Life as Rivals

Halimatou Gadji © Christian Bobst
In Senegal, almost half of the wives share their spouse with someone else. Polygamy drives many (including men) to despair, but some women even find it liberating

She sits on the sofa, serene as a queen. At her feet, assistants lay cables, the lighting man steps on the sound man’s foot. A make-up artist brushes powder on Khalima Gadji’s fine face. In a moment, the actress will transform into the beautiful Marème, collapse on the sofa in front of her aunt and sob: „I’m so exhausted. A newlywed should be happy, right?“ Gadji, 29, stars in the TV series Mistress of a Married Man. As second wife Marème, she suffers from her third-wife marriage and cries her way through the episodes.

Khalima Gadji, however, smiles and her eyelashes lift like butterflies. „If I found a man, I would push him to take a second wife. I prefer that to him making out with others left and right,“ she says on the film set in the capital Dakar. A woman should not be selfish. She cannot fulfil all a man’s needs: „I am not a housewife. I work and travel, earn my own money, my art is important to me. My body is not made to have five or six children.“ She said her future husband should please look for that in another woman.

Khalima Gadji talks herself into a groove: „My well-being does not depend on a man. I have a daughter, I scuba dive, I box, I want to teach acting and I want to learn skydiving.“ Gadji sees polygamy as a form of marriage that allows her independence – and a good choice for a modern woman.

For her film character, however, it is a drama. The series shows the suffering of polygamy on an epic scale. In Senegal, it is loved and hated. Viewers root for her like football fans, sticking by first wife Lala or supporting Marème. Within one day, an episode on Youtube generates more than a million clicks. This is because the material is taken from real life: In the West African country, one third of married people live in polygamous marriages.

The series makers based the conception of their characters on the protocols of psychologists, and their stories come quite close to reality. The plot is quickly told: Marème falls in love with a married man who takes her as a second wife. But the marriage does not bring her happiness: her husband’s first wife sinks into depression because of her rival and ends up in a psychiatric ward. Marème hardly ever sees her husband, who is now plagued by conscience, and when she does, they argue.

Muslim associations are up in arms against the programme. Ninety-five per cent of the 16 million inhabitants are Muslims: Jamra, an organisation whose mission is to fight „social plagues“, demonised the series as pornography and filed a complaint. The moral guardians are particularly offended by a scene in which Marème points to her crotch and says: „This is my thing. And I give it to whoever I want.“

When I moved to Senegal two years ago, I often wondered why women were willing to marry polygamously in the first place. In my mind, polygamy didn’t want to fit in with the strong confident women I met everywhere. At first glance, Senegal seems more liberal than other Muslim countries, for example in North Africa. Women are very present in economic and political life. Many women wear headscarves, many dress sexy.

But over time, it became clear to me that this is not the only sign of a more liberal lifestyle in Senegal. Being desirable is also a weapon in the fight for the husband’s favour. Because women in polygamous marriages often feel under pressure to outdo their rivals. Even curses from professional sorcerers are used when desperation grows. Even the men pay a price. So who suffers, who benefits in a polygamous marriage? And: Can strong women like the actress Khalima Gadji subvert the patriarchal system and use it for more freedom?

In the 1960s, scientists had predicted the imminent end of polygamy in Senegal – urbanisation, better schooling for women, the influence of Western values, all this seemed to speak in favour of the nuclear family. The first president, Leopold Senghor, would have preferred to abolish polygamy after the country’s independence in 1960. For him, the poet and Catholic, it was difficult to reconcile with a modern state. He forbade his ministers and professors to live polygamously. He could not get his way. The family law passed in 1972 combines secular elements with the traditional Islamic understanding of law of the Wolof, the largest ethnic group in Senegal. And although the family law triggers fierce debates between ultra-religious and feminists, there is no serious attempt to abolish polygamy – even though, thanks to a parity law, 42 percent of the members of parliament are female. In Senegal, the bride and groom must specify at the registry office when they marry whether they want to live monogamously or polygamously. If the partners disagree on this issue, the marriage is not consummated. Once the woman has agreed to polygamy, she cannot intervene if the man takes a second, third or fourth wife.

„Marry what seems good to you in wives, two, three or four. But if you fear not to act justly, then (only) one,“ the Prophet is reported to have said. 35.2 percent of married people in Senegal live polygamously. This is a very high number in international comparison. Polygamy is permitted in many Muslim states, but in North Africa, Arabia or South-East Asia, no more than five percent of married couples live polygamously. Polygamy, on the other hand, is particularly widespread in West Africa. It is much older here than Islam, which merely re-legitimised it and limited the number of permitted wives to four.

Polygamy is a social contract that focuses on a man’s sexuality, status and retirement. It is part of a patriarchal culture.

Contrary to what scholars had predicted, polygamy declined much less rapidly. While in 1976 almost 52 percent of women lived in polygamous marriages, today it is still 44 percent. I had expected that women who had a hard time on the marriage market, poorer, less educated rural women, widows and divorcees, would opt for polygamy. But to my surprise, friends also said they could imagine becoming second wives. Young, educated, modern women with good jobs who see themselves as emancipated. For example, the marketing expert Codou Séne, 28, pretty, smart, charming, idolised. „With us, a man expects you to take care of him from morning till night,“ she says. „If you’re the second wife, at least you have a little freedom.“ In the popular imagination, the second wife is the younger and more popular one (although this is not always the case), few men can afford a third or fourth wife.

Statistics confirm the impression: it is precisely the women whom scientists least expected who choose polygamy. Although there are no surveys on the marriage preference of unmarried people, according to the National Agency for Statistics and Demography, 39.8 percent of married people in rural areas live polygamously, and 29.1 percent of urban dwellers. Just under half of women with no schooling are polygamously married, but so are nearly a quarter of women with higher levels of education.

About a year ago, a friend added me to a What s App group called „Astuces entre Femmes“, „Tricks among Women“. About a hundred women exchange there about cuisine, beauty, feelings, sexuality. My friend says there are many groups like this. Hundreds of messages came in every day, my phone buzzed constantly. Women completely unknown to me described their most intimate problems, others gave advice. Wellness, beauty, seduction, religion, wisdom, natural cosmetics and magic came together in a dazzling mosaic. Most of the women in the chat seemed to be working, there were singles, polygamously and monogamously married, divorcees and mistresses, Muslims and Christians. A support group in a cultural space where few go to a therapist.

The women discussed a variety of problems and yet one theme ran through all the conversations: fear of the Other. Sometimes it seemed to actually exist. At others, it was only a spectre. The man’s infidelity seemed to be a fact of life for the women, unavoidable like a force of nature. Most advice was aimed at averting the inevitable. Put a raw egg on the road and let a car drive over it, he won’t take another. Put on different coloured panties every day. Bleach your skin, paint your nails. Eat a menthol candy before orally pleasuring him. Ignore the first, the second, the third mistress. Smile. It sounded as if the man was a precious gem and his affections as fragile as a raw egg. Whenever he stepped outside the door, he could be snatched up by another from the army of perfectly made-up, seductive women. To keep up, women seek the help of a professional.

Mboro, a pretty little town by the sea. Sand crunches underfoot, passers-by stroll by, no one seems to be in a hurry. Two women in headscarves enter a house that almost every woman here knows: the wives of the mayor and the imam, for example, nurses and midwives, they are all Kadia Dia’s customers. Because seduction is her profession.

Dias, 38, is a woman of gentle motherliness, she wears her curves with grace, an ideal of beauty that is called Diriyanké in Senegal. The customers drop onto the bed, which also serves as a sales counter. They laugh and chat while Kadia Dias presents her treasures to them. They feel scarves that flatter the curves, smell the perfumes that are supposed to turn a man’s head. Let the binbins slide through their fingers, colourful strings of beads that women wear around their hips to hypnotise their lovers with the click. Examine roots made into tea, said to constrict the vagina, and with a spell, to inflame a man into love. Every month, Dias goes to Dakar to select her wares. There is powder that is supposed to make the buttocks rounder and the breasts bigger, love baths, negligees, perfume in half-litre bottles whose spray head resembles window cleaner.

Sometimes mothers bring their daughters over so that Dias can teach them the art of jongué. This is the name of the Senegalese art of seduction. It includes the gift of gently rolling one’s hips while walking. Being a virtuous Muslim and an exciting woman at the same time. And keeping one’s composure. „No matter how much you suffer, never let your rival feel how close the competition is to you,“ Dias advises women.

On her bed sheet are the words „Mon Roi, Mon Amour“, „my king, my love.“ Above it hangs a photo of the man Dias shares with another. She lives in polygamy like most of her clients. „Unless you are your husband’s only wife,“ she says, „you would never dare to receive him without the whole seduction programme. After all, we are always in competition for his favour.“

When Dias looks out her window across the small courtyard, she is looking directly at the window of her rival, her husband’s second wife. „The competition,“ she says, „extends to all aspects of life.“ Who is prettier, who cooks better, who has more successful children? Who does the extended family favour? „You are married to all your husband’s relatives and are under constant scrutiny. You have to be nice to everyone, even the sheep and the chickens. If you don’t give them enough to eat, they immediately say: you are a bad wife.“

There are no surveys on the attitudes of polygamously married women; the three women on the bed all agree that the constant competition annoys them. Many others confirm this too. Some hate it. One of Kadia’s clients is missing a piece of her nose, bitten off by a rival in a fit of jealousy. The newspapers keep reporting excesses of violence. Mariama Bâ immortalised the pain of a rejected first wife in her epistolary novel „Une si longue lettre“, a classic of Senegalese literature. „Women in polygamous marriages often suffer from permanent anxiety,“ says psychologist Pape Ladické Diouf, who advised the makers of the series „Mistress of a Married Man“ „Many remain in a state of uncertainty about their relationship. They live in constant fear of being bewitched by their rivals.“ There are no surveys on this either, but two sorcerers I interview say that polygamous women were among their most important clients. „Those who are not their husband’s favourites often suffer sexual frustration,“ says Diouf.

Few women seem to find the constant competition inspiring. Awa Sow, 30, for example. In the small town of Rufisque, she leads the way into a shell of a building. Nothing hints at the palace of seduction she will enter as soon as she unlocks the door to her room. Red, yellow, green and blue lanterns illuminate a huge bed, gilded ceramic swans crowd next to a fountain that erupts every few seconds. It flashes, glows and shimmers, an amber room of Chinese plastic. Since her husband took a second wife last year after 13 years of marriage, Awa has been doing everything she can to become even more seductive. „It spurred me on.“ She goes to the hairdresser and the nail salon, she buys a new negligee every week. She says she finds herself more beautiful now than before. And she says a phrase you might hear in an ad for diet butter or body lotion: „I like my new self.“

Awa Sow (Photo: Christian Bobst)

And how are the men? I met quite a few in Senegal who I found hard to imagine cheating on their wives or taking a second wife. Others spoke openly about it. What seemed decisive to me was that many women firmly believed in it. „Women in Senegal will do anything to make sure their husbands don’t take second wives,“ said one acquaintance. „But you can put a man in a honey pot and he will still look for sugar somewhere else“. Once a man lives in polygamy, each of his wives will flatter him, do everything to be his favourite wife. He is a prince, bedded in silk wherever he goes. But – is that true?

Rufisque, a small town just outside the capital Dakar. Ousmane Ousso, 42, enters the studio of the online channel Rio TV on the top floor of a high-rise building. The view goes far over a sea of unplastered houses, horse-drawn carriages pass by, plastic bags dance across the sandy floor. In the distance, the skyscraper facades of the capital gleam. As always, Ousmane wears flowing white. There are thick rings on his fingers, his wrist is adorned with a gold watch with several dials; only if you stand very close to him can you see that some of the hands are defective. Ousmane is a religious singer, he praises the beauty of Allah and the Koran. Several times a week he speaks on Rio TV about the faithful life. Today he will discuss marriage. He puts a menthol candy in his mouth and begins the sound check: „Allah, Allah, Allah“. Then he gets going. Thundering, admonishing, cajoling. The man, says Ousmane, has to bear all the costs and satisfy the woman sexually. The woman, he lectures, should not make trouble for it. „No scenes. She should ask his permission when she goes out. She should not control him or what he does.“

Such a woman, he says later, is an „understanding woman“. And by that he means „a submissive woman“. Like the Senegalese saint Mama Diarra, to whom her husband put a stick in her hand and said: hold. When he got up in the morning after a rainy night, and looked outside, his wife was still standing there with the stick in her hand. „Why are you standing there?“ he asked. And she replied, „Because you told me to.“ A woman, says Ousmane, must do what she is told „to receive the grace of God and benefit financially.“

There was a time when it was different. There, the man did not have to pay. For a long time, ethnologists have puzzled over why polygamy was able to spread so widely in West Africa in particular. Most believe it was due to a labour-intensive form of agriculture in which many family members meant many workers – and women did much of the work. Thus, polygamy was financially rewarding for the man, and it also enabled him to forge political and social alliances and maximise the number of his offspring. Above all, it gave him prestige.

When the first Europeans arrived in West Africa, they were appalled by polygamy. Missionaries tried to eradicate it. In Senegal, the French colonial rulers failed with their assimilation policy; they lacked money and personnel. They sought indirect rule and made use of the Muslim brotherhoods. They passed on the orders of the French, who in return gave the brotherhoods a share in the revenues of the colonial economy and granted them extensive cultural and religious autonomy – and thus also polygamy.

Contrary to what many men claim, polygamy does not exist because there are more women than men in Senegal – there are roughly equal numbers of boys and girls born everywhere. It exists because older men marry younger women. When a population grows rapidly, each new generation is bigger than the one before. So there are more younger people than older people. When older men marry younger women, this gives them more choice. For a polygamous society to work, women must marry as early as possible and remarry quickly if they are divorced or widowed. No matter what professional status a woman attains, in the eyes of society she only gets her prestige through marriage. In Wolof, the most spoken language in Senegal, the word „divorced“ also means „prostitute.“ Whether on the radio or television, at home or on the street, time and again an unattached woman will hear that she finally has to get married.

Whereas a man used to be able to profit from the work of his wives and children, today he has to finance them. This is expensive, especially in the cities. Demanding city women often refuse to share a house with their rival. A flat for each woman, care for the children, that can cost a fortune in a country where the average annual income is 1300 euros. That is why polygamous men consider themselves responsible. Wouldn’t men in the West also have mistresses? Ask them. Don’t they father illegitimate children with them? We, many say, at least take decent care of our wives and children.

Choosing monogamy at the registry office, says Ousmane, is „a sign of weakness“, something the family might make fun of. Some men choose polygamy even though they really only want to marry one woman. Otherwise she might dance on their heads, they fear. Polygamy can also be a means of pressure if the first wife does not behave as one wants. But what if the second one doesn’t do what you want either?

The day before, Ousmane had an argument with his second wife Amiyel Dia, 39, the sister of Kadia Dias.

Amiyel Dia, 39, is waiting in her flat. In her hands she holds a paper handkerchief, which she folds into smaller and smaller rectangles, her fingers running irritably over the edges as if she would like to tear it to pieces. In a moment, Ousmane will walk in the door and she will hurl at him the anger that has been building up inside her for months. She can still remember how Ousmane once approached her in the shared taxi. He asked what time it was, praised her complexion, then got down to business. „I am looking for a second wife because my first wife is bad.“ Dia declined with thanks – and later married him after all. In the few months of their marriage, however, she hardly saw him.How often he promised her that he would come to her. And she cleaned and cooked, put on cream and make-up. But the door stayed shut, the food got cold, the make-up smeared under her tears. And the day after, Dia went to a faith healer again to be prescribed another miracle cure. Magical baths, spells, teas, so that Ousmane would fall for her for good. But the miracle fails to materialise. Sometimes Ousmane spends three weeks at a time with his first wife Amikolé Samb, 29, and when he comes to see her, she says, he is in a bad mood, starts arguing about every little thing, and sexually nothing is going well either. Probably, says Amiyel, Ousmane only married her to discipline his first wife. „For sure,“ she says, „she bewitched him.“

Ousmane walks in the door. Amiyel’s fingers fold increasingly angry rectangles, Ousmane shoves one menthol candy after another into his mouth as the marital dispute escalates. He should finally treat his wives fairly, Dia shouts, just as the prophet demands. Ousmane counters that justice is not equality. „After all, you don’t give women with different sized feet the same size shoes.“ Dia grabs Ousmane’s smartphone to go through his Facebook account. She threatens divorce, he storms out the door.

The next day, Amiyel has forgotten about the divorce. She says she loves Ousmane and wants a child. And what would people say about a woman divorced twice? Instead, she visits the faith healer Haruna Sow, 80, and gets a prescription for a magic love hip band. She calls her sister Kadia in Mboro and orders new weapons of seduction.

Meanwhile, Ousmane goes to his first wife Amikolé, who exudes serene self-confidence. She waits until Ousmane has gone out, then asks, „Submissive?“ and laughs with pleasure. „Most women aren’t. The modern ones even less so.“ She has known her husband for 14 years, „I could write a book about him.“ She says she knows that married women slip him notes with their numbers after his performances. „He can marry three or four women, it won’t change anything for me. The main thing is that my financial situation is stable.“ She seems at peace with herself. „If the other one wants to play, I’ll play along. With calmness and a lot of patience.“ And a bit you get the impression she could say exactly the same about Ousmane.

Amikolé Samb (Photo: Christian Bobst)

After the broadcast, Ousmane had stepped out onto the studio balcony. He had looked into the distance and suddenly looked very tired. „With understanding women, happiness could be achieved in polygamy. But where are there such women these days?“ He had sighed, „Instead, jealousies, dramas, blasphemies and the witchcraft.“

Some of the polygamous men approach the choice of wife strategically („the first for feeling, the second for beauty, the third is a good businesswoman“) others marry out of a sense of responsibility, for example to provide for a related widow, some are simply in love. The sentence „You have to be born for polygamy“ is often heard. But that is probably not everyone. Psychologist Pape Ladické Diouf says some men suffer pressure to perform in a polygamous arrangement. „Every woman expects that special moment when her husband comes to her. After all, she has been waiting for him. For some, the stress creates impotence, which can lead to depression and poor self-image.“

Law student Woppa Diallo, 25, a small woman of quiet determination, has radically decided not to marry at all unless marriage is in line with her principles. „I don’t want to be an object or a subordinate.“ A daughter-in-law, Diallo says, must do everything for her family-in-law. „You are the gardener, the electrician, the plumber, the servant for everything.“ She has a boyfriend, but she doesn’t know yet if she wants to marry him. And because Diallo is originally from Matam, a very conservative region on the border with Mauritania, she is paying a high price for her decision. „Every time I come back home, my grandmother beats her hands over her head. She is desperate. My aunts say: oh dear, she won’t have children. She is getting old. It is over. In Matam, Diallo says, not being married at 15 is a scandal, „at 25 it’s a super scandal“. The pressure is great, she has to justify herself all the time. Whether on the bus, in the shop at the market, the question always comes up: Madame or Mademoiselle?

Because she doesn’t want to be dictated to by anyone, Woppa Diallo finances her law studies in Dakar herself. She works in a call centre, at the cash register, in a restaurant, and also runs a non-governmental organisation that looks after the rights and education of girls in Matam. There, girls are often married off at the age of twelve. 87 percent of women in this region are genitally mutilated, 25 percent nationwide. Although this practice has been banned in Senegal since 1999. „They say an uncircumcised woman will not be a good housewife. Not fertile. And not pure.“ No one minds if the woman can’t feel pleasure after the procedure, Diallo says. „Sex is not for women here in Matam anyway. There is no foreplay. Sex is for the man.“

She was also circumcised against her parents‘ wishes when she was 13, which has made her a staunch feminist. A Muslim feminist. She comes from a very religious family, attended a Koran school for a long time, she can read and write the Koran in Arabic. „The Koran says that men must protect and respect women,“ she says. It also says that men should treat their wives fairly. „And what man can do that?“ Diallo therefore believes that the Koran is basically against polygamy. „The only mistake we women made was that we did not inform ourselves. We let the men read the Quran for us. And they fooled us, they interpreted it in their way.“ But, she says, women can change society. Who if not they? „We educate the sons and daughters. We shape the future. Nobody helps us anyway.“

Published in Geo 12/2019, translated by deepl