A Discussion with Rokhaya Thiam, Midwife and President of a Women's Dahira

With: Rokhaya Thiam Berkley Center Profile

August 2, 2017

Background: Rokhaya Thiam is spearheading a women’s engagement program with the Association of Religious Leaders for Health and Development (Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Devéloppement, CRSD), a Senegalese interfaith association. Working through a network of local religious communities, she coordinates a workshops series that addresses issues of family welfare and family planning with couples and individuals. She brings many years of experience in the public and private sector. In this conversation in Dakar on August 2, 2017, with Katherine Marshall, Lauren Herzog, and Wilma Mui, she responds to the question of how she came to her current position, both at the private clinic she owns and operates and in her work with CRSD. Her life journey highlights her courage and her direct knowledge of the many challenges facing families in Senegal. She offers her opinion on family planning and various related issues, including child marriage, female genital cutting, and domestic violence, drawing heavily on religious perspectives.

"Everything I do, I do for women and children, with their religion (Islam) as a point of reference for all my actions. I want women no longer to be secondary in development activities. I want them to be more directly engaged for their country, and for them to be respected in all matters."

How did you come to the position you find yourself in today? To begin, where were you born?

I was born on the 26th of January, 1961, at Mbour. I came from a very modest family. My father was a teacher, director of a school, but he died very young, when he was only 27 years old and I was four. My mother was only 16 when I was born. My father’s mother and mother’s father were brother and sister. My maternal grandmother had only one daughter (my mother), and she died soon after her birth. She (my mother) was raised by her father’s sister, who was her father’s mother. I did not know my father, beyond stories and photos.

Thus it was my mother who raised me, alone. She was a strong, brave woman, though she had very few resources. I remember well that when I was going to school and had nothing to put on, she took one of her boubous [dress] to the tailor to fix, so I could have a new outfit to wear.

Where did you go to school?

I went to the public primary school in Mbour. I did very well there, always first in my class, in part at least because my father, as a teacher, was very modern and cared greatly about education, and I was the first and only daughter. My family was very insistent that I have a good education and follow in his footsteps. So I began my education very early. I was married when I was still in school.

Did you go to a Qur’anic school?

No. I did that during vacations, but followed the regular school schedule.

Did you complete school before marriage?

My first son was born when I was 24. I then went to join my husband in Kaolack. But he did not want me to continue my studies or to work. I delayed the move so that I could finish my final exams for the final years. Then he was moved to Kaffrine and I followed him there. There was no way I could continue my studies. My daughter, Mariama, was born there. My husband was then moved again, to Velingara.

He was with the customs service. But he absolutely did not want me to work or to continue my studies. That was because he had a first wife who had four children, and had abandoned them there. So I had those children and my own to care for. But I never lost interest in education and continued to follow the various exams and competitions.

How were you able to continue if your husband was opposed? How did you become a midwife?

At a certain point I went to the hospital because I was pregnant, and saw a doctor who was also working at the hospital. He told me about a competition for a program for midwives: why did I not try? I told him that my husband was absolutely set against my doing the competition. And further I did not have my records and files and had no way to get them: I did not even have a telephone. But the doctor insisted that I do everything necessary to get the relevant papers. He gave me the list of the documents I needed, and he promised then to do the rest. I was able to contact one of my brothers, who is a banker, and he spoke to my mother. My mother got all the papers and documents I needed together.

They sent the documents to me in a truck that was used for transporting fish. The files arrived, smelling of fish and with fish entrails on them. I gave them to the doctor with apologies. He said it did not matter and went ahead and submitted the documents to the relevant office. Thus I was able to sit for the examination for the midwifery program. I heard nothing about the result, but one day my brother called me and asked if I had seen the official notice in the Soleil. There in the notice section was the information that I had been accepted for the program.

At that point I had just given birth, and my baby was only two months old. My husband was shocked, and he demanded to know how I had taken and passed the exam without his knowledge. I told him that the doctor had supported me. He went to Doctor Diop, angry and demanding to know why he had not alerted him, the husband. Shortly afterwards I told my husband that I had to report to the school on a certain date. He said that I could not go and that I could not take my baby, who was only three months old at the time. My next daughter was only 14 months old then, as I got pregnant when she was only five months old. I said that I would take the baby and leave her with my mother, but my husband said "No, my baby will not leave.” So I understood that he absolutely did not want me to continue my studies and would block me in any way he could.

On the day I was to leave I got up in the dead of night, did my ablutions, and dressed. I prayed, and said to God that it was not my choice to do it this way; I had to leave because I had to study. I owed it to my mother, who had done so much and was tired, and to God to take advantage of the opportunity to study that he had given to me. So I left the baby with her father and took my daughter Maryam. I left her with my mother in Mbour and went on to Dakar, where I stayed with my brother-in-law. He had a very small apartment with one bedroom, and we slept in the same small room. There was a big bed where he slept with his wife, and I slept in the small bed. I went to school every morning. Later a friend offered me a place to stay at the university.

But I was not able to take the exam at the end of the first year. Just the day before, I got a call to say that if I wanted to see my baby I must come immediately. So I went home and found the baby in terrible condition – malnourished, sick, just like the children in famines that you see on television. There were some American nuns there, who helped me to care for the baby. Through the vacation months he was restored, well nourished, in wonderful shape. The nuns encouraged me to continue to take my exam. Thus I took the exam not in June but in October, and passed, and was ready for the second year of the program.

My husband then decided to move the whole family to Dakar, and to take an apartment there. I said, "Fine." The whole family was there: all his children, his mother, etc., an army. So I got up at six o’clock every day to make lunch for the whole family before I left for school. At three o’clock in the afternoon I returned to cook dinner, then went back to school. And that is how, thanks to God, it went until I finished my studies in three years. I did not even need to take extra time.

What did you do next?

I got a position with the City of Dakar. I was posted to the health center of Ouakam I stayed there for a year and a half. I was then the head of the health post at Ouakam. And then a maternity opened in Ngor and I was assigned there as the chief midwife. And then I came into a conflict with the then mayor.

What happened?

One day during a mass vaccination campaign I sent out the nurse to do the vaccinations in the neighborhood. But when I went out on my supervision rounds to the place where he was supposed to be working, I found many women and children waiting. I asked where the official was. They said that he had been called to the mayor’s office, to vaccinate the government officials and other staff, and that he would come later to the neighborhood. I went to the mayor’s office and found the nurse there, with the cold packs and vaccines, vaccinating the officials. So I told him to leave at once and go to the neighborhood where people were waiting. I said nothing to the officials, but I gathered all the equipment, cold packs, and vaccines and put them in my car and went back to Ngor and began to vaccinate the people who were waiting there.

Then the mayor followed me to the neighborhood and demanded to know what was happening. Why had I taken the vaccines and the nurse and left his staff? I told him that he was the mayor, responsible for the people of the community. He should think of the poor, before the people who worked directly for him. He and the other officials had plenty of resources to buy vaccines, but those in the neighborhood had no such resources. And it was not even the Senegalese government that had paid for the vaccines. He said that I was creating problems and he threatened to remove me from my post. I told him that I would continue to serve as the midwife.

I was reassigned in a month, to Parcelles. This was in 1999.

What did you decide to do next?

I realized then that I did not want to work in the public sector. I was not a government bureaucrat. I started the process of getting permission to open a private clinic. There, I could see patients and focus on them, rather than struggling with the government systems. So one afternoon I went to the Ministry of Health to start the process, and they gave me the necessary permission to go ahead. There was some urgency, as I had many mouths to feed.

It took some time, but I was able to make a start with opening my clinic. First I had to find the place and the funds. The first step was taken when I found this building (where my clinic is now), which was under construction at the time. I spoke to the owner and was able to secure the rights to rent one floor. I began to operate the clinic part time, continuing to work for the city government.

But the path was far from easy. One bright morning I got a call from a city official, asking where I was. They told me that they had received complaint about me: they needed to come to inspect the clinic. They arrived with the chief doctor of the district. Everything was in order, clean, and functioning well.

But they said that the letter from the mayor pointed to many flaws, saying there were too many patients and I was not really working there. I demanded to see the letter. They said that it was classified as confidential, so I could not see it. I finally realized that there were many completely false accusations in the letter, written by the mayor, suspecting me of being away from my government job during working hours, taking care of my clinic.

I sent a response to the mayor, with copies to the prefecture, the ministry, etc. The mayor was furious. He went to complain to everyone, and called me several times to his office. He said that I had insulted him. I had one of my brothers, who is a lawyer, to help me. And I fought ferociously. They said I was going to be fired from my government position with the city of Dakar. Realizing that they had failed, they wanted to punish me through a different route. They gave me an office that had a calendar from 1980 and a computer that did not work. I was in that office every day before 8 o’clock. I came there and I prayed. Every day. This drove them mad. Then they suspended my salary. I still came to the office and even at my age I climbed five stories and stayed there for eight hours doing nothing, until 4pm when I would return home.

Finally the mayor of the city let me go and I began to work full time at my clinic. I thank God for that (Alhamdoulillah). Finally I told he lawyer that I wanted to drop the whole matter. I was sick and tired of the case. He asked why as I had a strong case. I answered that I preferred to put all my time and energy into the clinic, and that I would look to divine justice.

How has the clinic developed?

Yacine (my clinic) has developed bit by bit. When I had a little money from profits, at the end of each month I bought a chair, then a desk. I continued to reinvest my profits, until I could get a bank loan, which I repaid ahead of time because I did not want to have debts. I was able to expand first to the second floor, then the third, where I have an operating theater, and I live on the fourth floor. I had partners who are doctors and together we have been able to make the clinic a success.

How did you manage with your family?

My husband abandoned me. He went to the United States, and I have not seen him for many years. We were finally divorced. So I was on my own to raise my family. But I have been able to feed my five children. Thank God, they are doing well, all of them. One of my sons is in France, finishing his first year as an engineer. The whole family is in the house. That’s the way I have been able to raise my head. We have put all our problems behind us. There were plenty of people who did not want me to succeed and who made problems along the way. But we have overcome them all, thanks to the Almighty.

You are a remarkable example of a woman who overcame many obstacles to emerge as a strong leader. When did it begin?

I began to fight from very early on. When I was very young, at the age of ten. I was already in a communist party and I was with a group called “And Jeff”, that operated secretly, taking significnt risks. We took the Long March as an inspiration and sold the newspaper secretly.

I remember well my first speech. I held myself up on a table so I could be heard and I spoke about women’s rights. I took examples of inspirational women. My mother was terrified, thinking that I would be end up in prison, as I spoke only about revolution and rebellion. But later, when I was in Kaolack, I could no longer do that, so I worked in different directions for the same goals.

How did you come to be involved with the Niassène community and to emerge as a de facto religious leader?

I was raised in a Muslim family. My grandfather was an important Muslim intellectual. But when I was in school and came into contact with the communists, I was very active with them, giving talks and organizing the Communist Youth of Mbour. Even before I was 15 I was a regional leader. Thus I thought of myself as an atheist and did not practice my religion properly. But my husband wanted me to have nothing to do with politics so I stayed at home and began to pray once more and to focus more on my religious practice.

I had been an atheist when I was with the Communist party and I still was when I arrived in Kaolack.. But there and later in Thiès and Kaffrine (in the early 1980s), I became a Muslim again. I was still a fighter and a rebel and I continue to fight to this day, but now I fight through my religion, rather than against it.

Everything I do in religion I do for women and children. I want women not only to be dedicated to their religion but also women for the nation, who will work for their country and participate in development activities, while remaining true to their religion and its practice.

Take for example one of the daughters of Baye Niasse. She was married to a king, and went to Niger. There she organized women and girls who became leaders, active in the economy and society. It was she who did that. Before she came the women did not dare leave their houses. If you go to Niger you will hear all that she did as people still speak about her. She is the one who did it all, and people still speak of her in Niger. If you go there and ask about Seyda Oumou Khaïry Ibrahim Niasse; she is very well known, a leader who did many things for women. Before she came girls and women did not even dare to leave the house.

One of her daughters is the first woman who wrote a book in Arabic in Africa. That is Seyda Rokhaya Bintou Cheikh Ibrahima Niasse, a famous writer.

There are women who are muqqadams (here in Senegal), business people and religious leaders. One remarkable woman, a woman follower of Baye Niasse, is a muqqadam and has her own daara and is very much involved in economic and spiritual matters. Our religion blocks no one. It is men who do that. And they do it deliberately because they want to. They want us to remain subservient. But the Muslim religion does not encourage this practice at all.

You have great confidence in the strength and potential of the dahiras. Can you elaborate?

It is all very well to go to the dahira [community religious groups], and to pray, but that does not feed anyone. Women and men also need to participate actively in developing their country, in the economy.

The dahiras need to become centers where people can really develop themselves and participate in development of the community. Girls could learn many things there, for example with a sewing center or cooking or recycling. The essence of religious practice is not just to work for the marabout, to have his followers and students prepare his food and pay his rent. Women behind the scenes do these things. The essence of our religion is to learn. If the dahiras are seen as development centers, that could resolve many problems.

There are dahiras everywhere. I have lots of confidence in them. There are many intellectuals in the

dahiras: teachers and others. There are dahiras of all kinds, in all schools, universities, the neighborhoods. They can do a lot. The members are capable of understanding and of communicating messages. You can have good discussions there. I have found many ways to work through them, organizing and educating. I can speak about any issue and I know that it is understood and my messages are transmitted. Just as I am constantly educating in the clinic, I can also do it through the dahiras. Communication is going on all the time

Do the dahiras vary or is there a common model? How many are there?

There are so many. Even here, in Dakar, within the Niassène community, there are over 100 dahiras. And there are many more in other confréries: the Layenes, Mourides, etc. And they are very well organized. The dahiras are all over Senegal. The basic model is fundamentally very similar. The group meets periodically for prayer. From time to time they meet to collect money for community projects (though they could do much more for development and health). They support one another. But there could be a larger vision with some kind of plan. They have the structure and mechanism for financing. If there were solid projects women could do much more.

There are no women’s dahiras, with only women. There are always men who are part of them. But there are sections for women, youth, health, etc. Generally it is the women who are more active than the men and they do all the logistics. Women are more rigorous in contributing money and keeping track of it.

How do dahiras communicate with their members and with each other?

They use many tools, including SMS, social networks, etc. But word of mouth is important because normally the dahiras bring together members of the same neighborhood or who work in the same field.

What you are doing for family planning is courageous and remarkable. It and other issues seem to be sensitive and thus are difficult to raise, even with very open religious leaders. Why, for example, is the problem of street children so difficult to address?

The topic should not be at all difficult. The religious leaders have a responsibility to stand up and fight against all forms of injustice. And, beyond family planning, religious leaders are directly involved with the problem of street children and they should me more involved in combatting this scourge.

The idea of involving religious leaders on family planning is to ensure that children and mothers do not die. Likewise for street children. They are exploited. They are victims of injustice. The children who are students of true marabouts, in proper daaras[schools run by Muslim teachers], are not on the streets. There are modern daaras in Senegal, where children learn their religion in proper conditions. But these children who are exploited in the streets are not learning in the spirit of Islam. They learn almost nothing. The religious leaders should not fear to speak out on the issue and look for solutions.

What about the problem of early marriage?

The marabouts themselves do it. I met once with a woman who had a daara.

Each year she took in girls of 14 or so to marry boys of 18 or 20. In speaking to her I realized that the idea in marrying girls who are so young was the fear that they would become libertines. I suggested to her that surely she could educate them. Even so the question of the age of marriage is sensitive, as well as the definition of what is early marriage. I think that religious leaders need to take up the question and bring more clarity to the matter.

Another problem is that ninety percent of early marriages are forced, which many do not realize. The girls are too young to choose or to voice their opinion. Once they are adults, either they will get rid of the husband or he will get rid of her, or adultery, all of which cause problems.

One argument about early marriage is that Islam does not have any clear teaching on age of marriage. How do you respond?

I answer as a health worker. Religion, Islam, respects human good health. Even if there is no official age limit on marriage, religion cares about health. Religion does not condemn anyone to die or to have problems. We read often in the newspapers about a young girl who has bled to death after her marriage was consummated. So if you chose to marry someone who is young the risks need to be taken into account. To me it is clear that religion is against anything that hurts the health of the individual or can lead to death.

Our religion is not against early marriage. But it is against anything that puts life in danger. Islam has never stood for anything that is harmful, in the time of the Prophet or today.

And how do you deal with the sensitive issue of young people and family planning?

Young girls come to the clinic every day to get family planning. They say they are married but it is not hard to see that they are not. We explain and educate. If we do not give them family planning means, they go to market to buy methods, but that is dangerous because often they are adulterated. We cannot refuse to talk about family planning with adolescents. The key is to educate them. Speaking to religious leaders about early marriage can open the discussion. To put religious leaders at ease on the topic it is best to speak in terms of young married couples because many of the issues are the same.

How do you see the pressures towards extremism? Do you see a lot?

It exists, though it is hard for me to have an overview or to measure it. There are ethnic groups that seem to be more susceptible. They use the Internet and criticize some leaders who are working for development, saying that what they do is anti-Islamic. It is dangerous. For example they could recruit children from the streets and indoctrinate them.

How do you think religious leaders could do more to address the problem of domestic violence? In the past it seemed fair to assume that the problem was somewhere else and not that significant but today we know it occurs widely, in all communities. Surely religious leaders should be leading the fight against it!

It is a problem and I see it every day in the faces of women who come to the clinic. But they hesitate to talk about it, afraid of many things, concerned for their children. There was one woman who came to my office and when I asked her how she was she cried and cried and cried. It was not hard to guess her problem.

But it is not only the beating. There are many kinds of cruelty that can be worse – insults every day, forbidding the woman to work or leave the house. Cruelty comes in many forms.

And yes, religious communities can and should do far more.

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