A documentary review of Taxi Sister (2011)

Hi earth friends, and welcome to the Talking Egg!

Today we have a documentary review/critique on a short documentary about Taxi Sisters in Senegal. It is quite the fascinating topic, and I thought I would take on and write up through a narrower feminist lens on the documentary.

Taxi Sister overall shows scenes that correspond and reinforce feminist ideas to do with gender equality and the meaning of playing gender/social roles in specific social contexts: the brief scenes of Boury facing sexism among her male colleagues, “taxi mans”, are good examples to the strength of the inherent patriarchal values in Senegal, where women are still side-lined and deemed as ‘carers’, ‘mothers’ and ‘weak’, all stereotypical characteristics associated with women (Fine, 2010:XV). This is explained by Firestone (through Marxist theory) by the division of labour created originally due to women being “at the continuous mercy of their biology” as well as through capitalist economic incentives (Firestone, 1979). There are also comments by “taxi mans” on how taxi sisters do not have a certified driving license and are unskilled at driving, a comment which Boury refutes, saying she is more than qualified to drive. Paradoxically, the simple fact that Boury can drive and is standing her ground is a characteristic that opposes the comments from her male colleagues. To him, she is not able to drive and stand her ground and be ‘strong’ because she is a woman – the true irony is that she does all these things and more, something that her male colleague would deem as male characteristics that women are unable to have. Even that there is a divide between calling certain characteristics ‘male’ and ‘female’ puts into question whether there is such a clear cut divide of gender roles – as discussed by Fine on the delusion of gender and the separation, historically by science of the ‘male brain’ and the ‘female brain’ as a useful tool for the successful expression of the patriarchy (Fine, 2010:XVIII-XXII).

Another interesting scene shows Boury telling one of her customers how ‘crazy’ she is because she tends to treat her boyfriend casually, and how despite knowing that men are a supplement to her life she thinks she has a problem. The idea of ‘hysteria’ being a woman’s disease has existed for a very long time, unfortunately further privileging men and marginalizing women. When men acted in a strange manner, it was explainable and there were rational reasons for it, whereas when a woman did so, it was related to a woman’s emotional whims and labelled as ‘hysteria’, defined by Devereux as, “‘evidence’ of both the instability of the female mind and the social function of women defined in relation to their reproductive capacity (their ‘wandering’ wombs)” (Devereux, 2014:20). Boury accepts her ‘hysteria’ as being problematic, as stated by her boyfriend. Instead, some contemporary feminists have been appropriating hysteria: “[understanding hysteria] not as a medical condition but a cultural one, an embodied index of forms of oppression”, and appropriating it as a right to behysterical about the causes they fight for (Devereux, 2014:20). Perhaps this is the filmmaker’s way of pointing out the contrast between the emancipatory aspects shown by Boury’s resistance (when it comes to her as a taxi sister in a job sector dominated by men) versus her lack of resistance and perhaps lack of ideological emancipation (when dealing with men in a romantic context).

These scenes all open discussion to the existence of gender roles/gendered characteristics in Senegal and the problem with the existence of a hierarchy between certain roles and characteristics (Fine, 2010:XXII-XXIII). Boury plays certain social roles as well as adhering to specific gender roles depending on the social context, which reinforces the idea that gender is all but a social construct where we ‘act’ roles out. Like actors on a stage, we choose to identify ourselves in specific ways, depending on whether such identification would give us a more comfortable position/situation. This is much in line with Goffman’s idea of gender as a performance as well as Butler’s idea on discourses creating the whole identity of a person’s gender (Goffman, 1979; Butler, 1990). Boury, at work in her taxi, comments on the horrible driving that the male drivers do and talks about the right for women to work the jobs they want to – she puts on her act, her social role as the ‘female taxi driver’, marginalized yet proud about her career. This contrasts the last scene where Boury is at home and takes care of her siblings, and shares a more emotional scene with the audience (a social role she would probably not portray otherwise), where she discusses the difficulties she feels as a working woman.

The two different roles that Boury plays show an interesting contrast, as Boury faces difficulties both at work and at home. In various families in the 19th century (and still today), men did not do the housework, which lessened the load and pressure that men faced when they came home. The home became an area for relaxation and de-stressing, a contrast to work, which tended to be associated with stress and fatigue. On the other hand, for women, there tended to be more societal pressure related to taking care of children and doing housework when home, which meant that for women, the private and public sphere were not very different; there was no space for relaxation (Fuchs, Thompson, 2005:65-68). This suggests that whereas men’s public and private roles/spheres were very different, for women, their role at work and at home tended to be very similar as society had higher demands for working women than men: working women needed to not only maintain their level of hard work in the public sphere, but also in the private sphere. Even though in our current day this is not always the case, the scenario where both parents work for financial reasons and the mother still acts as the carer for the children/home still happens (Dhanabhakyam, Malarvizhi, 2014:47-48). Boury in that regard faces similar challenges as the new rising working-class women, in that,

“…in the case of employed women, a new additional role is added to her existing role as house wife and mother (…) She is subject to plurality of role expectations, which are mutually incompatible (…) This may lead to role interference, until equilibrium is resorted between different role expectations to which she is subjected (…) Due to this kind of tie-up working women have lot of responsibility to take care of their family members and also participate in family rituals.” (Dhanabhakyam, Malarvizhi, 2014:48).

On the other hand, what the filmmaker does not show in the movie or perhaps, fails to show is important to discuss as well. Although Boury is a working-class woman, oppressed by various intersections, the fact that Boury is able to be a taxi sister and have a cab is a statement. An interesting fact concerning the emergence of taxi sisters was not shown in the movie, discussed by Israel-Trummel: the fact is, taxi sisters were implemented as a government incentive in Senegal to encourage ending poverty and unemployment by providing jobs for women (Israel-Trummel, 2007:10-11). Through advertisement on newspapers, Senegalese women were able to apply for jobs as taxi sisters, and were provided with cabs by the government (in collaboration with Espace Auto, a vehicle company). Although the advertisement did say they would not consider education as criteria for being recruited, the fact that the advertisement was on the newspaper shows that whoever would be able to work the job in the first place would have to be literate (only 29.2% of women in Senegal are literate) and able to read and write French (Israel-Trummel, 2007:25). A driver’s licence was also a prerequisite to recruitment. Israel-Trummel’s research also suggests most of the women recruited had been educated to a certain extent and came from stable backgrounds (Israel-Trummel, 2007:18-21). Whilst taxi sisters might be facing systematic oppression in a job market that is mainly orientated towards men, they nevertheless represent a more advantaged group of people in Senegal. Exemplifying gender issues in Senegal by reference to e.g. taxi sisters could be dangerous as it narrows the scope and disregards the notion of intersectionality with regards to women in Senegal that do not even have access to applying. Nash points out the danger of viewing women that have similar characteristics as a “unitary and monolithic entity” (Nash, 2008:8) – although taxi sisters may be oppressed and treated unequally with regards to gender inequality, whether they have an equally disadvantageous position with regards to class, education, language, age, etc. is an important question to ask (Nash, 2008:9-10).

Taxi Sister makes important points with regards to gender inequality, norms, as well as roles, the patriarchy, the public versus the private spheres and the division of labour through Boury’s everyday experiences as a taxi sister in Senegal. Although these points are well demonstrated, one must not forget that what is shown in the movie or rather, not shown can be a very selective process and miss out on discussions, in this case regarding intersectionality, levels of oppression and group the Senegalese women into a lump as opposed to considering their personal stories, experiences and situations, an important aspect to feminist debates. While the movie did show important debates about feminism, its failure at dealing with intersectionality and Senegal as a whole could be seen as a significant weakness.

Drive on safely and seriously,

Meena.

Sources

  • Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge
  • Devereux, C. (2014) ‘Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender Revisited – The Case of the Second Wave’, ESC: English Studies in Canada, 40(1): pp. 19-45
  • Dhanabhakyam, M., Malarvizhi, J. (2014) ‘Work-Family Conflict and Work Stress among Married Working Women In Public and Private Sector Organizations’, International Research Journal of Business and Management, 7(10): pp. 46-52
  • Fine, C. (2010) “Introduction” from Delusions of gender: the real science behind sex differences, London, Icon Books: pp. xv-xxix
  • Firestone, S. (1979) The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux
  • Fuchs, R., Thompson, V.E. (2004) “Working for Wages” from Women in Nineteenth-Century Europe, New York, Palgrave Macmillan: pp. 61-84
  • Goffman, E. (1979) Gender Advertisements, London: HarperCollins
  • Israel-Trummel, M. (2007) ‘Unemployment, Women, and Taxis: A Study of the Taxi-Sister Program in its Test Phase’, Senegal: Arts and Culture, SIT Study Abroad, available at: SIT Digital Collections, Donald B. Watt Library & Information Commons
  • Nash, J.C. (2008) ‘Re-thinking Intersectionality’, Feminist Review, 89: pp. 1-15

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