On Toilets and Second Wave Feminism in Mali, By Zachary Mason

Posted on October 12th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, Faith and Politics

Zachary Mason is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali and wanted to share his thoughts on religion and feminism -- and the Feminist Movement more broadly -- as he observed it unfolding in West Africa. The article is intended to be an accompaniment to the second issue of the Journal, "Engaging the Taboo: Gender, Sexuality and the Body in Our Religious Traditions."

Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the West African nation of Mali, it is my job not only to teach the Malian people needed skills but to teach my fellow Americans about this largely unknown culture. There are so many differences between Malian and American societies that it is somewhat difficult to find an apt reference point. But if there is one discrepancy which I find jarring – even as man – that would be the status of women.

It is quite difficult to describe the status of Malian women with the terminology of Western feminism. Here most women spend a good part of their lives barefoot in the kitchen, pounding millet while with a baby strapped to their back and another on the way. Upon marriage most Malian women explicitly consent to their husband’s taking of additional wives. Only a small minority of women have achieved basic literacy, let alone a high school education, and very few have a skilled trade of their own.

The conventional status of women here would make the average American woman shudder – and I have yet to mention genital mutilation. Though as much as normal gender roles are quite different in Mali from what I know in the Northeastern blue states, I would caution anyone from making a sweeping moral judgment; one cannot evaluate the condition of Malian women without taking into account the economic realities of the world’s third-poorest nation.

Let me introduce you to Bintu, a typical Malian woman. Bintu was born to a large family of millet farmers in Sanadougou, where she has lived her entire life.  For a couple of years Bintu went to the elementary school down the street, but by the time she was 10 she stopped going because as the eldest daughter she had to take care of her younger siblings while her mother went to the fields. At age 18, Bintu was married off to a millet farmer on the other side of town. Now 30, Bintu has since has given birth to ten children, seven of whom have managed to survive the onslaught of diarrhea, malaria and general malnutrition. She will probably have only a few more now that her husband has taken a second wife.

Bintu hardly has a moment’s respite from the daily labors of raising a family in a subsistence agricultural economy. Every morning she wakes up before dawn to draw water from the well, and then she will retreat into the smoky air of her wood-fired kitchen to cook millet porridge for her family’s breakfast. Then she goes out to the fields to collect firewood and leaves from the baobab tree to cook a more gelatinous porridge called toh (pronounced like the appendage) for lunch. At lunchtime her husband will come back with a cart full of peanuts, which Bintu will spend the rest of the day shelling. Then she will return into the smoky kitchen to heat up another batch of toh for dinner. After drawing more water from the well to clean the dishes, she will go to sleep and wake up to another day of more or less the same work around the house and adjacent fields.

At age 50 Bintu may well die of respiratory infection from having spent half the hours of her waking life inhaling the harmful tars and particulate matter of wood smoke. Except for the occasional trip to sell her peanuts at market in the next village over, she will have never left the village where she was born and raised.

Despite these commonplace tales of woe, there is much to praise about the status of women in Mali – even according to the narrow lens of Western social theory. First Wave Feminism is a fait accompli. Upon independence from French colonial rule in 1960, the Republic of Mali borrowed from her mother country a republican ethos of equal political rights for both men and women. The government of Mali could not be properly described as a functioning democracy until the elections of 1993, but from the time of Modibo Keíta’s nationalist dictatorship onwards women enjoyed de jure liberté, égalité and sororité. As long as there has been a Malian state, women like men have been constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote, to serve on juries and to hold public office. Whether or not Malian citizens of any gender could actually exercise those rights was another story altogether.

At this point in time, my Western bias would be inclined to classify Mali somewhere on the cusp of the Second Wave of Feminism. There are many women here who generate income of their own outside the home: a typical business operation consists of a lady sitting on a stool in the street directly in front of her home selling fried doughballs with fish sauce. This is the height of commerce in an ordinary rural village. In the countryside there are very few factories and offices to speak of. In urban centers like Bamako, Sikasso, Ségou or Timbouctou there is a small but growing population of university-educated women who hold jobs as teachers, business owners and even occasionally as doctors or magistrates. In a country where the vast majority of men also work on the family farm, the issue of women in the workplace is barely a blip on anyone’s radar.

As to Third Wave Feminism, well… (gulp) let’s just say that Mali is a religiously traditional society – in this case Muslim. In some ways it would be fair to say that the prevailing attitudes on gender and sex in Mali are an ocean and a continent apart from those in the United States. Yes, many men here view women as inferior subordinates. But then again, so do a number of Ultraorthodox Jews in Crown Heights and Southern Baptists in Wichita – and their wives enjoy a much greater standard of living. Male chauvinism is without a doubt a jarring obstacle to the realization of the needs of Mali’s women, yet their most immediate problems are not so much products of misogyny as much as they are symptoms of a completely underdeveloped subsistence agricultural economy where daily life has not changed all that much since the the Iron Age.

In Mali the current debates in American feminism seem a world away. Can a woman support a family of five and simultaneously serve as Vice President? If Bintu has to attend meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then no one would be able to cook toh and leaf sauce for her husband and children. Should civil marriage rights be extended to same-sex couples? Here, the definition of a feminist is a woman who does not allow her husband to marry multiple wives.

That is not to say that a feminist movement does not exist in Mali. It does, but like all other democratic movements in this young Republic it is taking baby steps towards progress. The typical American mom in the year 2009 has not been alive long enough to remember a time when homemakers were expected to prepare tea and cookies without the luxury of supermarkets, refrigerators, dishwashers or Tupperware. But their grandmother’s generation would remember that these wonders of modern consumerism were the essential ingredients without which Betty Friedan would have never found the time to read the newspaper and be active in civic causes beyond the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

For example, gas stoves. In America gas stoves are often considered rustic antiques, but in Mali they are on the cutting edge of consumer technology. For women to own such an item means that they save hours a day that would have otherwise been spent collecting and chopping firewood. A gas stove also frees them from the confines of a smoky kitchen, thereby vastly improving their pulmonary health, perhaps tacking on a few years to their life. Gas stoves, however, will forever remain beyond the means of women who have enough trouble paying for food. So some advocates of women’s health in Mali are beginning to espouse culinary practices that are easy on the lungs and also free of charge, such as recipes which can be cooked in the noonday sun or even cooking outside.

Nevertheless, the most revolutionary tool in the dialect of Malian Second Wave Feminism is without a doubt the toilet. You might be wondering what a toilet could possibly have to do with equal rights for women, but this simple apparatus can do more than you might imagine.

It’s not so hard for me to imagine because every morning the kids in the village have to pass my house along the road to the primary school. Every so often when I am brushing my teeth and watching the procession go by, a kid will stop and lift her dress and defecate on the other side of my fence.

Villages in countries like Mali are lucky if they have a building reserved solely for the education of their children. They are even luckier if they have a public latrine near that building. You see, even if there is a school in town does not mean that every child is going to attend class, because as they grow older children in Mali have other duties to attend to such as watering the garden, letting the cattle out to graze, and menstruating.

Yes, menstruating. It is embarrassing enough to go through puberty as is, and it is even more embarrassing when the butigi in town doesn’t sell tampons and the only place where they can find privacy is in their family’s latrine on the other side of town. Especially in schools where there is no bathroom on the premises, or even if there is a bathroom there is only one for a class of fifty and no lock on the door, the onset of a girl’s first period often means the end of her academic career.

A toilet changes that whole equation. Not necessarily a flush toilet like the one you might be accustomed to, but an improved cement outhouse appropriate for a rural village without central plumbing. One of these emancipatory thrones happens to be built next to the brand-new schoolhouse down the street from me – and it is reserved just for girls. That means the schoolgirls of Sanadougou might just be able to fight against the odds and achieve full literacy, go on to high school, maybe even acquire a skilled trade. A toilet for girls does not mean that everyone who uses it will necessarily be able to read and write, and it certainly does not guarantee future employment, but it provides the infrastructure necessary so that girls can at least stay in school through adolescence.

Karitie Sanogo, Director of the Première Cycle in the Malian town of Diaramana, is quite grateful for the new latrines constructed next to the elementary school. He tells me that last year girls made up only 35 percent of the elementary school class rosters. But since this school year is the first with a toilet for girls, a number of female students who never even finished elementary school have decided to give it another shot. This year, girls make up approximately 45 percent of the incoming Première Cycle class; the gender breakdown is still nowhere near absolute parity, but now that there is a toilet for girls it has been significantly narrowed.

Toilets may indeed bring about the next wave of feminism, simply by enabling more women to stay in school and, in time, become skilled professionals.

Zac MasonZachary Mason is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, where he is busy organizing the construction of many dozens of latrines and soak pits, making sure that school children actually use and clean them.

6 Responses to “On Toilets and Second Wave Feminism in Mali, By Zachary Mason”

  1. Cecilia Tan says:

    Thank you Zachary, for this sensitive account of Mali women. Living in Australia with access to all that the best of technology can offer, we often take for granted what we have and how fortunate we are. While we continue to be concerned about the status of women in a developed area like Australia, such as real economic equality or anti discrimination laws, we can forget that in places such as Mali, feminism takes on a different face. This is the challenge for feminists who like all human beings can be guilty of navel gazing and not see the plight of others in more challenging circumstances. I admire what you are doing, Zachary. For my part I will spread your message as far and wide as I can. God be with you.

  2. sam horne says:

    hi, i am a plumber from aust, melbourne, i am interested in finding out more info of possably getting involved in this program, any info would be helpful.
    kind regards Sam

  3. Zachary Mason says:

    Indeed, Sam, there is such a way! The Peace Corps itself is limited to U.S. citizens, but there are plenty of NGOs which are involved in latrine construction in the developing world; namely the World Toilet Organization, Water Aid and Oxfam. All are doing similar work.

  4. Cami says:

    Thank you, for the interesting insight. I am going on missions to Mali, Africa for a year and I have been trying to find more information on Mali, and the culture there…this helped alot.

  5. Kathy Dettwyler says:

    Zachary — This essay is so depressing, because it is clear that you have absolutely NO CLUE about Malian culture and the perspectives of Malian women (or men). It is appalling that the Peace Corps would let you loose in the field with such minimal understanding of the cultural context. Please come home as soon as possible, or at least stop writing these misleading and ignorance-filled essays. Oh dear, this is truly sad. Did you not even read “Dancing Skeletons” before you went to Mali??

    • Zachary says:

      Well, Kathy, I must ask – what precisely is it that you feel that I have omitted from this essay? If you think that I have selectively omitted any discussion about deep-seated misogyny, re-read paragraph 9. I did not express that misogny doesn’t exist, but that the economic barriers to women’s advancement far surpass any cultural or ideological ones.