Mariama Ba

Mariama Ba was one of the pioneers of Senegalese literature.

Pedagogical Unit

3. The emergence of the women’s movement in Senegal

3.1 Mariama Ba and the women’s movement in Senegal

The teaching profession occupied Mariama Ba for a dozen years, while she was (among other things) a young wife. Difficult experiences, notably successive marriages which ended in divorce, contributed to forging her personality, transforming her into a pioneering promoter of African women.

‘As with every novelty, our improved circumstances provoked a raft of ill-intentioned criticism. Perhaps surprisingly, our detractors were mostly to be found among intellectuals. Everything concerned with women’s emancipation was met with hostility. It was within such a reactionary context, riven by tensions between the old and the new, by crises within our self-understanding, within our understanding of our male counterparts, that many of us tried to establish a new self-respect – doomed, as it turned out, before seeing the light of day. […] [B]ut by deciding to break away, I had chosen to exist […] I had to live, and so had chosen to fight.’¹

Just as changes in Senegalese society seemed to be accelerating following the Defferre law, Mariama Ba met the journalist and politician Obèye Diop, whom she married. This third marriage finally brought her the stability which she had been looking for. A successful family life, as one of her daughters later remarked, had always been her main priority.

‘Mariama Ba could have been the first black Senegalese female jurist, university professor, or indeed engineer, if she had been so moved. Accustomed to excellence in an era when meeting the challenge of the West, and so of colonialism, necessarily meant studying at university, this woman who had all the tools to succeed, preferred the calm life of a mother.’²

For Mariama Ba, the first years of Senegalese independence represented a period of intense reflection and political debate alongside her husband. This particularly enriching period strengthened her hard-earned views. Having become a feminist by sheer circumstance, by her life-trajectory, Mariama Ba chose to direct her energies not into direct political action but rather, as was consistent with her previous professional career, into educational and group action – which is to say, another form of political action. Women’s associations were, for her, an ideal framework for promoting women’s rights.

Mariama Ba and her husband Obèye Diop around 1958. Public domain.

¹ Letter from Mariama Ba to her third daughter, Mme Mame Coumba Ndiaye, cited in ibid., pp.47-8.
² Bara Diouf, in an article which appeared in the daily newspaper Le Soleil (19th August 1981), as cited in Ndiaye, op. cit, p.62.

3.2 A framework for women’s action

For Mariama Ba, ‘political activism poses real challenges for women. If a woman is moved by a political ideal, if she wants to be more than a mere support, more than a mere object which claps, if she has a political message, it is difficult for her to sit easily within a political party.’¹

There is, however, a domain in which women excel, and which men have never contested: the organization of communal life. Women are at the heart of the system for every significant event in communal life (births, religious initiation rites, deaths); they control nearly all aspects linked to the socialization of the individual. By enabling women to meet, these highpoints of social life contribute to the emergence of different types of women’s associations. ‘Mbotaay’,² groups of women or girls belonging to the same age-group, are the perfect expression of the organizing principle informing ceremonies linked to life’s significant events.

Mbotaay continued to evolve despite colonial rule, and developed even within colonial missions. ‘Tontines’ (or mutual credit associations) started out, for the most part, as Mbotaay.

L’amicale des Legoffiènnes (Mariama Bâ is on the left inside) in the 1970. Public domain.

¹ Cited in Dia, art. cit.
² Wolof term for ‘association’ or ‘group’.

3.3 The struggle to further women’s rights

Drawn to social action more than to any direct involvement in politics, Mariama Ba threw herself into the struggle for rights towards the end of the 1960s, just as the young state of Senegal was trying to shore up its political and constitutional beginnings, over and above the vicissitudes of history. Women were seeking to make their voices heard through organized movements. It was a period of associations, clubs and solidarity groups of feminist hue.

Mariama Ba played an active role in all three, and did not hesitate to campaign in the field: ‘It was during this period that she demonstrated a phenomenal level of activism for the feminist cause […]. Whether it was travelling many miles on potholed roads to the remotest areas of the country in order to participate in humanitarian initiatives, or determining the material resources needed to further specific women’s interests, she was always ready to join the team.’¹

An activist unshakeable in her defence of women’s rights, Mariama Ba earned the recognition of her sister, who asked her to represent them on 25th March 1979, the day dedicated to Senegalese women.

Mariama Ba holding a speech at the Ecole normale of Rufisque. Date unknown. Public domain.

¹ Ndiaye, op.cit., p.117.

3.4 Another way of doing politics

Mariama Ba did not do politics in the orthodox sense of the term. Jean-Marie Volet has defined her involvement within local women’s organizations, from the end of the 1960s, in the following terms: ‘The eclipse of her routine as schoolteacher, wife and mother, accelerated by the fact her nine children were now grown up, prompted her to broaden her struggle for the promotion of women’s rights from the private sphere to direct participation in women’s organizations, through fostering collaboration and group initiatives. It was during this period that she started to manage an enormous tontine, and that she became a member of the Federation of Women’s Associations in Senegal, and later the Secretary General of the Dakar branch of the Soroptimist Club (1979-1981).’¹

Mariama Ba passed away on 17th August 1981, but thirty years later, the enactment of a law establishing gender parity on ballot papers testified to the positive, lasting effects of the many movements in which she participated – so many signposts along Senegalese women’s march towards the recognition and proper exercise of their rights.

Cover page of the book entitled Mariama Bâ ou les allées d'un destin by Mame Coumba Diagne. Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, Dakar, 2007.

¹ Ndiaye, op.cit., p.117.