The makings of a feminist

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Monday, October 8, 2007

I sometimes have the feeling that the common ground we depend on in our interactions with Gambians is not really there at all. At best it is a fragile layer that may disappear suddenly with any mention of one of the many glaring controversial issues we encounter daily, or the second anyone lets a blunt opinion slip. Or maybe this is just me overreacting to one of the few times in my life when I could identify myself as one of an oppressed group.
We discussed women in development today during our Poverty and Development Class. I sat down expecting to fill my notebook with doodles as usual, jot down some observations about Gambian style or society that I might have during class, and maybe some notes on any new, interesting information that actually managed to seep its way through the lecture. But no, this was one of the few classes that included a substantial number of Gambians, and after the mention of just a couple bits of controversy, our common ground crumbled. The professor had had us include in our notes that , throughout history, the natural differences between men and women made men dominant over women, and that the "emotional and temperamental" nature of women further barred their development. The Gambian (male) students nodded at this enthusiastically, laughing out affirmations at the latter comment. I first tried to adopt an intellectual argument to these - cultural relativity be damned. I assumed this wouldn't be an issue, after all, we were discussing a controversial issue, opinions should be debated, not declared matter-of-factly by the teacher as truths to be written in permanent ink in our notebooks. But beyond a concern for intellectual processes, I was cringing writing down those notes. I am not a feminist in the states. I am not usually offended by jokes or some of the semi-sexist policies modern feminists contest, mostly because I do not feel that women's rights are significantly threatened. I have always had the freedom and rights in terms of my gender to do what I would like. (though i suppose, if i were to actually do well at this whole cultural relativity thing, i would say that this is because i am a product of my culture, and Gambian women might feel the same way...) But I do not feel this way in The Gambia, as I think I've complained about before. Everywhere you run into the fact of the limited roles placed on women, their absence from higher education, their limited accepted social freedom and ownership of property, the acceptance of female genital mutilation, condescension of women's abilities and independence, and inappropriate treatment towards women in public. And even just the ridiculous but maddening smaller things get to me, like while I was riding my bike a man very bluntly said what it seems others think when they stare at me-he actually stopped me in my path and yelled at me, saying, 'foolish girl, girls don't ride bikes!' Even accepting relativistic standards, I can't help cringing at some of the experiences of women here, and my own encounters with gender roles. And when the Gambian male laughs at stereotypes of women or jokes about their roles and rights, there seems to be so much behind it.
But neither the Gambians or the Professor seemed very phased by remarks questioning the lecture, except for a small smile that crept upon some faces. I very clearly felt the label 'Western Feminist" descend upon me and went on listening to the professor. The lecture led a very kind, intelligent Gambian student to make the statement that Gambian women today are "asking too much," and are simply serving Western values and endangering Gambian tradition and sacred religion.
What do you say to this? I am trying to understand and respect Gambian culture. But I am also a pure-bred Western Liberal. I do struggle when people expect different standards than my own. How can I simply acquiesce that women be denied rights that are necessary for their basic equality?
Not surprisingly, I didn't keep my mouth shut. But instead of the intellectual approach, since the Gambian student really didn't seem to support academic debate of his opinion, I used a more personal, tentative tone. I wanted to respect differences, I tried to communicate to him, but could he, and the others who nodded him on, really turn around and tell me I wasn't equal to them? That is what they implied by refusing to compromise what is handed down to them by tradition. No one said anything. This included the one Gambian woman in the class. Another smcm student had gotten her opinion on the matter later. She said that yes, some more freedoms would be nice, but the second anyone told her it was violating tradition, she would stop. This from one of the few women we've encountered in higher education. It's not like I was planning a campaign to 'save' Gambian women, i would never be that culturally imperialistic, I'm simply struggling reconciling my values here, but it is strange to know that even Gambian women can't offer me much help in this attempt.
It is interesting, some Gambians, especially the educated ones we run into at the university, sometimes seem very interested in progressive, Western ideas, and will happily give examples of Gambia embracing these. This might make Westerners more comfortable here, but we would be stupid, even in a university classroom, to suggest that maybe traditions should be questioned, or sources of tradition be reexamined. Even to suggest that society moves forward is an assumption. I suppose all of this just boils down to the very obvious fact that we are in a different place, and I have to accept that these differences extend far further than a different scenery with more goats than I'm used to, to an entirely different view of reality.
At the end of the class I don't think even a little bit of a compromise was found. Not that it was hostile, but we left looking at each other a little like strange animals with strange ways. There may as well have been a glass cage between us.
But, after this very blunt encounter with discrimination against women that I feel more subtly in small ways each day, I faced reverse discrimination as soon as I stepped out of the school building. A taxi driver with one customer already in the front seat (which is usually very normal) immediately stopped for me - a young white girl - and agreed to take me where I needed to go. Then, while I sat confused in the back, a argument in wolof developed in the front seat involving the words 'tubab,' and 'racist.' Apparently, as I would find out later, the driver refused to take the initial passenger to his destination in favor of mine. Even the cops were involved in the dispute as I thrust my five dalasi at the driver and jumped out at my stop.
I was really just very happy to make it away from that classroom and out of that car and to the Methodist Special School, where the only problems of the day were simple subtraction and most of the students (and teachers, really) spend about 85% of their time smiling and giggling. It must suit my emotional, temperamental nature and natural affinity for child rearing to be there.
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