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Between Two Worlds: The Double Consciousness of Women in The Gambia

Haddy Jatou Gassama (@haddyja2), Washington DC, USA

The Mandinka tribe of The Gambia has a custom of measuring the first wrapa used to carry a newborn baby on its mother's back. Like other aspects of Mandinka cultural practices, this ceremony is steeped in gendered actions. The measuring ceremony is one of the very first rites of passage for a Mandinka child. Women exclusively perform and facilitate this ceremony. It is customary for a small calabash ladle to be placed into the hands of a girl-child as her first wrapa is measured. The calabash signifies a future as a wife and homemaker. During my own measurement ceremony to signify a learned future my grandmother and mother placed a pen in my hand instead of a calabash. Both my mother and grandmother are staunch traditionalists in every sense of the word. However, casually, they wrote their own feminist manifestos with the simple sucking of the teeth and a choice to put education before "proper womanhood”.

In our country, tradition is not always the antithesis of feminism. My mother and grandmother's brand of feminism is one that wields the traditional powers and respect allotted to older women in most Gambian tribes, to combat an otherwise patriarchal status quo.

However this same provision of power and respect can be used to maintain and perpetuate patriarchal norms. As such, Gambian women have a double consciousness as to which side of the line of patriarchy they stand. 

The concept of double consciousness is often used within the context of race. Within its general framework, the subject experiencing double consciousness has a sense of self as well as an innate awareness of how they are perceived and treated by others vis-à-vis their identity. In the context of race, double consciousness describes the sensation of never being able to truly be, but to instead constantly be confronted with the relation of who you are and whom others see you as. W.E.B. Dubois describes this state of being in his groundbreaking The Souls of Black Folk. He goes on to say “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”.  This arduous state of twoness is also an experience synonymous with womanhood. In countries like The Gambia, where gender roles and patriarchal norms are deeply ingrained, this sense of twoness becomes more palpable. 

In The Gambia, double consciousness in women has become a cultural hallmark. It rears its head during marriage ceremonies, when griots sing “aawo buuri kerram” which means the first wife is the queen of her house. At the very same ceremony, elder women will advise the new bride that “jigéen daafa waara mounge”, a woman must endure or have patience. At these ceremonies, the strength and grace of a woman is always celebrated and praised, but the tape with which this strength is measured is her ability to endure the potential harm her husband or in-laws may hurl at her. A bride on her wedding day often has the understanding that in her matrimonial home she can simultaneously be queen and servant. In the economic and educational realm women are generally encouraged to earn an education and aspire for well paying careers. However, the measuring tape for many women’s academic and professional achievements, is the ego of a potential spouse. As in many other parts of the world, it is not uncommon to hear phrases like “how will you find a husband with all these degrees” or “that woman is too wealthy, who will marry her now.” 

The agency and egalitarian rights of women have always existed between two tectonic plates of customs, those that place women on pedestals of praise and respect and those reflective of a patriarchal status quo.

The tug of war between these matriarchal traditions of power and the patriarchal norms (largely the remnants of colonialism), leaves Gambian women in limbo. In our tiny country, women live, work, and thrive between two divergent paradigms of existence. 

The first of these paradigms exists predominantly in informal spaces. In this realm, matriarchs are omnipotent. Their word is law and their wrath is dangerous. The ancestors, grandmothers, and mothers who make up this elite class of women serve as the foundation for the various iterations of Gambian feminism. This class of women are the bedrock of familial ties and the source of our quick wits and no-nonsense attitudes. They are the keepers of our histories and guides to our futures. The paradox of their own double consciousness allows these women to exemplify the strength and power of women in the Gambia, while simultaneously upholding patriarchal norms. 

In The Gambia, women, particularly elders, act as the gatekeepers of cultural acceptability. Their role ranges from the casual judgment of the length of a young woman’s skirt, to confirming the virginity of a bride after her wedding night. They often see the actions of their daughters and granddaughters through the eyes of a man. The measuring tools with which they pass their judgments are usually tied to a patriarchal cause. A veil of double consciousness taints the societal advantage and discretion that is given to these women. Questions such as: what will a man think of a woman in a short skirt, what will a man do to a woman in a short skirt, what value will a man place on a bride who is not a virgin, drive the actions and judgments of the women who set and define our cultural practices. These women have the power to perpetuate or put an end to harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. As the reigning arbiters of interfamilial affairs, they have the power to protect rather than reprimand women seeking refuge from abusive spouses. By lifting the veil of their own double consciousness, they can actively confront gender inequities within both paradigms of existence for Gambian women.   

The second of the two paradigms is entrenched in formal settings. Unlike the first paradigm, which exists behind closed compound doors and within familial ties, the second paradigm is what Gambian society holds out to the public. This space is universal in its inequalities. It takes the form of wage gaps between men and women, disparities in access to education and literacy rates between boys and girls, and legal barriers to gender equity. While the features of the first paradigm are nuanced and often subject to the will of individual women, the facets of the second paradigm are systemic. The arbiters of the first paradigm are predominantly elder women, while institutions, often headed by men, facilitate the second paradigm. Women in The Gambia exist between these two distinct spaces, where their agency and rights become dependent on the space in which they are. In many cases, the first of the two paradigms provides the space for progressive changes, while the second remains rigid. The practice of FGM and the ongoing fight to end it, is a prime example of the tension between the two paradigms in which Gambian women exist. 

FGM as a customary rite of passage is rooted in the double consciousness of women in The Gambia. The recurrent justification for this cruel practice has always been Islamic religious obligation, which is a thinly veiled excuse for the larger and more dangerous belief at hand. Women who perpetuate this practice, by facilitating the process, volunteering their daughters to be cut, or chastising women who are not cut, all share the belief that a man will not value a woman who has not undergone FGM. Within the second paradigm, FGM is illegal and has been since 2015. Yet, thousands of women and young girls are cut every year in The Gambia with little to no legal recourse. There are countless local and international NGOs in the fight to end FGM in The Gambia. While many of them work within the systems of the second paradigm, demanding for the government to enforce the laws by punishing violators, and speaking to students at schools, it is those who engage with the first paradigm that make the most headway. In recognizing the power of reaching the matriarchs of families, these organizations are shifting the future of women in the country towards progress. 

I am one of only a handful of women in my family who did not experience FGM. On the day my female cousins and I were supposed to undergo FGM, my mother refused to send me along with the rest of the girls. Having undergone FGM herself, she refused to allow any of her daughters to experience its horrors. 

Systems of patriarchy exist in The Gambia, but the matriarchal traditions of our country hold a formidable authority. Tradition is not the antithesis of feminism. While Gambian women have a double consciousness as to which side of the line of patriarchy they stand, they also have the power of choice.

Women like my mother and grandmother have long understood the power of their choices and have used their discretion to ensure that my sisters, and I did not grow up measuring our strengths, our talents and our very existence by the tape of a man’s ego or gaze. The women in my life taught me to have a strength whose purpose is not for suffering at the hands of a man. Instead the lessons we’ve been taught are that a woman is queen or king of her home and her life and nothing less. As my generation of Gambian women move closer to joining the ranks of the matriarchs who possess this power in our social fabric, I am optimistic that there will be less speeches of a woman’s duty to endure at weddings, and more moments like my wrapa measuring ceremony. 


“Sacred Puta”

Pia Love (@pialovenow), Puerto Rico

Puta’s body of work explores the dichotomy of the - Holy and not so Holy, by re-imagining pivotal female figures from the bible to pop culture as womxn who fiercely own their power of seduction while still remaining holy. Healing the split psych, of either having to exist in conformity or redeemed as too wild. Sacred Puta dares to imagine a world where The Virgin Mary (mother archetype) and the Erotic Priestess (Maiden archetype) co-existing in harmony, and womxn are afforded the complexity to be loved, in their ‘freeness’.

By doing so, Sacred Puta also questions our relationship between commodity and womxn, and how the two has shared a long history of exploitation especially within Capitalist structures, thus ultimately making the work about dismantling patriarchal and capitalist frameworks, which are detrimental to not only womxn, but to our planet and every living soul in it.

FR Mag - "Sacred Puta" Pia Love
Pia Love @pialovenow


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