By Fatou Jaw Manneh
When I was growing up in my native land, The Gambia, I never heard of anything called International Woman or Women’s Day. I am Muslim, and going by tradition and religion, and as the norm in the area I come from, the woman’s role is mainly to be a stay-at-home mum and wife, taking care of husband and children, the gardens.
My Mum used to advise me that a high school education was good enough for a housewife. She still is not aware that I have managed to get a college degree in America; not sure if it will mean anything to her. It will just probably just scare her. I wonder how I even made it through high school under the cautious eyes of my Dad, who never trusted Western education. He used to tell my Mum that all those who received Western education would be betrayers to tradition and religion – they would be un-Islamic. He was a strict Muslim. He has passed away, May God grant him Jannah.
Looking back at everything that my Dad said about Western education, I think his opinions are debatable. I agree. Times have changed; and circumstances have drastically changed and in the context of Gambian society, I don’t know if my dad’s fear or detest of Western education holds water, but his viewpoints on the effects of Western education are perhaps still debatable. But that is for another time. Another story. I was always amazed at what my Mum had single-handedly achieved. But I was a Daddy’s girl.
All the same, I am grateful that he enrolled us in school; the only reason why he sent us to school, I think, was perhaps because he had some good friends in the city who all claimed and boasted of getting their children in school. Perhaps that was his only influence. Even some Christian teachers who tried to give us a hand in class lessons outside of official school hours were eyed with suspicion, if not slight scorn.
My first introduction to any woman first is my Mum, before curiosity and reading led me to Winnie Mandela, Harriet Tubman, Ida B wells, Sojourner Truth, Talata Nder Women , and Aline Sitoe Jatta of Senegal, to modern times Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Warren, Ann Sung Kyi, Mariam Fye Sall, Michelle Obama, and Princess Diana to count a few. Great women in the history of African Americans, taken as slaves in the Americas have shown tremendous courage in enduring/fighting against slavery and the abolition of slavery. They became educators, human rights activists, business women, they did what they could then to save/free their families from slavery. Those were unbelievably tough times. Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) Abolitionist and women’s rights activist …, Ida B Wells, Harriet Tubman, and God bless their souls.
My father was a great man, active in the community in both Foni and Sukuta where we lived. Staunch supporter of the old regime. Solidly behind him. He gave hints here and there why they stood behind Jawara. Unlike the American founding fathers who are my idols too, dad and his crew left us no literature to read about the happenings in the country especially after colonialism. They guard all that information to their chests. Not sharing much with their children. They never even discussed slavery or the slave trade. I learnt about that on my own. You will hear about “issues” with the Whiteman but they will never discuss the specifics of what they heard happened. What was given to them by their fathers? My Dad was very proud of his own father. A very handsome and brave man my Mum would tell me.
My Mum was never schooled and she never harbored regret. She never told me she wished she was educated. I think her role model though was her father who never had western education, but he and his brothers were skilled tailors. Her father a migrant from Guinea Conakry, Timbi Madina. My mother had an eye for neat, soft cotton dresses and bedsheets. She always admired more how the dress was made more than how beautiful it will look on anyone. I never saw her with much, neither some gold or silver accessories that adorned traditional African women of their times. She was living under a strict and commanding husband and hence she was overwhelmed with child bearing, she was never active outside of the house, outside of farming. So my mother was a poor woman when it comes to elaborate living. She was content with basic living. Never saw her going to any political or drumming sessions in the village then. She was reserved and a recluse almost. But she hated elaborate living. Because growing up, she made sure I am kept as modest as possible. She and dad would always reiterate, “Just cook what we have”.
My mother was modest, humble, and hardworking. She did her duties then with bravado. She has ten children, 9 living, never had a maid. We were never hungry. She is a seriously clean woman. She scrubbed us morning and night. Not to mention white cotton bed sheets that were all kept washed and ironed every Sunday. I was raised in the village, with basically nothing but a very fulfilling life. I was fed, kept clean at all times and taught how to wash clothes, iron, and cook at a very young age. I thankfully was able to study well and finish my primary and high school education successfully. My mum has a small garden where she grows tomatoes, eggplant, okra, pepper and bitter leaves, corn, mangoes, oranges. In the rainy season, she has a rice field to attend to. That is like 2 kilometers from our house.
When it rained heavily, as kids, my brother and I will wait patiently, wondering how Mum was faring from the trip back from the rice fields. The rains can be thunderous, dark and gloomy. She cracks the back door with a laugh, “I am all wet”, she will say, laughing, dripping from rain, just so we know she is very okay. Then we will jump and join the laughter. She will then get a real shower, make us all some tea and we will get cozy and enjoy the cool aftermath of rain.
My Mum was a woman of her times. She did all that was expected of her during that time to keep her family healthy and educated. She wanted us to excel in primary school. Not to mention a very authoritative and commanding husband. Mum was quick at whatever she did. All Dad’s demands were met, obliged and delivered without a word. My Mum like most women of their day, was strong, resilient, caring, content, simple, modest, helpful, thoughtful, compassionate and giving. I later realized too that she was not as powerless as she portrays in her house. With Dad she plays tag along and submissive. She is a rock and I salute her. Ajarama Isatou Jallow.
Growing up and finding my own way in a very traditional, Islamic and poor community, with a high school certificate, not much was available for a “career”. I stumbled into journalism after bombarding the Publisher of the Daily Observer with social commentary letters. He was impressed and invited me to consider reporting as a career. Don’t know if my mum was educated, she would have 10 kids, a demanding husband. She might be a designer. She loves fabric and neat sewing.
After My Mum, the other two women I knew about were Khadijah, wife of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and Winnie Mandela, wife of freedom fighter and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. We were taught at a young age that Khadija was the most emulated, loved and respected woman in Islam. She was the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed (PBH). She was the first Muslim woman in Islam, after the prophet’s little nephew Ali and friend Abubacar. (Hope I got that right.) Khadija was a thriving business woman in Mecca. She was 45 when she married 25 year old Muhammad. She cared deeply about him. In all the trials that the prophet went through in Mecca, Khadija was always by his side, reassuring him that he was doing the right thing and everything will be okay. Khadija was giving. She lost all her wealth during the internal wars Muhammad had to go through. She later migrated with him to Medina as an asylee. Khadija believed in her husband, who was loving and caring too. She believed in Islam and she stood up to fight alongside her husband.
The second woman was Winnie Mandela. Former wife of Nelson Mandela. I remember I used to blush when our neighbor called me Winnie. Winnie was my idol after I read about Apartheid South Africa. Mandela probably would not have endured the harsh conditions of prison if not for dynamic, strong, powerful Winnie Mandela. Not only was she there for Mandela during the hard times, but she equally was never corrupted by the White South African government then. She stood her ground through all her bitter experiences in South Africa.
These three women shaped my thoughts as a woman. My Mum, taught me how to be giving, caring, considerate and content with the little I have. Khadija and Winnie made me believe that hard times can be overcome. As human beings we have to meet the challenges of our times and leave a good legacy for history which future generations can benefit from, be inspired by or derive courage from. I am thankful to them.
We have come a long way. The youngest Nobel Prize winner is Malala of Pakistan. She fought the Taliban to make sure education is available to girls in her community. She almost lost her life. She is not even 20 yet.
Times have seriously changed. It was epiphany for me learning about some of the great women of the world. We have come a long way indeed. I never knew that American women had to fight equally hard, to be able to vote, for inheritance, for good education and health care until later in my adult life. Women have fought hard for a better life for them and their families throughout the world, from Asia, Bahamas, Americas and Africa. I am proud of them all. It is the exemplary role of these extraordinary women that shaped my opinion in this strange world. I am a better person because of them. I read them to get inspiration and find my way in this new world.
My Mum taught me how to be honest, genuine, caring, humble, humble, humble and modest. I learned from Winnie Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Hillary Clinton, Aline Sittoe Jatta, how to be brave, combative and stand my ground. They are my inspiration. I challenge all my sisters, especially the younger ones, to find their inspiration among these brave women of the world. We have to differentiate how to be feminine at home and how to be a feminist in our communities, like all the brave women mentioned above. Most of these women were just great companions to their husbands. Like Hagar was for Ibrahim (PBUH), Khadija and Aisha for Mohammed (PBUH), Mariam and Mary Magdalene for Prophet Jesus (PBUH), Maaam Jarra Bousso, and the list can continue.
As we reflect on International Women’s Day, we should keep asking ourselves how we can improve our communities. How do we become less selfish and fight for the broader improvement for all, our families, neighbors and our communities? What are we proud of?? When death knocks at our doors, what do we leave behind? What and how do we inspire our daughters and sisters? How do we inspire, lift up our good brothers, fathers and husbands who need us? How do we keep our sophistication? How do we define a sophisticated woman?? What is the challenge of our times??? Do we succumb to begging, clapping after dictators or do we stand bold and ready to die for our country?? Why do we settle for prostitution when we can flaunt our beauty for better causes in our lifetime? How do we define beauty?? Is it about fake hair all the time, skin bleaching or is it about having a great attitude and being confident in our skin – hair or no hair – and without paying attention to the hue of the skin? Martin Luther King Jr. fought for “content for character”, not hue of skin color. Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba were extraordinary beauties of their times. They used it well and sang well for the freedom of their families. God bless their souls. We can be all these women. How can we be an every woman, modern, sophisticated, loving, caring and at the same time hold no bars in the fight against evil, be it in dictators, girl traffickers, women abusers, or cruel human beings around the world? There is plenty of inspiration and stories dating back hundreds of years to draw wisdom and courage from. Happy International Women’s Day to all my friends both men and women. We all have to make this world better for our mothers, daughters and sisters. It is said that you educate a woman, you educate the whole world.
A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim. – Maya Angelou
author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March , 8, 2015