Friday, April 30, 2010

C'est lui, le seul coq

Well, I suppose I haven't blogged in about a million years. I apologize! I've been quite busy researching and writing my final project, which I'm going to print and bind today! In lieu of an update on the last several weeks, here is the introduction to my paper:

C'est lui, le seul coq (He is the only rooster): A Study of Women's Rights in Polygamous Marriages in Bafou, Cameroon

In 1994, Cameroon ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Taking as its basic premise that women should be equal to men on all terms, the Convention posits:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

After spending two months in Cameroon, seeing clearly how “social and cultural patterns” denied women equality throughout the country, I spent a month researching the question: have these so-called inalienable rights of women, largely conceived of by the Western powers that dominate the United Nations, reached the rural villages of Cameroon, where traditional marriage patterns carve out a specific role for women? I looked specifically at polygynous marriages, which make up about 80% of the marriages in my research setting (Bafou, a village in Western Cameroon). These marriages by definition establish roles for men and women, as the man is allowed (and encouraged) to take on multiple wives, but the woman cannot legally have more than one husband. How do women in polygamous marriages see their roles? Have they heard of women's rights and, according to them, of what do they consist?

As I looked for the presence of the Western conception of women's rights, I also sought to define rights as Cameroonian women themselves defined them. I kept in mind Miriam Goheen's assertion regarding Cameroon Grassfields culture that, “For as long as can be remembered or documented, women's protests have been concerned with asserting a gender complementarity, a gendered balance of power, rather than with appropriating or negating male power so as to create a non-gendered category of power.” The distinction between gender complementarity and gender equality forms the basis of the differences in opinion between rural Cameroonian “women's rights” and Western-conceived “women's rights.” I found that within traditional rural marriages, women maintain that men are superior and must be the heads of household; the man is seen, in fact, as the “coq” - the rooster who leads his subservient hens. However, women assert their rights to live securely, cultivate their fields, and benefit from the traditional duties of the husband. Most of these women have not, in fact, heard the term women's rights, though when it is explained to them, they describe the complementary duties of the husband and wife. According to many women, gender equality is an idea that white people have brought to the country and which young women are now accepting – this causes problems in the marriage, though, and leads to more divorce. Without polygamy and traditional gender roles, many said, women will be left on the street to fend for themselves.

As young people move away from polygamy and towards monogamy, at the same time moving away from villages into cities, they leave many of these traditional ideas behind and begin to assert the equality that the older generation scorns. Traditional polygamy is seen by many as no longer possible within the new context of gender equality. Many believe that polygamy is in the process of disappearing, largely as a result of the influx of Western ideas about marriage (in addition to new economic realities). Older women, though, largely believe that polygamy and the role assigned to them as women were positive forces in their lives. As many said, “Je ne connais pas l'idée d'égalité. C'est vous, les jeunes filles, qui connaissez cette idée.” This study highlights the opinions of three main groups: older polygamous women, younger polygamous women, and young unmarried women, looking particularly at ideas of equality, reproductive decision-making, and economic independence. The distinctions between the opinions of these groups show how ideas of “women's rights” in Cameroon have changed over time.


  1. I'm happy you are getting your paper bound--I am so excited about having you home soon.

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  3. Abs,
    This morning, the Iz and I were reading SuperFreakonomics on the porch shortly after dawn when we came across this passage: "Young women in Cameroon have their breasts 'ironed' -- beaten or massaged by a wooden pestle or a heated coconut shell -- to make them less sexually tempting."
    This was in a section talking about how being female in many countries remains a serious handicap. The authors also mentioned how Chinese foot-binding was once common, but women still have it tough there.