Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Yes We Can! Or Maybe We Will...?

When Aissa was newly widowed, still a young women with two daughters at home, the chief of the village called her to a meeting. A group of women from the village sat in a circle and were questioned by government health workers and foreign aid workers. Aissa did her best to keep her eyes down and her mouth shut. She dislikes being singled out and is suspicious of those she does not know. But somehow, she was spotted for something special, and just like that, before she knew it, she had been chosen to be the first matrone, or midwife, in our commune.

After being trained, Aissa returned to the village to begin the difficult task of convincing the villagers that her services were necessary and useful. She walked from house to house until finally, slowly, motos began to appear in her compound at all hours of the day, urging her to hurry --there was a birth to attend. There was no maternity to work from, no stirrups for a woman in labor, no light but the flashlight that Aissa held in her mouth by which to see at night. Nonetheless, before she had time to blink, Aissa was delivering every woman's baby. She would try to take a month of vacation every year, exhausted from long nights up until dawn, only to have people come pleading to her. "Sabali ça, Aissa," they would say, "You have to come."

Finally, a maternity was built and pre-natal consultations moved from a corner of the market area into an actual building. Eventually, a university-trained midwife and another local midwife were added to the mix. But still, when women come to the clinic, they ask for Aissa. They trust her and know her -- she was at their mothers' deliveries when they themselves were born. She knows everyone's name and where they come from.

Through all of these years, Aissa was a single mother. She lived on her own in a large compound at the end of the village in a large, 4-room cement house with a tin roof. Her daughters grew and Aissa sent them through school. They married and moved away to follow their husbands and careers.

And then, ten years ago, at the age of forty, everything changed for Aissa.

An old man came to town. HIs name was Boiré and he arrived without any fanfare or history. He came to a village where he had no family to create a home where he had none. And, so it seemed, Aissa was just the way to do so.

After seeing Aissa in town, Boiré asked about her. He learned that she was widowed, living alone, and working as a matrone. Apparently, that was all he needed to know to collect the requisite kola nuts and present them to Aissa's father in exchange for her hand in marriage.

Keep in mind the following:
1. Aissa was a forty year old, financially independent woman.
2. Boiré and Aissa had never spoken.
3. Boiré was, and is, penniless.

And yet, upon receiving the kola nuts, Aissa's father gave Boiré Aissa's hand in marriage without a second thought. Aissa was called to her father's compound, where he informed her that she would be married to Boiré upon his return from a trip to Bamako. The forty year old woman looked at her aged father, the same age as her husband to-be, and cried and cried, begged and begged. She did not want to marry again -- there was no reason for her to marry again. And she certainly did not wish to marry a man she knew nothing about. Her father would not be moved. He told her that his religion told him that a woman should not be alone without a man to guide her, and even though Aissa's tears continued to fall, the man was resolute.

The question was, though, how would Boiré guide Aissa?

Aissa made two stipulations before marrying Boiré: that she be allowed to keep both her house and her job.

Luckily, Boiré and her father agreed to the stipulations, because it soon became clear that marrying Aissa meant a comfortable retirement for Boiré.

Boiré, being from Bamako, has fine tastes. He likes coffee in the mornings, meat in his sauce, and tea each and every day. When Aissa insists there's not enough money for meat in the peanut sauce or a new packet of tea, Boiré simply straps on his shoes, rises up with the help of his cane and totters down to take out a loan. A loan that will be repaid by none other than Aissa.

As his cane indicates, Boiré is not in the best shape of his life. The man is weak and getting on in his years. Most of his teeth are gone, but there seem to be just enough to chew the tough pieces of meat Aissa buys and cooks for him. Lately, Boiré's health has been getting worse. He's sick often and his medicines are costly. Last month, Boiré's medical bills amounted to at least a quarter of Aissa's monthly salary.

Boiré is not a monster. He has had a fascinating life traveling all over Mali to help set up the National Museum in Bamako. And although when Boiré first moved in Aissa would leave every room that he entered just in case he was entertaining ideas of cutting off her head, they now seem to enjoy each other's company.

But the fact's can't be denied. There was no practical reason for Aissa to remarry. And how Aissa is better off with a man in the house is beyond me. He does not provide protection or financial support; they are not procreating; they are not in love nor does Boiré provide Aissa with emotional security; and most importantly, a forty year old woman did not wish to be married and despite being independent in every other form, she was not able or allowed to make such an important decision for herself.

This past month, a law giving more rights to women, such as inheritance rights, was passed by Mali's Congress. It lay on the president's desk waiting for a signature when riots broke out across the country against the passage of the law. Malian men, and surprisingly, women, by far and wide, were convinced that giving equality (or a watered down version of it) would lead to women obstinately disobeying their husbands, disregarding their work, and generally upsetting the entire social order.

These past weeks, I learned that my villagers were similarly worked up in their aversion to the new law. After his wife had knelt down on one knee to serve Lahmine his dinner and given him water, Lahmine told me that if the law was passed, wives everywhere would not only refuse to bring their husbands water when they come home but would also quit doing their work at all. To him, and to many of the other men I spoke with, equality means a complete disruption to the gender roles established in Malian culture. It means giving up power with the disastrous result that without men's rule, women would not necessarily demand equality and a more fair division of labor, but that women would be incapable of taking responsibility of their families and homes without the supervision and orders of men.

It's largely a language problem. There is no word for equality in Bambara. Lahmine, like everyone else, translates equality as sameness: An bee kelen (We are all the same). But that's just not possible in a society as gender segregated as this. To say that men and women are the same is as much as admitting you're crazy and should be sent to the loony bin. No one, man or woman, would ever think that men and women are the same, so when I or anyone else try to talk about equality using the language of sameness, the same women who complain to me that they are tired of being disrespected and undervalued by men will deny equality as being a good thing. Men and women are simply not the same and there is no point in trying to make them so.

Moustapha told me that the law shouldn't be passed because it didn't make any sense for women to inherit money or land since they are not breadwinners. But! I said, But! Everywhere I look, women are making money. I do not know a single woman who is not engaged in some form of small enterprise, from selling street food to knitting to making brooms. Clearly, men are no longer able to comfortably provide for their family. If they did, women would not be working all hours of the day to both cook and clean and earn an extra little bit of money. Who can say that Aissa does not deserve an equal inheritance to that that her brothers will receive, when they are all breadwinners?

There is no reasoning, there is no strong argument against this law except one: men are better. Men are stronger. Men are the heads of the family, the village, the community. They are the owners of their wives and to give up any of that power would be terrifying and incomprehensible. But why, I keep asking, Why? Because, Mapha told me, men are simply better than women.

"Are you really telling me that you are better than me?" I asked Mapha, looking him straight in the eyes, my hands almost shaking.

He looked back and the joking expression that he always wears was gone from his face. "I'm not saying I'm better than you," he said, "I'm saying your husband will be better than you."

Moussa laughed as Mapha exited the room. "He's just scared," I said to Moussa, a young man with such kind eyes who just passed his Baccalaureate exam. He laughed, unwilling to join either Mapha's side nor mine.

So is that what it is, then? Is that what forces a financially independent woman like Aissa to marry again, just so that she does not upset anyone by proving that women can do just fine on their own?

Adama was the only man I talked to in favor of the law. He is also the only man I know with a relationship with his wife similar to what I hope to find in marriage. It is not purely a social obligation and financial relationship. They joke together, genuinely enjoy each other, and help each other out. When Adama tells Sitan to do something, she can say no. And then they'll joke about it. Sometimes, when Adama's late meeting me at the radio station, it's because he's been talking with Sitan and didn't want to tear himself away. Real, emotional relationships, then, could be what's missing. When you love each other, there need be no law to tell you to respect one another. When you respect each other, why would you be scared that giving equality to your partner would result in a loss of power?

Perhaps the law will not pass. Perhaps the men will settle back into their chairs and call for a glass of water. Perhaps Soté will still kneel before Lahmine with a cup raised in her hand and her eyes down.

But if you look carefully, the changes can't be denied. And maybe that's why the women aren't all as riled up as I am. Maybe they know that whether or not the law passes will make no drastic difference to their daily lives. Maybe they will pursue a path that they have already chosen and in which they have more confidence will produce results. By steadily taking more control of their families through earning their own money, striving for education, and joining women's associations, perhaps women in my village feel that they are moving towards equality fast enough.

Dooni dooni. Little by little.