Marie Sock’s recent announcement that she is running for the top job generated and prompted divergent views within the realms of contemporary political debate and the perceived dichotomy of the role of men and women in Gambian politics. The vitriol nature of some personal attacks she was subjected to and torrent of abuse directed at her online reveals deeply entrenched undercurrent of condescending and misogynistic inhibitions and tendencies so pervasive in Gambia, albeit conveniently masked in culture and religion.
I wish to scrutinize why Marie Sock’s candidature was met with some degree of unmasked rejection and apprehension and to dissect the male hegemony in the political space of this country. I will also look at the correlation, if any, between gender and ability, by looking at recent empirical facts and appraising Isatou Njie-Saidy, Fatoumatta Jallow-Tambajang and Isatou Touray’s tenures in office.
Male dominance in politics, just like in boardrooms, is not unique. The truth is, often, women have to work twice as hard and make unforgiving sacrifices, to reach top political or corporate positions during which time they face barrage of hurdles, some deliberate and some subconscious impediments, abetted by centuries of archaic tradition and custom. When Marie Sock revealed her candidacy, a lot of people, instead of seeking to know her in terms of competence, ability, character and experience, rushed to assumptions based on her appearance. There is something disturbingly peculiar about what motivates people to make biased and prejudiced assessments on cosmetic and superficial aspects of her life rather than the content of her character as a person who also happens to be female.
Gambia is predominantly a conservative society although there is an emergence of liberalism that is gradually challenging and confronting normative practices, conventions and stereotypes. I assume that the older population of this country, because of rigid cultural, traditional and religious teachings and influences, are more to the right of this debate. Islamic religious preachers are also mainly to the extreme right. In contrast, the mostly young and educated demography of our population, mainly from the urban and semi-urban areas, are to the middle and left of the debate and their world views and perceptions are shaped by global influences and libertarian aspirations/discourses rather than locally constructed moral and social standards. Gambia’s conservatism can be false and misleading. Whilst we exhibit a certain degree of orthodox conservative values, we are also liberal in many aspects of life and sometimes the philosophical divide between these two spectrums is not as profound as we like to presume. Thus, pictures of Marie Sock, with short gold hair, gives an illusion of what appears more Western than a typical “middle of Gambia” woman. This gives rise to a prejudiced impression of her being more Eurocentric than Gambian. Undoubtedly, this misconception is an offshoot of patriarchy which is also subtly linked to preconceived notions of identity and personality in politics. Some of these misconceptions are not limited only to Africa but even in Britain and the U.S. If Marie Sock were hijab wearing, or where her choice of clothes in her pictures give impressions of modesty and perceived cultural subservience, all cosying up to traditional Gambia, perhaps the public’s scrutiny of her candidature would have been more forgiving and accommodating. But herein lies the false premise and pretence. Proponents of the libertarian philosophy, especially in politics, will advocate for greater female participation in politics, not as “yayi compings” but candidates, in their own rights.
When the current Vice President Isatou Touray formed a political party in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections, and announced her candidacy for President, a lot of people were receptive to her cause because of her pedigree. She had a PhD and a respectable track record. Of all the candidates, on paper, she was the most educated. She was eloquent and articulate and her physical appearance embraced “our” conservative values. Largely, at face value, Isatou Touray resonated with our ideal image or construction of a female politician. The only criticism against her was her uncompromising crusade for the prohibition of FGM, a practice so many Gambians, especially in rural Gambia, saw as both necessary culturally but religiously sanctioned. I had a serious conversation with an older UDP supporter in 2016 when I told him that I believed Isatou Touray had the level of education and sophistication required to capably lead this country and suggested that the other candidates rally behind her. His only rebuttal of her was linked to her advocacy work as an activist against the FGM practice.
Marie Sock is younger and by all accounts, is not your typical Gambian woman that you may perhaps find in Kerewan or Kuntaur. But this perception may not only be erroneously simplistic but a serious distortion of the broader debate of this issue. Who is an average Gambian woman? What are her characteristics and by what standards do we measure and appraise our artificially constructed societal benchmarks? It is fair to say that she is different, by most means, to Isatou Touray. Only a political novice will even remotely prophesise that Marie Sock will be a serious contender in the next elections. But, that’s not the issue here. For that reason, I welcome and applaud her boldness and temerity to throw her hat in the ring of gladiators dominated by male fighters. Her candidature may motivate young girls and women to enter politics not as bystanders but active participants, claiming equal status as their male counterparts. If you look at Isatou Njie-Saidy, she was a household name in Gambia prior to her elevation because of her work associated with women’s rights and social welfare. She was highly educated and middle aged. She was easily attributed traditional values. Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang was a linchpin of the 2016 coalition movement. During those dark days, as the opposition consolidated effort to remove Jammeh, she oozed authority, respect, experience and leadership. She can be accurately labelled as a traditionalist, neatly fitting into our socially constructed idea of a Gambian woman, mother and wife. Then again, she never publicly declared candidacy for President so I cannot entirely correctly speculate what reception she would have received had she done so. However, like Isatou Touray, I imagine, the public would have been more welcoming of her than Marie Sock. I would like to interrogate this issue further.
Three out of our last four Vice Presidents are female. I see an emerging debate by the liberal left, propagating socio-economic and political egalitarianism, mostly emanating from young feminists, perhaps driven by intellectual and theoretical falsities, allures and grandeur of feminism, I argue for what it is worth, misconceived fanaticism, instead of strict ideological motivations, informed by the pursuit of gender equality and equal opportunities for girls and women, rather than what I would describe as “bandwagon feminism”. This new debate, framed not in terms of rights-based but entitlement-orientated, is seeking to redefine womanhood and the role of Gambian women in politics and public life. It is terrific. I think we all have a moral and political duty to enrich this debate and amplify the voices of women who advocate greater recognition and appreciation, not merely minimalistic tokenism gestures but by embracing pragmatic and realist approaches to accept and treat women as partners and vital stakeholders. This boisterous demography that I am referring to, is conscious of the embedded structural hurdles, hence it is attempting to dismantle these structural inequities and social imbalances that favour male dominance and hierarchy and perpetuate them, often unchallenged and undisturbed.
I do not know what motivated Marie Sock to intend to stand as President. Whether she believes she has a good and genuine chance is irrelevant in this debate. What is important is her audacity to hope and aspire. Young girls who may not identify with Isatou Njie-Saidy, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang and Isatou Touray because of the vast age gaps and personalities, may be spurred by Marie Sock’s candidature to contest future elections, not as Presidential candidates, but as Councillors, Mayors and MPs. Then, with time, with changes in attitudes, behaviours and traditions, more and more female candidates for the Presidency will emerge, and amongst them, candidates with the political acumen and clout, as front runners, flag bearers of mainstream political parties. The process starts somewhere. All that it needs is a watershed moment. Maybe, just maybe, because of our perception of Marie Sock as an “unconventional” female politician in our own context relative to societal dynamics, hence the divisive publicity her announcement reaped, may be a hint that this may be one of those moments. Only time will tell if this dawn is a false hope.
In terms of this emerging argument that it is time that we elected a female President. This notion is itself contradictory and dilutes the feminist struggle that activists campaign for. It presupposes an inherent gender-based bias, the very ill that feminists seek to dismantle. Leadership requires good judgment, political and emotional intelligence, compassion and resoluteness. To link gender and good leadership will only distort the conversation instead of illuminate its richness and substance. Isatou Njie-Saidy was highly educated and had a stellar track record before she was appointed Vice President by Jammeh. Despite her education and approved public persona, she served Jammeh for twenty years as Vice President, knowing all too well that Jammeh was not only a dictator politically, he was a cold blooded murderer. She neither publicly distanced herself from the extra-judicial activities and brutality of the regime nor resigned citing poor health as others had done. She stayed the course for twenty years. In fact, she is allegedly complicit in the indiscriminate shooting of defenceless student protesters on April 10th and 11th 2000. If we look at her tenure as Vice President, can we genuinely say that she passed the test of good leadership?
Despite Isatou Touray’s track record and level of education prior to 2016, once in office, she has proven to be an utter disappointment. Ordinarily, we assume that someone of her calibre and qualifications will have the independence of mind to challenge rather than merely being a conformist and puppet. We can all clearly see that she is so preoccupied with maintaining her position that she will toe the government line and not challenge Barrow on any issue, regardless of the damage that this may cause the Gambian people. Some of her public utterances have been abysmal and embarrassing to say the least. Yet, this is someone with a PhD, with decades of experience as an advocate of women’s rights. Contrast all of this with the superb performance of Mayor Rohey Malick Lowe in only a space of two years. I am not aware of Mayor Lowe being university educated but based on what she is doing in Banjul, you cannot but appreciate her strong leadership and vision. Again, the young and dynamic Talid Bensouda in KMC and his excellent track record in only two years, gives credibility to the argument that good leadership qualities are not necessarily linked to age or gender.
This has led me to conclude that based on the most recent empirical evidence, the notion that a female President is Gambia’s solution is unsubstantiated. What we need is a good leader. Whether that person is a male or female, Mandinka, Fula or Jola, is immaterial. At the same time, I reinforce my argument that Marie Sock’s candidature is good for Gambian politics. It will likely begin the dismantling of the male dominated spectre and by extension prompt a national conversation about women in mainstream politics to make the process more inclusive in order to achieve an egalitarian society.
Abdoulie Fatty is a lawyer at A. Fatty & Co Law Firm. He previously served as a Magistrate in Banjul. He studied in the U.K and was called to the Bar of England and Wales. He has an LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice. He is interested in politics and democratisation.