Sensitising gender to local cosmology: A participatory ethnographic gender and development approach from a Muslim community in Senegal

Romina Istratii


This article is concerned with the effectiveness of gender and development practice in diverse knowledge systems. Conventional theoretical and analytical frameworks and methodologies of gender and development reflect primarily secular epistemologies and it has yet to be addressed systematically how non-secular knowledge systems may be incorporated effectively in the design and implementation of gender programmes. This article presents a project from a Muslim rural community of Senegal that analysed gender realities through the prism of the local religio-cultural cosmology and explored community members’ responses to increasingly internationalised western ideals of gender equality. As an innovative methodology, participatory research techniques were integrated into short-term ethnographic investigations in an attempt to explore gender realities through the conceptual repertoire of the research participants. The study showed that understandings of subjectivity and gender norms were intertwined intricately with religio-cultural beliefs which influenced how participants conceived themselves and local gender relations and how they responded to western ideals of gender equality. Gender itself seemed to be conceptualised at a more profound ontological level emanating from religio-cultural beliefs. The implication is that gender-sensitive development in this community will need to account for this epistemological framework and to attune to religio-cultural sensibilities. The study also suggests that the participatory ethnographic methodology that was employed can facilitate a transition to an epistemology-sensitive gender and development practice; however it must be combined with reflexivity and be followed by more rigorous research.


Gender and Development, Gender Equality, Religious Cosmology, Non-secular Epistemology, Participatory Ethnographic Research, Islam

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