Perceptions and norms of female sexuality
Sexuality is monitored throughout women’s life cycle
At a younger age, girls’ socialisation is more focused on learning their gender roles. Later on, sexual education is given incidentally, through older siblings and grandmothers, on a basis of need. However, the learning of body language is constantly promoted through daily remarks, criticism and guidance on how a woman should look, walk, laugh, and interact with men. Participation in life events (e. g. excision, weddings and naming ceremonies) offers additional opportunities to become acquainted, in a subtle way, with existing sexual norms and practices. Strict control on girls’ mobility and social contacts is still the norm in most rural areas. In cities and towns, networking at school and marketplaces, an increasing number of nightclubs, and a greater access to sex-orientated information through movies, videotapes and connections to the internet, constitute serious challenges to normative sexual behaviour.
Marriage is still the only suitable entry to a sexually active life. Getting married is almost universal in Mali, although the forms of marriage might vary from one ethnic group to the other. Wives are expected to be attractive, to know how to prepare themselves to deliver and enjoy pleasurable sex with their spouses. There are a great deal of products to support sexual activities. These may be nicely coloured and flavoured bead belts, short wrap-around pieces of cloth, body ointment, incense,1 etc. The use of each of these items is often surrounded by myths, ceremonial gestures and postures. For example, the incense should be burnt on live coals in a way that it sends into the air a nice smell of mixed perfume. Young girls learn how and when to use incense by often being in charge of that chore. The reason for using this mixture is revealed progressively to girls mainly through
Paradoxes of Female Sexuality in Mali
observation and noting that only adult cloths and rooms are incensed, only during certain times of the day, and particularly at night. The aphrodisiac function of incense is confirmed by its constant use in nuptial rooms. Without any explicit statement, girls learn to view incense and similarly other things as sexual tools. Regarding the bead belts and the short wrap-around cloth, they are meant to provoke sexual desire. The beads are worn on the lower body with the intent to make small noises leading the vigilant watcher to search for their origin, admire the body shape and elegant walking of the woman who is wearing them. The short wrap-around piece of cloth, called pintelounin, is an item of the traditional underwear, which may be given an enchanting power in some magic ways or used to trigger a co-wife’s jealousy by insinuating a multiple use of it overnight. As a general rule, intimate relationships between the couple should unfold in a judicious way, through body language and coded messages that are likely to be missed by an external eye.
A greater concealment is imposed on sexual behaviour outside wedlock, due to its prohibition by society. The gender bias, in this case, lies in the degree of tolerance allowed to deviant behaviour. Premarital abstinence is a must for girls and just an aspiration regarding boys. Sexual activities among unmarried adults are usually perceived as adultery. Divorced or widowed men unwilling to remarry are simply viewed as stubborn, whereas women’s preference for remaining unmarried is usually understood as a tendency towards prostitution. Remarriage is often arranged for or even imposed on women. The hostility to sexual activities among unmarried women is matched with a great control on their behaviour and a clear reluctance to promote their sexual life.