By Haddy Njie
In our current world where cultural values are drifting away from the past due to the difference in intergenerational values, beliefs, and challenges, it is essential for the Gambian society to screen its gendered social curriculum for relevance and utility. That consciousness is vital for equipping our future generation of women with the economic and social skills they need to efficiently navigate their worlds, both within The Gambia and beyond its borders. Social arrangements of the past that sustained patriarchy and made it a useful measure of ensuring societal stability are no longer viable.
The discussion of whether traditional African societies practice gender and the historical origin of gender practices is a contested area with substantial research. The African post-colonial agrarian household that allowed for distinct but less discriminatory gender roles is long gone! Post-colonial feminist scholars have blamed the Western colonialization of Africa as a source of the contamination of the African gender system, leading to gender inequalities. Others have argued further that gender as a social category and a differentiation solely based on anatomy is an imported concept that the Europeans, introduced in Africa based on their understanding of the European gender system (Amadiume, 1987; Oyeronke, 1997).
There are merits in the above arguments since that process of economic disempowerment is widely documented and attested to in the empirical literature on colonialism and gender inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa. The introduction of cash crops in the colonial economy is just one of the many policies that economically disempowered African women as they were marginalized from that streamlined economic activity and relegated to the role that specializes in the local agricultural production for the household and domestic consumption. For an extensive discussion of colonial policies and gender inequality in Africa, see Akyeampong and Hippolyte (2012).
What I am seeking to argue in this opinion piece is: while our Gambian society should not discard the glory of the valuable past, it must syncretize it with the useful modern knowledge and realities of our contemporary times. That fusion of the old and the new is critical for leveraging the capabilities of our young woman to live, work and love as equals, partners and valuable members of societies.
My theoretical conceptualization of Senegambian Soups regarding the “Jeek Feem and Jongeh” phenomena is premised on two academic research areas, namely: the transformative power of media in social change and gender performativity. Media are the gateways for the spread of social values, meanings, and identities (Gillespie, 1995). Although characters of our young ones are formed across several planes of socio-political institutions from the family, to the schools and religious organization, the media has a profound impact on molding, reinforcing and correcting human behaviors. Television series are arguably potent forces for the construction, reconstruction, and subversion of gender identities (the social expectations of females and males).
Gender identities and expectations are modeled through performances (Butler,1988). The Soups are value-laden in the meanings they disseminate, and like any social curriculum, the messages circulated are based on the cultural values and norms of the powerful who control the power status quo. Performances that seek to tow the lines of the gender boundaries do come with severe consequences from the patriarchal system and that is something about which Soup producers are mindful. In fact, it shows that reverse gender roles and expectation for a positive social change are hardly attempted and in sporadic cases where they appear, do not gain traction and are mostly sabotaged and banned from airing.
My focal point of discussion is on the television series mostly run on Senegalese television channels and are popular among Gambians, mainly women and girls. The fact that such cultural exchanges are consumed by Gambians in large numbers and are without undesirable social consequences is what draws my attention to it. Although many such dramas are currently airing, I will be using one of the most popular amongst them- “Pod et Marichou”- as a basis for the evidence to be proffered and the conclusions to be drawn upon from the gender performances that such media project in both subtle and noticeable ways.
Several themes from the unfolding Series are worth analyzing for their highly gendered messages.
Polygamy: this is not the part of the culture about which I have issues as a practicing Muslim. My contention and what I have found to be egregiously downgrading and unfair is the practice of favoritism in the political-economy of how the polygamous household is managed. Reflecting on the Pod et Marichou, the most self-sacrificing wife (Marichou) who nurtures, care and is expected to serve as the pillar of the whole family is rewarded more for her “sacrifices” than Eva who is equally a good wife but not as self-sacrificing to the household as much as her co-wife, Marichou. The social meaning from that message is to overshow and undermine the ambition and desires of young women such as Eva to make choices and decisions that keep them in marriage alliances as human beings worthy of the same attention they are expected to empty out of themselves to sustain a marriage.
We see in Eva an ambition character who has not forgone her social obligations of being a responsible wife, but at the same time, she is conscious of her worth and ability to make choices that are independent but not dangerous to the survival of her marriage such as participating in paid work. However, there is a deliberate and constant downplaying of her personality by over-shadowing her with the “Jeek Feem” in character in the co-wife Marichou. It is apparent that the goal of the producer/s is to empower Eva to take bold and meaningful steps in defying some of the oppressive gender regimes that hold women and society back from harnessing the potential windfall of opportunities from the female power. However, the producers are often convoluted in their decisions of what personae she should project.
When their husband Pod cheated in one of the episodes with an employee, Marichou, the self-sacrificing wife, darling of the extended family and husband was the one who decided to leave, and Eva stayed in the house and sucked up all the pains. However, to the surprise of some commentators who were proud of Marichous’s decision to quit the marriage, they were let down to see her return in no time to her matrimonial home. The advice from their supposedly fair-minded mother-in-law and mentor to the young wives was to endure the disappointments and heartbreaks as that is what married women are supposed to do no matter the degree of agony. Why must they suffer? For their marriages and children to be blessed. This theme is not accidental; it is the reproduction of the social curriculum that emphasizes self-sacrifice, modesty, humility, and understanding as good virtues for married women.
Those sterling qualities of a “good ” wife are priceless, but Pod, the husband who the Soup empowers in the role of the male protagonist and the one who is the source of the conflict of tremendous harm to the psychology and well-being of his wives, does not benefit from that kind of positive socialization. He still is not reprimanded or punished for his actions. The central message to be interpreted from this storyline is that it is somehow morally right for society to forgive his actions and that his dishonesty is also unintentional. In fact, to free him entirely from the blame of having an extramarital affair, another female character in the series was used for seducing him, implying a man’s misconduct is a woman’s fault, repeating for us the famous story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden apple!
Many examples that reinforce the traditional gender roles and expectations from such forms of social performances and entertainments abound. It’s not that the storylines in such theatrical productions are useless for society.
In fact, it can be a dominant force in correcting human behaviors that could lead to a much fairer world for both men and women to realize their God-given potentials if employed with that kind of social change project in mind. My position is that the messages in the cultural teachings do lose their import, utility and wilder application as they are often gender-biased in reinforcing positive social behaviors since society indirectly excludes men and boys from the lessons of that common curriculum. Put it differently, what that social authorization allows the man to do is to get away with the label of a “bad man” for his fault can be corrected if he is lucky to find a “good wife”- another famous saying that is well ingrained in the gender social curriculum. That the moral lesson is for only females to be trained in and to master is where the utility of Senegambia Soups for a positive social change has evaded me.
The implications of the social transfers of femininity to young women and girls via the Soups are enormous. First, whatever happens to “Gorr Feem” and “Gorr Jongneh” and why it is difficult to create such characters in our Senegambia men in Soups? When we realize that it is impossible for homes, marriages, and societies to be saved only from the benevolence of self-sacrificing women and their girls, we will extend the moral lesson of “Jongneh,” treated as a uniquely feminine curriculum to all genders. The curriculum reproduces and normalizes female oppression, albeit, sometimes, unconsciously, while making it a worthy goal for the women to pursue. She is made to believe that she will ultimately reap the benefits of her sacrifices as the harder the woman endures, the more successful her children will become in the future, and if she unfortunately passed in the process, her final resting place is in heaven.
On the other hand, if she fails to conform to the social ideology of a self-sacrificing woman, she is told that the future of her children is bleak. Hence the common saying ‘when a child is successful he/she is everyone’s child, but on the contrary, if he/she fails in life, the child is the mother’s alone.’ The analogy of wives being the determinants of their children’s future success or failure does not only promote the social agenda for women to be submissive at all cost but further entrenched their unjustifiable submission in the patriarchal system.
At this point in my analysis, you may be contemplating what my political goal for this piece is. I must confess here that I am still learning about the world I live in and its realities. I humbly submit it to you that am not trying to pose as your veteran teacher of love, life, and relationship or even attempting to denigrate a culture that has shaped my worldview and identity for the most part. I respect, cherish and value many things in this very culture I am subjecting under the critical lenses as they constitute my moral compass and advantages in helping me discover who I am and my place in the world.
The fact of the matter is that it takes more than just “Feem” and “Jogneh” to be successful in the kind of world in which our girls are growing up; which is ever-changing and require added layers of character to proof-test for endurance in surmounting everyday challenges outside the world of marriage. Therefore, beyond the need to acculturate her in the custom of “Feem and Jogneh” is the fundamental need to socialize her in the ethics of hard work, perseverance, dedication, self-worth, and dignity. These are valuable assets girls need to be able to stand up for themselves, whenever they need it in their future lives and sometimes in their lifetime, some of them would!
I do not believe there is magic to “Moom Sa Gorr” (loosely translated into English as owning your man). I may be wrong to think that it is almost a delusion, but I am still learning about the world! Even if “Moom Sa Gorr” is possible, I currently hold the belief that “Feem and Jogneh” are not the only reasons for attaining that high-status social profile. I am sure you or someone you know, know of this one self-sacrificing wife with her top “Feem and Jogneh” brands, who should have “Moom” her “Gorr” but unfortunately did not attain that profile for reasons that are independent of her actions. From my microscopic observations, I have read that Senegambian married men tend to be independent and self-directed in how they manage their marital relationships and where they are different is in how they perceive their spouses. When men see their wives as partners and equals, they treat them well.
That logic is my reason and motivation for believing and wishing that teaching young boys and men to value the lives of their sisters, and future wives could make for a positive and sustainable social change. The spill-over effect from that recognition is that human life of all genders is valued, and a harmonious society created from just from that simple act of humanity.
“Wifeability” is to many women a worthy goal to pursue and that is a choice I can accept and respect as it is a goal for me too. In fact, feminism is all about choices women make; choices that are free of gender influences that work against the interest of females. However, the moral lesson from “Jeek Feem” and Jongneh” in the Senegambian Soap Opera if not supplemented with essential life-skills for surviving the contemporary world may block opportunities for inculcating other fundamental codes our young women and girls should imbibe, value and uphold as they learn to navigate their world(s). The impacts of media on human behavior and social change are profound and cannot be overlooked. Hence the importance of consciously screening and discerning the hidden and apparent messages within them to shoot at relevance and utility for the kind of positive social change that we need for our progress as a society.
Haddy Njie currently teaches at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, North Carolina State University. Haddy does research in Educational Policy, Comparative Education, Social Economy, and Women and Gender and Development. Her current research is on Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) as local responses to poverty and an indigenous method of financial-organizing among women with limited access to formal banking and related financial institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Akyeampong, E, and Hippolyte F. (2012). “The Contribution of African Women to Economic Growth and Development: Historical Perspectives and Policy Implications Part I: The Pre-Colonial and Colonial Periods.” Policy Research Working Papers
Amadiume, I. (1987). Male daughters, female husbands: Gender and sex in an African society. London: Zed Books.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal,40(4), 519-531
Gillespie, M. (1995). Television, Ethnicity, and Cultural Change. New York: Routledge
Marodi TV (2017-2018). Pod et Marichou. Senegal: Dakar
Oyewùmí, O. (1997). The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press