Friday in Dakar: Are African Women free or Liberated?


In his first years of school during colonialism in the outskirts of Dakar, the Capital of Senegal, my father studied from French history books and learned that “his ancestors were vikings.” These history lessons, as part of a very rigid French system, were supposed to be memorized and then recited over and over again. It is no surprise that after most countries in Africa gained their independence, the continent’s literature was bombarded with books about acculturation. That acculturation has been a part of my legacy, left on the footsteps our my generation and that of my elders like a bag of hot potatoes that we have been handling with thrifty fingers, exactly what Paulo Freire would recall in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed when referring to the language of the educator or of the politician as “alienating rhetoric.” (P.96)

Coming from countries that have received such a strong influence from the rest of the world, liberation is a notion that is constantly battled with, especially when you are a woman: liberation from expectations, affirmations and mostly from the legacy of traditions set hundreds of years ago that have oftentimes enslaved us from within in a manner that can easily be compared to the triangular commerce. Only this time, the guilt and sorrow that inhabit the individual make no turn. They form a heavy ball that sadly sits in the soul.

Descartes’ “ Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am” is oftentimes the only luxury many societies can afford that can get them close to the notion of liberation through the questioning of the practices of the societies that have nurtured them.

Liberation is important and the constant act of “thinking” to demark one’s self from what has made their identity for centuries is liberating in a way that helps them unlearn throughout the process: the unlearning of the notions and roles that the community has dumped on one’s shoulders.

Society becomes then this intricate and elaborate structure that one must deal with and face. Although facing it helps in order to gain personal freedom, in societies whose philosophies lie on the premises of “I am therefore you are”, the collective is not always easy to handle.

If through freedom one suggests liberation, it is understandable that Gablik would cite Christo in “Flash Art” when he says that he never takes any commission on his work because “the work of art is a scream for freedom”( P. 169).

It is interesting that Herbert Marcuse would label “Society as a work of art” and “art as a form of reality”. If society is an art and art a form of reality, it would be even fathomable to face the fact that art is not always a bubble in which one can hide to run away from reality, for reality must be dealt with: Which invites us to draw a line between freedom and liberation. Is it possible that one may be free without being liberated?

I doubt that the majority of my African sisters are liberated. Most of us may be free to live, study, protest and vote, but it is very possible that we are not yet liberated. We are still juggling myriads of barriers not always set by society but burgeoning from within.

We are held by the fate history has dumped on us, our hands tied with patriarchal chains. If Western education is what is counted on to set the tone for many women’s freedom around the world, it also comes with its own controversies, making our lives a bit harder to handle. The Islamic religious heritage does not make it easy for us either to deal with our emotions and selves.

For the sake of not being yet able to showcase our liberation, we expose our freedom through our color combinations and brightly colorful fashions.

And so op! we go. When on Friday afternoon thousands of men rush to piled up mosques where no architect ever thought once that we women could also need a place to worship a God that has made us the mothers and the for-bearers, we relay ourselves to our closets and bedrooms where we use our mascaras and eye liners to draw the shadows of a possible liberation. And so it seems, when women walk down the street, the shantung silk, Bazin and Tafta boubous are the only parts of us that can feel a sense of liberation. While our beautiful faces shine of lipstick and gloss and we mold elegantly styled head wraps as if to let the frou-frou of the fabric speak for ourselves, we know that though it seems far, the road to personal liberation may be closer than we think. It is within. Each and every single one us must just dig deep and find her own path to it, after a nice show in the streets.