Barriers of tradition, social stratification and culture: the oppression of Sereer women in Senegal/ Barrieres de la tradition, stratification sociale et culture: l'oppression des femmes sereers au Senegal.

Author:Sne, Abib


"The culture is at the beginning and at the end of any development," a statement from Leopold Sedar Senghor highlights the primacy of the role that culture plays in African societies. Indeed, African populations south of the Sahara who evolve in relatively identical traditions view the hierarchy as the backbone of their political and economic social organization, and with a phallocentric character, such an organization affects an incongruous part for women in the political and economic sphere as the principle of authority is left to men who are believed to have an experience of knowledge and therefore the power to direct decisions and give guidance.

Thus, men are considered to be at the center of all social interactions and incarnate the symbol of centralized power, so in ethnic communities like the Sereers in Senegal an awkward tradition is born in which woman are viewed as an 'object'.

The situation of Sereer women is defined with much ambiguity; they belong to their clan and lineage of origin as long as they remain unmarried. But once married, they are no longer members of the original clan. Therefore, given that they are admitted in a virilocal residence, to perpetuate the offspring of the lineage of their husbands, they become simple a 'object' or means of exchange and matrimonial alliances between two families. They are owned by everybody, but they have nothing within their own possession, except to deal with the menial tasks work and to take care of the family of her spouse. Thus, women define themselves in relationship to a form of alliance and exclusion in a double articulation of the status which creates problems in the social organization of the Sereer community in Senegal. Hence, in this society, women exist as a female entity with practically non-existent powers, in their original clan they play second roles, and in their conjugal families they are isolated and have no possibility to aspire to any earthly law.

In thus analysis, we will manage to define the structural position of women in the Sereer community to see how the natures of the lineage and clan system constitute obstacles to the release of women and their ability to change their status. And in this, we also note that that it is important to study how maternal lineage, which is different from the paternity lineage, constitutes an impediment for Sereers women to have access to land and general empowerment.

Phallocentrism Stiffens Men to Enslave Women

Without pretending to standardize the female identity among the Sereers communities, we strive to situate the place that Sereer Siin (1) society in Senegal offers to women. Hence, among the Sereer Siin, the notion of female gender bears a particular subjective perception and the role assigned to women is very telling as their status and socio cultural identity as the stratification of women in this phallocratic society reserves women with ridiculous roles as she deals with "domestic and maternity tasks and the socialization of children from birth to the age of initiation (2)"; while men are concerned with tasks they believe to be more honorable, such as "war, hunting and farming (3)." In so doing, the distribution of male and female tasks involved and tangibly promotes the superiority of men over women in the Sereer Siine society, a social imbalance that encloses women with a second class citizen status and deprives them of any business opportunities as she appears as a yes-woman who makes do with second roles, being judged not capable to assume top-levels political and economic responsibilities. And in this, she also carries the heavy burden of a asymmetric society that in a way or another, draws the balance of social power in favor of men, rendering her fate as predictable and static, a point George Balandier articulates as:

The woman appears to be a widespread used instrument, the physical reproduction of the group: this is the most obvious function that determines the strict control that the latter is to ensure her maintenance and growth of the workforce (4). In their capacities as farmers, the Serers Siin maintain secular relationships with the land, which plays an economic, political, cultural and religious roles in their community. Its exploitation is exclusively reserved for men who, with rudimentary means, work with extreme harshness in the fields. And for this reason, they impose their wives the 'sacred' duty to bear and give birth to as many children as possible to overcome the problem of labor-force in the exploitation of arable lands. This subordinate position of Sereer women prevents them from being productive actors in the economic domain and reinforces the rule of Sereer men as it pulls women down the social pyramid. Thus, in the Sereer society, women are under the control of agnatic lineage which places her as a "social position of inferiority and subjection. (5)" Hence, in her conjugal residence, women are condemned in a dependent standpoint of total submission to men which finds its grounding force in an organic and hierarchical consideration, thus, according to Hadiza Djibo:

Among the Wolof Sereer, houssa and traditional Songhay societies (...) social stratifications were not less present, based on biological factors (age and sex) (...) thereby establishing (...) dominance of elders (seniors) and women under that of men in a patrilineal clan (6). This ideology of hierarchy implied by the agnatic lineage makes women an eternal servant deprived of all basic rights. She cannot pretend to a hereditary advantage or aspire to be a depositary of any right to land or kind of property belonging to the agnatic family. She is said to be a wandering being, hence there is no less negatively charged saying: "O Tew Guenee seene" (the woman is not entitled to a house, she lives nowhere). Customary law in the Sereer Siin society does not give her any power over the substance of her agnatic family as the right to have access to "land, livestock, and children is based on kinship (...), on the birth (inbreeding) (7)", and she also can't claim a noble political status, because the succession of political power is a man's game as the saying "O Tew nee maadokha" (the woman has no right to be a leader) becomes a mantra. Thus, the woman is said to be weak, irrational, instinctive, and vengeful, lacking, therefore, the physical, intellectual and psychological capacities to manage the political affairs of her community, however, she remains a line for power transmission via "property (land, slaves, cattle) ... passed through uterine in the regions of Kayoor at Baol and Walo (8)".

Status of Attribution

The social status of the Sereer woman represents the serious and repeated female duty violations expressed by men in the name of male dominance. She is a tongue-tied victim who suffers the martyrdom of moral outrage and abuse of customary power, as any idea that aims at questioning man's power is systematically repressed. And with a one-side oriented customary law, men have the latitude to divorce his wife without the risk of being punished by traditional law as Abdel Kader Boy reports, "the unilateral power of repudiation the husband exercises without considering the opinion of the family members is unfortunate, and there is no measures that can be directed against him for having exerted a wrongful repudiation (9) ". And in so being, the husband keeps his masculine power he exerts willingly on his wife who is not less than an 'object 'of value, of which use is conditioned by the good will of her husband. She is dispossessed of all kind of possibilities, even related to children keeping after a divorce: "custody is never discussed or claimed by the mother and her family, as it is natural to return the child to his father after the divorce that appears as the only parent. Often, however, the position of women is dictated by economic reasons (10). "

The woman, in the land of Sereer Siin are subjected to the duties of silence and obedience, and in case she breaches these obligations, moral and physical sanctions are provided by custom wherein she can be beaten by her husband or put in quarantine by her inlaws. And in fact, the woman, actually, remains a victim of discretion and arbitrariness of her companion who is protected by customary norms, in any respect, in his physical and moral interactions with his wife. This absolutist dimension of man's power over women among the Sereer Siin is highlighted in a song that is sung whenever it is about to welcome a bride in her marital house:

Mbaal samba, mbaal- lee munie kuu gi-oona ngen fa gi-aan kaa mugniine Mbaal Samba, Mbaal-lee Munie [O mare Samba Armed strongly yourself with patience in your new married life For all things you will endure as tests, your female fellows have already gone through them, And they supported them because they were patient. O mare Samba be really patient in your marital life.] The Sereer woman are always invited to endorse the qualities of patience, docility and perseverance in silence as conjugal life is regarded as being synonymous with subjugation and a vassalage relationship, a process she must be prepared to bear as the "burden of the household (11)." The above Sereer wedding song, rich in moral lessons, helps to welcome women in their marital house as it exhumes the main idea of the duties and obligations of the Sereer bride. Hence, Issa Laye Thiaw specifies that "these marriages singing is to show the need for the husband and his wife to abide by the strong line of morality that reflects with community's social norms (12)."

In the saying "Khum O Tew" (tie a rope to the woman), marriage dispossesses the Sereer woman of her freedom and the right to break by herself, marital ties however hard and inhuman the abuse and mistreatment she undergoes are. Yet ironically, the woman can plead for mercy, and an exit from a marriage, as expressed:

Demba dibor O buga ngeeram O tew O wassam-mee [Please, my...

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