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Praise Song for the Good Woman : Islam and Gender in a Famous Senegalese Poem

Chant à la mémoire de la Femme Vertueuse, Islam et relations hommes-femmes dans un célèbre poème sénégalais
Marame Gueye
p. 51-61


The poem “Fatou Gaye” has been circulating in Senegal for three decades. Despite its fame, not much attention has been paid to its message and the implications it has in the politics of gender in Senegal. Composed by Eladji Gaye as a eulogy to his wife Fatou Gaye, the poem is both panegyric and sexist. While singing the praises of his wife, Gaye at the same time advocates the subordination of women based on his understanding of Islam. It this paper I look at how Gaye's line of thinking is a misreading of the Koran and shows how men have utilized the holy text in order to justify their sexism. However, the text contradicts Gaye's claim of male superiority by portraying Fatou as the backbone of the family and consequently the one with agency.

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Index terms

Mots-clés :

Sénégal, poèmes, genre, Islam

Keywords :

Senegal, poems, gender, Islam
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Full text

Wherever one sings Fatou's praise one would recognize the good women.
They would say: “Let us worship our husbands much more and try to emulate those who were good”.
(Fatou Gaye, lines 154-155)

1The lines above, taken from a famous Wolof poem from Senegal, epitomize gender disparity within marriage based on Islam and speak to how the religion is used to subordinate women within matrimony in West African Muslim households. This poem that I deliberately titled “Fatou Gaye” (The woman in whose honor it was composed) has been circulating in Senegal for at least three decades. It has been playing on radio stations and music stalls at the market ever since I can remember. Its fame derives mainly from the fact that it is composed and performed in a Wolof that most Senegalese people consider authentic and uncorrupted by the French language. Despite the poem's popularity, not much has been done to study it. Composed by a man named Eladji Gaye in honor of his deceased wife, Fatou Gaye, the poem is a praise song for Fatou who, according to the text, was an extraordinary woman. While celebrating his wife's incomparable virtues, Eladji Gaye exalts a patriarchal understanding of gender relations in Wolof society that advocates women's submission to their husbands and portrays the latter as the one who holds the keys of heaven. Gaye's poem is as panegyric as it is sexist. His laudatory tone is coupled with a chauvinist ideology that sets out to advocate that women should be second class citizens. This belief, as laid out in his text, is deeply rooted in the Wolof s mis/interpretation of the Koran. By looking at the poem's message, I argue that such an oral text is a site for the exploration of the perceptions of gender within Wolof society and that, factors such as the islamization of the Wolof have created a different understanding of men and women's role in marriage and in that process polarized the subordination of women. However, despite the fact that women like Fatou are oppressed based on a religious ideology, they nevertheless exalt an inner strength that positions them as the pillars of every household.

  • 1 During a research trip to Senegal in fall 2007, I came across an interview with the author done by (...)
  • 2 This is a concern he mentioned in his interview with Eladji Mada Seek.

2Fatou Gaye's praise song apparently emerged in Senegal in the 1970s and stormed radio stations right away. For a long time, people, especially women, thought that the poem was not from an individual author who was celebrating his wife. Because of its call for women to be submissive to their husbands, they thought that it was a text strategically published in order to set an example for women. The controversy about authorship was also due to the fact that Eladji Gaye who composed it was not the one who read it on tape.1 Within the Wolof patriarchal/Islamic context, such a poem is very unusual because it comes from a man who is publicly celebrating his wife and admitting to his own weaknesses. According to the author, many men thought that the poem was silly because a man does not go around singing the praises of a woman even if she were a saint.2 This point of view comes from the fact that most Wolof men believe that one should not show too much love for women because they can turn that around and use it against you. Although Fatou is dead and is not in a position to boast about this praise, men still believe that Eladji Gaye is weak. However, despite their disagreement with the author's “love song,” those same men are the ones who refer to Fatou as a role model for all women to emulate.

3Eladji Gaye's panegyric poem constitutes a text that shows the centrality of Wolof women in their households and testifies to how patriarchal dynamics are self-contradictory in Wolof society. While societal rules designate men as the masters of the household, his song rightfully portrays the wife as the backbone of the family.

The wall of comfort she built around me is falling
The veil of discretion she covered me with has disappeared.
She completed me and as soon as she left I became incomplete.
She taught how to take care of the family.
(lines 9-12)

4These lines show how women are the forces behind every successful man. However, despite this praise, Gaye's message is more about the silencing of women and how Fatou's assumed submission should be an example for women to follow. He opens the poem with a message for all women.

Ladies quit sleeping in late, try to have good qualities
Avoid plotting and gossiping.
(lines 1 -2)

5According to Senegalese gender stereotypes sleeping in late for women, is a sign of laziness and other flaws. Women who wake up late cannot be good wives because married women are expected to physically toil in the household in order to gain the respect of their in-laws and husband. Accordingly, it is believed that when a woman has too much time on her hands, she becomes more prone to gossiping and meddling in other people's business. Thus, the author's message calls women to work. However, the lines above emphasize a kind of work that is not just physical. In Wolof, the word ligeey is both physical and figurative. For a married woman, having good qualities such as being patient and submissive is also “work.” According to him, a woman's biggest work in marriage is how she interacts with her husband. Thus, Fatou becomes the model that every woman should emulate. As she replied to the women who were advising her to demand her rights, all women who “work” get rewarded in the end with praises from their husbands and a place in “Paradise.”

If I get to heaven with praises (from her husband), you will envy me when you find me there.
(line 71)

6Gaye's reading of the Koran suggests that women like Fatou have a V.I.P. pass to paradise and that wives who have their husband's endorsement will be among the chosen women of heaven. He uses this line of thinking to occupy a position of power. Although he does his mea-culpa by admitting to his oppressive behavior toward Fatou,

I took her for granted and I was mean
(line 93)

7He still believes that men are the authority in matrimonial relationships and that women's role is to be quiet and voiceless.

She would never talk back at me.
She never went out of the house unless I sent her.
She knew I was her authority.
(lines 32-33)
She followed my orders from morning till night.
(line 48)

8Gaye believes that women should surrender their selves to their husbands and that their subjugation is condoned by Islam which has made men the masters of the household and women their servants.

9When one sees one's master one should slave or else one would lose. (line 56) Women would lose the opportunity to enjoy paradise and God's rewards when they neglect their duties towards their husbands. He repeatedly utilizes the word jaamu [to slave for someone] or [to worship]. Within the Wolof cosmic view, Allah is always referred to as the “master” and humans are his slaves. Thus the idea of women worshiping their husbands implies that men are God's representatives or extensions on earth and that women are worshiping Allah when they submit to their husbands' will.

Wherever one sings Fatou's praises one would recognize the good women
They would say: “let us worship our husbands much more.”
(lines 154-155)

10Marriage is therefore a religious act for women and their sufferance is a price to pay for a place in Allah's promised “Paradise.” Whereas the Hadith that refers to sacrifice in marriage in God's name is addressed to both genders, “Whoever marries or gives in marriage, for the sake of God, deserves the friendship of God” (qtd in Farah, 1984 : 49), only women are urged or expected to slave for their spouses, not the other way around. This ideology, which is solely for the earthly advantage of men, is also internalized by women who instead of seeking their own understanding / reading of the Koran, rely on men for religious education therefore making it almost impossible for them to develop an epistemological shift that challenges men's hegemony on religious knowledge. Fatou's reply to the women who were telling her to demand her rights mirrors that attitude.

My father was a cleric and I have heard him preach.
I should get away from those who recommend me to do something that is against Allah's will.
If Sharia did not recommend marriage or were it not a practice we inherited.
No one would count me as a member of their household to be in a position to abuse me.
(lines 75-79)

11She is implying that because religion (and tradition) recommends marriage, she has to be married. She does not question on her own what kinds of guidelines or regulations Sharia has put in place for both men and women to follow. According to her, Allah does not recommend divorce while the Koran openly states that divorce is in fact recommended when one of the spouses is not happy in the marriage. Thus Fatou blindly accepts men's (her father's) interpretation of the Koran which almost reduces divorce especially initiated by the woman, to a sin. This is due in part to the fact that although women are the repositories of religious practices, they have not been engaged in the interpretation and close reading of Islamic scriptures. This is the argument of many Muslim feminists like Nimat Hafez Barazangi who suggests that women, like many Muslim youth who were born into the religion, “were applying Islamic injunctions without going through the process of generating meaning or developing policy theories” (Barazangi, 2004 : 68). Many scholars resist acknowledging that men's mis/interpretation of Islam has polarized and condoned the subordination of women. At least in the case of Senegal, it is only now that women have an erudite knowledge of the Koran and Hadith thanks to wahabism that flourished in Senegal in the mid to late nineteen nineties. Prior to that, very few women knew how to read and interpret the Koran. If one looks at how koranic schools are set up in Senegal, only boys are sent there for a profound reading and interpretation of the Koran. Although girls go to koranic school, they are only taught how to recite the verses in order to say their prayers.3 The numerous references to Islamic/Arabic gender notions and biases are the backbone of the husband's gender ideology thus making it possible for him to legitimate his behavior. He, like many Wolof Muslim men, are using the Judeo-Christian interpretation that Eve was created from Adam's rib and therefore was inferior, overlooking the fact that in the Koran, Allah states that he created man and woman from one single entity (Barazangi, 2004 : 38).

12The so-called “bad women” seemingly understand that men and women are created from that one entity and that one is not supposed to be half or inferior to the other.

Only Allah grants paradise, a husband is a human being, (line 59)

13Those “bad women” introduce an epistemology of gender which communicates that religion shouldn't be the reason for women's oppression. They challenge the religious biases that equate a man to almost God and thus preach equity between genders based on their common humanity. For them, both men and women are given rights by Allah their creator because they are humans. This way of thinking has started to emerge among Wolof women who now are going back to the Koran and are interpreting it through their lenses. Such an epistemological shift creates a rupture from women like Fatou Gaye who never question the Islamic text or culture that was brought to them by men and by doing so, blindly accept their plight and suffer in silence. As it transpires in Fatou's answer to their call she has internalized the concept of women's submission to their husbands as one of the recommendations from Islam and sees her suffering as part of her duty as a Muslim woman.

If I get to heaven before you with more praises (from her husband)
When you find me there, you will envy me.
(line 72)

14Her husband's flawed reading of the Koran is always emphasized in his text. For example, his understanding of the practice of mourning is completely wrong.

If mourning was required of men, I would cover myself until the day I die.
(line 175)

15Although Islam requires that a wife mourns her husband for almost four months because she could be pregnant by him and marrying another man during her first trimester would complicate the determination of the paternity of the unborn child, it does not state that men should not mourn their wives. Men in Islam do mourn their wives even though it is for a shorter period of three days. This could be explained by the fact that men are supposed to be the breadwinners and it would be detrimental to the rest of the family if they (husbands) were to stay home for four months following the death of a wife. Polygamy could also play a role in this practice because if a man has more that one wife, the death of one does not discharge him of his duty toward the other(s).

16Eladji Gaye also further implies that women are inferior solely based on their gender. For him, although Fatou is an exceptional woman whose qualities equal those of a saint or a Muslim cleric, she still would not get the same respect because she is a female.

The charisma I have seen in Fatou, any woman who has it and is virtuous.
If you were a man, people would bow down in front of you and you would be receiving donations from followers.
(lines 152-153)

17But Eladji Gaye does not completely base his thinking and behavior in Islam. He also tries to use traditional Wolof gender epistemologies to reinforce his ideology.

If a mother's work is lunch for her children,
Faatu's children will never envy anyone.
(lines 179-180)

18He invokes the Wolof proverb ligeeyu ndey anup doom which literally means “a mother's work is lunch for her children.” This saying has come to mean that women who suffer in their marriages are bound to bear successful children whereas its original meaning focused on the centrality of the mother in the child's life and how mothers are best positioned to influence their children—the latter most likely to emulate the qualities of their mothers than those of their fathers. This belief is also backed up by another expression: “meen da fa foor” [breast milk is powerful] or [the maternal side (and that includes the mother's kin) is strong] meaning that the essence of the mother is very strong and that children are bound to take after their mothers whether the latter were good or bad women. This distortion of Wolof folklore and oral traditions parallels the mis/reading of the Koran and has been one of the biggest challenges for Wolof feminist scholarship, which tries to unearth the powers that traditional Wolof society gave to women. By applying the same mis/interpretation to Wolof sayings about gender, Eladji Gaye creates a situation where Wolof traditional beliefs are perceived as very oppressive of women. Although I would not venture to say that traditional Wolof epistemologies of gender were not bias toward women, I would say that women played a great role in their communities and that motherhood was central to that role. When Eladji Gaye says that “Fatou treated me the same way my mother treated me,” he is pointing to a very important trait of Wolof women as central figures in the lives of their children. However he, as the child who is receiving love and care from a “mother,” is not reciprocating the same love and respect he is expected to give to his “mother.” Wolof mothers are venerated by their children and occupy a position of deities in the latter's lives. Therefore, if he had treated Fatou the same way he would have treated his mother, she would have been the happiest of all wives. He is right when he asserts that Fatou has inherited the foremothers, but her taking after the foremothers has nothing to do with her passivity as he wants to believe. One could argue that by treating him like he was her son, Fatou is realizing that men like him, need love and guidance because they are immature. Fatou inherited women from the past in her strength to take on challenges without losing herself in the process.

One savors only the milk one has sucked
Fatou has inherited the foremothers.
(lines 144-145)

19Those foremothers were women who held central places in their communities and constituted the foundation of every family. Like Fatou. they knew who they were and did not have to convince anyone of that.

20Despite his gender biases based mostly on religion, Eladji Gaye acknowledges Fatou's strength and all through his praise song, emphasizes how central she was in his life and the lives of everyone else in his household. As he has recognized all through,

Fatou completed me, and as soon as she left I became incomplete.
She taught me how to take care of the household.
(lines 11-12)

Before I buried Fatou I was the man, now I am the weak one who cheers the others.
(line 131)

21Fatou's attributes confirm that she was born from strong women who were the backbone of their families and communities. Such women held together families by creating a solid and safe environment to foster human and intellectual development for all its members. It is no surprise that his friends to do not show up anymore.

Nobody tells me their secrets anymore.
(line 21)
Ndiaxat from Mbuur skips my house now.
No one considers me their peer anymore.
When I buried the noble woman, I knew I would become nobody. (lines 24-26)

22Fatou was the reason everyone thought that Eladji Gaye was rich and powerful. Because of her, people respected him and looked up to him. She made him who he was and he does know it. Fatou's behavior was not exclusive to her husband. Her qualities are the ones that one looks for in every human being whether they are a wife, a friend or just a neighbor.

She hid her might from me because she did not want to look down on me.
(line 140)

23Fatou was a modest person and he himself testifies that Fatou acted the same even with complete strangers.

She would lend money to strangers and would not boast about it.
Or let the whole world know.
She gave to those who didn't even ask her.
She gave alms to the poor.
(lines 181-184)

24Although women internalize their subordination and tend to believe that the Koran condones their husband's behavior that does not mean that they do not resist or do not exalt power. When it comes to their household. Wolof women are at the center of everything.

The house was always full with strangers.
Today, they have made her death a reality and no longer stop by.
(lines 19 and 20)

25The Wolof household would crumble were it not for women. Women like Fatou are powerful and do not need to show their strength to the whole world. As Paul Bohannan has so eloquently put it, African women are not a deprived group and African men ritualize their basic dependence on them rather that deny it (1995 : 19). Their husbands know that these women are the backbone of their household and that without them, they (the husbands) do not have any status in the community. As he admits,

I was a clock and Fatou was the clock repairer
She had advanced me until I became your peer.
Men are clocks and women are the clock repairers.
(lines 160-162)

26I further uncovered the hidden power of Wolof wives in other research on the poetry of weddings. In the ceremony ofxaxar intended to discourage a new bride from joining a polygamous household, first wives warn the new-comer that if she thought that the comfort they lived in was created by their husband, she was wrong. And as they aggressively suggest in their lyrics, they are the ones who worked so hard for it.

Because you have seen our beautiful house you want to join us.
This house was built by the vaginas the penises have done nothing!
Because you have seen the gold jewelry we adorn ourselves with you want to join us,
This jewelry was bought by the vaginas the penises have done nothing!

27These women, do not have to dispute for power because they know they have it. However, outsiders do not need to know this unless it is necessary as in the case of the new bride who might think that she has a legitimate share of the comfort through her marriage to the man of the house. It is only after Fatou's death that most people realized that Ealdji Gaye was not the powerful and prosperous man they thought to him to be.

The wall of comfort she built around me has fallen.
The veil of discretion she covered me with as disappeared.
(lines 9-10)

28Although not always publicly acknowledged by men, women's power within marriage is obvious.

29Eladji Gaye's poem clearly communicates an understanding of gender roles within Wolof matrimonial relations that is grounded in an understanding of Islamic ideology of gender. Such ideology whether confirmed or not, creates a situation where women are perceived as inferior to their husbands and therefore should submit to them if they want to go to paradise. However, that perception of woman as weak and voiceless though an obstacle for women cannot completely subdue their empowerment which is grounded in the traditional Wolof belief system. Gaye's statement that “Fatou was quiet but not a fool” speaks to this empowerment. He knew that if she did not reply, it was not because she was not intelligent or did not know what was going on around her. Instead, she chose to be silent. Such silence is not a silence of weakness. It is a silence of knowing your strength and also realizing that the other party involved recognizes that strength. This concept, is clear in Eladji Gaye's text for he admits that Fatou had more wisdom than him and clearly should be (and was the one) to lead the family unit and hold it together.

I was older than her and I was the authority, but I used to emulate her. (line 103)

30Thus the qualities that make a person an authority or a leader are not based on their gender. If men and women are created from the same entity, what makes one wiser does not depend on their possession of a beard or breasts. Toward the end of his song, Eladji Gaye realizes that the grounds he based his oppression of Fatou were not well-founded.

The sin that I have committed for Allah to punish me with Fatou's death. I think about it all time to the point that I cannot lead prayers anymore.
(lines 132 and 133)

31This statement shows that Eladji Gaye acknowledges his less than desirable behavior toward Fatou and that Allah whom he used as a back up for his sexist ideology disagrees with him. On that final note, I ask the question: do men like Eladji Gaye know that the Islam on which they are basing their subjugation of women is a corrupted reading of the religious text? If they do, what will it take to correct such a reading?

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Alidou, O., 2006, Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 260 p.Barazangi, N. H., 2004, Women's Identity and the Qur'an, University Press of Florida, Pensacola, 172 p.Barber, K., 2007, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons, and Publics: Oral and written culture in Africa and beyond, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 286 p.

Bohannan, P. and P. Curtis (eds.),  1995, Africa and Africans, Waveland, Prospect Heights, 301 p.

Cooke, M, 2001, Women Claim Islam, Routledge, New York, 175 p.

Diop, A. B., 1985, La famille wolof, Karthala, Paris, 259 p.

Farah, M, 1984, Marriage and Sexuality in Islam, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 185 p.

Kanji, S. and Fatou K.C. eds, 2000, L'union matrimoniale dans la tradition des peoples Noirs, L'Harmattan, 309 p.

Mernissi, F., 1993, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 229 p.

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1 During a research trip to Senegal in fall 2007, I came across an interview with the author done by Eladji Mada Seek in 1979 in which he confirms that his cousin read the poem on tape.

2 This is a concern he mentioned in his interview with Eladji Mada Seek.

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Bibliographical reference

Marame Gueye, « Praise Song for the Good Woman : Islam and Gender in a Famous Senegalese Poem », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 51-61.

Electronic reference

Marame Gueye, « Praise Song for the Good Woman : Islam and Gender in a Famous Senegalese Poem », Journal des africanistes [Online], 80-1/2 | 2010, Online since 01 June 2013, connection on 23 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Marame Gueye

Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Literatures, East Carolina University, Email:

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