Legislation is a widely used tool for increasing the number of women in politics. But laws seeking to promote gender parity come short in facing the ‘sociological realities’ in Senegal, as the case of the holy city of Touba shows.

In 2010, former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade signed the Gender Parity law, which function was to guarantee more women in legislative bodies on national and on local level. This law obliges all political parties to put women and men on their party lists in an alternating matter, aiming at a male-female ratio of 50%. If parties fail to present a gender balanced list, the electoral commission (CENA) has the authority to reject it, and thus exclude parties from competing in elections.

The effectiveness of this radical quota system turned out to be striking in terms of increasing women's representation. In the 2012 national election, the number of female political representatives in the National Assembly increased from 23% to 43%, putting Senegal's legislative body among the most gender balanced in the world. Senegal has a mixed voting system, in which deputies of the National Assembly are elected partly from national party lists, and partly as candidates on departmental level with the number of candidates reflecting the size of the department. Most party leaders are male and are given the top spot. An imbalanced representation of men and women thus occurs whenever the number of candidates to be elected is an odd number, which explains why the 50% male-female ratio is not yet achieved.

On local level, the number of women elected in governing bodies increased from 16% to 47% in 2014, in the first election after the implementation of the Parity Law. However, there have been cases where the law has not been respected. This has led the Dakar Appeal Court and the Supreme Court of Senegal to cancel the election of a Mayor and several deputies in the communes of Keur Massar and Kaolack.

The city of Touba stands out as an interesting exception in this matter. Touba is the second largest city in Senegal, and presented an all-male list of 100 political candidates in the local elections of 2014. Despite strong objections from women’s organizations and other supporters of the Parity Law, the list has not yet been rejected by CENA. In order to understand this lack of sanctions, we need to take a closer look at the “special status” of the city of Touba.

Touba was founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Muslim Sufi religious leader, in 1887. According to legend, Bamba had an epiphany under a tree in the desert that led him to establish a city which purpose was to “reconcile the spiritual and the temporal”. In addition to leading a pacifist rebellion against the French colonial rulers, Bamba also founded the Mouride brotherhood, a popular and powerful Islamic Sufi order, known for emphasizing virtues such as work and industriousness. Today, Touba is the stronghold of this brotherhood, and each year the town receives between one and two million Muslim pilgrims from all over Senegal and beyond during the Grand Magal pilgrimage. The holy city of Touba holds a special status within Senegal, and has its own set of rules based on Sharia. The General Khalif of the Mourides is the supreme leader. The city also has its own police force that makes sure its inhabitants are neither smoking, drinking alcohol, or breaking the Sharia law in any other way.

Also, whereas candidate lists elsewhere in Senegal are the responsibility of political parties, it is the khalif himself who is the mind behind the list of Touba. The khalif is a descendant of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, and holds great powers. Not surprisingly, CENA concluded that the khalif’s all-male list was not respecting the Parity Law. The khalif, however, refused to succumb, stating that Touba will never experience parity, not in his lifetime or beyond, and that Touba follows Sharia law and thus are excluded from the Parity Law. As of today, the khalif’s list is still standing, and there have been no sanctions, as it has in the other cases of non-compliance.

In Senegal, a country where around 92% of the population is Muslim, religion plays an important role and is widely practiced in everyday life. The religious leaders, or the Marabouts, are seen as mediators between Allah and the people. Since colonial times, the Marabouts haveexerted a great deal of indirect political power through their followers. Also, because of the Mouride brotherhood’s emphasis on work, they have gained control over a large portion of Senegal’s groundnut production, an important export product. All of this places the Mouride leaders and their stronghold Touba in a powerful position. This might be the reason why representatives from CENA and the Minister of Interior earlier this year reached an agreement on “the specificity of Touba”, making a proposition to adapt the Parity Law to the “sociological realities” of Senegal.

This means that Touba is in fact exempted from following national law, which again leaves the women of the second largest city of Senegal unrepresented in local government. In other words, the “sociological realities” of Senegal proves to be a tough challenge for the promoters of gender parity.

Marianne Tøraasen, Senegal, November 2015