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.
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