A Discussion with Adja Arame Dite Aminata Seck, Member of the Superior Islamic Council of Senegal
November 18, 2014
Background: Adja Arame Dite Aminata Seck is one of three women working at the Superior Islamic Council of Senegal and the only woman certified as an inspector of Arabic education in Senegal. In November 2014, Lauren Herzog of WFDD met with Adja Arame Seck in Rabat, Morocco to discuss women’s roles in Senegal and especially the involvement of religious women in local development. She discusses her involvement in the Superior Islamic Council; her school in Thiès and how the local community takes care of talibés [Qur'anic students]; the scope of Islamic women’s associations in Senegal; and her work on family planning. Of particular interest is her detailed explanation of an effort led by a women’s group to limit the begging of children in Qur'anic schools and assure their welfare. She also discusses the issue of children abandoned by unmarried mothers. She reflects on differences in approach to family planning in Morocco and Senegal. And she describes various ways in which women are organized in Senegal around Islamic themes and institutions. This discussion is part of a series of interviews conducted during a visit to Morocco with Senegalese religious leaders, as well a broader effort to map the roles that religious ideas, institutions, and leaders play in development efforts in Senegal.
Could you tell me a bit about your background? Where in Senegal are you from and what is your training?
My name is Adja Arame Dite Aminata Seck. I am married and I have seven children. I was born in Senegal, more precisely in the region of Thiès. It was there [in Thiès] that I learned Arabic. I was an Arabic teacher for 10 years. I did my first training in Senegal for three years in a school called the Teacher Training School. I traveled a bit. I went to Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and Mauritania. It was in Mauritania that I received my certificate of studies in 1961. At that time, it was impossible to obtain certification in Arabic in Senegal. After that, I left for Tunisia, where I was in school from 1966 to 1967.
After that, I came here [to Morocco] in 1977. I was here for two years, from 1977 to 1979. Here in Morocco I received training as an inspector of Arabic schools. In 1979, I returned to Senegal and worked in this field from 1979 until 2008, when I retired. So, thanks to Allah, that was my educational course. Well before I retired, since my parents always wanted me to learn a lot of Arabic, I also created a daara [Quranic school] and I live with the children in the house to teach them Arabic and the Qur’an.
I am part of an association called the Superior Islamic Council (Conseil Supérieur Islamique). I was equally honored on two occasions by two Senegalese presidents (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) by being appointed into the National Order of the Lion. I thank Allah and I give thanks for this.
Are you affiliated with a confrérie [Sufi Muslim order]?
To be honest, I cannot say that I am part of a confrérie because I work with everyone. I have friends who are in the Tidiane confrérie and others who are Mourides and Layenes. I work with people from each confréries.
Could you describe your work with the daara?
I opened the Daara Bajjen Arame in 2003. It is a school for both girls and boys. The students study the Qur’an and they learn Arabic, French, and also a bit of English. I teach children as young as 4 years old up to 12 years old. I live with them and I am the one responsible for all of their needs, such as food and health. I have also recruited housekeepers and teachers to make sure that teaching and house chores are done properly.
About how many students are there at the Daara Bajjen Arame?
The number of students varies from 40 to 70 and each year the students finish having a strong command of the Qur’an and the Quranic verses with a solid foundation in French. This allows them to integrate directly into middle school. Also, our collaboration with a Franco-Arab school in Thiès allows us to continue following the children’s success until they finish primary school.
Where do the students at the Daara Bajjen Arame come from?
The students come from Senegal and abroad. We have students that come from Mauritania, the Gambia, Mali, and Belgium. Also during the summer, we receive students from France and Italy.
Seeing that you have students that come from all over, how do people come to learn about the Daara Bajjen Arame?
I thank the good Allah. I don’t advertise it, because I opened the school just to serve Allah. I do not advertise the school on the radio or television, but publicity comes from word of mouth. For example, a parent can bring their child to my school and their satisfaction drives them to advise other parents of students to send their children to Daara Bajjen Arame. I thank Allah because I receive students and I have good results.
For me, the essential thing is that the child can have a good education, a good understanding of the Qur’an in order to have a better future. That is all that motivates and interests me.
Are you involved in any other activities?
Since 1984, I have been the founder and president of an organization called the Sincere Women of God (Les Femmes sincères en Dieu or Al Mouhlissatour Lillah). I am also the department president of Ndeyou Daara of Thiès. It is an organization of women that get together in order to aid talibés [children learning the Qur’an]. The objective is to help these children to remain in the daaras so that they can study without difficulty and have good living conditions at these schools.
To halt the phenomenon of child begging [among the talibés], we have been collecting pots and bowls to allow women’s committees to prepare meals for the daaras. However, it is a bit difficult to meet the demand due to the significant number of daaras and a lack of resources. I take this opportunity to launch an appeal to the good-willed to come to the aid of the talibés and to bring their support to Ndeyou Daara so that they can satisfy the significant demand in Senegal.
I have a project that aims to construct an orphanage. Here in Senegal, there are few orphans that are taken care of by Muslims. However, when there is a non-desired pregnancy, most of the time people get rid of their children or give them to orphanages of other religious traditions that give a different religious education to the child. That is why I would like to build an orphanage where we could educate the child according to Islam. I am arranging land to house the orphanage that carries the name of Serigne Saliou Mbacké [member of the working group], but due to a lack of resources nothing has been done yet.
Why is there need for a Ndeyou Daara?
Most of the talibés come from the villages or areas that are more than 100 kilometers away from the daara. Far from their children, parents do not pay for their children’s education and it is the marabout of the daara that must be responsible for the education, food, and health of the talibés. That is why each day they have to ask the children to beg for food and to bring a total of 200 francs to 500 francs (per day and per child) that he saves in a pot to ensure the care of the children and the marabout.
What is the role of the Ndeyou Daara?
The role of the Ndeyou Daara is to aid and accompany the talibés so they can study in good conditions. We have a committee in each quarter (because there is a minimum of two daaras in each quarter) and each committee is composed of 18 members. Once the committee has 18 members, they recruit 100 other women to check the quality of each daara and to make sure that each child is eating well, if they need to shave, to take care of the children’s laundry and to ensure the cleanliness of the daara in order to create an ideal environment.
Also, each family in the quarter is responsible for one talibé who comes to collect their bowl filled with food. This means that the child no longer needs to wander the village in search of food. We are in the process of working to build a kitchen in each daara for each committee to have bowls and pots available, but we haven’t been able to implement the project yet due to a lack of resources. In conclusion, the Ndeyou Daara is the woman who aids the serigne [teacher] of the daara so that the talibé can remain at the daara and study without needing to beg.
You are a member of the Superior Islamic Council of Senegal. How did you become a member of the Council?
I was able to become a member of this council thanks to its president. The first Islamic association in Senegal was called the Muslim Cultural Union (Union Culturelle Musulmane, UCM). The current president of the Superior Islamic Council, Ahmed Iyane Thiam, was also the president of UCM. In 1953, when I was young, my father took two of my older siblings and me to enroll us in that organization. He gave the three of us to this Islamic organization.
He told the members of UCM that he was offering them his children so that they would study there and be part of the organization. I was very little. It was within that organization that I learned Arabic with my older brother and sister. Like me, the two of them are professors of Arabic. During that period we had already met the president of the Superior Islamic Council there. I have been working with him since 1953. He includes me in all that he does.
When he created the Superior Islamic Council, he invited me to be part of the council. He also invited two other women. We were the only women at the Council. When he invited me, I joined them and I saw that what he was doing was good for Senegal. It’s in this way that I became a member of the Superior Islamic Council.
Can you summarize the activities of the Superior Islamic Council?
We are based in Dakar at the Islamic Institute. We hold all of our meetings there. The Superior Islamic Council has numerous activities. It works on all things related to religion to be beneficial to Senegalese society. The Council works in education, but also in Islamic development. At this moment, we are preparing a seminar in order to rewrite the history of Islam in Senegal—how Islam entered Senegal, what Islam brought to Senegal, what we have in common with Islam, and what the situation in Senegal was like in the pre-Islamic period. We are in the middle of preparing this seminar so that people can know that people in Senegal were educated before Islam, and that when Islam arrived in Senegal, Senegalese society was already well-prepared to welcome the religion. In summary, the Superior Islamic Council is involved in everything that concerns development and that can aid Muslims. It works in all areas.
How did you become a member of the Working Group of Religious Leaders on Health and Development?
Serigne Saliou Mbacké asked Iyane if he could nominate a female member of the Superior Islamic Council to the working group. The president said that I could work with the group. I agreed to join, and it’s in this way that I became a member of the working group and that I began to work with them.
In your opinion, why is family planning important in Senegal?
Senegal has practiced family planning for a long time. Before, for example if a woman had a closely-spaced pregnancies and her health was deteriorating, the marabout [spiritual guide] prescribed her a talisman. Women often went with their husbands to the marabout to obtain a talisman.
The other point is that the religious authorities advised women to breastfeed her children for two years. When she was breastfeeding for two years, the women did not risk becoming pregnant and there was a natural spacing of births. So, one can say that family planning has been practiced in Senegal for a long time. It wasn’t as widespread as it is today and people did not speak of it. Women practiced it without discussing it and become pregnant again after their child turned two years old. When the new methods of family planning arrived, some people accepted them without a problem acknowledging that it resolved health problems among women and children.
We only see one downside, which is that there are unmarried women who use contraception. This is not good and Senegal is not okay with this. When a woman risks having health issues because of closely-spaced pregnancies, one advises her to practice family planning in order to space her pregnancies. Similarly, if a woman has children that are very close in age and it becomes difficult to look after them, one advises this woman to go see a midwife so that she can help her to space her pregnancies and births. Senegal already practices family planning, but maybe it is the term or one’s understanding of family planning that makes people a little reluctant.
Has your participation in the Working Group of Religious Leaders on Health and Development changed your attitude toward family planning?
Yes, it has changed here [in Morocco]. In Senegal, people often associated me with the family planning group. But I always said that I was not convinced by it. When I came here [to Morocco], I saw that the Moroccans practice family planning with a different system. They don’t stop with only family planning. They are concerned with the health of the mother, the child, and the man. They also take into account sexually transmitted diseases. Consequently, they generally are interested in the health and well-being of the family and family planning is only one component of that.
Their objective isn’t only centered on family planning. They cover many areas that happen to include family planning. When I saw this system, I told myself that this system really works well. It encompasses the entire family: the mother, the father, and the child as they all grow in age. But in reality, people could not all be in agreement with this system. I’ve developed a conviction since [coming here] that I did not have before. This trip has really benefited me and allowed me to learn many things.
In your opinion, will this trip to Morocco be beneficial to the family planning efforts in Senegal?
Of course, this trip will bring many benefits to Senegal. I believe that, if it pleases Allah, if we pull together all of the knowledge acquired here in Morocco and what we have already and evaluate it all together, then we will have different results in Senegal. We will have a larger, more open, and more important understanding of the question.
Are there many women’s religious organizations in Senegal?
I am part of two organizations—the association of Ndeyou Daara and the Association of Sincere Women of God. There are really a number of women’s religious associations. Most women’s religious associations focus on education, on teaching, and the opening of Quranic and Arabic schools. There is also an association of teachers of Arabic and the president of this association opened a Franco-Arab school. I collaborate with this school to bring them the children that have completed their studies at my school.
There is another organization where the women organize different religious conferences. They go around villages to speak with women about Islam. These associations work in all domains and they work equally with other organizations that are not women’s religious associations, but other women’s development organizations. They collaborate in order to be able to tell the Islamic point of view to an organization that, for example, deals with questions of development. The religious associations participate in everything that the non-religious associations do.
Islamic women’s organizations in Senegal are in the process of doing what they must do. They have opened a number of Islamic kindergartens where they teach children religion, Islam, and the Qur’an. They have opened schools, implemented projects, and raised money to aid women financially. They have also offered religious education to women and teach their children. I would say that women’s Islamic associations do really remarkable work.
In Senegal, the recently implemented Gender Parity Law aims to better involve women in the government. What do you think of this law?
The Islamic women’s organizations have addressed this subject. They have talked about what Islam recommends to women who want to work in politics, or what Islam recommends to the woman who is in government. The Islam women’s organizations also have spoken concerning equality, the woman must have her part in all domains. Women must have a part and a responsibility in the government, in the household, and in the public sphere. So generally speaking, women can take part in politics and thus take care of their country as well as their families.
If equality means that the woman shares her role in all domains in order to participate, Islam supports equality. However, if equality means that a woman becomes like a man and loses her femininity, her womanhood, and her habits concerning the education of her family to become exactly like a man, then Islam warns us of the limits of man and woman. The man has his defining features and the woman also has her own as well. This is what makes the world good. If the man does what he should do and the woman does what she should do, one can call that equality. They must mutually complete each other.
Is it easy or difficult to be the only woman in the Working Group of Religious Leaders on Health and Development and to work with a group made up of only men?
It’s not at all a problem for me. In 1964, I left Senegal to go to Lebanon and I stayed there for three months. They had invited all of the African countries and I was the only woman. This was in 1964. It is Allah who allowed me to do this. There were many occasions during which I would be working with men as the only woman. Actually, in all of Senegal, I am the only female inspector of Arabic instruction. I have grown up in this type of situation. I have always seen this since I was very little. When I work with others, I don’t see whether they are men or women; I don’t really think of it. I see them only as people who find themselves together to work.
Do you have anything else to add?
I would like to thank the president of the Superior Islamic Council, Ahmed Iyane Thiam, and all of the members of the council who allowed me to work with this working group. I’d also like to thank Serigne Saliou Mbacké, because he has worked with me in a very serious way and he treats me with unrivaled respect. I also pray that our meeting does not only stop here, but that we can continue to work together in other domains until Allah delivers the results that we are waiting for. I am grateful for all of the people I have come here with in the working group. They are people who have included me, helped me, and respected me. Really, I thank everyone and I also give thanks to Allah.