I’ve been spending a lot of time with Mauritanian women lately. In Moorish culture, life can be seen as consisting of a male sphere and a female sphere. The two overlap, of course, but women generally spend their time with other women. Since the women here speak no French whatsoever, its been hard for me to break into the female sphere. I hang out with them, but only recently have I been able to talk about anything other than where I’m from, what I’m doing here (in extremely basic terms), and whether or not I’m married. Also, there’s the fact that, on a personal level, I can relate more with the men. Luckily, I’m kind of an honorary man here, but it makes it even harder to figure out how I should behave in certain situations.
I wrote a little before about the female preoccupation with marriage, but I oversimplified it. It’s not just a question of money, of course. When I wrote that, I assumed that women here would want to pursue other life paths if given the opportunity. I was trying to understand Mauritanian culture through the lens of my experience as an American woman who values independence and self-sufficiency. Mauritanian values are dictated by religion, and here, it seems, marriage is a value in and of itself. I was talking (through a male teacher who was translating for us) with a female teacher about the goals of my program. I explained that I want to encourage girls to complete their education and to provide them with the ideas and skills to make more informed decisions about their futures. Of course, marriage came up, as it’s one of the major reasons why girls drop out of school. The woman wasn’t married, and I was thinking, great, here is a woman who sees the value in pursuing a life independent of a man and a family. Wrong. Even she thinks marriage is more important than being able to support herself (which she probably sees as a burden).
I’m going to have to adjust my motivations for working in the GEE sector. It’s going to be difficult (if not impossible) to change this mentality. This is a society that doesn’t believe in birth control because however many children they wind up having is god’s will (as is pretty much everything else that happens here, which explains the apathy to the political situation). I know there are a few women who do practice birth control, but its very secretive. It’s going to take a while before I have the cultural knowledge to be able to advocate things like family planning. In terms of encouraging girls to become active in the public sphere (to the extent that it exists, which is very little, outside of the bigger cities), I have to accept that marriage and family take priority over everything else. Basically, I have to reconcile my goals (and western ideals) with the Mauritanian system of values. Which I always knew I was going to have to do, I’m just starting to realize exactly how that’s going to affect my agenda.
For a while, at least, I’m going to have to focus on things that can improve their quality of life as it is, like health precautions (hygiene, nutrition, vaccinations) and general education. I get frustrated when people push me for lessons in English and computers, when, really, those things aren’t going to have much of an impact. Who cares if a handful of women in a village of a thousand people 40 kilometers from a city that is minimally connected to the world at large can speak some basic phrases in English? Most of them will never leave Ain, and if they do, more than likely it’ll be because they marry someone from another village. On the other hand, I value education as a goal in and of itself, and even if I only get through to one girl at a fundamental level, she’ll be able to apply those new values in the way she raises her own family. It’s a painfully slow process, this development thing. And it’s so much more than convincing girls to go to school. The economic and political situation of this country are shaky, at best. Even men with an education can do very little with it here.
Mauritanians realize that they’re without, but they‘re generally happy. I have yet to discover what they think is the cause of their disadvantage. Religion seems to be the under-lying obstacle for my sector, but how can I presume to say that something is fundamentally wrong with the way they’re living their lives? Who’s to say that one system of values is better than another? Children aren’t dying of starvation here. No one is homeless. Gun violence and drug addiction are unheard of. Every society has it’s problems, and the best I can do is help them solve those they perceive in their own society without passing judgment, and hopefully introduce some new ideas along the way.