The feminist movement in Senegal can be traced through the creation of women’s groups and associations. The first women’s structure was the Union des Femmes Sénégalaises (UFS) in 1956, which was legally recognised in 1958, and became part of the Senegalese Progressive Union in 1960. The UFS was followed by many others, such as the Fédération des Associations Féminine du Sénégal, farmers’ associations, and professional and religious associations, including the Soroptimist Club, Association des Juristes Sénégalaises, Associations des Pharmaciennes and the Association des Femmes Africaines pour la Recherche et le Développement (AFARD) in 1977.1 AFARD could be considered the birthplace of the first feminist movement, Yewwu Yewwi (YY) – meaning “wake up and enlighten” in Wolof – as YY’s founding members were affiliated to AFARD.
Created in 1984, YY was the first Senegalese association with a feminist orientation that challenged patriarchal social norms and institutions. The movement was led by highly educated and dedicated female intellectuals.2 YY is seen as the first wave of feminism in Senegal, from 1980 to 1990. The second wave, from 1990 to 2000, was largely invisible, being less revolutionary, vocal and assertive than their predecessors. Later came the third wave, from 2000 onward, characterised by their quest for a new identity with an openly feminist ideology that embraces different realms of women’s lives and ways of being.
This article will discuss the three waves of Senegalese feminist evolution in historical perspective. We focus on the character of each by comparing the nature of their respective commitments and activism along with their obstacles and achievements.
The First Wave of Feminism: The Radical
Although women had long been part of Senegal’s movements for independence, the International Year of Women in 1975 and the Women’s Decade that ended in 1985 focussed particular awareness on the situation of women in Senegal.During this period, different associations contributed to raising consciousness of women’s conditions, questioning their individual and collective status and roles, and proposing solutions and alternatives. However, despite their merits, these associations did not present women’s issues in a sustainable way that could facilitate positive changes in women’s lives.
Yewwu-Yewwi emerged in 1984, openly proclaiming itself to be feminist.3 YY identified patriarchy as an ideological system that validates and endorses the subordination of women and called for the radical change of Senegalese society.YY aimed to, firstly, develop a new feminist consciousness of resistance and struggle against all ideologies that oppress and neglect women,and secondly, to fight against all forms of domination over women in both private and public spheres. The movement addressed very complex issues, such as condemning polygamy, promoting women’s control of their bodies through contraception and abortion, and promoting equal rights for men and women especially in politics, and equal pay. Such issues were almost taboo in the conservative Senegal of that time. While this influential movement did indeed make a great contribution to advance of the status of women in Senegal, its success, and the national and international momentum it created, was just temporary.
YY’s elitist lack of inclusion and diversity impacted negatively on the stability of the movement and its sustainability. Despite its marked presence in the public arena, and its awareness activities, mobilisation, advocacy and publications, YY was unpopular and not well accepted in Senegal. Compared to the majority of Senegalese women, most of its high-profile founders were privileged intellectuals. The movement was also rejected for its attacks on religious values such as polygamy and the role conferred on men as the head of the family, among others. This meant that YY could not mobilise beyond the circles of educated women on the left and contributed to the waning of the movement and then its dissolution. The first wave feminists were also hampered by the absence of a younger generation within their movement. The close-knit organisation did not think about its continuity nor capitalise on the youth. Although the movement was able to be heard and carried out large-scale activities, these enlightened women seemed more interested in remaining a small dedicated group with a mutual understanding than in opening to the larger community, including the youth.
The Second Wave of Feminism: The Invisible
The second wave of feminism in Senegal, if there was one, is not easily captured as their fight was more at the individual level. That generation did not take over the YY movement, nor did they create one of their own. This could be due to the stigmatisation that the YY women endured for being considered irreligious, out of touch with social and cultural realities and manipulated by European and American feminists. Besides, the second wave did not feel the need to be as aggressive and assertive as their elders who had already paved the way. They enjoyed and appreciated the achievements of the first wave, which had facilitated their access to education and achieved other victories related to gaining more rights for women. Consequently, the second wave was more subtle and restrained.
Another aspect of the second wave was the influence of pan-Africanism. They lived their feminism by looking beyond the Senegalese arena to include all African women and celebrating the cultural and political ethos that unites people of African descent. In continental and international fora, they carried on with issues addressed by their elders, such as opposition to female genital mutilation and child marriages.
The Third Wave: The Inclusive
Adja Samyr Seck, a young Senegalese human rights activist, wonders why she and other women of her generation do not carry the torch of feminism: “[A]s a responsible and committed woman, a set of questions suddenly cross my mind. What is feminism really? Who is a feminist? What are their demands? Who are the pioneers of Senegalese feminism?”4.
This denotes the critical situation of the Third Wave of feminism in Senegal, which is in a slow mode. One can feel nostalgic for the strong feminism of the 1980s, even if there is an increase in individual engagement and consciousness, especially through social networks. These young feminists are in a better position to assert their feminism than the older generation but less interested in consolidating progress.They are concerned about their own situatedness and draw visible lines between Senegalese and Western feminisms. For them, there are as many feminism(s) as countries, and each feminism adapts to the needs and issues of its own society. To avoid the stigmatisation experienced by the first wave, they insist that Senegalese people need to be told that Senegalese feminists do not seek to copy the Western model. In the words of Adama Pouye, a young feminist scholar in Dakar:“It is up to us to contextualise each of the demands, that the feminist problems raised are our own, in accordance with our society and expressed in a language that speaks to the Senegalese.”5
Like second-wave feminists, and in the absence of a strong movement like YY, they hold occasional gatherings to discuss current and urgent issues. These include demands for the criminalisation of rape and paedophilia, and a #metoo campaign that was contextualised and renamed #BalanceTonSaïSaï (“balance your bad attitude”).
Even if the fight against male supremacy remains common between the different generations, the third wave seems to be negotiating the weight of traditions and religion differently. Young Senegalese feminists seem to be more open to the inclusion of LGBTQ people, they do not see veiling as oppressive to women, and they accept and embrace polygamy, one of the issues the first wave fiercely raised and challenged throughout their tenure.
The decline in feminist radical dynamism over the past twenty years coincides with the emergence of a discourse centred on the concept of gender as a social construct and a feminist intersectional approach that highlights and includes differences that were often disregarded by the first and second waves.6 These differences include religion, race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, ability and body type. By acknowledging that “woman” is not a homogeneous category with a common life experience, this presents an alternative to the older radical Senegalese feminist movement informed by an essentialist ideology.
The youth wave seems to use a more practical strategy; they perform their agency/ies within the patriarchal status quo through compromise rather than provocation. They regret that earlier generations did not leave behind more writings that could inform them. They also yearn for writing that is more relevant to and reflective of Senegalese and African realities than the Western feminism that guided the first wave. This new generation claims to be deeply engrained in what Ali Mazrui calls the “triple heritage” of African indigeneity, European colonialism, and Islam.7 However, although they seem to know their way forward and make good use of social media to achieve their goals, one can notice contradictions in this new discourse.
The three generations of Senegalese feminists faced different difficulties. As the first association to proclaim itself feminist, Yewwu Yewwi sparked sharp opposition. In a conservative country where traditions and customs are particularly persistent, the movement dared to challenge patriarchal supremacy with revolutionary discourse. Thus, it was the target of attacks by religious movements, conservatives, politicians, and other women.
The first wave experienced intimidation from men, and Islamists in particular, throughout their activism. Islamists associated them with the “henchmen of Satan” and fought to prevent them from “corrupting” Senegalese society.8 Their questioning of polygamy put them in conflict in a country where religion plays a big part in people’s lives. Their advocacy for women to be responsible for their own bodies in the 1980s was seen as a call for “debauchery”. Once again, with their disturbing and utopian requests, they were ahead of Senegalese society at the time. Given this climate, detractors did not hesitate to resort to defamation just to discredit them in the eyes of the public. They were “ugly women” in “need of husbands”, “easy women” without good manners, libertines who would lead society to perdition.9 Some women who were close to YY were also subjected to violence.
Today’s generation is less stigmatised and marginalised than the older generation and has easier opportunities and interactions with women all over the world. However, the challenges they encounter may be related to their lack of a strong movement like YY. The youth wave disapproves of Western influence, yet they are greatly affected by changes from the West. Rather than putting their forces together to make larger changes and achieve bigger goals, their focus on individual fights weakens them, and social media has its own limits. These online networks could lead to self-centredness and a more individualistic approach to women’s rights and advocacy that seem more Western and less in keeping with the Senegalese realities they endorse. Their use of social media distances the young generation of feminists from the masses who cannot read or write or who do not have access to the internet. However, it is important to note their ability to challenge the mores and customs that continue to discriminate on the basis of gender.
These difficulties have impacted feminist actions in Senegal and limited the realisation of their goals. The first wave paved the way for all women’s movements and feminist causes. During the 1980s and 1990s, they raised awareness of women’s civil and political rights. They successfully lobbied for the improvement of the Family Code of 1973, highlighted violence against women, and advocated for the involvement of women in economic projects. Yewwu Yewwi also helped to improve Senegalese women’s lives by “waking up and enlightening” women and promoting girls’ education.
Through its many activities, YY offered a resolute orientation to many women’s movements, even today. It played a leading role in the fight for parity and against violence against women and genital mutilation, even if it was at the level of theory. Its influence can be measured by the development of associations to take up women’s claims. This first wave marked a key stage in raising the awareness of the role women can and must play at both political and professional levels. It also helped to bring Senegalese women’s issues to national and international attention.
The second wave took up opportunities created by their predecessors and continued the fight for a more inclusive and woman-sensitive society. Their work led to the law against female excision in 1999 and the ratification of the age of marriage at 18 years. Unfortunately, the Senegalese Family Code has, to this date, not changed the minimum age of marriage for girls, which is still 16 years with parental consent.10 This is inconsistent with international conventions that establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage and are also endorsed by Senegal. At the continental level, the clear focus on gender equity in the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) can be attributed to the second wave’s activism.
As for the third wave, social media has facilitated their exposure to and communication with feminists all over the world. They write blogs and are active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They participate in local and international campaigns for women’s rights and well-being and try to contextualise relevant issues to Senegalese realities. Their achievements include mandatory schooling in 2004 11, the parity law for men and women in 2010 12, and the criminalisation of sexual abuse in 2019 13.
This article has discussed different waves of feminism in Senegal, highlighting their respective discourses and comparatively analysing their difficulties and achievements. The first wave was more visible in national and international arenas and managed to gain momentum and some concrete achievements. However, it had limited success in getting recognition from women and the wider Senegalese society. Due to their radical discourse and their lack of sustainable planned activities, they did not survive.
The second wave, less traumatised by patriarchal hegemony, remained quite unnoticed despite its pan-Africanist approach and continuous battle with the set goals of the first wave. The youth wave claims to be fine with aspects of patriarchal ideology that the first wave – and the second, to a lesser extent – fiercely rejected. They embrace polygamy and a non-binary approach to gender and do not consider veil-wearing to be oppressive. They seem on a quest for an identity that could accommodate both their conservative and feminist allegiances.
If the first wave was able to ease the way for the next generation of feminists, such was not the case for their successors. Even though the second and the third waves have each contributed positively to the status of women in Senegal, they have not built more durable and relevant movements that could support bigger, better and more organised strategies. This has weakened their potential to make greater concrete changes in the lives of Senegalese women.
- Blandine Destremau and Christine Verschuur, “Féminismes décoloniaux, genre et développement: Entretien avec Fatou Sow,” Revue Tiers Monde 1 (2012), 145–160, https://www.cairn.info/revue-tiers-monde-2012-1-page-145.htm.
- F. Sow and M. Diouf (Eds), La reconstruction du mouvement social féminin africain et la production d’une pensée politique liée à la lutte des femmes (Dakar: Panafrica Silex/Nouvelles, 2007).
- Hawa Kane, 2008, L’émergence d’un mouvement féministe au Sénégal: le cas de Yewwu Yewwi PLF (2008, Master’s thesis, Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Sénégal).
- Own translation. Adja Samyr Seck, “Moi, Féministe!”in La pensée et l'avenir du mouvement féministe au Sénégal, edited by Fatou Faye and Marie N’guettia (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2000), http://rosalux.sn/la-pensee-et-lavenir-du-mouvement-feministe-au-senegal, 73.
- Own translation. Rama Salla Dieng, “Féminisme, religion et culture au Sénégal”, Seneplus Femmes, 22 May 2020, https://www.seneplus.com/femmes/feminisme-religion-et-culture-au-senegal.
- bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (3rd ed.) (New York: Routledge, 2014).
- A. A. Mazrui, The Africans (Boston: Little, Brown & Company,1986)
- Sow and Diouf, La reconstruction du mouvement.
- Destremau and Verschuur, “Féminismes décoloniaux”.
- OECD Development, “Gender Index: Senegal,” accessed 5 December 2020, https://www.genderindex.org/wp-content/uploads/files/datasheets/SN.pdf.
- Loi 2004-37 du 15 Décembre 2004 modifiant et complétant la loi d’orientation de l’education nationale n° 91-22 du 16 Février 1991.
- Loi n° 2010-11 du 28 mai 2010 instituant la parité absolue Homme-Femme.
- Loi n° 2020-05 du 10 janvier 2020 modifie la loi n° 65-60 du 21 juillet 1965 portant code pénal relatif à la criminalisation du viol et de la pédophilie.