Marriage in Displacement

Several readers have been requesting a post on marriage and immigration. I would like to start a series on the topic based on this episode of the talk show Thiowli Thiowli, which airs on the Senegalese television channel 2S TV. For my non-Wolof-speaking readers, Thiowli Thiowli is a term that means: the buzz, or the talk of the town, for lack of a better English translation. This show addresses all kinds of issues within contemporary Senegalese society and its diaspora. This episode was on the topic of marriage and immigration and heavily focuses on Senegalese immigrants in Italy. However, I think the points raised can be applied to Senegalese immigrants in the US.

As it is obvious, the conversation is between a panel of men and a panel of women. The younger-looking men are Senegalese immigrants in Italy, and the older gentleman in yellow, is a culture authority who serves as the national master of ceremony for wrestling events. The woman in blue―who seems to monopolize the microphone —is an immigrant in Italy, and the lady in the middle was married to a Senegalese immigrant for eight years and stayed in Senegal to wait for him. Later, she found out that her husband was with another woman and she decided to divorce him. The older woman in brown has sons who live with their wives in Italy.

The men are claiming that when Senegalese women are taken to Europe (or America), as wives, they end up changing by adopting behaviors that are not culturally Senegalese. They claim that Senegalese immigrant women are often in pursuit of material gain and neglect their roles as wives. They do not cook every day, are not often available for sex, and build houses in Senegal without their husbands’ knowledge. On the other hand, the women are accusing the men of neglecting their financial duties, going outside the marriage, and expecting too much of their wives.

In this conversation, it is apparent that the parties do not speak on the same level of understanding of what it means to be married. One can see that the men are claiming a privilege that the Senegalese culture seemingly bestowed on them, to which their wives are expected to cater to. On the other hand, the women are speaking about being humans with rights and aspirations that should not be smothered by marriage.

I think the main issue is in the understanding of the concept sëy. The Wolof word sëy has several meanings based on how it is used in a sentence. It can be a noun as in sëy bi [the marriage], it can also be an active verb sëy na [she has married] yaay sëy [you are the one who is married, or you are the one who in engaged in the practice (or even business) of marriage]. Used as an active verb, it can also mean to have sexual intercourse. For this post, we will focus on the first two meanings. When used as an active verb in this conversation, it is understood as the practice or business of being married, and is readily accepted by both parties as something that only women engage in: “You bring a wife for her to engage in the practice of marriage for you.” “You have a husband and your only desire is to beautifully engage in the practice of marriage for him.” This understanding of sëy as something that only women should do, was brought about by virilocality, the practice of having a wife leave her family to go and live at her husband’s family home or compound. Because of this physical displacement, it is understood that a woman who has taken a dowry and joined a man, is coming to complete a service, therefore, dafa sëysi [She has come to engage in the practice/business of being married].

By definition, the practice of being married for women isn’t just limited to taking care of a husband, obeying him, never talking back to him, keeping a household, making and taking care of children, etc. It also entails knowing how to negotiate with in-laws, his friends and everyone else who is near or remotely associated with the husband. It also involves putting the husband’s needs as the priority in one’s life by foregoing every aspiration should they be a deterrent to making a husband happy. It is understood as something that a woman is practicing and aims to master in order to acquire the ultimate title of sëykat or a master in the art of being married. In Senegal, when a woman is designated as sëykat, one can infer that she has put the needs of her husband and his family as the priority in everything she does or says by being completely devoted to earning their praise and validation. She has suffered all kinds of mistreatment because it is believed that the woman who is a sëykat, would have successful children, therefore a mother’s sacrifice becomes a reward for her children as in the Wolof proverb liggeeyu ndey aňup doom [A mother’s work is lunch for her child], meaning that by working hard in the practice of sëy, a mother guarantees her children a prosperous and dignified future.

Because of this notion that wives are those who should engage in the practice of being married, many women whose husbands are abroad are sent to their in-laws’ homes as tokens. Some wait for years and contribute considerable labor, often without much financial benefits because the family-in-law controls everything the husband sends. The lucky ones might join their husbands after long periods of waiting, but many end up divorcing and starting life from scratch after having sacrificed years for the benefit of their families-in-law. These women often had given up an education, or a job, to wait for a husband who might never come back to Senegal.

The recurrent complain on the side of the men is that they left a brother or an uncle and instead, spent money taking their wives abroad. This implies that in their understanding of the political economy of immigration, the position of a wife and that of a brother or an uncle are interchangeable, and in this case the latter is more beneficial because a brother or an uncle would work to enrich the family as the show’s host points out, while the wife who did not abide by the husband’s expectations is a wasted investment because she is working to enrich herself and her own family. The way the men talk about it, women should be thankful to their husbands for bringing them abroad when they could have taken so many other family members, as the man in the brown outfit says: “The one who brought you abroad, you do not have his payback.” This rhetoric suggests that husbands do their wives a favor by allowing them to go abroad, and by virtue of that whatever the wife earns should belong to the husband, as in the proverb: “A hen and its eggs both belong to the owner of the hen.”

This conversation overlooks several points. Not all immigrant women were brought abroad by husbands. The trend in immigration has shifted and more and more women are initiating their own exile, looking for better economic opportunities, just like men. Several met or brought their husbands abroad. It is unfair to expect such a woman to renounce her career or professional goals (unless it was her own choice) in order to exclusively keep a home.

When women leave Senegal, whether to join a husband or on their own, they have the same financial obligations (if not more) as male immigrants do. Even if their husbands are helping, it is likely not enough to fulfill the demands at home. While both male and female immigrants send remittances regularly for the upkeep of their families, women are often the ones who continue to contribute money for other family transactions that men often find futile such as sukaru koor, ndawtal, ndeyale, turandoo, diaxal and all other kinds of teranga that both their families and in-laws expect them to fulfill. Most immigrant women do not indulge these requests because they are more generous or enjoy spending money on trifles. They do it because unlike the men, they are more likely to be criticized for having overlooked these cultural courtesies.

Another important point that is not brought up in this conversation is that most Senegalese households (at least in urban areas) have maids to help with household chores. Wives who work outside the home rely on other underpaid women to keep their homes, and these maids are often paid by the husband. In Europe and in America, no one can afford such luxury and immigrant women do everything by themselves on top of working outside the home.

However, in this debate, it looks like each party wants it both ways, as the French would say, ils veulent le beurre et l’argent du beurre. They want the butter and the money for the butter. As the man in brown says: If you join a husband and instead of staying home and taking care of the family, you want to work outside, you must then contribute financially.” I agree with him because some women want to work outside the home and earn income, yet, they do not want to contribute financially. They want to live by the marriage expectations in Senegal which make the man the sole bread winner and the one who should be financially responsible for all the expenses. But the men also do want their cake and eat it. They want financial help from their wives who work outside the home, yet, they also want the wives to be in charge of all household chores, cook fresh meals every day. I think the issue is that among immigrants, both men and women, dreams of home and longing for the perfect life they could have had in Senegal, make them expect a lot more from each other.

My next post will be on the term “Jëkër sang la.” [A husband is a master.]

I look forward to your comments.


Senamericanly yours


One thought on “Marriage in Displacement”

  1. Great post, Marame! I so wish these people could walk in our shoes if just for a day and see what we go through….
    I have so much to say about this that it would turn into an essay if I were to start writing. 🙂
    Great job as always!

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