The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Senegal, women’s bodies have become a political battleground

A man walks past graffiti which says: “Justice For Adji Sarr” and “No To Rape” in Dakar on March 18, 2021. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

Marame Gueye is an associate professor of African and African diaspora literatures at East Carolina University.

In Senegal, the politicization of the alleged rape of Adji Sarr, a 21-year-old masseuse, by Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition leader, has led to widespread protests that have left an estimated 11 people dead, hundreds wounded, dozens arrested and businesses — mostly French-owned — destroyed.

Sonko, a 46-year-old member of parliament and a major challenger to President Macky Sall, is accused of raping Sarr on a visit to a massage parlor at night and in the middle of a pandemic curfew, to ease what he claims to be a medically diagnosed acute back pain. The demonstrators — mostly young men — who support Sonko, and Sonko himself, claim that the allegations are politically motivated and deny them.

While Senegal is often lauded as a beacon of democracy in West Africa, the protests and polarization around the rape charge lay bare the stark reality that women and youth sit at the margins of this democracy. Senegal is a patriarchal country where women and young people, who respectively constitute about 52 percent and 60 percent of the population, constantly fight for their right to be heard.

From the outset, Sonko received the support of public opinion and leading intellectuals, who called him an “honest” family man. Media commentators and prominent artists implied that all men have engaged in some form of sexual libertinage. On a popular majority-male talk show, guests drew on the argument, used by many Senegalese men without evidence, that women use rape to get back at men. This male solidarity undermines the voices of rape victims in Senegal, where rape was only a misdemeanor until January 2020, when — thanks to years of hard work by women’s organizations — a law was finally signed to make it a crime.

Sarr, on the other hand, has been met with a very different response. Her modest family background and past mistakes are used to claim she has a propensity to lie. She went silent initially, which was seen by many as confirmation that she was a liar. Finally, accompanied with her lawyers, she broke her silence on Wednesday. But public opinion dismissed her right to speak, citing inconsistencies in her speech.

Her public debasement contrasts with how the country treated the disappearance of another Senegalese woman earlier this year. Diary Sow, a 20-year-old prodigy whose academic excellence earned her a scholarship to a prestigious high school in France, vanished in Paris in January. Her pictures blanketed social media, and a search was organized by the Senegalese diaspora in France. People prayed for her safe return, and she eventually turned up safe. The contrast highlights the class disparities in Senegal and underscores who has the right to security and who does not.

The lack of compassion exposes how victims of rape are often discredited and left to fend for themselves, emboldening predators. In fact, while the demonstrations were taking place, four women alleged they were raped or sexually assaulted at the hotel Le Bélier in Kayar, a fishing community outside Dakar. The case did not make it to major television or radio stations, as if what happened to these women was unrelated to the national debate about violence.

None of this comes as a surprise to Senegal’s feminists. Members of the Collective for the Promotion and Protection of Women’s and Girls’ Rights, who wrote in support of Sarr, were harassed on television and online. Other feminists and women’s rights activists who defended Sarr’s right to fair treatment were threatened with rape and death. As Fatou Sow, a sociologist and one of the pioneers of feminism in Senegal, recently noted: “Senegalese men have been Democrats, Socialists, Marxists, Maoists, Salafists … but when women are feminists, there is a problem.” The women who were threatened even wrote to the minister of the interior for protection.

Because Sall has previously been accused of pursuing politically motivated charges against opponents while tightening his grip on power, women were made to choose between supporting their gender or upholding democracy, as if the two are mutually exclusive. On March 8, International Women’s Day, Sonko was charged with rape and released on bail. Women ditched the celebrations of the day dedicated to them to organize a sit-in for peace. They also launched a social media campaign, during which they posted pictures of themselves wearing white.

Yet, these efforts did not make it to the national media. When Sall finally spoke that evening — days after violence began — he barely mentioned International Women’s Day or how it was hijacked. He thanked religious and traditional leaders — all men — for brokering the ensuing peace.

The case has turned women’s bodies into a political battleground. Rape victims in Senegal will now have a harder time coming out of the shadows. This is a missed opportunity to have a serious national conversation about rape and how women are silenced in this country. The youth also continue to be infantilized by politicians. A true democracy must aspire to serve and protect all. This starts with creating space for every voice to be heard in a respectful, peaceful and constructive way, regardless of gender or age.

Read more:

Burleigh Hendrickson: #FreeSenegal youth protesters are checking power — and not for the first time

#MeToo is at a crossroads in America. Around the world, it’s just beginning.

León Krauze: The Mexican president’s decision to stand by an accused rapist is an insult to victims of gender violence

Miriam Becker-Cohen: How the Supreme Court can help sexual assault survivors in the military

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