Sunday, July 29, 2007

Atheist Man Hater

I called my parents last week and the first thing I blurted out was
“My site is turning me into an atheist man-hater!”

I didn’t think it was possible, having grown up with atheist parents in a liberal town in Northern California, but I think that living here in a conservative, Pulaar, polygamous, Muslim, region of Northern Senegal, has actually made me less religious and turned me into more of a champion of all things women’s rights related. And I realize that addressing this topic in this public forum has the potential to get ugly, so let me qualify what I’m about to say. This entry is about my observations, and the frustrations I encounter as a development worker working, living, and trying to integrate into a culture wholly unlike my own. I am not passing judgment or criticizing. I mean only to share my experiences with you all at home.

I’ve been thinking about this entry for over a week now. Thinking about how to write it and how to dive into a topic that is so complex and sensitive. Because ultimately, religion ties into this, but this entry is mostly about a culture of male dominance and female subordination (in my opinion, partly due to religion and of course many other factors such as lack of education, unemployment etc.). And I decided that no matter what, I can only capture so much through writing and I might as well just dive in and try my best. I hope that you will all be patient with me as I ramble.

Here is how it started.

About 2 weeks ago I was invited to a conference on girls’ schooling. A dynamic and educated young woman I met while drinking tea at my counterpart’s house invited me. I quickly accepted the invitation and agreed to put on my best Senegalese outfit, headwrap and all. To boot, I was going to get a ride from my counterpart’s husband who has a car. So Sunday I went to my counterpart’s house to check on when we’d be leaving. I walk in and she’s lying on the floor resting at 10am and looks horrible. She’s about 7 months pregnant and she’s older and has been really tired and in a lot of pain lately. I tell her that she should spend the day napping and rest as much as possible and try to eat more frequently and stay hydrated etc.

She laughs/groans and says she has to prepare lunch. I look around. There are not one, not two, but 6…count them 6 able-bodied young strapping men LAYING around in their living room watching TV doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. And SHE gets up, nauseous, in pain, and spends the ENTIRE day preparing their food, cleaning up, and then preparing dinner. I almost went nuts. So being the assertive toubak I asked them all why they weren’t helping. “Men don’t cook,” was the response I got as they changed the channel on the TV. Brilliant.

So later that afternoon when I headed back to her house I was already annoyed and worked up about her feeling so badly and not having any help. I was all dressed up in my grande bou-bou, (Senegalese attire) wearing my headwrap, and my desperately uncomfortable hot, wrap skirt. I was sitting around waiting for my counterpart’s husband to get going (Senegalese time. At least an hour late) and I started talking to one of his guests. Now, I’ve met this man before and I knew that I was in for a conversation about polygamy and why I would never ever in his dreams be his second wife.

Maybe it would be better to write out the conversation. This isn’t ver batem but it is the best I can remember. (It was all in French. He doesn’t speak Pulaar).

“Caitlin, you still won’t accept polygamy in your life and be my second wife huh?”
“Nope. Never. Not a chance. Not even in your wildest dreams.”
“But why? Polygamy is good!”
“Yeah it’s good…for the men.”
“Right. So?”
“So? That’s entirely unequal. If men can have multiple wives, why can’t women have multiple husbands?”
(Hilarious outbursts of laughter from the men in the room).
“No Caitlin, that’s not right.”
“Why not?”
(Be prepared for this one…)
“Because it’s in men’s very nature to NEED to have sex with more than one woman. It’s our right ordained by Allah.”
Fact Check: Islam does NOT promote polygamy outright. It merely tolerates it. And limits it to 4 wives.
(Stunned silence from me).
“That’s ridiculous. I do not agree. Polygamy is merely legalized infidelity. In my opinion it should be one person for one partner. I will never be your second wife. Quit asking. I’m bored of this conversation. I get asked every day and the answer will always be no!”

Then the conversation dissolved into laughter (his) and I excused myself from the room. Normally these conversations are routine and I can bounce back from them, but I was already in NO mood to tolerate anymore patronizing “maleness.” It was hot, I was waiting to get to this conference and nervous about having to try and understand all of it, and I was just done defending myself. It becomes exhausting to talk about 10 times a day.

But some days, there is just no rest for the weary PCV.

I went outside hoping to find some comfort in the younger brother who I often talk to because he is extremely patient with me and always wants to talk about America and asks lots of questions and helps me with my Pulaar.

Unfortunately, he was the straw that broke my back…

We started talking about the conference, and that it was promoting the importance of girls schooling. He asked me why it wasn’t about boys schooling too, and brought up the scholarship program that the PC offers to girls of middle school age, but not to boys. So I told him about the statistics, about how many girls drop out after middle school because they are given a husband by their parents. How there are many more boys in high school than girls and this conference and the scholarship program were designed to encourage people to let their daughters and wives continue their schooling.

He chuckled and I knew I was in for a tiring debate. (This time in Pulaar and French).

“But girls don’t need to go to high school.”
“What? Of course they do? Why would you say that? Boys and girls are equal.”
“WHAT? No they are not. Boys and girls are not equal.”
“What are you saying? Seriously? So then what you’re saying is boys are better. They deserve an education. Is that what you mean?”
(Nervous laughter on his part.)
“All I’m saying is that they are not equal. I won’t say who is better. Besides, girls don’t need to go to school because they get husbands and they work in the house. They don’t need to be educated.”
“That’s ridiculous. I definitely don’t agree. Besides, the more education a woman receives the higher chance of survival of her children. Don’t you want your children to survive?”
“That is up to Allah. Besides, girls need to be married early.”
“Early? But here it happens as early as 13! Another volunteer’s brother (age 25) just married an 11-year-old last week! Is that okay?”
“Of course.”
“But she’s just a child. She probably can’t even conceive yet. Ask ANY teenage girl. None of them want to be married yet. When I went around and did my scholarship interviews I did not meet a single girl who wanted to leave school and be married off to some man twice her age and leave her family. That is no future.”
“No. Early marriage is good.”
“Right, for the old men that are marrying them.”
“Yeah it’s good for the men. For us. (Chuckles). But Caitlin, Caitlin…early marriage is good because if they don’t get married they will start running out at night and having sex. You watch…they all do it.”
“At 13? That’s ridiculous. I have 3 teenage sisters in my house right now. And you know them, and you know that they aren’t doing that. They don’t even have time to study let alone have boyfriends because they’re working in the house all day long.”
“No Caitlin. You watch and see. I am going to marry a young wife. I want 3.”
“But imagine if you were a 13 year old girl, going to school, living with your family, enjoying time with your friends and one day your father comes home and gives you a husband. You’re pulled out of school, you’re dressed up and married off and terrified of the wedding night. You have to leave your friends and everyone you know, and live with his family and spend the rest of your life in the house, cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. I mean why do you think so many young girls sit and sob with their groups of friends on their wedding days? Would YOU want that fate?”
“Of course not. But it’s good for them. And I would because I would have to.”

You get the point. It’s not really worth continuing because it just gets me riled up. The conversation ended when I told him point blank that I did not agree. I think I actually stamped my foot and turned my back to him to avoid punching him in the face. And I know. I know that this is not being culturally sensitive, or accepting of his opinion, and his upbringing…but damnit I can’t always be on my best behavior. And sometimes silence is more harmful in the long run. I’d rather risk being rude and have a shot at making him think about what he’s saying. It was just that suddenly, the reality of the kind of centuries of ingrained teachings I am up against loomed in front of me and within seconds I was fighting off tears of frustration and desperation.

This whole thing was so devastating. Not just because of what he said, but also because it came from someone who I enjoy talking with and who I looked forward to sharing experiences with. It was so disappointing.

Thankfully we headed to the conference. My counterpart’s husband, his friend, and myself. Of course they were joking the whole way that the three of us were going to spend the night there and that I was going to have to sleep in the middle of them. Gross. And patronizing. And the joke is old and was never funny in the first place.

The Conference.

As I said, no rest for the weary.

Upon arrival men and women are separated and seated on opposite sides of the compound. In the middle sat a bunch of men on huge cushy couches and were served ice water and tea. They were marabous and Imams mostly. The women meanwhile are sitting in plastic chairs and must share a few sachets of water between themselves and the babies they all have on their backs and in their laps.

Within five minutes I realize that the whole conference is going to take place in Wolof, so I won’t understand a single thing. And it’s not exactly about GIRLS schooling. It’s about the role of Islam and schooling.

3 hours later. I am bored almost to tears. Only ONE woman has spoken the entire night and only to briefly explain her role in organizing this event and that she wants to see more girls kept in school.

On the way home my counterpart’s husband briefly summarized the event (and only after I pestered him). Basically the Grand Marabou talked the entire time. His point was that Koranic schooling should come first. He did not speak a word about keeping girls in school.

Koranic school? Are you kidding me? I want those 3 hours of my life back. I just couldn’t believe it.

I mean, what kind of skills do these kids get from going to Koranic school? Young boys are sent away by their parents during some of the most fragile years of their life (6-10) to sit all day long, filthy, hungry, exhausted, reciting the Koran, and begging for food. I just can’t wrap my head around this idea. I mean what skills do these kids leave with? None. What prospects do they have for employment? Zero. Senegal can’t have thousands of marabous, or Koranic scholars. And they can’t go back to normal school after they’re finished if they’re over 10 years old because they’re not allowed in after 10.

This just baffles my mind. My counterpart for example, chose to put her eldest son in Koranic school instead of regular school. When I asked her what he was going to do afterwards for work, like maybe be an Imam, or a marabou, or teach the Koran, or continue his studies at University, she sort of laughed and said “Oh no. He’ll move to France and work and find a French wife.” Great.

Not to say that everyone has to have schooling to be productive and have successful careers, but we all know it makes it that much more possible. The sort of unreal expectations and the lack of planning and the total absence of logic all for the sake of studying the Koran…I just cannot relate to. And I don’t even know where or how to start.

But maybe I don’t have to relate.

And I’m not here to change anyone’s beliefs or pass judgment on his or her decisions. That’s not what I’m getting at. My intellectual challenge is to find ways to transfer the knowledge and skills that my community asks me for, despite these enormous obstacles I have laid out in this entry. As I said at the beginning, my frustration comes from trying to work through and with these ideas, some of which are entirely contradictory to the work I have been asked to do and see tremendous need for.

If you’re still reading, thanks for your patience and understanding as I grapple with how to sort through of all of my emotions and thoughts from that day. (Remember, that was all just one day). I hope that I have at least made all of you think!

Finding the silver lining. (Because that’s what I do best).

Through it all, even at my lowest moment of the day, even though I was so discouraged, I still didn’t want to leave. Yes, I was overwhelmed and wondering how in the world I was going to be able to affect change. But I am in no way, shape or form going to call it quits. I have made a commitment and I am in this for the long haul.

Wish me luck!

1 comment:

nancy escherich said...

HI Caitlin,
just read this and other entries. YOu are great at sharing your experiences, as hard as they might be. Thanks for being so honest with all that is coming up. I got your blog site from IAA newsletter. I was the spanish teacher there when you were there. I was in the PC in the 80's, so it is great fun to read your experiences which I can relate to in many ways. We are now living in ARgentina, my husband and son and I. Many parallels. YOu are doing great. It is your process, your learning and you are doing it!!! Power to you for choosing the PEace Corps and this way of life. Yes, it is so challenging on so many levels, hard and soul searching. YOu rock!!! I'll keep checking in. Much love and support,