A Discussion with Penda Mbow, Associate Professor of History at Cheikh Anta Diop University

With: Penda Mbow Berkley Center Profile

February 9, 2015

Background: Dr. Mbow has worked to advance women’s rights in Senegal for many years, from various positions in the government, civil society, and academia. A scholar of Islamic history, she is a proud Senegalese citizen and a forthright critic. She speaks with concern and courage about challenges to women’s rights in contemporary Senegalese society and politics. In many respects women’s roles and a commitment to women’s rights have taken a step backwards. Senegal has ratified, without qualification, all the human rights conventions of the United Nations, but has moved very slowly towards implementation. Especially worrying trends are the limited number of motivated women in key political positions and the rise in polygamy, which undermines equality between women and men. Dr. Mbow speaks also about the declining quality of education, especially at university level, as she puts particular emphasis on the importance of education for girls as the main long-term solution. This discussion with Katherine Marshall took place on February 9, 2015 in Atlanta, on the margins of the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum.

You have focused recently on Islam's relationship with democracy in Senegal and the interplay between women, human rights, and religion in Islamic societies. What are some of the main themes of your work?

Senegal has made great advances in three critical areas—democracy and education, and building on Senegalese culture as a foundation of the Republic. The strength of a secular state in relation to a multi-religious society has been a particular asset. Senegal took important steps forward on women’s rights, and has ratified all the United Nations conventions related to women’s rights, including Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), without reservations (which is unusual among Muslim-majority countries). However, very little has been done in practice towards implementation. Looking ahead, I see difficulties for all three areas—democracy, education, and culture, and especially women’s rights. Senegal needs a new start, to build a new consensus on modernity. It is important to be proud but also self-critical. Two vital areas are high quality education, especially of girls, and development of the rule of law in a meaningful ways. Both call for a reinterpretation of Islam in relation to modernity and with the involvement of women.

You have focused on many different sectors and topics over your life and career. What were key milestones on your path?

I was born in Dakar, and grew up in an urban culture. My parents, however, were from rural Senegal, from Tivaouane. My father was a strong Muslim, but he also believed in interreligious relationships and dialogue and he held that Islam called for education, including for girls.

I thus went to a girls’ primary school, Médina Filles II. I was the only one to make it to the lycée (Lycée Van Vollenhoven) but there I finished as the leading student, in 1975. I then studied history at the University of Dakar. My focus was on Muslim medieval history. I received my doctorate in medieval history from University of Aix-Marseilles. I have taught and held fellowships at several universities over the years, including Upsala University in Sweden and Boston University. I have received several honorary degrees and fellowships. My current major interest is intellectual history.

After university, I worked in the Ministry of Culture under President Senghor. I also taught at the university. I served briefly as Minister of Culture during the time of President Wade (2001). I left because of fundamental disagreements, and was part of the opposition movement and the creation of the national Assises that contributed to the election of 2012 (where President Macky Sall was elected). I have been a leader of the citizens’ movement since 2007. Of course, during this period I have taught and have written many articles and participated in a wide range of international and national events.

As President Macky Sall’s personal representative to the Organization for Francophonie (OIR), what is the current focus? What was most discussed at the Dakar Summit in November 2014?

The Francophonie community now has some 80 member countries. It functions in some respects as an observatory, whose essential goals is to promote democracy and human rights. At least in terms of texts, it gives considerable emphasis to opposing violence against women and to advancing democracy and education in member countries. In the past, the organization was largely focused on culture (notably under the influence of Presidents Senghor and Bourguiba). Under Abdou Diouf’s tenure as Secretary General, it became considerably more political, with a focus on democracy and human rights.

The theme of the November 2014 Summit was women and youth. Violence against women was much discussed. As of January 2015, Michaëlle Jean, a Canadian, has taken over as secretary general.

Do you still teach?

No. In my view education has been brutalized. There are huge numbers of students, very much like the Middle Ages. Students simply copy and make demands.

As a scholar of Islam, what has been your experience? How do you see the changes that are taking place in Senegal, in terms of Islam and interreligious relations?

In the beginning I faced many problems. I was attacked from different quarters. Some said that I was against the Qur’an. They doubted my faith, and said I was not a good Muslim. I was accused by the Islamists. I was put on trial for my work in 1972, and was acquitted. I have received death threats. However, I have continued to work and to write.

Islam in Senegal is quite different from Nigeria, for example, or Mali, in terms of the religious profile. One distinction is that in Senegal Islam has not traditionally been political. This is in contrast to Nigeria, where Islam has always been political, from the colonial period and the formation of the Sokoto state. In Mali, a very small number of families have held all the power, with religious links. In Senegal, the Khalifas of the large orders (the Mourides and the Tidianes especially) had significant power but was generally indirect and diffused. There is some change now, as the younger generations include some leaders who seek political power. It is something that needs to be watched with care. In general the Senegalese make the distinction themselves and do not see the religious leaders as legitimately playing a large role in politics. Further, there are many religious leaders and many preachers and de facto they are in competition. There is a tendency to take rather extreme and provocative positions as a way to attract attention and thus followers. This is also leading to new forms of preaching.

The traditional orders and families are changing with the times, though at a quite different pace. The Niassenes are distinctive in their adaptation to modernity and in their intellectual background. However, to a large extent the leadership of the orders works still in the context of old visions, with an outdated frame of reference. And yet it is worth recalling that most of the marabouts and confrerie leaders came from the lower castes. Their rise in power in fact is a social revolution.

How do you see the Islamist and fundamentalist tendencies in Senegal?

The Islamist movement has lost a lot of its strength in Senegal, though there are mosques that are Islamist. They receive support in some instances from abroad, largely the Gulf states. They are followed quite closely by the government, and there is information about them from the U.S. and France.

Islam itself is obviously not against modernity. We need, however, as Muslims to promote modernity more and to fight for the separation of religion and politics. To promote a stable state, we need to promote secularity and consolidate notions of citizenship. This involves a new view of Islam which can be achieved with a reinterpretation of the Islamic texts. This reinterpretation will enable women in Muslim countries to become free and have equal citizenship. We need to promote a vision of a moderate Muslim view and give religion—spiritual religion—a place in the private sphere.

Thus the evolution of family, women’s status, and the relationship between Islam and politics are all topics that we need to look into.

What would you see as the context for women?

There is an important ongoing debate on democracy and human rights in Senegal and it affects women. It involves both politics and religion. It raises the controversial issue of Islam and modernity. Senegal is not a prosperous country, but it is politically stable. Citizenship needs to be strongly applied and it is vital to keep the relationship between the state and the different religious communities and families in the country stable and intact. I am concerned that some people are trying to incorporate sharia law into the republic’s national law. Only in a secular state is it possible to fight for equality, citizenship, and implementation of UNSCR 1325 in a Muslim country like Senegal.

The reform of the family code is essential. A family code has existed in Senegal since 1972. However, some religious groups seek to make a secular court refer to Islamic law. One of the most important discussions we have been conducting during this past decade is how to implement our family code, which differs from other codes and touches on the crucial debate around the meaning of a secular state and citizenship. Equality in the family means that women must have the possibility of becoming the head of a family and having parental authority.

In short, women are at the heart of the political debate. Islam is often seen as a state concept as well as a religion. This view of Islam means that women are put in seclusion and are not allowed to participate in public affairs. Individual cases vary and there is also a difference among countries and interpretations. But incorporating sharia law into the laws of the court would mean giving women less status. The debate is therefore one between the member of a religion and a member of the state, i.e. a citizen.

What is your view of what is happening vis a vis women’s rights in Senegal today?

In many respects women are going backwards. Women’s rights are rarely discussed. Polygamy is increasingly accepted. Economically, women have more resources and in that sense are more empowered, but many seem content with that and are less focused, less ambitious on their rights as individuals. In a sense they sell themselves for economic security. In general also conservative trends are rising. Women seem to be happy in polygamy because they are cared for, and often justify it in terms of religion. It seems that women today find it hard to conceive of life without a man.

Working for women’s rights calls for effort and sacrifice. It seems that women today are no longer ready to do that.

You seem rather discouraged. What explains these trends?

In part it is explained by a rise in religious conservatism. The rise in polygamy is partly a result, and it in turn undermines the efforts for rights. There are still good organizations that work for women, like
Association Sénégalaise pour le Bien-Etre Familial (ASBEF). But the massive retreat of USAID and organizations like the Population Council sapped much energy. They played roles in the past in supporting women’s organizations and helping to bring them together. Happily there is now a refocusing on family planning and on women’s health.

There is a division between the women’s rights activists and intellectual Muslim women. Today the most active women do not go into politics and into government—not the women who could really count. Going into politics takes a lot of preparation and experience. Despite the new laws and norms on parity, it is not the women we need who are in the Assembly and in government. Some of the women we see are insensitive to the needs of the poor: one minister goes to the rural areas wearing an armload of gold jewelry and expensive fabric. That is not the way to communicate or to change attitudes. Several women in government are the second or fourth wives of other ministers or of marabouts. The best ones are not in the assembly. All this results in a real loss of momentum.

There is a need for a change in paradigm and more political focus. It is important to remember that political time is different from women’s time.

What would you like to see for women in Senegal?

Women are the foundation of Senegalese society. Our society was in many respects founded by women. This is true for all Africa, but still more for Senegal. It was women who pushed for sedentarization, and who are the basis for the family. But various imports of ideas and traditions to Senegal from outside undermined these fundamental roles. Women have little political power today and in many respects women are used for political purposes. They play roles in civil society but not in fundamental areas of government. That is why I place such importance on the education of women and their engagement as citizens. Not as actors, but as real citizens.

In discussions about reproductive health we have heard that there are a significant number of cases of infanticide.

It is true that in the assises [appeals courts] the largest number of cases are often about infanticide. Sometimes it is women with ties to émigrés from neighboring countries but it is also a sign of desperation among Senegalese women. In some cases intercaste relationships are the issue. But in general it is not rare. If we are to face the problem we must face the issue of medical abortion. It would not be possible in Senegal to legalize abortion but medical abortion is recognized and accepted. It is already authorized for doctors to carry out medical abortion in cases of rape. Senegal is a signatory of the Maputo Protocol [2003, Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa], which addresses cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.

As in other cases, there are laws and there are provisions in the constitution that support women’s rights. The challenge is to go beyond words, to action. In national policy and reform, culture and religion must be addressed. We need to take up this work again. An example is to further advance work that examines issues of women living under Muslim law. There is a reality that women have not been free. To move ahead we need to start from the reality that many interpretations of Islam are not the right interpretation. The debates of the past have not reflected the vision of women. Women need to be involved in this reinterpretation. Women need to put pressure on their governments and on their religious leaders to this end. And there are millions of women who face violence and constraints. Knowledge can act as a force of liberation and religious knowledge is essential. Profound knowledge gives authority and it can change the power balance between men and women, and between religious and non-religious. A secular state [état laïque] creates such opportunities.

How do you see events post-Charlie Hebdo?

I wrote an article that was published in Sud, in which I reflect on the sad reality that Samuel Huntington’s views of a clash of civilizations are all too true. We are indeed seeing a re-Islamicization in many places, in part a result of the failed negotiations following the end of the Cold War. The UN roles are not successful and harsh views of the “other,” especially the Christian and Muslim “other” are rising. We need to work for greater respect for difference and for new spaces for dialogue.

Under President Wade, there was much discussion of a large interreligious summit, which in the end did not materialize. What in your view were the issues?

There were two problems that arose. There was first a problem with the churches that was a result of the instrumentalization of religion. A further problem was his reliance on the marabout model and wish to impose his will. One result was a national backlash and civil society reaction that led to the Assises nationales.

See more from Dr. Mbow in this Interview found on YouTube.

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