DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Djalika wants to divorce her abusive husband. Her best friend Dior escaped a forced marriage and moved to the city, and her colleague Mareme is brazenly having fun with a married man.
These are some of the characters in Senegal’s hit TV series “Mistress of a Married Man”, which has people talking about rape, domestic violence and women’s sexuality in a mostly Muslim West African country where such topics are taboo.
The series offers a candid look at Senegalese society and has shocked audiences by showing what many women experience yet few discuss, said Halimatou Gadji, the 30-year-old actor who plays the show’s protagonist, Mareme Dial.
Gadji grew up in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and appeared in a few Senegalese series and short films before landing the role of Mareme, which has propelled her to fame.
She hopes the show - a must-watch for millions of viewers - with its depiction of women as good, bad and complex will shake the rigid gender roles that restrain her generation.
“All women would like to have the freedom of Mareme... to work, to wear what she wants, to talk about her sexuality,” Gadji told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“Even if there are women who live like that, they don’t show it,” she said.
Senegal, a democratic nation of about 16 million people with a growing, urban middle class, practices moderate Islam.
Women are widely expected to remain chaste until marriage, move directly from their parents’ home to their husband’s and raise children.
While Senegal ranks high in some areas of gender equality - it has one of the world’s highest proportions of women in parliament - women are oppressed in many walks of life.
Domestic violence is widespread, women can be jailed for having an abortion and child marriage is common, experts say.
Polygamy, explored in the series when Mareme’s lover eventually takes her as a second wife, is common.
The show, which debuted in January and airs on Youtube as well as Senegalese television, has garnered complaints from religious groups, which accused it of promoting adultery.
The country’s national broadcast regulator ruled in March that the series could continue but that it contained content that was “shocking, obscene and offensive”.
Viewers have taken to Facebook and Twitter to discuss the show and side with either the wife or her mistress rival; a Facebook group called “Team Mareme” has 14,000 members.
In one of the most controversial scenes, Mareme points below the belt before a date and tells her friend: “This is mine. I give it to whomever I want.”
Her sexually liberated character was created partly to shock and pull in viewers, said Gadji, but the show’s main goal is to highlight the everyday struggles of other characters.
“The series is not about Mareme, but we had to popularize Mareme to draw people’s attention toward the other women,” she said.
Viewers say they identify most strongly with Djalika, a hard-working mother who suffers in silence under the tyranny of an abusive, alcoholic husband, said Gadji.
Another character, Racky, was raped by a family member and internalizes the trauma rather than talk about it, a common scenario in Senegalese society, she said.
“I have received a lot of messages from women who told me their stories and how they live at home, and wow,” said Gadji.
“They suffer the same things.”
Rape is legally defined as a delinquency in Senegal, and women’s rights advocates say men are rarely held accountable.
The topics explored in the show feel personal to Gadji, too; she has an eight-year-old daughter but has never married and is wary of relinquishing her single lifestyle.
“Senegalese men are not yet ready to accept women’s freedom,” she said. “I don’t want to be walked all over. I don’t want a man who will insult me and tell me to prepare his food.”
She thinks change is coming slowly thanks to television, movies and social media, which show women standing up for themselves and playing multi-faceted roles.
The show is watched by children - it does not contain sex scenes - and Gadji hopes young viewers might grow up with a more open mindset toward women’s independence.
“We are showing them the bad so they can learn,” she said. “When I talk to children I am amazed. They have another vision.”
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; edited by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org