by Tim Hornyak
Whenever she went to special events such as wedding and baptisms, before leaving her adoptive family home in the West African country of Côte d'Ivoire, Department of Sociology and Anthropology Professor Marie-Nathalie Le Blanc would don her boubou dress, wrap an Ivoirien prayer shawl around her head, and go to work.
From 50 to 60 per cent of the population of Côte d'Ivoire is Muslim, and Le Blanc has been researching new forms of Islam, Christianity and marriage in the tiny sub-Saharan state that borders the Atlantic Ocean.
Anthropologists' strategies for investigating a local culture can vary widely, from distanced observation to active participation and integration. Le Blanc, who earned her doctorate on Côte d'Ivoire's Muslims from University College in London last April, was able to gain a unique perspective on contemporary and traditional Ivoirien life during a total of 30 months of research there.
All possible social roles
"It situated very much the type of knowledge that I got," Le Blanc said of her immersion. "I played a portion of [all] the possible social roles that a woman could have there." Le Blanc lived with a polygamous Muslim family in Bouak, an inland city with a roughly equal balance of Christian and Muslim believers. She taught English at a Koranic school, had her newborn son, Siaka, named after her adoptive Ivoirien father, and baptized him according to local Islamic custom.
Le Blanc has received two three-year grants (one from Concordia's Faculty Research Development Program and the other from Quebec's FCAR program) to build on her doctoral research, comparing changes in Ivoirien secular and religious education and its effects on local religious communities. The goal of her ongoing study is both to question the Western stereotype of Islam as a fundamentalist faith, and to look at what it means to be young in West Africa these days.
While the former French colony's economy slumped in the 1980s and early 1990s partly due to a fall in the price of cocoa and coffee, Le Blanc said that many Ivoiriens turned to religion to alleviate their economic woes, an example of how faith can grow from different needs.
"There is a very large range of Muslims," Le Blanc said "They're not one thing, but a very, very different people. There's a long-standing history of relationships between the Christian world and the Islamic world, which, to a large extent, also ties in to how we see the Islamic world. Think of the Crusades, and the Moors in Spain."
One aspect of Le Blanc's work is to contrast the country's traditional, oral form of Islam to modern forms influenced by formal education in a classroom setting. Another focus is the emergence of Christian youth movements in Côte d'Ivoire that draw upon Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic denominations.
One manifestation of these cultural shifts is changing marriage practices. Young Muslims, for example, are now using their knowledge of Islam to reject traditional, arranged marriages within their own extended families, ethnic groups or regions. The change is a "move away from ethnicity through religion," Le Blanc said, "so you could marry outside the group, as long as the person is Muslim. And Islamic conversion is relatively easy."
Young women are playing an important role in redefining Ivoirien marriage. Historically, Ivoirien women would marry before 20, but recent improvements in the country's educational system and standard of living are causing some women to marry later, around their late 20s and early 30s. They are then better educated and, in some cases, economically independent. For many Ivoirien men, those are undesirable qualities in a wife.
"It's one of the consequences of the democratization of education," Le Blanc said. "One of the direct impacts for young women is that it's hard to find a husband." Women can overcome that stigma, however, through religion. Many abandon their outgoing Western lifestyles of night clubs and bars to settle down to a more domestic, pious existence as mothers.
"You'd be hard pressed to find a man who cooks there," Le Blanc laughed. She is now planning her sixth trip to Côte d'Ivoire to study its young Christian population in greater detail. "It's quite clear that cooking, children and so forth are women's business."