Evolving Role for Senegalese Women in Religion

Muslim women bow in prayer during the first day of the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha. (Photo: Mustafa Abdo / AFP-Getty Images)

In Senegal, Islam plays a very important role — it informs the entire domain of collective thinking. Because some religious texts are interpreted in ways that label women as inferior, many feminists posit that Islam is an obstacle to women's emancipation. However the role of women in Senegal's pervasive religious context is more complex than one might think.

The role of women in Muslim societies became a budding field of study in the early 1980's, coinciding with the rise of religious conservatism in Senegal.

At that time, life was extremely difficult for Senegalese women who dared to talk about the Qur'an as a source of freedom, especially when preachers on the radio and on national TV condoned beating one's wife "according to instructions in the Qur'an." Certain passages in the Qur'an were often interpreted in ways that were unfavorable to women, giving rise to religious discourse about the obedience of women, the superiority of men and the duties of women to manage a home, have children and accept polygamy as an inevitable occurrence. In addition, women were legally considered minors.

However, the determination of Senegalese women to move forward, coupled with international pressure for women's rights, has opened up interesting new prospects. Senegalese women now have a place of their own in religious life. Participation in public intellectual debates on gender equality in Islam was the first step in making the role of women visible in the religious sphere.

For example, much controversy surrounds the interpretation of the 34th verse of Surah an-Nisa' in the Qur'an which states that men are the "maintainers" of women. While many point to this verse as proof of Islam's subjugation of women, they pay little attention to the ensuing justification — in the same verse — which describes a de facto state of affairs: "because they spend of their property [for the support of women]." The authority of men over women depends on their capacity to provide for the needs of their wives, in other words. However, because women are now increasingly able to provide for themselves and their children, not to mention their husbands, this dependence no longer defines their relationships with men.

In addition to their own interpretation of religious texts, Senegalese women have also created a space for themselves in other areas of religious life. One example is Sokhna Magat Diop. Diop inherited her father's responsibilities as a religious leader of the Mouride Sufi order in Dakar following his death in the 1980's. She not only owned land that was cultivated by her followers, but also provided them with religious guidance and appointed imams.

Another example of the dynamism of Muslim Senegalese women is former journalist Ndiaye Mody Guirandu, who founded a new Sufi order. Like other religious communities, Guirandu demonstrated the role and status that women can legitimately achieve in Senegal.

The criticism unleashed about Guirandu's vocation is edifying. In a country where Islam is central to all activities, where eschatology is part of daily life, Guirandu is viewed as a "heretic" because she broke with the tradition that women were confined solely to membership in religious associations and to the organization of ceremonies.

In a country like Senegal, gaining strength and prominence in the religious sphere, even making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, can serve as a launching point for women into the public sphere. Although women are discouraged from political participation, marginalized in public affairs, legally denied land governance and refused religious leadership in public places, they have begun to change the status quo by creating awareness of important religious issues for women, encouraging public debate about women's roles in Senegal and taking part in religious ceremonies.

Some progress has already been achieved, and this is encouraging. However, more needs to be done to introduce democratic and secular values into the relationships between men and women. In the absence of these, the concept of gender equality is a mere fantasy.

Penda Mbow is a Senegalese historian, professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, and president of the Citizens' Movement.