western feminism. If 15-year-old Kimberly were to be married off to a Fundamentalist Mormon who already has three wives to his name, a conservative Catholic soccer mom in Baton Rouge would shudder in disgust at such degradation of women. If Peggy Sue from the mountains of Kentucky were to spend her life toiling in the kitchen, illiterate and barefoot, feminists chatting over soymilk lattés in a Northampton coffeeshop would probably say that she is repressed by the traditional gender roles of a misogynist culture.

In Mali, however, such conditions are the norm. Here most women spend a good part of their lives barefoot in the kitchen, pounding millet while with a baby strapped to their back and another on the way. Upon matrimony most Malian women explicitly consent to their husband’s taking of additional wives. Only a small minority of women will ever complete a high school education and very few have a skilled trade of their own.

The conventional status of women here would make the average American woman shudder – and I have yet to mention genital mutilation. Though as much as normal gender roles are quite different in Mali from what I know in the Northeastern blue states, I would caution anyone from making a sweeping moral judgment; one cannot evaluate the condition of Malian women without taking into account the economic realities of the world’s third-poorest nation.

Let me introduce you to Bintu – an archetypical Malian woman. Bintu was born to a large family of millet farmers in Sanadougou where she has lived her entire life. For a couple of years Bintu went to the elementary school down the street, but by the time she was 10 she stopped going because as the eldest daughter she had to take care of her younger siblings while her mother went to the fields. At age 18, Bintu was married off to a peanut farmer on the other side of town. Now 30, Bintu has since has given birth to eight children – six of which have managed to survive the onslaught of diarrhea, malaria and general malnutrition. She will probably have only a few more now that her husband has taken a second wife.

Bintu hardly has a moment’s respite from the daily labors of raising a family of ten in a subsistence agricultural economy. Every morning she wakes up before dawn to draw water from the well, and then she will retreat into the smoky air of her wood-fired kitchen to cook millet porridge for her family’s breakfast. Then she goes out to the fields to collect firewood and leaves from the baobab tree to cook a more gelatinous porridge called to (pronounced like the appendage) for lunch. At lunchtime her husband will come back with a cart full of peanuts, which Bintu will spend the rest of the day shelling. Then she will go back into the smoky kitchen to cook another batch of to for dinner. After drawing more water from the well to clean the dishes, she will go to sleep and wake up to another day of more or less the same work around the house and adjacent fields.

At age 50 Bintu will die of respiratory infection from having spent half the hours of her waking life inhaling the harmful tars and particulate matter of wood smoke. Except for the occasional trip to sell her peanuts at market in the next village over, she will have never left Sanadougou.

Despite these common tales of woe, there is much to praise about the status of women in Mali – even according to the narrow lens of Western social theory. First Wave Feminism is an established fait accompli; compared to other majority Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia or Iran, Mali is eons ahead in terms of political equality. Upon independence from French colonial rule in 1960, the Republic of Mali borrowed from her mother country a republican ethos of equal political rights for both men and women. As long as there has been a Malian state, women like men have been constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote, to serve on juries and to hold public office, and discrimination based on sex has been prohibited by the Constitution. Seeing that the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution is limited to voting rights, Malian women have arguably greater de jure equality than their counterparts in America.

At this point in time, I would be inclined to classify Mali somewhere on the cusp of the Second Wave of Feminism. There are many women here who generate income of their own outside the home – a typical business operation consists of a lady sitting on a stool in the street directly in front of her home selling fried doughballs with fish sauce. Out of all seriousness, this is the height of commerce in an ordinary rural village – in the countryside there are very few factories and offices to speak of. In those urban centers like Bamako, Sikasso, Ségou or Koutiala there is a small but growing population of university-educated women who hold jobs as secretaries, teachers, accountants and even the occasional doctor, lawyer or engineer. Though in a country where the vast majority of men work on the family farm, the issue of women in the workplace is barely a blip on anyone’s radar.

As to Third Wave Feminism, well… (gulp) let’s just say that Mali is an overwhelmingly Islamic country. Though West African Muslim societies are generally more open and tolerant than their Arab counterparts, the Qur’an is very clear about what will happen to sodomites when the Mahdi returns. Though I would not describe Malian society as being particularly hostile to homosexuality – it’s more like most people do not know what homosexuality is. I am told that there is no word in Bambara – or Senaful, Fulani or Minianka for that matter – for a man who loves a man or a woman who loves a woman.

It would be fair to say that the prevailing attitudes on gender and sex in Mali are an ocean and a continent apart from those in the United States. Yes, many men here view women as inferior subordinates. But then again, so do a number of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and Southern Baptists in Montgomery – and their wives enjoy much greater opportunities to find employment. Male chauvinism is without a doubt an obstacle to the realization of the needs of Mali’s women, yet their most immediate problems are not so much products of misogyny as much as they are symptoms of a completely underdeveloped subsistence agricultural economy where daily life has not changed all that much since the Iron Age.

Whereas traditional gender roles seem like bizarre anachronisms in America’s postindustrial metropolises, here in Sanadougou they actually make a lot of sense. Since so much labor goes into the production of each meal, it is completely unfathomable that an individual could live off the land without the help of a family. Here on Bintu’s farm, someone has to be hoeing, sowing and reaping the millet fields and someone has to spend all day sorting the grain from the chaff and pebbles, pounding the grain into an edible powder, and fanning the fire in the smoky kitchen – there are not enough hours in the day for one person to do all of these tasks themselves. The law of comparative advantage says that the pregnant woman with a baby on her back should be excused from more strenuous work and assigned to the lighter work of the hearth.

And as to those very, very many babies, the fecundity of Mali’s women is the upshot of many causes. First of all, contraceptives and birth control are expensive. Secondly, even if such methods were more readily available, devout Muslims heed Allah’s exhortations to be fruitful and multiply and the woman with the most offspring commands great respect in her community. And most of all, for traditional village women to have many children is the pre-capitalist equivalent of having life insurance and a pension plan with diversified holdings – if Bintu’s husband were to suddenly die, or if she were both to live long enough that she becomes too old and frail to work, at least one of those children will be able to put food on the table.

In Mali the current debates in American feminism seem a world away. Can a woman support a family of five and simultaneously serve as Vice President? If Bintu has to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then no one would be able to cook to and leaf sauce for her husband and children. Should civil marriage rights be extended to same-sex couples? Here, the definition of a feminist is a woman who does not allow her husband to marry multiple wives. Abortion? A surefire way to have nightmares for a month is to imagine how that operation might be conducted in a country with neither bathtubs nor clothes hangers…

That is not to say that a feminist movement does not exist in Mali. It does, but like all other democratic movements in this young Republic it is taking baby steps towards progress. The typical American hockey mom in the year 2008 has not been cognizant long enough to remember a time when homemakers were expected to prepare tea and cookies without the luxury of supermarkets, refrigerators, dishwashers or Tupperware. But their grandmother’s generation would remember that these wonders of modern consumerism were the essential ingredients without which Betty Friedan would have never found the time to read the newspaper and be active in civic causes beyond the P.T.A.

Right now the Malian feminist movement is largely occupied with achieving a comparable level of material comfort. Just as Lenin wished to bypass industrial capitalism to transform Russia’s feudal agrarian economy directly into a post-capitalist industrial state, Malian women are toiling to improve the household economy so that the Second Wave of Feminism can come about prior to running water or electricity. Like most things in Mali, change is coming about little by little.

For example, gas stoves. In America they are rustic antiques, but in Mali they are on the cutting edge of consumer technology. For a woman to own such an item means that they save hours a day which would have otherwise been spent collecting and chopping firewood. A gas stove also frees them from the confines of a smoky kitchen thereby vastly improving their pulmonary health, perhaps tacking on a few years to their life. Gas stoves, however, will forever remain beyond the means of women who have enough trouble paying for food. So some advocates of women’s health in Mali are beginning to espouse culinary practices which are easy on the lungs and also free of charge, such as recipes which can be cooked in the noonday sun or – a truly ground-breaking innovation – cooking outside.

Nevertheless, the most revolutionary tool in the dialect of Malian Second Wave Feminism is without a doubt the toilet. You might be wondering what a toilet could possibly have to do with equal rights for women, but this simple apparatus has more to do with equality of opportunity than you might imagine.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine, because every morning the kids in village have to pass my house along the road to the primary school. Every so often when I am brushing my teeth and watching the procession go by, a kid will stop and drop his pants or lift her dress and defecate on the other side of my fence.

Villages in countries like Mali are lucky if they have a building reserved solely for the education of their children. They are even luckier if they have a public latrine near that building. You see, even if there is a school in town does not mean that every child is going to attend class, because as they grow older children in Mali have other duties to attend to such as watering the garden, letting the cattle out to graze, and menstruating.

Yes, menstruating – it is embarrassing enough to go through puberty as is, and it is even more embarrassing when the butigi doesn’t sell tampons and the only place where they can find privacy is in their family’s latrine on the other side of town. Especially in schools where there is no bathroom on the premises, or even if there is a bathroom there is only one for a class of fifty and no lock on the door, the arrival of a girl’s first period often means the end of their academic career.

A toilet changes that whole equation. Not necessarily a flush toilet like the one you might be accustomed to, but an improved cement outhouse appropriate for a rural village without central plumbing. One of these thrones happens to be built next to the brand-new schoolhouse down the street from me – and it is reserved just for girls. That means the schoolgirls of Sanadougou might just be able to fight against the odds and achieve full literacy, go on to high school, maybe even acquire a skilled trade. A toilet for girls does not mean that everyone who uses it will necessarily be able to read and write and it certainly does not guarantee future employment – but it provides the infrastructure necessary so that girls can at least stay in school through adolescence.

Karitie Sanago, the principal of the Sanadougou school district, is quite grateful for the new latrines constructed next to the elementary school. He tells me that last year girls made up only 35 percent of the elementary school class rosters. But since this school year is the first that there has ever been a toilet for girls, a number of female students who never even finished elementary school have decided to give it another shot. This year, girls make up approximately 45 percent of the student body; the gender breakdown is still nowhere near absolute parity, but now that there is a toilet for girls it has been significantly narrowed.

His wife Durcas spends most of her day sorting rice and tending the fire to cook three meals a day – but she is also one of the few women in town with a lycée education, fully literate and fluent in French. This puts Durcas in a position as one of Sanadougou’s civil society elite; she runs the local women’s group and serves as an advisor to the Mayor’s Office. “What we need in Mali is a reason for women to want to learn”, she tells me, “because so many women think that they will never be able to do anything but cook to.”

In our free time I am teaching Durcas how to type with my word processor and how to make spreadsheets with Microsoft Excel. At the moment the Mayor’s Office is trying to put Sanadougou on the electrical grid, but my hope is that one day when they have computers, Durcas will be the only person in a hundred villages who can digitally manage the public finances.

A Discouraging Moment

When people meet this strange white man with aviator sunglasses and hydrofoil sideburns, it is clear that I am… from out of town, so one of the first questions I am always asked is “Where are you from?”

“America”, I say, “in a village near the city of New York”

“Oh, New York! I know of that place!” they reply, and then scan their memory to remember how exactly they know of it. Then they ask me in a jovial, getting-to-know-you tone, “Was anyone in your family killed on September 11th?”

Thankfully, no. But at this point the conversation always comes to a somber lull. In America and especially in New York, anyone other than Rudy Giuliani has a hard time making small talk out of the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. But with the hyperliteralism of the Bambara tongue, subtlety does not quite exist in Mali. As much as I would prefer for them to ask me about the Yankees, Broadway or the Museum of Modern Art, the only one of New York’s landmarks they could possibly know is the former World Trade Center.

One time I was hiding from the noon-day sun brewing tea with a group of men and I had to suffer this horrendous dialogue once again. I have had this simultaneous conversation starter/ender more times than I can count, but this time it really touched a nerve. Directly beforehand, the person with whom I was speaking had asked me about my religious affiliation.

“Tell me this – who told your family not to go to work on September 11th?”

My blood curled. The cruder instincts in me wanted to strangle this particular individual brewing tea before me, shove his face into the glowing embers, and then pour that teapot of boiling water down his throat so he could never utter such obscenity again. But then my superego chimed in and reminded me that I am in the Peace Corps – we are strongly discouraged from committing in acts of violence, no matter how deserved they may be. Peace, Zac, think of peaceful methods of conflict resolution such as the art of Reason and Negotiation. It took me a while though, because at that moment the impulsive option seemed rather appealing.

I simply informed the casual anti-Semite sitting in front of me that no such warning was ever issued to the Jewish community of the greater New York metropolitan area, and that many Jews, in fact, were killed on 9/11. I explained to him that the assertion is absurd on its face, for Osama bin Laden is quite open about his intent on killing Jewish civilians throughout the world.

“But Sidi told me that…” Sidi is an illiterate peanut farmer who lives down the street.

I framed the problem like this: I am from New York – Sidi has never strayed more than a donkey cart’s ride away from his village; I have read the 9/11 Commission Report from cover to cover – Sidi cannot read; I am a New York Jew – Sidi would not know what a Jew was if he clocked him across the face with a bottle of maneshevitz.

In the end I think I won. Though throughout the conversation, I could not help but eyeball that boiling teapot.

There really isn’t much more to this story, in truth it’s not much of a story at all other than a cautionary reminder that even in perhaps the most moderate, pro-Western of countries in the Islamic world, the vilest of anti-Semitic slander is disseminated with the greatest of ease. I can’t really blame the people who fall for it, because they have no source of information other than gossip and hearsay garbled a hundred times down the telephone line.

I feel that I can rightly blame those few demented, self-fashioned journalists and educators who use their power over the minds of men to give credence to such malicious lies. But the sad truth is that sick minds like these have existed since the days of Pharaoh, they always will, and there’s nothing anyone can do to make them go away. But there is plenty that can be done by Israel, the United States, and especially the American Jewish community to dilute their message and undermine their credibility.

From Senegal to Syria to Pakistan to Indonesia, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims grow up in stifling poverty with little to no access to public education. In many countries the only opportunity that many Muslim youth will ever have at receiving a free education or a secondary education of any form is the madrassa system funded by wealthy Arabs from the oil-rich Gulf States. Despite the awful press they have received in past years, there is nothing inherently wrong about the madrassas – they are in essence no different than Catholic boarding schools. But if there is a madrassa in a given city teaching its garabouts to believe in a global Zionist conspiracy, then that is probably the only semblance of an education they can ever hope to get.

I must admit that when it comes to the most politicized madrassas which propagate such hateful screeds, it might be the only time that I will ever agree with Paul Wolfowitz: the United States and the rest of the industrial powers must embark on massive campaign to finance public education in the Islamic world. This money need not be slanted towards the ideological indoctrination in free market democracy but the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, for that alone is enough to allow students to develop opinions of their own and bust the madrassas’ near monopoly on public opinion.

Furthermore, the State of Israel has a great role to improve this current state of affairs. At the present, there is no sign of an Israeli presence in Mali – which is a shame, seeing that all things being equal Mali remains one of the most tolerant of Muslim countries, the Malian people are unanimously supportive of international development efforts, and the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré is avidly embracing any and every foreign government which offers such aid. Israel more than capable of financing a modest assistance program and I can’t think of one good reason why it has not done so already.

I hate to say it, but Jerusalem should emulate the example being set by Muammar el-Qaddafi. They should open up an Israeli Embassy in Bamako and make a good first impression by embarking on a spending spree to finance the construction of new schoolhouses. If the Livni cabinet could allocate a minute fraction what is spent on subsidies for the building of new settlements in the West Bank to send Israel’s famed water engineers to Mali, they could do for Islamic communities bordering the Sahara what investments in irrigation have done for horticulture in the Negev Desert. Were the Israeli Foreign Ministry to become as visibly involved in West African development programs as say, Luxembourg, one cannot help but think that the soft power influence would deprive local anti-Semitism of oxygen and maybe even establish a few more moderate Islamic allies to prod Palestinian cooperation in a future peace process. If only…

I should quit while I’m ahead. Next time someone asks, I’ll say I’m from Chicago.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Malian Perspective on President Obama

Though Barack Obama has yet to take the oath of office as President of the United States, it seems this election has already made immeasurable progress in America’s standing with the rest of the world. Why do I think this? Because people tell me so.

Now when I walk down the street, people randomly come up to me and say "thank you". Thank you for what? “Thank you for voting for Barack Obama! America used to be very bad, but now you are my friend!”

Despite the general disapproval of our foreign policy in the Middle East and our occasional kooky outbursts of Christian supremacy, every Malian I talk to has an effusive attitude towards America per se. A common conversation starter here is “America… it is… Good!” I try my best to explain in Bambara income inequality and xenophobia, but it seems that nothing will shake the belief that America is a virginal exception to the Old World tradition of colony and empire.

Though Malians have their doubts. A general rule of thumb is that the more literate a Malian is and the more they identify themselves with Islamic culture, the more likely they are going to have an ax to grind with America. If they can pronounce “Abu Ghraib”, I brace myself for an uncomfortable feeling of personal responsibility for the collective sins of my countrymen. Unlike most governments in African history, America is a democracy whose faults cannot be ascribed to one man – if the government does something bad it is all the people’s fault.

No one in Mali other than President Toure has ever actually met George Walker Bush, but they know enough about the archetypical Tubabu to have a very negative view of him. “Joje Boosh is racist!” I am told, “Joje Boosh kills Muslim people in Iraq and Palestine because he thinks that Jesus is the prophet and Muhammad is a liar!” We have eight years of serious damage to control.

Some people have a few kind words to say about the incumbent administration, “Joje Boosh buys chemicals to kill mosquitoes and kill malaria banakise – but he wants us to become Christians because he thinks that Islam is a terrorist religion!” I do not know how much of these views are formed by al-Jazeera a few madrassahs removed, how much they are simply products of homegrown prejudice, or how much they are based upon an objective analysis of discernible reality. But I can say for sure that the negative attitude towards the President who said that America was fighting “a crusade” is somewhat related to generations of Malian interaction with well-meaning missionaries whose handouts have been laced with ulterior motives.

But no matter how many bones they can pick with America, all eyes light up upon the mention of Barack Obama. “Barack Obama… is… Good!”

Part of it is simply because Barack Obama is black… well, he’s actually half black, but he’s more black than any other President of the biggest most powerful white country in the world. Also, many Malians believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim. You see, unlike America where calling someone a Muslim is tantamount to slander, in Mali it is a praise of a person’s ethics and morals. In an Islamic country, boys are regularly named Hussein after the grandson of Muhammad who rebelled against the Umayyad dynasty’s tyranny and injustice.

Some people here have an interestingly self-interested perspective on Obama’s victory; “Now that America has a black skinned president, America will give more money to black skinned Africans!” When I am told this I explain that yes, the Obama-Biden ticket did in fact pledge to increase the budget for foreign assistance – some of which might be allocated to Mali’s irrigation projects. But the understanding assumes more of an iron law of wages, “The black president is going to take money from the racist white people and give it to his brothers and sisters in Africa!”

Other people have a more comprehensive understanding of the history of American race relations. “You Americans used to own slaves from Africa, and then you freed the slaves. But you were still racist for many years…” I am lectured by shriveled old men. “But now you have a black President, and Barack Obama is going to smack the racists hard like a dirty old donkey!” Right on, brotha (terrorist fist jab).

I think there might be something a little more profound to what has happened, something with a connection to what I am doing here right now which I am still digesting. I think that after eight long years of insularity and fear of foreign-sounding Muslim people, America is – like Kevin McAlastair and the furnace in his basement – not afraid anymore.

I think that what America just did has something to do with why I left my comfortable, air-conditioned existence in New York and decided to spend the next two years living in a mud hut in a village of peanut farmers who eat millet porridge with leaf sauce and pray to an almighty Allah whom I can only begin to comprehend. I think that maybe it has something to do with the fact that instead of sitting by myself all day behind a locked gate, I have finally worked up the courage to invite my neighbors over to my garden to sip hibiscus tea and tell me their life stories. And the more that I hang out with the people in my village and listen to their fart jokes, the less anxious I feel about locking my gate all the time.

I think most of all, it has something to do with the fact that I spend each day walking the dusty, filth-ridden streets of my village, walking into people’s yards and simply having a chat about developing water infrastructure. People here think that their village is dirty and crumbling, though for years they have had the tools and the capacity to improve it. It just seems as if everyone has just always accepted malaria and gastrointestinal disease and poverty as immutable constants – and if anything could be done about it, it could only be done by white French people beyond their control. My job in the Peace Corps is really to explain to people that they don’t have to sit idly as they wait for the Messiah to return, that they have always had the power to change things themselves, so let’s turn off the boob tube, get off our butts and get to it.

If anything, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has demonstrated to the people of Mali that change is, in fact, possible.

As I explain in Bambara, “Owo, an be se.”

Yes we can.