When people believe so much in something – like women cannot make decisions because they are more emotional beings than their male counterparts – it becomes true. Traditional gender roles and mythification of women in power is deeply rooted in us as a society so much that it seems as if we do not want to see women progress, or that we simply hate women being independent and not having to depend on men for food or shelter.
So far the best thing that has happened to The Gambia post December 2016 elections is the advent of democracy. Most people born after 1994 had never seen or known anything else apart from closed lips and sealed hands in expressing their views both online and offline. Consequently, one would argue that perhaps the best thing that has happened to Gambians yet is Freedom of Expression, so it will be agreed upon that calling our current situation “democracy” might be a stretch. I have strongly held the belief that religion has always played a role in the politics of Gambia since the first election ever held, however this assumption has been invalidated by many that I have had the opportunity to debate on it with. More accurately is to assume that Gambians, now more than ever in the country’s political history, largely use gender, tribe, political party affiliation and demography to mobilize and vote.
Although gender has not had the opportunity to be at the center of one’s reason for voting for or against someone vying for a high position of power e.g. the presidency, gender has always had an impact in elections. The trend is usually women take up the assisting roles while men occupy the main power positions. For instance, in schools, boys are head boys while girls are assistants (recently some schools have created two leading roles for both genders); in higher institutions, men are presidents and women vice presidents; in ministries, men are decoratively appointed as ministers and the women who usually end up doing all the work as Permanent Secretaries. At the national level in Gambia, there has also been a trend of male presidents and female Vice Presidents since after independence, and even more traditionally at our homes, women make decisions only in the absence of a male figure. It is shameful that in 2018 and 2019 – after decades of fighting for women to achieve equal positions of power, economic freedom and influence as men – the Gambia is still stuck on “first female this or that” and still celebrate that as a win.
Recently, I did an online survey (may not have been extensive) that made me ask these questions: How do our daily conversations shift from who “stoops” low to give public hugs and carry firewood to who contributes most to national development?; How do Gambians give more relevance to infrastructure and faster government services rather than irrelevant factors like gender or tribe?; How do we vote and mobilize for an individual that will bring about development rather than clinging onto individuals who cannot foster positive change or provide better living for all Gambians around the globe (whom in this case since the independence of Gambia has proven to be men)?.
This is not to invalidate the core social groups that shape and form our views and opinions on both political and development matters, but it is rather for the purpose of expansion in this piece, to accept and focus on the possibility of gender inequality at the core of our development problems, and how women’s participation in politics and decision making can have a huge positive impact in the lives of all Gambians, male and female.
In my survey, almost all participants do not foresee a female Gambian president in at least five elections to come, this data is dismally accurate. It is problematic too, that politics, has been gendered at a time when national interest should be of greater importance to Gambians.
I have often wondered what the situation would have been if Dr. Isatou Touray had refused to join the coalition in the 2016 pre-elections. I am even more worried when I imagine what it would have been like for her in an atmosphere of hungry male politicians at a time like that. If she had decided to pursue her cause individually, what would have been the reactions of Gambians? Would they have justified the reasons for her attempt to stand as an independent candidate as they had done for Mama Kandeh? Would it have been seen as a good step for the coalition to reduce the then incumbent’s vote? Or closer to the truth, would she have been seen as greedy? Too old? Incompetent? And would society have dug deep on her life as a mother, wife and female child just to socially dismiss her as a candidate?
Sex, tribe and origin are great means of representation, not ignoring the fact that people regardless of their level of education or awareness are highly likely to assemble themselves based on where they feel they will be more represented, and that is fine. None the less in doing this, we should also not ignore the fact that gender or sex, should not be the main factor in judging someone’s ability or inability to lead when we make reference to gender roles created by society.
Our “new democracy” will not be satisfying until women, across all regions of the Gambia, organize themselves and initiate policies that promote their participation and involvement in politics and the development process, rather than merely be mobilizers for political parties and party leaders who have zero programs for their wellbeing and progress.
Maimuna Jeng, a final year political science student at the UTG, is feminist and blogger.