DAKAR – The Théodore Monod African Art Museum in Dakar, Senegal, is hosting a 30-year exposition and retrospective on photography of African women by photographer Angèle Etoundi Essamba. The photos in black and white and color show women facing many of the struggles of rural life in Africa. Drawing water, paddling a canoe, village life, agriculture. But increasingly for this West African nation of 14 million, celebrating International Women’s Day on March 7, women are playing a major role in politics.
Aminata Touré is an example of one of the influential women here. A former prime minister, she worked with the UN for many years. She currently advises President Macky Sall as a special envoy for internal and external affairs in his office.
“Until recently the parliament was not gender balanced, but we passed a law for gender balance. I had an op-ed in the newspaper today that argues that democracy is the best friend of women. It is important for women to be involved,” she said.
For her, it is one of the great Senegalese achievements of the last few years that the status of women has improved.
However, “we still have challenges in rural areas, such as access to basic services, and we have a program targeting those areas,” she said.
Her house, located on a stately and quiet street near the government district, has a painting of a woman in a red dress selling milk.
On another wall is a statue of a Senegalese resistance fighter who struggled against French colonizers. It is a visible symbol of how history and women’s empowerment speak to a modern generation.
“Senegal is a model for its neighbors, we have transparent elections and we didn’t have a military coup. We are probably the only one. Democracy is well settled here. We also have a very noisy system. We trade ideas,” she said.
Amsatou Sow Sidibé, a former presidential candidate and, up until last month, an adviser to the current president’s cabinet, is adamant that women should be playing more of a role in political leadership here and elsewhere.
“I am fighting to have a woman president,” she said.
Senegal’s parliament is just under 50 percent female, after the law passed in 2010 forced parties to run slates for parliament that had gender parity. This is the one of the highest percentages in the world, with Rwanda topping the list.
“For stability we need women in politics in Africa,” she said.
Sidibé says the current law for gender parity was born in her office when she was an academic.
“When there is no discrimination against women it is good for stability, and we have a big responsibility for peace in our countries. But they also need to be at high levels for decision making,” she said.
She describes when she was working with the president she went to southern Senegal where there had been some unrest and worked to settle the issues by speaking to people.
“I think women understand everywhere the issues,” she said.
However outside of a city like Dakar, where we sit ensconced in her handsome greeting room, women in rural issues face problems such as lack of education.
“It affects men and women,” she said. “In some areas they don’t go to school.”
She has a message for Jewish women in Israel, encouraging them in be in politics and saying, “I hope they will support me.”
Israel and Senegal have had relations since the 1960s, and Israel was the fourth nation to recognize the country’s independence.
Dakar, the capital of Senegal, juts out into the sea like fist. Experiencing rapid growth in the last decades, it is one of the most influential cities in the region. Dominated by a giant statue to the “African Renaissance,” which shows a man and women reaching for the sky, it is considered to be a microcosm for Senegalese success that is a model for democracy and stability throughout the area.
Senegal is a Muslim country, and its culture is closely connected to sub-Saharan countries. Nevertheless, it borders countries like Mauritania and Mali that are experiencing instability and terrorism emanating from the Sahara and North Africa.
In short, according to local politicians and diplomats, Senegal matters to West Africa and the world, and women play a major role in that.
Senegalese, like Touré, describe their country as an open-minded model of coexistence where the government values women’s successes.
“We have a long tradition of valuing girls schools and that started early,” she said.
She points to the way women dress as a sign of that. In contrast to Arab-Muslim societies, she says, we see women dressing as they please here, no full face veils. For these Senegalese who speak of their African cultural values of tolerance that others can learn from in the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems perplexing.
“I traveled a lot,” Touré says. “Israel seems like a very Middle Eastern environment, so you wonder why they and Palestinians fight each other. One goes to synagogue and another goes to mosque or church, but they seem so close to each other.
I believe culture is one of human beings; and people and politicians should foster peace. I believe it is possible for a two-state solution for Palestinians and Israel.”
Senegal is on the cusp of having a referendum on March 20 that will ask citizens to say yes or no to 14 laws the government wants to pass, including one to shorten the term for the president. Everywhere on the main streets the posters are going up asking people to vote “oui.”
Everyone is debating the issues, in elevators and shops. Many seem to hope that this referendum, which presents itself as a minor political crisis, will pass without incident.
However it turns out, women will play a major role on both sides of the debate.