Senegal: To whom do women’s bodies belong?

The Miss Senegal rape case, like many others before it, appears to demonstrate that in Senegal, women’s bodies belong to everyone except themselves.

In Senegal, there is a deep-rooted culture of rape and gendered violence, writes Guaye [Getty Images]

In Senegal, gender-based violence is once again occupying headlines. This time, the country’s top beauty pageant, Miss Senegal, is at the centre of the controversy.

In November, Miss Senegal 2020 Fatima Dione’s mother told Senegalese media that her daughter was raped while carrying out official pageant duties. She explained that the 20-year-old beauty queen became pregnant as a result of the assault and gave birth to a son five months ago. Dione’s mother also talked about the pain and shame her daughter experienced after giving birth to a baby conceived through rape.

While the allegation itself was shocking, what brought the issue under the national spotlight was the response from pageant officials.

In a November 18 press conference, the President of the Organising Committee of Miss Senegal, Amina Badiane, tried to blame Dione for what her family says happened to her.

“If Miss Senegal 2020 was raped, it’s because she wanted it. She is over 18,” Badiane said.

Badiane’s egregious comments caused a widespread uproar, especially among women’s rights advocates who for years fought to make rape a serious crime in Senegal, and finally succeeded in January 2020. Hundreds of women filed official complaints against Badiane for “rape apology” and a petition calling for the immediate withdrawal of the pageant organising committee’s operating licence has garnered more than 60,000 signatures. Badiane’s attempts to blame Dione for her rape also led many other former contestants, including former Miss Senegal laureates, to speak up about the sexual abuse they allegedly endured during their time in the pageant. Badiane has sued for defamation.

Badiane’s comments attempting to legitimise rape and sexual assault, for which she has since apologised, were undoubtedly outrageous – especially as it is her responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the young women competing in this popular beauty pageant, including Dione. However, Badiane is not the source of the problem – she is merely a symptom.

In Senegal, there is a deep-rooted culture of rape and gendered violence. Large segments of Senegalese society do not really know what constitutes rape and view sexual assault as a misdemeanour at best. Thus perpetrators of such crimes are rarely brought to justice or shunned by the public. As a result, public figures like Badiane routinely engage in victim-blaming without facing any real consequences.

In 2018, for example, a philosophy professor and public commentator Songué Diouf claimed on Jakarloo-bi – a popular show on the television network owned by famed Senegalese pop star, Youssou N’Dour – that women get raped because of the way they behave and dress. “You do everything so that we rape you, and when we rape you, we go to prison and you who have done everything so that you are raped, you continue to be free,” he told the audience.

Following pressure from women’s rights activists, Diouf eventually issued an apology, but neither he nor the producers of Jakarloo Bi faced any real consequences. In fact, Jakarloo Bi continues to employ commentator Cheikh Yerim Seck, who was convicted of raping a minor in September 2012. Initially sentenced to three years, Seck only served 15 months in prison and swiftly returned to public life after his release.

Earlier this year, a member of parliament and prominent opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was accused of raping 22-year-old masseuse Adji Sarr. But after hearing her story, the public focused not on the alleged suffering of the young woman, but the political consequences of her accusation. While Sonko was charged with Sarr’s rape in March, he is yet to stand trial. And the public vilification of Sarr continues to this day.

Regrettably, the situation of women in Senegal is getting worse by the day. The country is becoming increasingly conservative, and the deeply misogynistic views of ultra-conservative preachers are gaining more and more visibility and support.

Take some popular preachers’ reactions to the November 7 triple murder-suicide by dentist Falla Paye.

Paye killed his three children (aged 8, 11 and 13) and died by suicide, allegedly to punish his wife of 15 years who recently left him. He claimed in a 10-page rage and hate-filled letter that his wife pushed him to commit the crime and accused her among many other things of “depriving him of sex for 42 days”.

The Senegalese media published Paye’s hateful letter in full and framed him as a “victim” in a family tragedy. Commenting on the case, popular Muslim preacher Oustaz Iran Ndao raised the question about what kind of suffering Paye’s wife inflicted upon him. Another preacher, Oustaz Modou Fall, meanwhile, said that women can be deliberately mean and cause a man’s heart to “dissolve like an effervescent pill”. Fall went on to claim in a Facebook video about the Paye case that men should groom four-year-old girls with material gifts to turn them into submissive wives.

Ndao and Fall faced no scrutiny for their comments in support of Paye. In fact, many on Senegalese social media, including many women, supported them and blamed Paye’s ex-wife for the murder of her children.

Commenting on the Miss Senegal case, Iran Ndao also stated in an interview that “If she stayed home, no one would have raped her”. He received merely some mild criticism for these comments.

The “religious” conservatives’ assault on women’s rights and freedoms in Senegal is not limited to victim-blaming in high-profile cases either. Conservative NGO Jamra, for example, is actively campaigning to curtail abortion rights and turn public opinion against feminist activists. The NGO’s vocal leader Mame Mactar Gueye recently held a press conference, where he showed the widely discredited anti-abortion film The Silent Scream and accused feminists of being controlled by “Freemason organisations”.

Senegalese authorities also do not take rape and sexual assault seriously, and only pay calls to eradicate such crimes lip service. The 2020 law criminalising rape is yet to be applied to its fullest and gender-based violence appears as pervasive as ever in the country. President Macky Sall has not yet publicly commented on the ongoing assault on women’s bodies in Senegal, but he recently attended The Men’s Conference on Positive Masculinity in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

All this puts in context the latest controversy surrounding Miss Senegal. The uproar against Amina Badiane is justified. She should step down and her role in the alleged pimping of contestants should be investigated. However, it is important to see that condemning or punishing her will not end misogyny and gendered violence in Senegal.

Badiane is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Focusing on her steers the issue away from the real perpetrators of gendered violence: men. Sure, Badiane and women like her are doing the bidding of the patriarchy. Their actions prove, in the words of feminist author bell hooks, that “patriarchy has no gender”. They are clearly guided by internalised misogyny and should be confronted for the very real harm they cause.

However, what we need to focus on today is not Badiane, but the culture of rape, gendered violence and misogyny that created her. Famed Senegalese feminist and scholar, professor Fatou Sow, recently asked: “To whom do women’s bodies belong?” The Miss Senegal rape case, like many others before it, appears to demonstrate that in Senegal, women’s bodies belong to everyone except themselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.