“Lock Her Up!”: Corruption Discourse and Gendered Politics

By Emily Riley

Embed from Getty Images

TOPSHOT – Damaged buildings are seen on November 14, 2016 in Sirnak after a 246-day curfew was partially lifted. – The curfew in Sirnak, a city of 290,000, was imposed on March 14 as part of operations to eradicate the PKK from eastern Turkey. Photo by ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images.

During this summer’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on multiple occasions delegates chanted “Lock her up!” Several different speakers incited this chant, characterizing the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as corrupt, crooked, and untrustworthy. Despite the FBI’s conclusion that she did not act criminally by using a private email server as Secretary of State, delegates and speakers advocated for her arrest. Although corruption is a real political issue, my own ethnographic fieldwork demonstrates that corruption and gender are entangled in popular imagination and discourse around the world. Of course, political leaders do pursue the interests of donors rather than voters, and corruption occurs on a spectrum from direct bribery to patronage and even more ambiguous policy decisions—what Olivier de Sardan calls the “corruption complex” (1999). However, as a political practice, corruption is not necessarily distinct from other forms of power and norms. For female candidates like Hillary Clinton and my own research participants in Senegal, corruption charges are also loaded with gendered meanings. Besides the obvious fact that a female candidate is running against a male nominee, this year’s U.S. election exposes how the politics of corruption are often inherently gendered.

The challenges faced by Clinton and women in African politics may appear incomparable. Africa has long been portrayed in Western media as a dysfunctional and “inconvenient” continent (Ferguson 2007). Its poverty, civil wars, internet scam artists, and corrupt politicians are treated as distinctively pathological. However, women in African politics do not see their struggles as singular, and point us toward broader gendered political processes at work across the globe. For example, Joyce Banda, the ex-president of Malawi who was voted out of office amid corruption claims, sees her experience replicated globally:

“I want to ask you to look across the world. Start with Australia and look at what Julia Gillard went through…Go to Thailand and see what the [female][1] prime minister has gone through…Go to the Philippines and see what has happened to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She was arrested and charged with corruption; everyone who was arrested with her has been released on bail except her, and she’s sick…From there move on into Zimbabwe, see what’s happening to Joice Mujuru [the former vice-president expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party]. Go to Liberia and see what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is going through – even Ebola is her fault. And go to Argentina and Brazil, end up in the US…Misogyny [is] not only for Joyce Banda but for women.”

The Gendered Performance of Nation in Senegal

Aïda Mbodj and her militants at a wedding celebration exchanging gifts and praise, Bambey, Senegal. Photo by Emily Riley.

In my research on female politicians in Senegal, I found that women must meet gendered expectations in order to break into the male-dominated political sphere, while simultaneously attempting to subvert gender norms. In Senegal, like many places in the world, men monopolize state power. Since independence from France in 1960, state elites aimed to build a national consciousness based on a nostalgic past where women’s domestic roles symbolized the very best of national culture. In this context, women’s political agency demonstrates that the very conditions that perpetuate women’s subordination are simultaneously an important part of redefining new spaces for power. Senegalese women in leadership roles ‘practice politics’ by performing and embodying the coveted national tradition of terànga, the civic-minded and generous intentions of an individual embedded in acts of hospitality, gift giving, and everyday social encounters. Senegal’s national slogan in fact, is the Land of Hospitality, in French le pays de la terànga.

Terànga as a national value is inherently gendered. Senegal’s post-colonial nation-builders favored a style of governance modeled on “traditional”, and patriarchal African culture and social structure (Diouf, Diop, O’Brien 2002). Thus, an emphasis on domestic life, which entailed the mother as the purveyor of the African home, was constructed through the everyday exchanges of terànga, hospitality, family ceremonies, and socializing. The state has remained overwhelmingly controlled by men. Recently, women have begun to gain prominence in public leadership roles. Often women perform terànga to achieve political success, yet the reciprocity of terànga often leaves them vulnerable to corruption charges.

Women, Terànga, and the Politics of Corruption

In Senegal, legal changes have created new opportunities for women in politics. In 2010, President Abdoulaye Wade reinstated a gender parity law (loi de la parité) mandating the equal representation of men and women in elected government positions. However, the parity law has been decried by opponents as a way to wreak havoc among their electoral lists, forcing them to compete for high-powered women candidates and their supporters (Thiam 2007). Opponents of the parity law also argue for qualifications and competencies rather than the need for equality. More broadly, male representatives accuse women generally of being irresponsible and guilty of excessive tendencies. Most refer to an age-old critique of women’s control of household resources for family ceremonies as wasteful and expensive, therefore disqualifying them on the basis of being reckless with money. Unsurprisingly, when the parity law was reinstituted, critiques of terànga as excessive began to merge with broader discourses about corruption.

Terànga is most commonly displayed during family ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals with the exchange of gifts, food, and honorific praise. These spaces also garner a great deal of public criticism and debate about the representative nature of terànga. Newspaper articles, public opinion, and popular culture argue that family ceremonies have become excessive, wasteful, and degrading to the social and economic vitality of Senegal. Women are singled out as the perpetrators of these “damaging” behaviors,[2] and politicians have increasingly been under fire for their own transgressions due to their participation in these ceremonies.

One research participant correlates a rise in family ceremony expenditures in the general population with the increasing presence of politicians using the celebrations as campaigning platforms. She asserts that ceremonies have become spaces of campaigning, and akin to institutionalized terànga, especially for women trying to break into the male-dominated realm of state politics.

The debate regarding women’s involvement in ceremonies as excessive and irresponsible has only gathered more steam since the 2010 national assembly vote to enforce the parité law. Not only does Senegal (along with most societies) adhere to gendered divisions of labor, scrutinizing women’s behavior in family matters has become a popular means of questioning whether women are capable of participating in state politics. Given these debates, women in politics and supporters of the law must contend with renewed opposition to women holding important public political and social roles.

Aïda Mbodj: Doing Terànga and Political Undoing

Madame la mère greets supporters, Place des Souvenirs, Dakar, Senegal. Photo by Emily Riley.

The parité law has enabled some women to ascend to political leadership roles. However, the law also served as a kind of “front revolution” (Hale 1997) that has not amounted to significant change. To this day, electoral lists are overwhelmingly dominated by men. Conseil Sénégalais des Femmes (COSEF, Senegalese Women’s Council), were instrumental advocates for the parité law. Many of their members, such as my research participant Aïda Mbodj, were politicians themselves or trying to break into the scene. Madame Mbodj, a devout Muslim, was a member of Abdoulaye Wade’s party Parti Democratique Sénégalais (PDS) and served as his Minister of Women’s Affairs and Vice President of the National Assembly. Since then, she has served as mayor of the central town of Bambey, as well as the Departmental Council President of Bambey. Aïda is a charismatic and larger than life woman who has a loyal group of followers, mostly women. She has carefully crafted this charisma, what she calls personnalité, by being present in the public eye through TV appearances and media commentaries in order to gain supporters and also to fit in to the political sphere. Charismatic male politicians and religious leaders were fundamental to the construction of the modern Senegalese state (O’Brien 1975). Women like Aïda craft their images in light of this legacy, working within the confines of a systemic patriarchal sphere. However, for Aïda Mbodj to be a charismatic leader, she draws upon the practice of terànga in ways that are associated with a feminized domestic sphere.

While campaigning or attending political events, Aïda’s militants (most fervent supporters) accompany her to create an atmosphere of cheer and organized support. In turn, Aïda is personally involved in many of their lives by attending and contributing to their family ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms. It is in the cosmos of these celebrations that Aïda, and her other female counterparts, performs terànga as a way of garnishing popularity and creating a generous and caring persona.

On a weekend trip to her home district Bambey, I accompanied Aïda to the funeral of a community member, and the wedding for a supporter’s son. The supporter, Amy Diop, had served as a militante to Aïda for many years. The previous weekend, Amy Diop and other militants had come to support Aïda and her family as she hosted a day of prayer for the anniversary of her father’s deaht. Aïda was honored at the wedding as a mbajjen (aunt/motherly figure) to the young man. As festivities began, Amy and her guests, including Aïda and her entourage, gathered in a circle to exchange words of praise. Amy and the griots – casted praise singers and family genealogists – proclaimed Aïda’s loyalty and generosity to their families, including attending their family celebrations as well as being there in times of grief. Aïda presented them with money and gifts while her griot sang of her recognition and gratitude for their praises. Amy and her son presented us with drinks and snacks as Aïda offered her financial contribution for the wedding. Amy was beyond pleased, assuring me of her affiliation with Aïda as a friend, honorary family member, and leader. These offerings of terànga between Amy and Aïda were semi-private, yet reverberate during public meetings through the vocal expressions of affection from her supporters. They add to Aïda’s reputation as giving, caring, and present in the lives of those who support her. Showing their support during Aïda’s political rallies or other state sponsored events, which are usually televised, further publicizes her generosity.

Aïda ‘s tactics have helped her weather a political storm during her party’s descent from power after losing the 2012 presidential elections. Despite her party’s entering the opposition, Aïda has only grown more popular, to the dismay of her political rivals. But these tactics have also made her vulnerable as anti-corruption becomes a popular cause. Her opponents have turned to corruption charges, using her popularity against her. In response to these charges, Senegalese president Macky Sall removed her as the Departmental Council President of Bambey, citing the illegal accumulation of governmental positions. The laws of 1996 and 2012 restrict the number of governmental positions for which an individual receives a salary to one per term (République du Sénégal). Despite chronic issues of accumulation of political functions among (mostly male) politicians, Aïda is the only politician to be deposed and made the subject of public shaming.

Gendered States and Nations

By Nathania Johnson. Hillary Clinton takes a selfie with a supporter at a campaign rally at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina. CC BY 2.0.

Aïda Mbodj and Hillary Clinton cope in different ways with the patriarchal political and national cultures of their countries. Aïda has attempted to use feminine skills of financial generosity and personal presence to create a political and charismatic personality. However, by participating in the domestic and intimate lives of her supporters she is accused of corruption and, for many, serves as an example of why women are irrational spenders and incapable of the seriousness of public office. Even as she tries to establish herself among the men, her presence merely reinforces the masculinist system of power.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Hillary Clinton is not a charismatic public figure. She does not do many public interviews, her speeches are scripted and serious, and she talks very little about herself. In other words, she does not fit into the American masculine culture of politics that favors great orators. A recent article by Ezra Klein in Vox argues she is a listener, not a talker. Her colleagues, he points out, praise her as a personable and caring friend. Her listening skills, an underreported quality, make up most of her campaign and governing style. She uses “listening tours” to sit with small groups of people and engage with what they have to say. She amasses notes and newspaper articles on these tours like an itinerant ethnographer, and periodically goes through them to devise policies that incorporate diverse and divergent perspectives. This is in stark contrast to most political campaigns, which involve motivational speeches in front of thousands of people, not to mention an opponent who speaks unprepared for lengthy amounts of time.

Anthropologists have given us many theoretical tools to understand the state, state power, and the construction of gender. Continuing the longstanding deconstruction of public/private dichotomies, Yanagisako and Collier argue that feminist cultural analysis rejects the naturalized relegation of women to the domestic sphere and men to the “politico-jural”. (1995). Feminist theory shows that these cultural domains, such as gender and the social institution of politics, are human-made and human-maintained (Enloe 2014). Wendy Brown (2006) argues state power is a historical product of male dominance, and is therefore problematically gendered. Achille Mbembe (2006) suggests that to understand postcolonial relationships, and for our purposes here knowing about something called the “state” and its gendered components, we must “pay attention to the workings of power in its minute details.” These details include the perpetuation of the language of politics as naturally a “masculine sphere of life” (Enloe 2014), or as Begoña Aretxaga (1997) calls it, naming women as an “allegory of the nation”.

Anthropology can help us see how political categories being treated as distinct from each other in public rhetoric (like “corruption” and “gender”) are in fact entangled, and help us take a more critical look at the meanings behind language and stereotypes. Doing so illuminates how certain political styles are seen to be more female or male, such as listening versus talking, nurturing others rather than promoting one’s self, or compromising not contesting. One set of actions is linked to feminized forms of power while the other exudes masculine personal power. Therefore, the language of corruption, irrationality, and irresponsibility play to gendered assumptions of women being incapable for positions of power. Sociologists Kennedy, Hunter McDonnell, and Stephens recently published an article demonstrating women are generally held to a higher ethical standard (2016). This also means, they argue, that women are also punished more severely for ethical transgressions. Therefore, it is important to look at issues of corruption and accusations of irresponsibility with a gendered lens.

The traction given to the allegations against Aïda Mbodj emerges partly from a cultural bind she and others face: she must meet gendered expectations to promote social standards of hospitality and connection, while these very norms are also treated as incompatible with the standards of national politics. In the U.S., Hillary Clinton’s email server and the Clinton Foundation’s practices do not reveal remarkable or even unusual levels of corruption. Yet, Clinton’s preference for the role of listener is treated as evidence that she has something to hide. In contrast, her male opponent leaves nothing unsaid, while his tax returns remain hidden. He talks voraciously, a trait his supporters see as a symbol of virility and power, leaving little time for listening. In both instances, women must meet gendered expectations to develop political agency, yet in doing so, feminized qualities are devalued and dismissed by another set of standards that are ostensibly related to ethics.


Dr. Emily Riley received her doctorate in anthropology from Michigan State University. She specializes in African Studies, political and legal anthropology, as well as the anthropology of religion and gender. As a Fulbright-Hays fellow, she conducted doctoral research in Senegal to investigate the concept of terànga – the Wolof word which encapsulates the generous and civic-minded qualities of individuals – as practiced by women in politics, as pursuits of piety, and social obligations. This blog post is part of a larger comparative project of women in politics and the intersections of cultural and political critique. She is currently teaching as a fixed-term assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Michigan State. Her paper “The Politics of Téranga: Gender, Power, and the Political Equality Movement in Senegal” was runner-up for the 2016 APLA Graduate Student Paper Prize.


[1] Author’s own insertion

[2] Le Soleil 2010

Works cited

Aretxaga, Begoña. 1997. Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland. University Press.

Brown, Wendy. 2006. “Finding the Man in the State” In The Anthropology of the State: A Reader. edited by Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta. Blackwell Readers in Anthropology 9. Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

Enloe, Cynthia. 2014. Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. Univ of California Press.

Hale, Sondra. 1997. Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State. Westview Press.

Kennedy, Jessica A., Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Nicole M. Stephens. 2016. “Does Gender Raise the Ethical Bar? Exploring the Punishment of Ethical Violations at Work.” Exploring the Punishment of Ethical Violations at Work (April 25, 2016).

Klein, Ezra. 2016. “Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know.” Vox.com. June 22. http://www.vox.com/a/hillary-clinton-interview/the-gap-listener-leadership-quality.

Mbembe, Achille. 2006. “The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Postcoloniy” In The Anthropology of the State: A Reader. edited by Ardhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta. Blackwell Readers in Anthropology 9. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell Pub.

O’Brien, Donal B. Cruise. 1975. “Saints and Politicians: Essays in the Organisation of a Senegalese Peasant Society,” no. 15.

Republique du Sénégal. 1996. “Loi n 96-11 du 22 mars 1996 relative á la limitation du cumul des mandats électifs et de certaines fonctions. Le Soleil Journal Officiel. Archives Nationales du Senegal.

Smith, David. 2015. “Joyce Banda, Africa’s First Female Ex-President: ‘I Shall Always Be Proud of What I’ve Done’.” The Guardian, May 7, sec. Global development. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/07/joyce-banda-africa-first-female-ex-president-interview.

Thiam, Assane. 2012. “« Une Constitution, ça se révise ! ». Relativisme constitutionnel et État de droit au Sénégal.”          Politique africaine, no. 108 (November): 145–53. http://www.cairn.info/resume.php?ID_ARTICLE=POLAF_108_0145.

Yanagisako, Sylvia, and Carol Delaney. 1995. “Naturalizing Power.” In Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis, edited by Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney, 1–24. London: Routledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s