When I went to Senegal this summer, I had just (I thought) finished writing an article on women acting as Islamic leaders in Senegal, based on interviews with a handful of female muqaddams (representatives of the Sufi order). I thought I would seize the opportunity to do a couple final interviews, and I interviewed several daughters of Baay Ñas who act as muqaddams (including Roqiyatu Ñas, pictured right) as well as women who came from non-Taalibe Baay and non-clerical families. I soon realized that the phenomenon was far more widespread than I had imagined.
Talking to any given Taalibe Baay—including female muqaddams themselves—one has the impression that there are only a small handful of female muqaddams. But as I asked around, I continued to hear new names, and each one I interviewed had a very different story. It is hard to gauge the prevalence of women acting as Islamic leaders because most of them do not cultivate a public persona, and many delegate men to carry out public functions while they remain in the shadows.
Sheex Baay Caam (one of the most active Association members) called me the day before yesterday to tell me he had spoken with a midwife (not a muqaddam herself) who was one of the founding members of a woman's charitable association called Siggil Maam Astu Jànqa, in which a woman muqaddam plays an active role. She mentioned a number of other woman muqaddams I had never heard of, and Sheex Baay will be interviewing all these women in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Abdulaay Ñaŋ will soon be interviewing another woman muqaddam in Medina Baay.
I am beginning to think the question of woman Islamic leaders in Senegal is a book project, not a topic for the single article I am working on.
Among the things I learned during our research this summer about women muqaddams:
- I previously encountered a common perception that Baay Ñas's daughters who are well known teachers (such as Sayyida Roqiya and Sayyida Mariyama) carry ᵓijāzahs (appointments as muqaddams) but do not actually give wird and tarbiyyah. They told me that this is not true, and that they perform the same tasks that male muqaddams perform.
- Baay Ñas wrote about the status of women in several places. For example, in a fatwa in Jawāhir ar-Rasāᵓil, he wrote that women can act as muqaddams and can instruct men as well as women. It was in his account of his travels to Mauritania that Baay Ñas wrote the oft-quoted exhortation to his daughters (often taken to apply to women more generally) to compete with men for a high level of spirituality but not for the things of this world.(If you know of other things Baay Ñas wrote about women, please let me know.)
- I reconfirmed that Baay Ñas—and not just his closest disciples—appointed a number of women who were not his daughters as muqaddams. These include four women in the 1930s in the village of Daaru Mbittéyeen, according to Baay's early and reliable disciple Allaaji Bittéy (who, to my great sadness, passed away this summer very soon after both I and Abdulaay Ñaŋ interviewed him separately). One of these women was Allaaji Bittéy's mother. I was unable to confirm that this happened in any other village, although I was given the names of several other women that Baay appointed.
- I learned from Allaaji Abdulaay Faal (who lives in Mbuur, where Allaaji Abdulaay Bittéy accompanied me on interviews) that Baay delegated his father, Ibra Faal, one of Baay's first disciples (not to be confused with the Murid of the same name) to give wird and tarbiyyah to all women. Previously, when people had listed Baay's early disciples, they had always listed men. This puzzled me because women obviously played a huge part in the early movement but remained nameless. Allaaji Abdulaay Faal answered that question in an unexpected way: those who only list men are only partially right, because Ibra Faal inducted all women, including such famous disciples as Baay's mother Maam Astu Jànqa. As I had suspected, women were demanding mystical knowledge far more than the men, to the point that Faal had to stop initiating them because, as he explained to his son, at one point he had initiated nine women whereas Baay had only initiated five men, and one more would be double what Baay initiated.
- The women I interviewed had vastly different experiences and stories. Some were from early Taalibe Baay families of the same Njolofeen extended family that Baay Ñas came from. But most only became Taalibe Baay as adults. One was Mandinka from a prominent Qadiri family. Another, from a non-Taalibe Baay Tijani family, was once a government minister and remains a university professor and a high official in the Senegalese education system. One is a successful business woman who trades in merchandise from the Middle East. (Alliyun Sekk introduced me to many of these leaders.)
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