Feminists and other dangerous elements: the politicisation of gender and sexuality in Senegal

Loes Oudenhuijsen is a PhD candidate at the African Studies Centre Leiden. She works on the project Islam, everyday ethics, and its gendered contestations: ‘wicked’ women in Senegal from 1950 to the present



Since the end of June, the hashtag #justicepourlouise has been circulating in Senegal. A large effort from the recently established Collectif des féministes du Sénégal (collective of Senegalese feminists) to ensure that justice is done for Louise, the pseudonym given to a 15-year-old girl who accused a 19-year-old schoolmate of having raped her. He had filmed the rape and shared it via WhatsApp with his friends. Louise and her mother reported the case to the police in May, but there had been no follow-up from court on the affair for a month. Most likely because the accused is the son of a very influential Senegalese journalist. The accused’s father, Cheikh Yerim Seck, has himself been condemned for having raped a minor in September 2012. He was condemned to three years in prison, but was granted presidential grace after 15 months. Upon his release, he immediately returned to his activities on several television shows, despite a petition from feminists who asked for his boycott. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Cheikh Yerim Seck is a friend of Senegal’s president Macky Sall.

Free on bail
The newly established collective of Senegalese feminists generated (international) media attention to the case, and managed to save this affair from being covered up. The accused is currently detained in attendance of his process. The affair follows only several months after another highly mediatised case, when Adji Sarr, a 21-year-old employee of a massage parlour, accused Ousmane Sonko, a popular opposition leader, of having raped her when he visited the parlour late at night during curfew hours. This case led to days of protests leading to the death of at least ten protesters, as it was largely believed to be a political conspiracy to get rid of Sonko. Until today, the Sarr-Sonko case has not been brought to court, and Sonko is free on bail. Societal responses to both cases, as well as to the efforts of the feminist collective to ask for justice to be done, show how politicised gender and sexual rights are in Senegal at the moment.

Framed as a witch-hunt
Although many people condemned the rape of Louise, others discredited the young girl’s accusation. A Senegalese ‘news’ site - many Senegalese websites that report news can be classified as ‘scandal press’, being primarily concerned with stirring up scandals and debates on the moral degradation of society - provoked the idea that the girl had consented, after publishing WhatsApp audio messages of the girl to the young man, that would prove that they had been engaging in a sexual relationship. The audio messages do not prove that the young man has not raped Louise, what’s more, according to the law that criminalises rape and paedophilia, no one under the age of 18 can consent to sex. Other Senegalese sites, as well as people commenting on the media items, framed the affair as a witch-hunt of feminists against Cheikh Yerim Seck. Their framing attempts to discredit the feminists’ efforts to bring attention to this case and the thousands of other cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence that occur on a daily basis in the country, and that go by unnoticed and unpunished. If the feminists brought attention to the fact that the accused rapist is the son of Cheikh Yerim Seck, it is to reveal the mechanism of impunity and political clientelism that governs the country. As several of my interlocutors put it: ‘In Senegal, the court and prison are for the poor.’

Demanding justice for all Louises
On Saturday the 3rd of July, a sit-in was subsequently organised by the feminist collective. Not against Cheikh Yerim Seck, as several news sites tried to make believe, but to make a fist against impunity that reigns. To demand that the law that has criminalised rape since January 2020 (previously rape was only considered a misdemeanour), is applied. In the case of Louise, in the case of Adji Sarr, and in the thousands of other cases of rape and other sexual violence done onto women. The sit-in was small in scale: a few dozen women and a handful of men gathered between 10:00 and 13:00 at the Place de la Nation, where a month and a half ago a large demonstration against homosexuality was organised. The difference in attendance between the two marches reveals the general public’s preoccupations with gender and sexuality, and the different degree of mobilisation and support that the two opposed causes have. Senegalese sites were quick to report the feminist sit-in as an ‘échec total(‘total failure’). Aïssatou Sene, spokesperson of the feminist collective, explained the limited mobilisation as follows: ‘It’s normal that there aren't many people here, because women's voices are not heard. When you are a feminist, you are called a lot of other names. A lot of young women unfortunately don't want to be associated with us, but the work we do, they will all benefit from it.’ (‘C’est normal qu’il n’y ait pas beaucoup de monde parce que la voix des femmes n’est pas écoutée. Quand on est féministe, on nous taxe de pleins d’autres noms. Beaucoup de jeunes femmes malheureusement ne veulent pas être associées à nous, mais le travail que nous faisons, elles vont toutes en bénéficier.’)

Manipulative media
Being called all sorts of names as a feminist in Senegal, as Sene said, can at least be partly attributed to the way media discuss their work. One of the women at the sit-in held a sign with ‘coupons les zizis violeurs’ (‘cut the rapists’ penises’). One of the Senegalese websites took the photo from social media, and photoshopped the image, adding to the sign the text ‘no. 1 Ousmane Sonko’. A dangerous move, because the Sarr-Sonko rape case has not been brought to court yet, and Sonko enjoys a lot of support from Senegalese. By manipulating this photo, the website put the woman in immediate danger, as she risks being attacked by supporters of Sonko. The woman decided that she would file a complaint against the website. When the website took notice of this, they had already withdrawn the publication and presented their excuses. They said it was a mistake and that the chef of the website was even a supporter of the feminist cause. The damage had already been done, however, and the woman received numerous threats and insults. She will pursue her complaint.

Turmoil about gender and sexuality
The attention that the feminist collective raises for rape culture comes in a time of turmoil about gender and sexuality. The past decade and a half have seen a gradual but significant increase in attention to homosexuality, along with a greater general visibility of (women's) sexuality, in the public sphere. Over the past year and a half, however, issues of (homo-)sexuality have gained particular momentum. COVID-19 proved to be yet another way to scapegoat queer persons for everything that goes wrong in the country, while at the same time causing an increase in gender-based violence because of the partial lockdown and curfew that were in effect for a couple of months from late March until early June 2020, and again from early January until early March 2021.

So-called traditional Senegalese values
Opposition against President Macky Sall's rule is growing. There is major discontent about the way the population has suffered during the height of the COVID pandemic, and the suggestion that he may run for a third term as president, has led to strong opposition. Opposition leaders, most notably Ousmane Sonko, a particularly popular candidate among Senegalese youth, has criticised Macky Sall to be the lap dog of France. Sonko distinguishes his vision for Senegal as anchored in so-called traditional Senegalese values. One of the cornerstones of this protection of traditional values, is a virulent opposition to the supposed imposition of homosexuality and gender ideology in Senegal. Sonko’s claim to protect Senegalese values aligns with the discourse of moral degradation that Islamic organisations have increasingly been propagating in the public sphere over the past years.

(Anti-)gender ideology
Last week, another protest to the alleged imposition of ‘homosexuality’ (also framed as ‘LGBT propaganda’) was reported in the media. A women’s group organised a conference on gender-based violence at a high school in the city of Tivaouane. The school’s students boycotted the event and decided to march through the city in protest. They found support from the religious leader of the city (Sëriñ Babacar Sy Mansour) who said that he would have never accepted the conference to be organised in his city, should he have been aware of it. The students’ protests echoed on (social) media: the centrality of gender that marked the conference (the banner of the conference had read: ‘tous contre les violences basées sur le genre’ – ‘all against gender-based violence’) was seen as the ‘promotion of LGBT ideology, through the nebulous catch-all concept of ‘gender’’. The fuss about the conference indicates how gender has come to be seen by some as a synonym in disguise for homosexuality. Young critical feminists also see a link between the two, but differently. For them, the current anxiety around homosexuality is only the starting point of a crusade against other human rights, most notably women’s rights. The link that public opinion makes between LGBT rights and abortion rights is indicative of the general anxiety around more rights for women and sexual minorities. The legalisation of medical abortion is currently being debated in the country. For now, abortion remains a criminal offense under all conditions.

‘We will no longer be silent’
The pun that circulates on social media, ‘les féministes sont des fumistes’ (‘feminists are smokers’), reveals the anxiety over the rights and freedoms that women and sexual minorities increasingly claim or exhibit. The play with words works to downplay the feminist cause and depict them as bad, wayward women. Feminists are indeed called all sorts of names. Underneath this surface of insults and ridiculisation lies the fear to lose authority and control over these women who are determined to no longer accept the denigration and violation of their bodies and rights. One of the slogans of the sit-in was ‘dotuñu noppi’ (‘we will no longer be silent’). It is a critical response to the culture of sutura (discretion) that often leaves injustices unspoken about and unpunished. In order to protect the family honour, victims of violence are often silenced. It is also a critical response to the silencing of women’s voices that Aïssatou Sene highlighted in her speech during the sit-in. The decline of sutura was already marked by opponents to women’s and sexual rights, who have abandoned sutura in favour of calling out allegedly indecent behaviour. The amplification that both messages find through (social) media, reveals that an increasingly visible battle will be waged.

Top photo: Senegal’s feminist collective during a protest in Dakar, 3 July 2021. Photo credit: Fatou Warkha Sambe.
Photo left: 
Aïssatou Sene, spokesperson of the feminist collective, speaks to the press during the sit-in. Photo credit: Fatou Warkha Sambe.
Photo right: 
Demonstration ‘Non à l’homosexualité’, organised 23 May 2021 in Dakar.

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