Most of Islamic belief in the south of Mali is moderate. Women do not wear veils, and can socialize with men, within an appropriate manner. However, we are seeing more and more of the stricter forms here; every day we see women completely veiled head to toe in black.
A few years back, we were looking for simple place to rent in Sikasso. A friend of mine found an available place, and took us to see it. The simple house was actually owned by and Ivorian I was told, and the man showing us the place lived in the courtyard with his wives, and looked after the place for the Ivorian. His wives and daughters all wore long black Muslim head scarves pined under the chin, though they did not have their face covered. I have no issues with that.
When we arrived, the man greeted us by extending his hand for a hand shake. When my wife extended her hand to greet him, he pulled his hand back and refused to shake hands saying, “Ca va (it’s ok)”. In Mali that is VERY RUDE….. I was more than upset, but contained it. We looked at the place and then thanked him for his time, he again shook all our hands and once again refused to shake my wife’s extended hand. This was a first ever for us in Mali, or anywhere in West Africa for that matter. It is very rude according to Malian culture, though it might be acceptable in Strict Islamic belief.
Anyway, my friend seemed very jovial about the encounter, and very happy with the place, and indeed the place was ok – it was Malian level living, not western standards. On the street my friend excitedly asked me, “What should I tell him? Do you want the place? I think you should take it.”
Here is what I said to my friend.
“Tell him that the white guy absolutely refuses to live in your courtyard because you insulted him and his wife by refusing to shake her hand. Inform him he was the first and only man in all of West Africa to do so in twenty years. I would never ever stay in his courtyard after he acted like this, because I do not trust him to look after the safety and best interests of my wife, when he does not even value her enough as a human being to shake her hand. It might be his tradition, religion or custom, but he knows that where we come from it is unacceptable to treat a women that way. We are very flexible to local customs. However, if he can’t be flexible enough to understand this, I don’t trust him to look out for her safety when I am not around. The answer is no, I would never live here, because of him”
And we left- we never did rent the place.
I don’t ask any of my Muslims neighbors to grant free access to my wife to anything women are not traditionally part of here. We accommodate their beliefs in every way, because we are here in their home, and country. However, I do expect a simple greeting from a people we are going to live with, especially towards a foreigner who comes from a land where they know women hold equal positions of power and respect as men. Rightfully or not, I fear this man might end up treating my wife like he would treat any other women in his court. And frankly I am not OK with that. If he is going to treat women according to those beliefs, and he has already demonstrated my wife will be no exception, I’m sorry, but I can’t live with you.