Last month, the President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, dissolved his Cabinet. He had become frustrated with the infighting between member parties of his coalition.
The final straw was their veto of an amendment to the marriage law — a reform that would have made husband and wife equal heads of household.
Here, traditional attitudes endure at home, justifying customs that often discriminate against women. And poverty and a decade of conflict have adversely affected a woman’s civil liberties.
The Cabinet reshuffling indicates that the country is still fragile after last year’s civil war.
So how does today’s woman rise above the current political climate to reconcile tradition with her desire for equality?
De Chantal Ahikpolé started her eponymous magazine to respond to this paradox. It promotes women’s rights and the traditions of Côte d’Ivoire’s 60 ethnic groups. Each issue, she observes the customs of an ethic group with regard to pregnancy, motherhood, marriage and cooking.
More frivolous fodder — makeup, fashion and dating tips — is included on a smaller scale. (“How can you read about doing your makeup when next door there is a woman dying in childbirth?” Ahikpolé said to me incredulously.)
After a mutual friend introduced us, Ahikpolé invited me to her house for tea. She worked in magazine design in London, which explains her penchant for England’s cherished beverage. Three years ago, she moved back to Côte d’Ivoire with her seven-year-old daughter.
We sat on her covered veranda, the mid-afternoon sun glowering. She seemed unfazed by the swelter. Sunlight glanced off the gold detail of her dress and her hands as she spoke.
When I asked if she believed the country had improved under President Ouattara, she sighed before responding.
“Women today still wake up at three o’clock in the morning. They still bring the water so that the guy can wash himself. She will go before him to the land to start the seeding, planting, growing. She will cook there for him and keep on working. Then she will go before him to cook a nice meal and bring water for him.”
“And when they go home, the guy is on the bicycle and the woman is carrying everything on her head. After that, even though she’s as tired as him, she’ll have to go and make love with him.”
Even before you open Ahikpolé Magazine, the cover tells you all you need to know.
Ahikpolé picks a cover girl “that nobody knows who is doing a man’s job or a job that nobody will give respect to.” One cover girl was a mechanic, another a plumber.
Each woman is treated to a makeover — hair and beauty treatments, elegant clothing — according to beauty traditions rather than the latest trends. Afterwards, they get to keep the clothes.
“Maybe her job is not that pretty, but we just give her soap and the lipstick and you’ll see how pretty she is,” she said.
In this way, the women live out a fairy tale between the pages of a magazine.
Ahikpolé’s last makeover was a challenge. She found a 27-year-old woman, who worked as an electrician. Her father had wanted a son so he decided to raise her as a boy. He even gave her a boy’s name. She had never worn a dress. She even walked like a man.
“When I saw her, I said: ‘Oh my God,’” Ahikpolé let out a low whistle. “I don’t know if we will be able to do anything.”
She called up a local fashion designer for help, but the designer was perplexed. She asked if Ahikpolé was sure this person was a woman.
“I said to her: Yes, I think she’s got breasts.” Ahikpolé chuckled. “The day we dressed her — she was so beautiful. And when we brought her home — [her family] didn’t recognize her. She started crying when she saw herself. [She said]: ‘Is that really me?’”
Ahikpolé flipped through another issue and tapped her finger on a photograph of a woman, who had been a presidential candidate in Bénin twice. The woman no longer talks to her — she was upset that Ahikpolé didn’t put her on the cover.
“You don’t need to be a doctor or a PhD to be fulfilled,” Ahikpolé scoffed. “There are no stupid jobs, Cara, just stupid people. I want to be part of that change — telling women ‘you are so important, you are so unique, you cannot find two of you.’”
If women’s equality seems slow to be legislated, Ahikpolé believes, at the very least, it can be encouraged in a magazine.
And there’s some good news: Two weeks ago, the new Cabinet passed the amendment — a small, but hopeful sign that the country is willing to break with tradition for the greater good.