Gender Parity and the Politics of Representation in Senegal

Aissata Tall Sall greets her supporters the caravane. Route de Boone, Dakar, July 27, 2017.

By Emily Riley

Emily Riley’s article, “Politics of Terànga: Gender, Hospitality, and Power in Senegal” appears in the May 2019 issue of PoLAR.

I have seen on this Monday, 28th of January, 2019 many dreams destroyed. Especially those of many young women, whether politically active or not, who saw Ms. Aissata Tall Sall as the most elegant and eloquent, and patriotic of what was to be the Senegalese woman in politics

—Excerpt from an open letter to Aissata Tall Sall from the Twitter account of Fary Ndao,
author and prominent voice on Senegalese politics on social media. January 29, 2019.

A month before the 2019 Presidential elections in Senegal, all forms of media were ablaze with the news that Ms. Aissata Tall Sall—presidential hopeful, member of parliament, and veteran politician of the Socialist party—had decided to back the sitting president Macky Sall for another term. She was known for being a stark opponent of Macky Sall and his agenda since the beginning of his presidency in 2012 and sought to run for president until she was disqualified for lacking the amount of initial support to be a viable candidate. Her political career blossomed within the Socialist party that had governed Senegal from 1960 to year 2000. In 2017 she launched her own party, Osez l’Avenir (Brave the Future) after years of vying for a more central role within the Socialist party.

The media’s reaction to her decision was at times vile, uncivil, and at best, full of disappointment. Her slogan, Oser l’Avenir became a source of ridicule, with headlines saying “Aissata Tall Sall a osé la transhumance” [Aissata Tall Sall dared to switch sides] (Dakar Matin January 28 2019) or Twitter posts rebranding her slogan as “Oser Transhumer” [Dare to Switch Sides]. The word transhumance in English refers most commonly to the migration of sheep to greener pastures, giving an image of following the herd in search of something better. In Ms. Sall’s case, she was accused of abandoning her morals and her values, as well as deceiving her supporters who believed in her movement. There was a great deal of speculation: “Was she pressured by her religious guides and family? Was she bribed? Was she offered a position in the government?” These questions consumed the media for weeks before the election, which took place on February 25th, 2019. During my recent visit to Dakar, my friends and research participants asked if I had heard about what Aissata had done—knowing that I had spent time with her and her campaign during the 2017 parliamentary elections when she launched her movement Oser l’Avenir and consequently won a seat as a result.

Following her decision, which she defended as a professional and calculated choice, she received so much criticism that her female person was put under a gendered microscope. Certainly many men in the history of Senegalese politics have made similar choices to back a once stark opponent or to change parties due to pure ambition. Many perceived her treachery as a sign that women cannot be trusted in politics, that they are unprofessional and incapable of thinking for themselves. Beyond the gendered tropes of “see, I told you women have no place in politics,” there was another narrative, expressed in the epigraph here, that exposed the different burden that women like Aissata bear: the weight of the legacy of women’s fight for equal participation in political decision making, what they refer to in French as parité.

Parité and the Politics of Representation

Aissata is part of a generation of women who have fought for and benefitted from the parité movement. It has not been easy in the face of a patriarchal state and society that is roughly 95 percent Muslim. With the specific backing of the Conseil Sénégalais des Femmes (COSEF) – an organization that began campaigning in 2005 for increased representation of women in elected positions—women lobbied the Senegalese parliament to pass a gender quota law in 2010 mandating the equal representation of men and women (Tripp and Badri 2017). By 2012, the new parliament ushered in 64 female representatives out of 150, bringing the percentage of women in parliament to 42.67 percent (Sarr 2013). Since 2017, the numbers have increased further, and seen three political parties (or movements) headed by women, one of which was Aissata’s party. One of Senegal’s most formidable academic feminists and key stakeholder in the fight for parité, Fatou Sarr Sow, mentioned that perhaps one of the side effects of such a movement was that some women felt they could go it alone and establish their own parties. “Might she have decided that she couldn’t go it alone?”

Part of going it alone meant these women had something to prove. The majority of men I spoke with during field work in 2017 were under the impression that women could not be taken seriously to govern because they are unprofessional in their approach to politics. This point of view arguably stems from the role women have played in post-independence Senegalese politics. Women created lively entertainment during political rallies and, with their networks of women-dominated associations, served as male politicians’ jigeen (women) to help bolster his base. It seems as though men thought women were incapable of doing politics like, well, men. Therefore, women campaigning for a seat in parliament, let alone for president, pined for a new image, one that played to a kind of feminine figure that was polite (yaru), brave (am-fit) yet submissive (nangu), prideful (jom), and who has charisma (fulla). Another parliamentarian with whom I spent time on the campaign trail had co-opted the word jom into her personal slogan. What I argue here is inspired by Judith Butler’s (1999) assertion that a “premature insistence on a stable subject of feminism, understood as a seamless category of women” reveals instead, a stringent coercion to abide by these categories even if their “construction has been elaborated for emancipatory purposes” (7). Moreover, establishing one’s political campaign on a message of distinctly feminine identities in order to argue for a woman’s place in political office disallows female politicians from creating a political identity based on anything other than these feminine ideals. And in the case of Aissata Tall Sall, her decision to back the president Macky Sall’s campaign felt to many not just as an abandonment to her party, but as a defeat for the women’s movement for equal political representation in general.

“It is time that a woman emerges”

 I spent the campaign season for the 2017 parliamentary elections either in packed campaign strategy meetings, a cramped car in a caravan touring the city, or running alongside the slow-moving car of a candidate waving to adoring fans. They were long days traveling around the country, meeting with supporters, paying visits to local religious leaders and members of the local political class. One candidate I followed along these paths was Aissata Tall Sall. Her party, Osez l’Avenir, or Brave the Future, had the symbolism of the women’s movement that gave birth to the parité law, written all over it. In the months leading to the election, Aissata had a meeting with select supporters to gather their thoughts as to whether they should join another coalition of parties and individuals, or if they should go it alone. Men and women gave testimonials about Aissata, saying she was a “woman of value” and a “woman of quality”. One man said she was a “sellable product” given that she was seen by the public as “jigeen ju mëna goor”, or a woman who could pass as a man. This did not mean a woman who looked or acted like a man per say, rather a woman who displayed an ability to conduct herself in politics the way a man would, if not better. Others said “it is time that a woman emerges so that we may do politics in a new way.”

During the caravans that toured from city to city, everywhere we went we heard chanting of “Osez, Osez, Osez.” A large truck with speakers and an MC repeated phrases such as “Aissata, sunu yaay, une dame de fer, ku mëna oser” [Aissata, our mother, is a brave woman, a woman made of iron and who is brave] as they passed into new neighborhoods. When we stopped at a key point where supporters were lined up holding signs with Aissata’s portrait and her party slogan, the neighborhood representative for the party gave a speech to rile up the crowd. They emphasized Aissata’s character and how much she would help women once in office. “Dafa am personnalité” [she has character] they shouted, continuing to speak to her qualities as a woman and the advantages of having a woman lead the party. Throughout the campaign it became obvious that many parties employed a discourse of being the “female-friendly” party fighting for women’s rights. Male-led parties were using the second on the list, a woman, as a sign of their progressive ideas, implying that having a woman on the ballot (even though it was mandated) showed their respect for women.

During the meeting where Aissata initially explored forming her own party, one woman stood up and said this was the first political meeting she had ever been to because all other parties had disappointed her. “Dama am yakaar ci Aissata, loolu moo ma fi indi…waaye [speaking directly to Aissata] soo andee ak yeneen partie yi du ma la topp.” [I believe in Aissata, that is the only reason I am here. But, (speaking to Aissata) if you go with these other parties, I will not follow you.] Fast forward to January of 2019, similar tweets expressed the faith that was crushed by Aissata’s decision to go with Macky Sall. Women who had seen her as an inspiration felt betrayed, and others saw it as a sign of the failed experiment of women in politics. A young Twitter user responded to Fary Ndao’s letter of deception by saying “What a waste to have had confidence and love in a Senegalese woman in politics. Something I will regret for the rest of my life.”

Dr. Emily Riley is an Assistant Professor of African Studies at El Colegio de México. She received her doctorate in anthropology from Michigan State University. She specializes in African Studies, political and legal anthropology, as well as the anthropology of religion and gender. As a Fulbright-Hays fellow, she conducted doctoral research in Senegal to investigate the concept of terànga – the Wolof word which encapsulates the generous and civic-minded qualities of individuals – as practiced by women in politics, as pursuits of piety, and social obligations. Her newly published article with PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review is entitled “Politics of Terànga: Gender, Hospitality, and Power in Senegal” and focuses on the cultural and political strategies of women in politics in Senegal.


Butler, Judith. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1st ed. Routledge.

Sarr, Fatou. 2013. Les Premières Heritières de la Loi sur la Parité. Laboratoire Genre et Recherche Scientifique de IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop.

Tripp, Aili Mari and Balghis Badri. 2017. “African Influences on Global Women’s Rights: An Overview” In Women’s Activism in Africa. Badri, Balghis, and Aili Mari Tripp, eds. Zed Books.


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