Women in Mali

Many articles and reports have been done on the condition of women in Africa or in Islam or in Muslim Africa and so on. I have often been asked my opinion either on the veracity of said articles or on the condition of women in such circumstances. My response is that it is much more complex than can easily be summed up in the limited space of a newspaper article. It is also my feeling that such articles, written by outsiders, are often biased. The actions of non-westerners are seen through a filter of western cultural bias that judges the western way as the best way, the only right way and anything that is not the same way is by default unjust. When such articles are written by locals they are often written by people with an agenda, the director of an NGO that receives funding for promoting women's rights, for example. Of course they are going to paint things in the light that best serves their purpose.

I have been considering this issue and the various experiences and observations I have had on the subject. Even as a western woman who has spent most of my time since 2000 in West Africa, now a mother married to an African man, I needed more information to give an accurate response to the question: what is the condition of women in Muslim west Africa or at least in Mali. I did some research. I looked up the constitution of Mali and its laws on marriage and family to see what the official position is. I also looked up all the references in the Koran to women to see what it says about them. And finally I looked up some information about the position of women's equality in the west.

I will not deny that there is inequality of the sexes in Mali and I will discuss that but two other factors play a role. One is the misinterpretation by westerners mentioned above that I also intend to examine more closely. In this aspect we must look not only at how our perceptions cause us to misjudge cultural differences but also that some issues that women face are not so much intentional discrimination rather they are the result of a very poor country with too few resources to meet the needs of its population. The final aspect of this question is that we in the west must first examine our own women's equality before seeking to accuse others. Let not those living in glass houses throw stones.

I was sent articles published in western newspapers discussing a new family law that was supposed to considerably improve the position of women which was, in the end, not passed. After having been approved by the legislators, the president sent it back for review instead of signing it into law “in order to ensure a calm and peaceful society”. Protest from conservative lobbies was apparently strong enough that this was a concern. According to reports there were protests about it in several main cities including Timbuktu, though I do not recall hearing anything about it at the time. I asked a local who confirmed an event in this town but who qualified it as very small and not very important.

Having been asked my opinion on some of the articles above I decided I should find out just what Malian law actually said about women's position and what the new law was supposed to add. I could not find the text of the proposed law that was not ratified, but I found the Malian constitution, marriage law and family law.

The preamble to the constitution sates that it “Proclaims its determination to defend the rights of Women and Children as well as cultural and linguistic diversity of the national community” and “Agrees with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights of 27 June 1981” under the section on the rights and duties of people it states:

ARTICLE 1:The human person is sacred and inviolable. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, security and integrity of his person.

ARTICLE 2: All Malians are born and remain free and equal in rights and duties. Discrimination based on social origin, colour, language, race, sex, religion and political opinion is prohibited.

ARTICLE 17: Education, instruction, training, work, housing, recreation, health, and welfare are recognized rights.

ARTICLE 18: Every citizen has the right to education. Public education is compulsory, free and secular. Private education is recognized and exercised under the conditions defined by law.

If the Constitution is fully enacted and enforced there is no inequality between men and women in the eyes of the law. However, there are some discrepancies between these broad lines of law and the finer details such as those found in the marriage code. In reality the marriage code is mostly fair, giving the same rights, protections and grounds for divorce to both husband and wife. There are some pertinent passages however, one of which was the key change in the new law and cause for protest against it.

In Chapter 8, rights and responsibilities of the respective spouses, article 32 states “The husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.” and in article 34 “The husband is the head of household, in consequence: The cost of the household falls principally on him; the choice of family residence is his; and the wife must live with him and he must receive her.” While Mali is a secular country the heavy Muslim influence is clear in these passages that seem to come straight from quotes mentioned below from the Koran. The obligation of a wife to obey her husband is the most inflammatory statement and was apparently intended to be eliminated from the revised code.

This statement is in opposition to the constitution wherein all peoples are equal regardless of race, creed, sex, etc. It can also be argued that as long as a wife must obey her husband all other rights and protections granted her in the code are null since he can simply order her to accept his will. Article 38 forbids a woman from running a business without her husband’s permission but 39 states that a woman with her own means can open an account separate from her husband and Chapter 11 explains the options of joint ownership or separation of property systems of marriage. These seem to be contradictory if a man forbids his wife to engage in business then how can she have her own means to open an account? If she is not obligated to share her wealth with him but he orders her to do so and she must obey him, there is a contradiction.

Article 34 is also unequal granting automatic head of household status to the man simply on account of his sex. Article 40 qualifies this by giving the woman head of household status if the man is absent for a prolonged period or is incapable of manifesting his will (illness, mental incapacity) or has been convicted of a felony. It does not include giving the woman head of household status if she is actually principle provider for herself and her children while the husband is present and capable of manifesting his will.

One of the other parts of the code that offend the westerners and women's rights activists is the fact that the legal age for marriage of girls 15 but for men it is 18. However there is another side to this law which is that underage men and women must have their parents’ permission to marry. The legal age for adulthood and thus no longer requiring permission to marry is 18 for women but 21 for men.

In the chapter on divorce if the woman is granted a separation from her husband during the proceedings, she must stay in the lodging decided upon by the judge and must provide proof of her residence therein upon request otherwise the husband may no longer be required to provide for her and her claim may be inadmissible. This insistence on chastity of the women is unequal as no similar constraints are placed on the man. After a divorce a woman may not remarry for three months to determine whether she is pregnant by her former husband. Similar ideas of determining paternity show up in the kinship laws stating that pregnancy is between 180 and 300 days so that if a child is born more than 180 days after marriage or less than 300 days after divorce that child's father is the husband. These articles are simply outdated. Modern testing capabilities render them obsolete.

The other aspects of the Marriage Code that are actually unequal have to do with guardianship of orphaned children. Again most of the articles are equally valid for men or women but it is stated that if the husband dies, while his wife has the guardianship of their children he may appoint an advisor in his will and if he fails to do so the court will, without whom the mother will be unable to take any action regarding the guardianship. It does state that she can refuse to accept this guardian in which case she will be solely responsible for the obligation until the appointment of a family council. A family council is supposed to be appointed when a child is completely orphaned and as we see above has lost a father. It is unclear if only the mother has dies, whether such a council is formed. However the reality is that these laws especially those dealing guardianship are rarely enacted or enforced. When a parent dies the remaining family steps in to raise the children in the traditional environment. I have never heard of the government getting involved.

In fact, for most of the laws mentioned above the case is similar. Despite the law stating that marriage is firstly secular and should be formalized with the state before being celebrated religiously the large majority of marriages are religious only, and so, should there be a falling out between husband and wife, they have no official recourse to the law. They may, however, have recourse to the Cadi, a religious judge. While the law officially gives recourse to either party in a marriage, the fact is that legal proceedings require money, and often influence as well; something that women often lack. Couple that with ignorance of their rights and a longstanding tradition of men siding with men in such issues and it is clear that justice is not so easily gained as it would like to appear.

Culture and tradition play a huge role in modern attitudes and behaviours. It takes a long time to change such behaviours. Writing new laws or converting to new religions does not automatically erase previous prejudices or beliefs. In fact, many times the new religion or idea is subtly altered by the existing beliefs. Thus every community that was touched by Islam has a slightly different way of seeing it, putting more emphasis on those aspects that resonated with them and minimizing or ignoring the parts that didn't and even distorting ideas therein to fit their own notions of what is right or wrong. Let us look at what is actually stated in the Koran and the law books of Mali to see how equal or unequal women are in their eyes before we examine the effects of culture on the actual status of women.

Mali's population is approximately 98% Muslim; the rules and traditions of Islam then play a large role in Malians' view on the position of women in the society. While Islam counts heavily on the Hadiths, or traditions, as well as the Koran, and of course the interpretations that religious leaders make thereof, the fundamental basis is the Koran, which is believed to be an exact recitation of God's words transmitted to the prophet Mohamed through the archangel Gabriel. All true Islamic belief should be pronounced by it or supported therein. I did a thorough research of all the mentions of woman in the Koran using Penguin Classics 1997 edition translated to English by N. J. Dawood.

The majority of the mentions of women in the Koran can in no way be taken as oppressive or derogatory to them. Unbelievers or wrong doers whether they are male or female will be punished; believers whether they are male or female will be rewarded. Respect your parents, since your mother suffered much to bear you. Treat your wives fairly even in divorce. Treat widows and orphans fairly. Don't force female slaves into prostitution.

There are a few of the statements that may, especially to westerners, be perceived as unequal. One such rule is that widows and divorced women have to wait four months, keeping apart from men after the divorce or death of the husband to remarry. This is to ensure that she is not pregnant or if she is that the child be attributed to its proper father. In the past, pregnancy tests and paternity tests did not exist. This was the best way to be sure and it can be largely to the woman's advantage: if she is divorced and her child is of the dissolved marriage then the father is expected to provide for her as well as the child during the pregnancy and nursing, regardless of divorce. If it is concerning a widow, her child will have a right to its inheritance.

A male child is to inherit twice as much as a female child and a husband inherits half of his wife's estate but she only one quarter of his, if they die childless, and ¼ and 1/8 respectively if they have children. To the western mind it seems unfair that someone should inherit more just because he is male but again one must take into account the reality of the society and the time: Men were the caretakers and providers of women, even if women entered into business the man had to care for his wives, daughters, elderly parents, and sisters and cousins if they orphan and unmarried. An orphaned boy would be expected to take over the responsibilities of the family while an orphaned girl will be taken care of by her uncle or brother. A widow will be taken care of by her brother-in-law or return to her father's house or remarry. Thus the men needed more means than the women, however, they too deserve a share. In the modern world we may argue that that is no longer valid. In Malian society it is still the general rule.

That women must veil themselves is a common proof to westerners of their marginalized status under Islam. Here is all that the Koran says on the subject:

Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their step-sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women-servants, and their slave-girls; male attendants lacking in natural vigour, and children who have no carnal knowledge of women. And let them not stamp their feet when walking so as to reveal their hidden trinkets. -- 24:30

Prophet enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close round them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not be molested. 33:58

It shall be no offence for old spinsters who have no hope of marriage to discard their cloaks without revealing their adornments. Better if they do not discard them. --24:58

These passages show that, as with other religions, modesty and chastity are valued. I do not read in these lines any dictate that they be covered in a heavy burka with nothing but the eyes showing. The intent in 33:58 is clearly for the woman's protection rather than her oppression. And the final citation actually states that not all women are required to veil themselves at all. While one could argue that the above verses are restrictive to women and outdated there are clear reasons that they were instituted. It is also clear that various interpretations of these verses have distorted them from their original simplicity.

There are a number of obscure references wherein offence seams to be taken at the idea of woman angels being the daughters of God. This appears to be references to the blasphemous idea that pagan Arabs had that certain goddesses they worshipped were the daughters or angels of God. This is mixed in with admonishments on the practice, abhorrent to Mohammed, that pagan Arabs had of killing girl children, who were less desirable progeny.

The following verses are more blatantly unequal and less easy to justify.

Woman shall with justice have rights similar to those exercised against them, although men have a status above women. -- 2:226

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. -- 4:34

This is the one place in the Koran that clearly states an inequality between men and women. Even here, however, we can see that fairness and justice are advised. It also gives a secular reason for this inequality, that men must provide for the women to maintain them gives then the right to expect certain advantages in authority in return. While this passage permits men to beat disobedient women it also says to punish them no further than is necessary.

These aspects of belief in a woman's inferiority to men have incorporated themselves into Malian culture or perhaps simply reinforced what already existed. As we will discuss shortly different ethnic groups have different degrees of inequality that can be traced back to pre-independence, pre-colonial, pre-Islamic times.

Degrees of freedom or equality vary between ethnic groups. The Tamacheq, Berabish, and Moorish women being much more liberated than the black Africans in many respects. René Caillié, the first European explorer to visit Timbuktu and make it back, observed about women in Timbuktu, “The women attend to domestic occupations, and they are not like the Mandingo females, subject to the punishment of beating.... The women of Timbuctoo are not veiled like those of Morocco: they are allowed to go out when they please, and are at liberty to see any one.” The 14th century arab explorer Ibn Battutu remarked on the women of Walata, a Moorish people, that “the women are of outstanding beauty and more highly regarded than the men” He was appalled by the black African women who though fastidious in their prayers tended to go naked not only slave girls but even the daughters of the Sultan. And as to their being restricted by Islam here is what he had to say

The women have no shape before men and do not veil themselves, yet they are punctilious about their prayers. Anyone who wants to take a wife among them does so, but they do not travel with their husbands and even if one of them wished to her family would prevent her. Women there have friends or companions among men outside the prohibited degrees for marriage and in the same way men have women friend in the same category. A man goes into his house, finds his wife there with her man friend and does not disapprove. One day I called upon the quadi. After he had given me permission to enter, I found him with a young and exceptionally beautiful women. When i saw her I hesitated and was going to go back, but she laughed at me and showed no embarrassment. The quadi said to me, why are you turning back? She is my friend. I was astonished at them for he was a jurist and a hajj.

When calling on Mohamed al Massufi, with whom he had travelled to Mali he found the man on a rug also present seated on a couch were a man and woman talking Battutu was scandalized

I said to him, who is this woman? He said, she is my wife. I said, what about the man who is with her? He said, he is her friend. I said, are you happy about this, you who have lived in our country and know the content of the religious law? he said, the companionship of woman and men among us is a good thing and an agreeable practice, which causes no suspicion; they are not like the women of your country. I was astonished at his silliness. I left him a did not visit him again.

Another Arab traveller, El Hajj Abd Salam Shabeni, remarked on the same thing noting that “Men and women mix in society, and visit together” and in reference to sexual relations “a woman’s flesh is her own, she may do with it what she pleases.” According to him rape was rare and punishable by death while prostitutes were common and honoured.

The Tamacheq were, in fact, traditionally matrilineal. While the leadership was still in the hands of the men it descended from the mother rather than the father and children were the sons and daughters of their mother rather than their father. This is probably the result of practicality in a race whose men were regularly away for long periods, often making war and dying early. Their women owned the tent and all things in it. When there was divorce it was the man who left the tent. The women were much more free to have interactions with men outside their family; it was even a source of pride to the man that his wife was desired by many men. The women did not cover their faces, while the men had, and still have, many taboos about always keeping their face covered in public to the extent of even eating by slipping the food up under the flap of cloth that covers their nose and mouth.

The Berabish and Moorish peoples were patrilineal, but their women, too, were less restricted in their interactions than women of the Arab nations and less worked than those of the Black African groups. René Caillié says, “The Moorish women have great influence over their husbands, which they frequently make a bad use of. Polygamy is not practised by the inhabitants of this part of Africa, and their wives would not permit them even to have concubines. The king himself has, like his subjects, only one wife.” The women do not tend to cover their faces, save when environmental conditions demand it. They do cover their heads though they are not so rigourous to avoid even a small amount of hair from showing. They often too wear bright colours and flimsy cloth that can show off the attractive dresses beneath the outer garment. A woman may be divorced and married many times with no tarnish to her reputation, in fact, adding to it, as it gives her a reputation of being desirable. While virginity is desirable in a girl until marriage and fidelity after, women of this group may be quite familiar with men. It is also not uncommon for a woman of means to engage in commerce. Women of this group are often spoiled. Certainly among the nomad people everyone must pull his or her weight doing a fair share of the chores. But when the family has the means it engages servants to do the chores; lacking means the man will go to the market before his wife will get up off her very ample bottom. There are two reasons for her pampered existence. On the one hand, they respect the woman as a mother figure but they also see her as something of a cherished bauble a beautiful decoration to be admired, polished and cared for, protected from harm, perhaps shown off, but ultimately a possession.

The Black Africans of this area were traditionally very patriarchal. Their women are expected to do more physical labour. As an outside observer, one can see that the burden of child-rearing and housekeeping falls squarely on the women who work from dawn to well after dusk with hard labours, perhaps in addition to doing some other work for income. Yet their work is often dismissed by all as unimportant to the extent that men in their official capacity as bread winners are presumed then to work harder and need the more and better food. He should be treated like a king when he is home as he needs to rest and relax after his hard day's work. Thus the adult men are served first the largest portions with the most and bests meat and vegetables, leaving little or none for the women and children who may only eat the left overs if there isn't enough to serve themselves. From a western perspective this is not only unfair, it is also physiologically unwise for the children with growing minds and bodies, and the women of childbearing age to receive mostly empty calories with no vitamins or proteins.

Many of the Black African groups practice Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). There seems to be a variety of cultural reasons for this practice and some woman claim that to be denied the right is psychologically damaging to the girls for whom it is an important social custom, right of passage, necessary to be accepted into society and integral part of what it means to be a woman. Despite these arguments (which, do, however, prove that such ideas must be taken into consideration when implementing activities to reduce the practice) the plethora of health problems that often result, as well as psychological trauma from the operation (and subsequent operations due to the initial procedure) or from reduced ability to appreciate sexual relations, it can be judged as overall undesirable. In Mali 85% of women aged 15 to 45 have been subject to FGM. Of women in the same age group 69% have one or more daughters who have been cut. FGM can vary from more mild forms to complete excision of all outer genitals then the closure, by traditional methods, of the wound leaving only a small hole for urine and menstrual fluids to escape. This form, which is by far the most traumatic and the most dangerous to the woman's health, is practised by some of the ethnic groups in Mali.

It is important to recognize that this tradition predates Islam and is in no way encouraged, condoned or suggested by Islam. The vast majority of Imams and religious scholars do not condone it and many have publicly and explicitly denounced it, citing surats that tell believers to honour the body and not desecrate this creation of God. Though in some places, where education of even the Islamic scholars is poor and the custom entrenched, some misguided imams or other religious conservatives promote the practice. Some cite a supposed surat where Mohamed told a woman preparing to excise a girl to do it moderately as it would be better for her and her husband. Proponents take this as approval of the process. However the surat is considered of doubtful authenticity and, even if authentic, it shows that excision, if it is not forbidden, is in no way obligatory, and clearly the prophet recommends mild forms if it must be done. Despite the clear arguments against it and only a single obscure reference allowing it, a little over 10% of Malians still mistakenly believe that it is recommended if not commanded by Islam.

According to one study, the most common reason given for it in Mali is that it is a good tradition and a right of passage into womanhood. It is certainly an ingrained enough tradition that in the cultures that practice it heavily a non-excised girl will have poor marriage prospects. Amongst some groups an un-excised girl is considered unclean, in a spiritual and moral sense more so than a physical one. In these areas, I have been told, the men will refuse to be served even a glass of water from a girl if she was known not to be cut.

Another common belief is that the uncut girl will be more sexually excitable and thus promiscuous. It is possible that in cases where this is the predominant belief it was instigated by men who wished to control the sexuality of women to ensure chastity and fidelity in wives and daughters. Though it is still believed to be a way to ensure virginity and prevent adultery, it is unfortunate that among all of the groups that practice FGM it is now enforced more by the women themselves than by men, regardless of the origin of the taboo.

The practitioners who excise the girls are women, and studies show that women who have had the procedure are more likely to do it to their daughters. I know of men who have forbidden their wives to do it to their daughters, only to have the wife do it in secret. Even if both parents have decided against it, the older generation insists, snatching the girl at the first opportunity and doing it while the parents are elsewhere.

Other reasons for practising FGM include beliefs that:
  • It is unhygienic and removal of the clitoris is the only way to fight unpleasant odours;
  • Female genitalia are dirty and unsightly and will be more aesthetically pleasing if removed;
  • It is dangerous to the baby to touch the clitoris during childbirth;
  • It will facilitate childbirth and widen the birth canal;
  • If left uncut the clitoris will grow to the size of a penis;
  • An unmodified clitoris can lead to masturbation and lesbianism
  • If a man's penis touches the clitoris during sexual relations he will be rendered impotent;
  • FGM increases a man's virility or pleasure during intercourse.

Violence against women is a fact in Mali. While rape is a crime, conjugal rape is not recognized. Relatively few rapes are reported in any case; girls and women are either afraid or embarrassed to report it, or are ignorant of their rights, or simply aware that chances of redress are poor. Approximately 300 rapes are reported every year in Bamako. Only two men were convicted in 2007. Domestic violence is not uncommon, and while it is officially a crime, law enforcement officers are reluctant to get involved. Few cases are reported, as with everywhere, it is embarrassing and seen as shameful to air personal grievances in public. The women may also not be willing to lose the financial support of her husband if he is convicted or he divorces her for her temerity in accusing him. According to the UN survey 75% of Malians think it is acceptable for a husband to hit or beat his wife in certain circumstances; 69% of girls 15 to 19 believed this. I have personally witnessed young men engaging in violence against their girlfriends and older boys having no compunction about hitting girls. It should be noted that in many of these cases I saw the girls giving back a good share of what they got.

Polygamy, which is also more prevalent in the black African cultures of Mali, is an institution which many westerners and human rights activists find repugnant and assume it indicates an automatic position of inferiority and subjugation of women. It is not that clear cut. Polygamy can certainly cause problems; where women are already in a position of inferiority this can add to it. I have spoken to men who praised the practice as a way to keep their women in line, either by using the threat of taking another wife to kept the current one toeing the line or by playing the different wives off of each other, stoking the rivalry between them to better serve him in a bid to show up the other wife. When a woman has no protection from polygamy in her marriage contract, she may not even be consulted about the taking of another wife, or not be allowed an objection. If the wives are jealous of one another, or simply do not have personalities that get along well together, there can be fall out on the children. This is especially dangerous for orphans on whom the other wife or wives can take out their bitterness, since the mother is no longer living to protect them. Even if there is not active mistreatment of orphaned children, they can be neglected because the other wives have enough to do taking care of their own children.

While Polygamy is strongly condemned by western society and there are many problems with it, it does work for some families. Marriages are often a question of interests rather than a joining of two people. The man seeks a wife to be a mother of his children, to take care of him and his home and to take care of his aging parents. The woman wants a home, a hearth, assurances of being provided for. Often the couple are either cousins or do not even know each other, the alliance recommended by relatives and deemed appropriate due to relative social status. In such situations, while the couple learns to deal well together, the bonds of love are not strong. Thus the woman may agree to a polygamous marriage because being the second wife of a rich man is better than the only wife of a poor one. Or because, if she lets her husband marry another, she may be able to squeeze money and gifts or other concessions out of him in return for her agreement. In some cases the woman is just as glad to share the work with her co-wives. They may becomes friends and create a support network amongst themselves. They may even gang up on the man, each pestering him in turn for what one or the other of them wants, giving him no peace until he gives in. If the woman had no choice in her husband and holds no love for him, taking no great joy in fulfilling marital obligations, or doesn't particularly enjoy conjugal relations, having that obligation halved or even quartered may be an improvement for her.

In some cases the culture uses polygamy as an aid to family planning. It is recommended that a women wait a certain time between pregnancies. In societies with polygamy it was not uncommon for a new mother to go home to her parents’ house for a period after giving birth where her mother and other relatives could help her and she could recuperate. This period might last months or even a year or two. The man would turn to a co-wife to see to his needs, that of maintaining his household as well as his physical desires. By the time that wife was pregnant and needing rest the former would be ready to take up the relay. In societies where this system worked well Christian missionaries came in and preached monogamy, imposed it upon the locals without providing an alternative system of family planning. Now women in such places are having pregnancies much closer together with less rest between, causing more miscarriages, maternal deaths and other related health problems.

While polygamy can have many negative effects, if it is carried out with full understanding and consent of all parties, then condemnation of it is moral or cultural prejudice. Interestingly, I know several western women who are in polygamous relationships and seem content. In some cases they are married to an African man who has an African wife. The Western woman lives in her home in Europe or North America where the man visits regularly and she visits Africa from time to time. They may have children together. When they are not together the man lives in Africa with his African wife and their children. In one case the woman was happy with the arrangement because she said she liked her independence too much to have a man living with her all the time. She really liked him and enjoyed his company but she also enjoys personal time. So as long as his African wife was okay with the relationship, she would remain in it but she did not want to break up that family and was not willing to give up her independence for a more permanent sort of relationship with the man. I also know a western woman who married in a spiritual ceremony with witnesses a western man who already had a western wife. The second wife told me, “I have married a man with another wife. we live in both halves of a duplex. She is a wonderful sister-wife. I have never been happier. I have always had trouble with the men in my life. I always pick the wrong ones. So I gave up. Then about 10 years later I met a lady friend that did fairs with her husband and kids and we became friends. She has been married to the same man for 20 years. About two years into our relationship her husband told her he loved me too. They talked a lot about it before I even knew. One day he told me he had fallen in love with me. He has a good track record. She is fine. He is cute. He takes good care of her and wah laa, I am married. That was six years ago and I am very happy. We complement each other, have different bedrooms and I love having a sister-wife to help out and hang around with. We all have a strong belief in God and I believe this is his doing, how else could it work?”

No, Africa is not perfect; no, African women's position in society is not ideal but in many ways it is less bad than we presume. There are some aspects of the woman's role that we judge without understanding. We view it as restrictive because we would find it so. Some of those aspects are not intended to restrict, and for those raised in the social context they are not felt as such. It becomes a philosophical argument whether they are “socializing girls into prescribed gender roles that are intimately linked to the unequal position of women in the political, social, and economic structures.” Or whether it is perfectly acceptable to maintain a system that is different from ours, wherein women chose to retain traditional roles that are essential in the stability of that social system, and that improvements in infrastructure and development will bring about access to education, health care and general well being of the population which will eventually smooth out the nastier issues facing women.

One of the single biggest claims that westerns use to illustrate the inequality of Muslim women is that of covering her head. Interestingly there are several Christian sects who also believe a woman should cover her head. The nun’s costume is not unlike a full burka; and at certain periods in Christian history all women of breeding were expected to keep their heads covered, the mantilla in Spain the wimple in Britain. In the recent past while a man was expected to take of his hat in church it was unseemly for a woman or even girl child to do the same. This belief is based on certain interpretations of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 11 verses 3-15, wherein incidentally it is also stated that as Christ is the head of man so is man the head of women. These Comparisons aside the degree to which Muslim women cover their heads varies widely as do their reasons for doing so. In Mali some cultural groups didn’t even wear clothes up until as late as the 60s or 70s let alone cover their heads. In Timbuktu which is the most conservative part of the country most girls who have passed puberty put something on their heads most of the time though it may be little more and a loosely crocheted scarf through which the hair can be easily seen or a small strip of cloth matching their outfit that is little more than a bow around their ponytails or a headband.

The nomadic groups wear what is translated into French as a veil but in fact does not veil them at all. It is long piece of fabric that is tied at the shoulders and then draped around them and over the head to fall behind the left shoulder. It can be pulled tight around the face and even tucked across the nose and mouth leaving only the eyes visible but is rarely done so. The most common cause to do so is protection from the environment otherwise when the women feels shy or embarrassed she may hid behind he “veil” this by pulling it across her face. The black sedentary groups use a piece of cloth that matches the clothes they are wearing it maybe tied as a simple handkerchief or as and elaborate head dress. One of the common styles of knotting this dress leaves the stiff starched ends sticking up on either side of the forehead knot and is known as “my husband is capable” clearly not entirely a mark of modestly and purity before God. It is common for married women especially older one to wear a second scarf that drapes over the head and shoulders on top of the head dress but as often as not it is simply slung over the the shoulders.

For any of these groups the head covering rarely covers all of the hair and in some cases is positioned expressly to show of a particularly elaborate coiffeur. An advantage of the “veil” of the nomadic groups like that of the burka is that you can dress as you please underneath it. If you barely had time to get up in the morning and rushed out of the house in your pyjamas no one is the wiser if you are dressed up for a party you are going to later but do not want to explain yourself to everyone that to is possible. If you are not comfortable with some aspect of your body it is disguised without anyone thinking you frumpy for covering up if you do not wish to be harassed by the construction workers down the street... It can be liberating to cover up. Perhaps more so than to go around with you fat roll showing our between your hipster jeans and crop top. The local women cover their heads because that is the clothes they have that is how they dress; the head covering is just another accessory and devising new ways to wear it can bring a whole new aspect to fashion.

In all the ethnic groups that I am familiar with in West Africa the society is highly and rigidly stratified. Not just working class and leisure class or blue collar and white collar. People in a given trade do only that trade and they pass said trade off to their children. They will only take as apprentices children of families that belong to the given trade. Shoe makers make shoes, they do not build houses or clay pots. Potters do not weave cloth or work metal. Smiths are often subdivided into jewellers and those who make tools and herders deal with animals they do not fish and they do not plant.

This goes on to a degree that becomes counter-productive in today's world. If the latch on a door breaks one calls a carpenter, even if it is just a matter of undoing some screws and replacing the handle. The mentality is, “I am not a carpenter; I can't do that.” Or when in dire economic straits one is offered the opportunity to learn a trade so as to make a living, "I am a herder can't (won't) garden! It is beneath me."

Male and female roles are also strictly divided. It would be surprising if they were not. But is maintaining different sex-roles equivalent of inequality? These divisions are maintained by the women as much as the men. Either it does not even occur to her to do certain activities or she may actually be appalled or offended at the idea that she should be expected to do them. After working for a couple months on a project to build some wells where I and five other women made up half the work team, hand mixing cement, throwing bricks and digging the hole with picks, the local women I spoke to were incredulous. "But you can't dig a well; that is too hard. Women aren't strong enough to do that..." This from ladies who can carry five gallon (20 kg / 45 lbs) open tubs of water on their heads with no hands, not spilling a drop, sometimes for miles on rough terrain, from women who daily pound a bushel of grain into flour with a mortar and pestle. These women who are capable of enormous feats of strength simply do not perform others. Certain burdens they will not carry but will ask a man to do it or enlist a boy or a cart or a donkey. Anything else is considered unseemly.

When I wanted fertilizer for planting a tree and went out to collect manure, the kids in my household came running to take over, heaven forbid anyone see me doing such a task. I am a married woman, and married to a noble, no less. It would also be unthinkable for me to eat a frozen juice in the street despite the heat. Only children do that. When the donkey boy was being lazy about bringing the water we had commissioned him to do, my sister-in-law took his side, "Oh let him wait till it is cooler" - until I said fine I would carry the five gallon jugs myself by hand. She turned about face and pleaded with him to go bring the water or my husband, her brother, would never forgive any of them for letting me carry water. These are just some personal examples of things I find restricting but aren't meant to be. Not to do these is a status symbol, and would bring shame on the family if performed.

In Timbuktu up until quite recently if a women of the higher classes was seen at market she was suspected of prostitution. Not because she was not allowed to go out, but the servants or men did the shopping, so what else would a woman of breeding be doing at the market but something nefarious. Slowly, economic pressures have forced the women out to do their own shopping and even plenty of selling.

There is also a tendency to shelter the woman (again the upper classes more so than lower). A sincere desire that she not experience anything disagreeable results in an effort to keep her home or only in the company of friends and relatives. Again, from a western point of view, this can quickly become restrictive but the original motives are benign. My own husband has this tendency: I came down with a sore throat and cough; he postponed his trip into town for id photos' even though we'd promised to get them done ASAP. You're not in any condition to go out he insisted firmly. I must avoid mentioning if I've been harassed by a band of street urchins or he will invent all kinds of excuses why whatever I need to do in town is undoable right now-- not because he doesn't want me to do it but because he is afraid if I go into town I may have an upsetting experience. From this society's point of view I am not being restricted but rather pampered, the privilege of the elite. The only proper way to honour our women who are the mothers of humanity.

Chastity is still very important in girls in this area. The root reason being, just as it was for a long time in the west, that the only way to ensure your heir is yours is to be sure your wife has never known another man. In a place like Mali, technologies for proving paternity are quite recent and unknown or un-trusted by the general public. Even the law relies on duration of pregnancy in assigning paternity. Though determining paternity was probably the original reason behind the focus on virgin brides and ensuring the fidelity in wives the side effect, perhaps a method of assuring it even, is to make anyone who goes counter a pariah. Shame is heaped on the entire family and they must either disguise the indiscretions, if it is possible, or the actors be outcast. Amongst the Tuareg both the man and woman would be shunned. Unfortunately physiology makes it much harder for the woman to hide the results of certain indiscretions thus she is automatically more susceptible to exposure, that and the fact that maternity is rarely in doubt while paternity is more commonly used for inheritance, puts the burden of fidelity squarely on the woman's shoulders. Having an heir is very important in the passing on of rank and wealth. Thus again it is given more importance in higher class families

Education is another point that westerners use to illustrate women's oppression. In Mali education of girls is very low both in percentage of the population and the level of schooling attained. Often it is argued that girls are kept out of school or taken out after only a short while because the money needs to be spent on the boy's education or the girl is needed to help care for her younger siblings. This is sometimes the case, since culturally a boy's education is a safer investment for two reasons. Girls do all the household chores while boys are often at loose ends thus sending a girl to school is losing valuable work while sending a boy to school is taking nothing appreciable away from the family (if they have the means to pay the fees). And, of course, boys will grow up to work and help support their parents while girls will grow up to marry and go support their parents-in-law. However, in Mali and likely many other underdeveloped counties, the level of education of boys is almost equally low. According to a UN report total adult literacy was only 26% in 2008. Of primary school aged children actually going to primary school the rate was 46% for boys and 40% for girls. Secondary school attendance dropped for both boys and girls to 23% and 17% respectively.

The vast majority of Malians are so poor that even the modest school fees are too much. To waste money on school and notebooks when it could be spent on food; to send children to school who could be helping out at home, in the fields or making money in some way is unthinkable. What's more, not every village has a school. There are often too few classes and teachers for the number of children, so many are turned away or forced, if they are able, to send the children to another town for schooling. Many parents do not themselves understand the importance of a formal education. In a country where many people who get an education still can't get employment and people with no formal education are successful entrepreneurs where is the proof that education is necessary? Some parents do not bother to send their girls to school because they believe that the girl does not need an education since she will marry a rich man and be taken care of. There is also mistrust of the western system that risks to undermine traditional values and expose the girl to corrupt ideas and promiscuous boys who will ruin her for a good marriage which will also heap shame on the family and perhaps additional financial burden if there is a new child to raise.

The lack of education and health care available to women is not so much a reflection of disregard for women's needs and rights as it is a case of poverty and lack of development in the country. Just as there aren't enough schools and teachers to go around, there are not enough health posts and health workers to go around either. Low availability and poor quality aside, Malian health care is subsidized and women have equal access thereto, with special emphasis on reproductive health care. In fact Mali actually has a large number of programs and initiatives aimed at assisting and improving conditions for women and children. Gardening co-operatives, tie-dying co-operatives, soap making co-operatives, knitting associations, literacy classes, micro-finance programs, maternal health initiatives.

Granted, with all due cynicism, this is less due to a genuine belief in the importance of promoting women and more to do with the fact that Africa knows on which side its bread is buttered. Nations like Mali know that many aid programs come with the caveat that the recipient country show improvement in such areas as woman's rights. They also know that any program or project is much more likely to be funded if it includes an element of one several key issues including the promotion of women. Whatever their reasons for doing promotional activities these have a result.

Not long ago the Malian Television station aired a “round table” debate on the Political Emergence of Woman in Mali. The mediator and one guest were men the other four guests were women who are active in politics. The discussion revolved around the question of why women who make up more than 50% of the population have only a tiny representation in political parties and government and what actions could improve the ratio. That said, this was aired on the same day a woman, Madame Sidibé Mariam Cissé, was named as the new prime minister.

Women are active in the economy, though their role is usually in minor concerns rather than large shops and imports. They represent the majority of vendors selling staple food goods in retail quantities in the markets and fruit and vegetables. Women are also prominent in street-side food preparation and have a monopoly on hairdressing and application of henna. Many of these enterprises are just successful enough to help make ends meet for the family’s needs or gradually add small improvements to the family’s holdings and living conditions. Women of high social class are also often involved in commerce, though in less visible ways. They are likely to engage in importing or acquiring luxury items that they quietly sell to other women in a more intimate setting, something like Tupperware parties or Avon but without the franchise behind it.

There are women in large and very successful enterprises, but less so than men. There are probably a large number of reasons for this, one being that women are almost always wives and mothers so unless they have aid in those household duties, time can be very limited. Another is that usually only a woman with a wealthy successful husband will have his support for developing her concerns to greater degrees. Men tend to fear that if their wives are more successful than they are they will no longer have the power of first position in the household. Some men may thus work to prevent their wives from entering business or expanding it beyond their own.

More and more women are being employed in white collar jobs and while I have no statistics on wages in general, female government employees receive the same wages as men for their positions. Women are particularly desirable as secretaries, receptionists, clerks and other customer relations desk jobs, as it is felt an attractive young women greeting clients is an asset. They are common in health care, mostly as nurses and midwifes (it should be noted that there are actually very few doctors per population at all in Mali and most health care workers, male and female, have only the degree of nurse). Initiatives are also bringing more women into the military and police force.

The position of women is certainly evolving. I spoke with one women teacher who had just returned to Timbuktu from a conference for women's equality in Mopti. I asked her how it was going and she said, “We are fighting. We are making progress.” When asked if she saw a difference from her childhood she laughed. “Oh yes, when I was young you would not see any woman from a good family in the market. They didn't go out. It was the men who did the shopping.”

I see more and more women driving motor bikes and gradually increasing numbers behind the wheel of cars. But it is the upper class, the wealthy and more educated women, that are first emancipated. They know their rights and have the power to fight for them. In some ways lower class women have more freedoms of movement and less equality of opportunity. The lower class women, of course, can not afford to stay home. They must go out and seek employment, make purchases or work in fields. The lower class men also have less rank or wealth to pass on, so ensuring legitimacy of the heir is not so urgent. On the other hand, the driving need to simply meet daily basic necessities deprives poor women of the opportunities to seek education or benefits they should have. Not only do the poor women not have the information and the skills to demand the rights already guaranteed them under the law, but they don't have the means to bring a legal process which requires an outlay of money just to set it in motion. This is part of what makes it hard for a woman to petition for a divorce if there is no obvious cause in her favour. A poor woman will not have relationships with the people who can pressure the powers that be.

I asked one local woman what she thought about Mali's marriage law. This is what she had to say:

Q: In Mali if you go to the City Hall and get married, then, if you have a complaint, you can go to the courts to get it addressed. But a lot of people just do the traditional marriage. To whom can they address their complaints?

A: It is true most people only do the religious marriage. They have no rights in the court. But they can go to the imam that married them or the Cadi that married them. If they are in a different place they can go to the Cadi where they are.

Q: Can the woman go see the Cadi herself or is a male representative supposed to go in her place?
A: Oh no, the women is usually called in to testify. Often someone else complains on her behalf, but the Cadi insists that the woman come herself. They don't like to, it is embarrassing. Such problems should be hidden in the family.

Q: If the woman is not satisfied with her marriage is it easy for her to obtain a divorce?
A: No. It is usually very difficult. Unless the man has done something very bad and everybody knows he is in the wrong.

Q: But if she is just unhappy and wants to leave...
A: Then it is not easy at all.

Q: Can a woman go to a Cadi about other complaints that are not related to marriage?
A: Oh yes, and they do

I asked her what she thought of the fact that Mali marriage law requires women to obey their husband. She said that whether it is in the Mali law or the French law or no law at all, it is a good thing for the woman to obey her husband. But, she added, “With all respect due to her; the man should also obey his wife. I think that most women I know, especially educated ones, obey their husband, the only time one would not obey is if he was unreasonable. He should respect his wife and do what is good for her too.”

Q:Do you think women are repressed in Mali?
A:Times are changing. Women and girls used to be more restrained than they are now.

Q:Is that a good thing?
A: No, not really. They are ignorant and uneducated so they don't know how to behave, especially young girls. They don't know anything, and now they go out and get themselves in trouble.

Q:If they were better educated and informed would you still think it was a bad change?
A:Oh no, then that would be fine. If they were educated they could go out as they pleased and they wouldn't do foolish things. They would know better.

Q: Do you think women are inferior to men?
A:I think women are more intelligent and more capable and more sensible then men. That is proven. They have a better ability to manage the household and finances. Men are unreliable.

While the women may do all the housework and child-rearing without complaint and unquestioningly serve the man first and best, bringing him drinking water and bath water on demand even though they are busy and he could as easily get it himself this does not mean that the women is a complete doormat in all things. They do it because that is their role, that is what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother in their society. They accept their role with equamity and do not feel that their lot is unfair for they understand the nuances of their society and how to dance the delicate choreography of tradition, avoiding the mine field of ego and pride, that will bring them what they need. They know that the man’s ego is fragile and he needs to feel superior and powerful, the king of his castle, even if it is only a mud hut. They know that to challenge him in front of his friends will incur his wrath for he will need to save face but that behind closed doors they can give voice to complaints and demands. They may be required by tradition to bring him a cup of water, but there is no taboo about haranguing and badgering - as long as it is done in the appropriate manner. Women have also developed methods of cajoling, wheedling and manipulation that permit them to seek what they wish while playing to the man’s need to feel in control. It is certain that the man knows he is being played but it allows him to cede to the woman’s requests without losing his apparent position of power.

I reiterate that there are inequalities which we discussed but let us look again at the west and the women walking its streets. See how many scuttle, heads down, shoulders hunched, frightened of strangers, frightened of opinions, desperate to be loved, hating themselves. Whether African women are materially worse off than western women, they are not psychologically. In the west, the dichotomies presented by a changing world and changing expectations of women have twisted and confused women's feelings about themselves. I think we misjudge the African woman's situation, tending to look at the issue through the biased lens of our own perception of acceptable behaviour, our idealized views of how we would like to believe women should be treated. Then we hold this judgement up in comparison, forgetting to judge our own actual treatment of women based on this criteria, mistaking the ideal for the fact. How many people in the west today are aware of the fact that in 19th century Britain and the USA clitoridectomy (FGM) was practised on women to treat them for anything from nervous conditions, hysteria, and masturbation, to epilepsy. The last cases thereof were practised in the US as late as the 1960s.

African women are not so downtrodden, nor western women so uplifted as we would like to believe. In the western world, we like to think that we are egalitarian, democratic, just, fair, unbiased etc., etc.; that we judge a person based on skills, performance, merit, and so on. All the while we are hiding the truth from ourselves behind Politically Correct jargon and dogma. In Africa all the prejudice, the labelling, the sex-role stereotypes are right out there to see. No one is pretending it is anything different from what it is. In this sense, perhaps, it will be easier for them to move forward than the west.

Long before the 2008 US election was even under consideration I stated the belief that in the US a black man would become president before a white woman ever would. The Africans here in Timbuktu disagreed. They have less trouble seeing a woman in a position of power, after all the social hierarchy systems here make it so that the title takes more respect than the individual who holds it, but racism between ethnic groups is strong and ingrained. I explained that in the west chauvinism has been around a lot longer than racism. It is more ingrained and more subtle because it is subconscious. Whereas it is easy to see how wrong it is to judge someone for skin colour, we often don't even realize we are judging someone based on sex. I am reminded of a conversation with my father about racism and slavery. He remarked that while people of one group have repeatedly tried to convince themselves that another group is not quite human they never can completely forget that a woman is still a woman and a man is still a man when the clothes come off. Hence throughout history the conquering group tries to treat the vanquished as animals but ends up inter-marrying until the lines between the groups is blurred and often forgotten. In South Africa they actually had to outlaw interracial relations to enforce apartheid with the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949 followed by the Immorality Act in 1950. Nazi Germany had laws against inter-racial relations from 1935 to 1945. Many of the United States tried to maintain racial purity with various laws against inter-racial marriages from colonial times on, the last of which were not abolished until 1967. Only with fear of serious penalty could relations between men and women be controlled. Just more evidence that the male/female issue is much deeper than any issue of race or creed.

We have certainly made great strides and there are plenty of individual cases of people that are truly egalitarian but our denial of the basic premise exacerbates and slows the process. We puff ourselves up and tout how much better it is in our world where women don't have to cover themselves from head to toe, can drive, can go to school, can even become president... What we don't mention is that the old stereotypes are still there, that women are still thought of in many circles as less intelligent, less logical, less stable, less confident, less competent, simply less than men.

It is still rare for a woman to become CEO or president of a company, According to CNN Money, in 2006, there were only 10 women running fortune 500 companies, and only 20 in the top 1000. There is still a huge problem with equal pay for equal work between men and woman. In the US in 2007 women earned an average of 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. In Britain in 2008 no region counted women as making up even 30% of its counsellors. Women were even more underrepresented in government and the trend was stagnant or even falling. Assault on a stranger is given more importance than domestic violence although an estimated one to four million women a year are victims of non fatal domestic violence and 33% of all women murdered are done so by an intimate partner; the leading cause of death among pregnant women is, in fact, murder. There is no clear guarantee of woman's equality under the US constitution. The statistics go on but I do not have space to list them all here; look through some of the references at the end of this article for more details.

The issue goes deeper than simple actions that laws can force to change. It is impeded even in our language. Linguistic studies have shown that from a young age girls and boys are taught different ways to interact and communicate so that they grow up with different styles of language and communication. The girl is usually trained to work at compromise and to come to consensus, never to put herself forward, that to be liked one must be modest and self-depreciating and that it is imperative to be liked. The man is typically trained to compete in all things even conversation, to put on a show, to take control of the conversation until someone else wrests it from him, to vaunt himself, to make people respect him whether or not they like him.

These are generalities, to be sure, but the fact is these language styles and interpretations of what is masculine and feminine become strongly connected so that you get a terrible catch-22. Judged by the feminine style if a woman is too assertive she is not liked but in the masculine style if she isn't aggressive she is weak. This translates to belief that the non-aggressive feminine style is weak and the masculine style strong. Then when a women uses her style of language in a male dominated situation (the business and sciences worlds, for example) she is judged as weak. But, when she uses a masculine style she is considered brash and aggressive.

The idea that women are weak and men are strong (intellectually as well as physically) has even gone to a deeper level of our subconscious so that a woman’s actions can be considered weak simply because it is a women acting while a man doing the exact same action would not be so judged. For example when a woman asked students for lots of opinions and feedback in her class she was judged as incompetent while a man doing the same is not. Studies taking the same resume with a woman's or a man's name on it as the only difference showed that the 'woman's' resume was judged poor and unlikely to land the position while the 'man's' resume had no such judgement. Similar studies with a paper were judged of poor quality when a woman's name was given as the author but not when a man's name was. In the corollary when asked to judge if a woman or a man wrote a paper, the weak pieces were assumed to be written by women and the well written works by men.

What does this tell you? That in general women are assumed to be less competent to the degree that they are judged more harshly simply because of their sex! Many women report a need to work harder at their job and be better at it than men to get the same level of respect for their accomplishments. Yet we claim equality of the sexes.

To be modest and self-effacing in the business world is considered weak, so no wonder the woman never gets a promotion, but for her to be aggressive and tout her accomplishments is vulgar and unappealing in a woman so she will again be passed over for a more appropriate candidate. If a woman is modest and chaste, she is silly and a prude and men won't be interested in her. Is she is wild and sexy, she is probably trashy and promiscuous so no man will want to marry her.

And speaking of men wanting her, most western women are still obsessed with finding a man and pleasing a man. If we are so liberated and equal, why does so much money and worry go to attracting men? and figuring out how to get a man? Western woman have huge problems with self-esteem. They base so much of their self-worth on how other people perceive them as pretty or ugly or thin or fat. It shows in how they walk and how they dress. Women are disproportionately sexualized in the media, affecting how girls and women view themselves and how men and even boys view women. The media shows us an image of what a woman should look and act like to be attractive, desirable, successful and it is an image that is unattainable for the vast majority of women. Images are airbrushed to remove "flaws". Only the most attractive and slimmest actresses are chosen to play the heroine. Only the skinniest models show off the new fashions, things that would never look good on anyone larger than a size zero. With the advent of MTV and music videos even musicians must be attractive, being a good musician is not enough, she has to be a sexy one. With sexualization come the pressure to dress in skimpy or tight “sexy” attire. Anyone who doesn’t have the physique to pull off the look either humiliates herself trying or takes a further blow to her self esteem by not being fashionable. Young girls do everything they can to look older and more mature while older women spend huge amounts of time and money trying to stay young. Women in their 30s are already depressed about aging, paranoid about wrinkles, grey hair and sagging bosoms; sure that they will loose their chances of catching a good man to the younger more attractive ladies.

Manufactures jump on these stereotypes and perpetuate them playing to women's insecurities in their advertising. Cosmetics, perfume and fashion producers are especially culpable. In Australia 6 billion dollars were spent in 05-06 fiscal year on cosmetics and perfumes. This was only about 1% of the industry's total sales, the rest being exported. In the USA 7 billion is spent annually on make up alone. With 11.7 million on surgical and non surgical procedures for aesthetic purposes, 91% performed on woman. Sixty-seven percent of young women aged 18 or above approve of non-medical cosmetic surgery, over half of the women trying to loose weight are already at a healthy weight and over half of teenage girls use unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking, purging, and skipping meals, to control their weight.

The media is also perhaps responsible for a large part of the fear that western women seem to live with. Constant sensationalized reports of rapes and muggings leave many women afraid to walk down the street at night. Take back the night marches aimed at promoting women reinforces the idea that the night is a dangerous place that has been taken away, despite the fact that the vast majority of assaults to women are done by someone they know and not a stranger jumping out of the dark.

African women are afraid of nothing. They are confident, often pushy. Even if at home they serve their husband in all things they don't let some man in the market or taxi garage get the better of them. No way. Anyone visiting Africa will note that the women here walk proud. Their heads are high,their shoulders back. They argue down to the last penny no matter who they are bargaining with. They demand their place in the car and hold it with legs akimbo. They expect men to give them preference in seating and assistance with loading and unloading their baggage. They have learned how to manipulate a man to get whatever money or service out of him they can. When you see these women strutting in their vibrant clothes, heads held high, it is hard to imagine that they are down-trodden, disenfranchised, oppressed or repressed.

Here is a link to the
references in the Koran about women.

See here an English translation of Mali's
marriage code and here is the original French version.

See here an English translation of Mali's
kinship code and here is the original French version.

See here an English translation of pertinent excerpts from
Mali's constitution and here is the original French version.

An Account of Timbuctoo and Hausa, Territories of the Interrior of Africa, by Wl Hajj Abd Salam Shabeeny, Edited by James Grey Jackson, Longman Hurst Orme and Brown, London, 1820 reprint, Frank Cass, 1967

Beauty at Any Cost, Report by the YWCA August 2008 www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=djISI6PIKpG&b=4427615

Blaming Women's Choices for the Gender Pay Gap, by Hilary M. Lips Sept. 7, 2009

Child protecrion from violence, exploitation and abuse: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, UNICEF

Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service, Parenting and Child Health, Female Genital Mutilation

Equal rights for Women? Yes, but... by Victoria Shannon, July 1, 2010

FGM: The Reasons Why Its Done by Richard Mbuthia,

Gender Discrimination Against Women: From Cradle to CEO Childhood Stereotyping Sets the Stage for Challenges for Business Women by Lahle Wolfe http://womeninbuisness.about.com/od/challengeswomenface/a/genderdiscrimination.htm
History of Circumcision
http://historyofcircumcision.net/index.php option=com_content&task=catagory&sectionid=13&id=76&Itemid=6

Mali Statistics, UNICEF information by Country

Promoting Gender Equality, Frequently asked Questions on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, UFNPA website

Reasons for supporting FGM in Egypt, Central African Republic, Mali and Eritrea Facts about FGM

Sexism and Gender Discrimination Statistics

Statistics about women in the UK

Timbuktu, The Sahara’s Fables City of Gold, by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2007 (I got my citations of Ibn Battuta and Shabeni here but added in the referenced the sources these authors used for those citations)

The Travels of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354, Translated by H. A. R. Gibb and C. R. Beckingham. 5vols, Hakluyt Society, London, 1962

Travels Through Central Africa to Timbuctoo and Across the Great Desert to Morocco performed in the years 1824-1828, by René Caillié, vol 1, pp 86-87, 90

Violence Against Women, Amnesty USA website


Women Deserve Equal Pay article on National Association for Women (NOW) website

Women's Less Than Full Equality under the US Constitution by Patricia Ireland, President of NOW

You Just Don’t Understand! overcoming misunderstandings between men and women by Deborah Tannen, William and Morrow Company Inc., New York ch.8