Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Balancing (a diatribe on sexism, with a side of humor)

First of all, thanks to Six Senses Resorts and Spas for funding my well project in full. I really appreciate it, and so does my village.

It's been a tough couple of weeks up at site, although there is now water in the well, which changes a lot of things. For one, I no longer carry my laundry a total of around 46 km to wash it--I and my clothes are a lot cleaner these days. Since Mari left, I've been helping Aissatou cook, thus learning a lot about how to cook Senegalese food. Know what that means? It means that when I get back, I can provide nearly-authentic cuisine...for now, though, to business.

Peace Corps feels to me to be largely an exercise in controlling stressors, one long balancing act. The toughest one for me (and I think other women here) to deal with is balancing between cultural expectations of women and having any self-respect: sexism. In any given day, any man I meet--and many that already know me--will ask me within the first two minutes of speaking to me, "Where's your husband?" (the 'polite' ones will ask HOW he is--no answer will let me escape the following exchange). I can deny that I have one, or tell them he's in America, or tell them he's shopping 'over there', it won't matter. The next question (it counts as a question, because culturally, you respond as if it were) is, "So, I'll be your husband." I can say yes, or I can say no, it won't matter. There is no escape until we're several minutes in and I explain that no, it's not because I'm racist, it's not because I don't like black men, it's not for any reason other than I do not like men who treat me the way that they treat me. I'm tired of having to come up with reasons not to marry rude strangers. "Because I don't want to," should be reason enough, but just try explaining that in the American cultural [hetero]norm a man has to woo a woman, convince her that he can make her happy. "I can make women happy--I'll eat the food you cook, give you babies, and make money so you can have lots of pretty clothes," was the response I got when I tried. Of course, any more successful and I'd probably just have Senegalese guys giving me stuff trying to get me to like them...as horrible as it is, it might be easier this way. Yuck.

It's no fun, interacting with men (and a lot of women) who think that a woman's place is in the kitchen and the bedroom (and pulling water, washing clothes, and taking care of kids) only, and have no cultural taboo against expressing this in nearly the coarsest of terms. Why would they be ashamed? That's what women are for.

Female volunteers deal with this all the time, and I think it is probably one reason that it seems like so many more men extend their service than women do. And being in the pervasively sexist culture seems to make the male volunteers--or many of them--forget the extent to which they need to actively be feminists.

Men here (PCVs) have a hard job. They're part of a demographic group that oppresses another one very categorically, and they don't believe that's right. But it's exhausting to do battle over it all the time, especially because there really isn't any cultural space for the kind of rhetoric involved. "Stop hitting your wife, hitting wives is bad/unjust/etc" is all very well, but so much of everyone's identity here (Senegalese) is tied up in sex (which is the same thing as gender in this conservative society). And women have a function, which means you get a certain amount of, "He's my man, you stay out of this, he'll hit me if he wants to!". So, nobody wants to do battle over sexism (especially) all the time every day. I can't blame the men (PCV) for bowing out. I wish I could bow out--I do, sometimes. There are times when I lie and say that I'm married and going to go back to the states and have kids; or I don't speak up when a man orders his wife around. You can't fight all the time--but as women, here, we don't have a lot of choice. For the most part, it's one long fight.

It's really hard to be a woman here--and I hate saying things that reinforce gender stereotypes or exclude anyone from understanding based on a demographic identity. Here is one of the few times it is appropriate. None of the women here like to say that the men (PCV) 'don't get it' because they're men. It sounds mean, and condescending, and bratty. Be that as it may, it's true. So we don't say it, and we try to ignore it when the omnipresent sexism leaks into their brains and they're rude to us. Or they fail to back us up. Or they act in ways that require us to assert ourselves as real people and then are very rude and denigrating when we try to do so. And know what's even worse? That the sexism and assumption of second-class citizen gets into our brains, and we start to act and think as though, because we're women, we should be quiet/not confront/not offer opinions.

To the male PCVs, I understand not wanting to fight, fight, fight about it all the time. I just want you to remember that some of us do not have the option of bowing out, because just to get away from it a little, we have to totally buy into the culture and say, functionally, "Yes, you're right, I'm property, but I'm not yours." Just as you balance between interfering every second and choosing not to do so, we balance between being treated as if we were property and trying not to sound condescending and whiny. It's difficult for everyone. But yes, it's harder for us.

A lighter note--sort of--is the Senegalese sense of humor. In my village, the sense of humor has been coming across as really judgmental lately. Visitors show up and call out to me, "Mari Keita, where's my breakfast?"
"What?"
"Where's my breakfast? Didn't you cook? Give me food."
"I didn't cook breakfast for you--the food's all gone."
"You can't cook."
"True, I don't cook Senegalese food."
"You can't cook at all. And you don't speak Pulaar."
"What am I speaking now?"
"I said, 'Where is my breakfast' and you said 'what'--you don't understand anything."
"I said 'What' because you didn't greet me."

And so on. I forget, a lot of the time, that it's supposed to be fun, that they're just playing. Most of the time it seems pretty mean-spirited to me, but fine. Aissatou pulled me aside the other day and reminded me, "They're just making jokes, Mariama."
"But Aissatou, they're not funny."
"They're jokes. So, you should laugh."
"But they don't make me laugh."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."
"Aissatou...in America, jokes are supposed to make you laugh because...they MAKE you laugh" (there is no word for 'funny')
"Yep. And here it's the same. When someone makes a joke, you laugh."
"Even if the joke doesn't make you laugh?"
"Jokes make everyone laugh."
"Not me."
"That's because you don't know that they're jokes."
"...Ah."

Amusingly (and it's amusing to me in an infinitely metarecursive loop), my village thinks I have no sense of humor. Maybe it's telling that there's no word for 'funny'...

In other news, I'm chugging along at grad school applications. Anyone that wants to help me revise my essays, just say so.

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