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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Dirriankhe: Seduction and the construction of the public self

Urban lore contends that this sight was known to “drive the Yankees crazy” at their post-World War Two naval bases, hence the word dirriankhe. 

However, an etymology of the word suggests that it refers to the slow gait of the women in question, from the Wolof dirri, meaning “to drag”. The anecdotal suggestion that the seductive performance of local women entranced and maddened representatives of an external authority reminds us of Karmen’s manipulation of the hapless Angelique, underscoring the subversive potential of publicly performed beauty. 

The air of nonchalance with which the dirriankhe is performed belies the great efforts that enable such presentation. The allure of the dirriankhe is found, first, in the idealised corpulent body shape of the woman concerned. 

Next is the sheer quantity of cloth used. African and Afro-Islamic dress styles often use volume, density and ornamentation to signify the prestige of the wearer. The wrapper, a two-metre length of cloth tied around the waist and falling to the ankle, is the foundation of female dress. It is accompanied by a six-metre embroidered tunic or robe (boubou) and a two-metre headscarf. 

The intricate wrapping and layering of these fabrics allows for both concealment and revelation of the body – the boubou may slip off the shoulder, the headscarf may slide in a breeze – creating a spectacle at once modest and also alluring or suggestive. 

The eroticised and commercialised femininity of the dirriankhe is a public expression of the sensual beauty of women previously restricted to the domestic sphere – the household and extended kin. This ideal guides the consumption and display of middle-class women, who perform their gendered identities through elaborate and skillful dress in public ceremonies, primarily for the approval and appreciation of other women – to gain friends and peer support among these women, to establish their status, and so on. At events such as weddings and naming ceremonies, there are hardly any male attendees, just close female family or friends. The men present sit in contained groups on the outer edge at these functions, while women occupy the centre. 

For these women, the moment of entrance to these ceremonies is the one that evokes the desire, judgement and rivalry of other women. As one woman explained to me, she seeks to enter the mind of anyone who looks at her to the extent that they are maddened (the discourse of powerful enchantment and loss of control once again) by the spectacle of her superior beauty. Women may be discreet as they gaze at and judge other women at these events; there is nevertheless no doubt that when an entourage of well-dressed women enters the ceremonial circle, they are scrutinised and assessed. Women admire each other for their apparent mastery of techniques of dress and self-presentation; they admire the choice of an outfit, and the deportment and grace of the wearer. 

It is perhaps not surprising that there is criticism of the importance some women place on their public dress, appearance and performance. Some men complain that their wives dress up to go out, but wear shabby robes at home. 

Women who lighten their skin with xeesal, chemical creams, do so for public viewing. This often means that they have light hands, feet, necks and faces, so that in the intimacy of the bedroom, their husbands are presented with multi-coloured women with dark bodies. By bringing the practices and allure of seduction from the conjugal sphere to public life, it could be argued that dirriankhes sometimes solicit and enjoy the public gaze at the expense of their husbands’ gaze and desire. This reflects a shift in which women increasingly seek approbation from within public spaces rather than private domestic spaces, and from homo-social scrutiny rather than heterosexual intimacy. 

This outward turning of women’s beauty is also subject to widespread gendered moralistic discourses concerning “the fall” of women. These claim that traditions of feminine elegance and beauty have become perverted by female narcissism, with its excesses of consumption and self-interest, and a concomitant neglect of women’s familial duties. These excesses, or women’s public appearance, it is alleged, belie their true financial position. As one of my informants told me, “You see a woman, all dressed in a grande boubou, but you go in her house and you will see that the children are eating porridge.” Indeed, I did notice stark contrasts between appearance and household standards of living. The new generation of women traders in particular stand accused as agents of this commercialism and the accompanying “moral and cultural degeneration”. Their excessive ceremonial expenses, travel and use of xeesal are thus the source of community anxiety and, I would argue, envy. 

Skin-lightening with xeesal in particular is condemned by doctors, religious leaders and many others. Women who use xeesal are imitated and ridiculed. I saw a tailor friend, who often imitated dirriankhes and their regal gait, also imitating the ritual of applying xeesal, scrunching up his face and scrubbing at it with clumsy hands in a parody of the practice. More highly-educated men and women also spoke disdainfully to me about the “know-nothings” who thought they were achieving beauty even as they wrecked their skin with dangerous chemical products. 

Such moralistic discourses on women’s beautification practices are part of a broader moral panic concerning the “degradation” of fashion, ceremonial and social life in Senegal. These discourses charge that the domestic sphere has been contaminated by modern, commercial values that prioritise money and status – the values and instruments of the public, global domain – over reciprocity and honour – those of the domestic, African domain. Elsewhere, I argue that such critiques are grounded in cultural anxieties that refer not only to the degrading commercialisation of social life, but also to the challenges which women’s increasing independence poses to patriarchy and elite power.

Both men and women, of all ages, and with varying degrees of intensity, participate in condemnation of female narcissism, thereby conflating women’s complex strategies to ensure social and economic survival with the excesses of a few. 


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