Breezes of social change sweep slowly through Senegal

Dakar, on the westernmost tip of Africa, is a city swept by ocean breezes. The voluminous, jewel-colored robes of its women swirl and billow in the warm, soft wind. The Senegalese have innate grace and elegance. All the women look regal. They glide proudly, straight-backed, their heads supporting large turbans of wound and piled cloth. Yet the majestic bearing of les S'en'egalaises is a paradox. In general, these women gain respect only in old age, and only if they are the mothers of many children, particularly sons. Hence, on average, they bear at least seven children. They are often married by age 16, and their husbands usually have more than one wife.

But Marie-Ang'elique Savan'e is a distinct exception to the rules of traditional Senegalese womanhood. Her marriage is monogamous. ``One thing I was sure of was that I would never accept a husband who had other wives. I never could imagine that,'' she says flatly. She has only two children, and her time and energies are occupied as much by career as by family.

Savan'e is a Catholic in a country 80 percent Muslim and got her education in a school geared to Europeans. Now, she's a member of the urban elite -- known in Senegal as les intellectuels. A sociologist and author, she is president of AAWORD, the Association of African Women for Research and Development. During the 1970s she founded and edited the African magazine Family and Development. She is currently employed by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and has completed a study on the impact of socioeconomic change on the women of rural Senegal.

In her comfortable, stylish, distinctly African home, Madame Savan'e serves a traditionally generous lunch of thieboudienne -- a huge communal dish of couscous loaded with meats, vegetables, and spices. During the interview that follows, she talks about herself, about the realities of life for Senegalese women today, and about the changes she sees just over the horizon. Do the teachings of Islam have much impact on women here?

Of course. Women's entire lives are controlled by these teachings. That's why they marry young. That's why they want to have children as soon as they get married. One of the criticisms one could make of the Islamic fundamentalist groups is their attitude toward women. They are against the emancipation of women. I think that's one of the reasons why women will understand more and more that they will reap no benefits from fundamentalism. Do many women even have a chance to make their feelings known?

No. Women are so vulnerable when it comes to motherhood. Not many are going to dare run the risk of saying, ``I want very few children, I want a professional life.'' Men want many children and women must prove that they can have many children in order to gain status.

In our society if a woman says, ``I want a successful career instead of having children,'' it's not accepted. It's a scandal. ``What? You can't! Motherhood is everything. A profession is nothing. You should drop it. You can live without a profession, but your children. . . .'' That's why it's hard. But I think that more and more women will realize that there is no alternative -- that they want to express themselves in another way. Well, do Senegalese women have any say about polygamy, for instance?

[When they marry] people have to choose, are we going to be monogamous or polygamous? In theory, the law requires both spouses to agree to polygamy. But in practice [the authorities] only ask men their opinion. They don't ask the women. Women would never agree if they were asked?

No, of course not. But women are afraid to upset things, especially when the whole marriage has been planned, everything is arranged. We are a society where marriage is very important for a woman. A woman only exists when she is married, when she is a mother. If she isn't married, she has no rights. So every woman wants to do everything possible to get married. The race to get married is incredible. A girl of 20 who doesn't have anyone yet, she thinks, what's happening to me? She's ready to do anything to get married. Do African women have any autonomy?

I think that they have a great deal of autonomy. A woman here can control what belongs to her, her money. For example, if she is in trade, if she makes and sells something, it's her money.

Here there is a kind of veneration for motherhood and for elderly women. So a woman says, OK, I may have problems in my life, but if I have children, when I get old, I will be honored, I will be respected. I think these are the conditions which have meant that African women haven't felt slighted. They haven't been made to feel as if they didn't exist. They had a role to play in society which was recognized, accepted. Everything was done to help them fulfill that role, even if there were forms of alienation.

You can't say women were liberated. But they accepted their role because at a certain time in their life this role could bring them honor. What success have women had in changing discriminatory laws?

Women's organizations here have their work cut out for them. But as the result of one publicity campaign it is now illegal for men to repudiate their wives. Now, divorce is legal, and quite easy to obtain. Before, all she could do was leave her husband, but now she can officially ask for a divorce and get one. Do you think steps like this will create a conflict between men and women? That the men will react out of fear of change?

Here in Africa the relationship between men and women has never been antagonistic. When the feminist movement started in Europe and North America and took a militant stance against men, African women couldn't understand that. We would say, OK, maybe men aren't always nice, maybe they have problems. But our fight is not with them.

There are a lot of men who have been sympathetic to this movement. They have been afraid, they have been shocked, but they realize that being a woman can mean other things than simply having children, taking care of the house. They recognize that women can make a contribution.

We will have other struggles. The question is how will we conduct them? Will we be aggressive -- strike out against men? Or will we start a much more significant social process that will include men? In the beginning the feminist movement consisted of women only. Then we started to bring men in. Now where are we going? I think we have moved beyond the kind of struggle that was antagonistic and anti-men. Now we have to find alternatives with men. Has women's access to education improved?

There are more girls in school now than before. Even parents realize that it's important to send girls to school. But if the girl arrives at the point where it's a choice between her continuing school and getting married, her parents usually decide in favor of marriage. And if there's competition between the girl and her brother as to who will go to school, they choose the brother. The parents say, the girl will marry and move away. Everything she earns will belong to someone else. Why invest in her if her earnings won't stay in the family? Do you feel the attitudes of African women have changed as a result of the UN Decade for Women?

Because of the crisis in Africa, women want to draw up strategies in order to survive. But in that survival they are also saying we no longer want to be women with an inferior status. . .

I think a new direction is in the making. This time African women listened to feminists whom they never would have listened to before. Women have been able to find a solution to their isolation by creating networks. There is an incredible network system now. Me, in Senegal, I know that there is a woman in Peru who is struggling. Here in Africa, I know there is a woman in Asia who has done something. And the same applies to the US.

All these women's projects, all these women who had an opportunity to speak and who had never spoken before -- I think it's fantastic. The result is that from now on women all over the world know that they can speak out. They can refuse certain things. They can also accept certain things. And that's enough for me. Now it's up to us.

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