Associate Professor, Department of English, Bharathi Womens College, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Mariama Ba, a Senegalese writer and feminist, wrote in French. Born in Dakar, she lost her mother in her early childhood. She was raised by her grandmother in a Muslim tradition. She had the fortune of being educated with her Father’s support .She began to look at the inequalities between the sexes in the African tradition with a critical eye and took it up as her mission to expose and critique the power structures that suppressed women in a patriarchal and a polygamous society. Family to her is an important inner sphere which established the power hierarchy that extended itself conveniently into the outer social sphere politicizing the rationale employed to justify the established power structures. She strongly felt that people should be made to understand the complementarity of man and woman in all spheres as she felt that women are plunged in all aspects of life and made to suffer for the consequences of men’s actions on families. There is a lack of regard for women who silently go through the turmoils. Men are never allowed to repent for their domineering nature. Ba has written two novels: SO LONG A LETTER (1981), SCARLET SONGS (1986). Her novels depict her strong exploration of feminism. She lends a powerful voice for the women of Africa who are oppressed by culture as well by the virtue of being a woman, treated as the weaker sex. Even as a child she realized the importance of a WOMAN in a family, as it is only a woman who as a multitasker shoulders greater responsibility in carrying the tradition of a society. Ba urged the African women to identify themselves and believe in themselves so as to overcome the multiple hurdles that obstruct her path. She was very firm that only education can bring the change in a woman’s life, especially the married life. Through her women characters Ba expresses herself and exposes the social differences that block the progress of women. Her only mission was to tell the world through her books that a complete growth of a society involves a complementary approach by the men and women which will effect only on equal grounds possible solely through education. Education is the window through which light gleams and allows women to make certain decisions that could also topple any existing patriarchal archetypes. This could lead to the path to empowerment. This is the message that Ba sends through her writings.
Keywords: patriarchy, religion, islam, african culture, women’s rights, liberating the self.
Molaro Ogundipi-Leslie, a former professor of African Literature at Ogun State university, Nigeria, comments on the importance of the part played by the African woman writer to present a genuine female point of view in an effort to deconstruct and rewrite misconceptions about women’s lives, she points out thus:
The female writer should be committed in three ways: as a writer, as a woman and as a Third World Person; and her biological womanhood is implicated in all three. As a writer, she has to be committed to her art, seeking to do justice to it at the highest levels of expertise….Being committed to one’s womanhood…would mean delineating the experience of women as women…destroying male stereotypes of women….Being aware of oneself as a Third World person implies being politically conscious, offering readers perspectives on perceptions of colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism as they affect and shape our lives and historical destinies. (Ogundipi, 28).
Mariama Ba was born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal, then part of the French West Africa. As part of her education Ba was exposed to reading books and this may have inspired her to take up writing as a carrer. She used writing as a weapon to reveal to the world the amount of oppression the African women were silently going through in their lives for centuries. Patriarchy as a dominant system had ruined the harmony and the joy of living for a woman. Therefore as an educated woman and a teacher she took up her pen to lay down the plight of the women of her society and made a clarion call to awaken them from ignorance and inspired them to be educated to taste the fruit of freedom and the joy of life.
Ba emphasised that women should use their writing skills as a weapon to drive away the social evils that had pushed them to the dark inner space. Harrell Bond Barbara, in an interview with Mariama Ba records the words of Ba on the art of writing books thus, “Books are weapon perhaps, but they are a weapon.”(Bond 2003:214)
Thus the words of Ba advising women to write the conditions of suppressed life with its untold miseries during the colonial and the post-colonial times proved effective as many women heard her call and seriously took to writing, telling the world that African women were the worst victims of patriarchy. Women writers wished to get back the good old days, the past glory of pre-colonial Africa when life was rather calm and peaceful.
The African women writers took to writing as a means of protest against the unequal laws that held women as vulnerable objects. Mariama Ba initiated into writing with her two novels which display the recurrent themes such as: motherhood, emotional and economic independence, formal education, resistance to oppression and their entry into the outer sphere. In an interview with Barbara Bond, Mariama spoke of the role of the woman writer thus:
The woman writer has a special task. She has to present the condition of women in Africa in all aspects. There is still so much injustice….In the family, in the street, in the institutions, in society, like men, we must use literature as a non-violent effective weapon… (Bond, 2003:214)
Ba echoes the voice of many such African women writers that literature is the best vehicle to express their conditions of living; she has carved a pivotal place in African literary circle with just two novels to her credit. This is evident from the women characters through whom she brings out the desired transformation which in turn would she believed inspire the common women folk to “make the change”.
In her novel, So Long a Letter, (1979) she points out to the misuse of the Quranic verses by some of the selfish narrow minded males. Ba’s power rests in her women characters who make the change by taking a bold decision. There is no looking back! They subvert the societies’ notion of a woman’s role in the patriarchal, polygamous set up in Senegal. One must note that it is history that polygamy predates Islam in West African Islamic societies.
The Islamic principles seem quite clear that Islamic religion has not sanctioned polygamy for the sake of fulfilling man’s lust or passions. On the other hand polygamy as a practice was necessitated in a different historical context. It is necessary to look at the primary text Quran to understand this problem of polygamy. The fourth chapter of the Quran deals with this social issue that the Medina Muslim community faced after the battle of Uhud, in the early 7th century. The quranic verses concerning polygamy are included among the 176 verses that comprise this Surah that focuses on the issues concerning women, orphans, inheritance, marriage and family rights. After the Uhud Battle there were a number of widows and captives. Under such dire situations it was pertinent to protect the destitute women, lest they become prostitutes or beggars.
At this juncture the Quranic verses came into practice as a measure to prevent women from begging or prostitution. It is said that before polygamy was adopted as an institution, many other options were laid down to protect the helpless women and orphans. These methods proved futile and so polygamy became the only means to give shelter to those needed. But in the course of time, Islam began to be misrepresented by men as well as by some greedy women as well to overcome poverty.
Polygamy is a situation in African societies, where a man simply marries as many women as he wishes, with the women living within one compound as co-wives. To those men it is a mark of social status. In the French colonised Senegal 94% of the people are Muslims. Even the educated men prove to be polygamous, whereas educated women, like Ba and her characters prefer to be in a monogamous relationship. In the post-colonial era, women look at polygamy as the bane of the society. The primitive, indigenous practices in the name of culture is being challenged by the Western educated women, who stand as torch bearers for the future women of the Dark Continent. Ba takes this initiative through the two women in her novel, So Long a Letter, who do not procrastinate, but plunge into immediate action by shunning their husbands and daring the system of polygamy. This decision is taken as a result of betrayal and abandonment by the male members in the family. The women have been victims of exploitation for too long and therefore, representing the women in general, the two women in the novel: Ramatoulaye and Aissitou make this decision of living without their husbands in a community that favours polygamy.
Modernity does not seem to have made any change in the plight of women as even the Western educated men as in the above novel, indulge in polygamy. Ba points out to this predicament thus:
A man must be like an evenly balanced scale. He must weigh out in equal measures his compliments and his reproaches He must give equally of himself. He must study his gestures and behaviour and apportion everything fairly”. (Ba, 1986:7)
To support Ba’s stand on equity in married life and a balanced behavioural pattern, Rafi Ullah Sheheb, an Urdu writer on Koran and Islamic philosophy quotes from his book Islamic Sharia:
And if you fear that ye will not deal fairly with orphans, marry women, who seem to You, two two, three three, four four; and if you fear that you cannot justice (to many Wives) then one only. And let those who cannot afford marriage keep themselves Chaste until Allah provides them with means. (1997:172)
Rational minded people would agree to the fact that Islam does not sanction polygamy to fulfil man’s carnal desires. Islam considers love as an essential ingredient in marriage. Although Islamic laws award equal rights of separation to both men and women, it is true that only men enjoy such rights. This marks the beginning of the inequality in the Islamic principles.
Ba presents this one sided feature of the West African Islamic reality in her novels. Echoeing Ba’s contempt towards man’s selfish nature, Sr. Anne Nasimiyu-Wasike, African woman theologist, in her book: Polygamy- A Feminist Critique condemns the practice of polygamy in traditional African societies. She goes on to say that the African society conveniently stores several historic justifications for polygamy. One of the reasons it was believed was that it was a way for man to ensure his place in heaven. The traditional African wisdom was that a man survives through his sons; to maintain his lineage man wanted to have as many male off springs from as many women as possible. This greed and unfair desire ended in polygamy.
If we troll through some of the prominent texts like: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel or the West African, Senegalese writer, Sembene Ousmane in his writings as well as in his films, have portrayed the menacing effects of polygamy on the African women. In these works we find women allowing themselves to be a second, third, or even a fourth wife, based on the fame and fortune of the men. In the name of social responsibility, men also take advantage. However, Colonialism has shattered the peace and communal harmony to a certain extent. It is true that the modern period showed less concern with the Islamic principles or ancient Islamic laws.
Ba’s So Long a Letter, categorised as an Islamic Feminist novel, clearly shows the emerging female discourse which displays the equal space to both man and woman in the post colonial Africa. Her novel consists of A Long Letter carrying the lament, pain, anger and despair of Ramatoulaye, the protagonist, whose husband had deserted her after a marriage of 25 years. The novel is a critique of polygamy. The novel also displays a very interesting aspect: that of celebrating “female bonding” in the face of male domination. This may have later emerged into the “sisterhood concept” in the voice of the feminists. The enduring friendship between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou her friend provides the needful support mutually, because they have a common cause of being unfairly deprived of their husbands emotions and financial support.
So Long a Letter is semi-autobiographical, epistolary novel originally written in French and was translated into English by Modupe Bode-Thomas, a Nigerian. The letter is a strategy used by Ba to warn, caution, and educate the young African men and women against polygamy. The occasion for writing this letter being Ramatoulaye’s recent widowhood and she was in her mourning period, she remembered her friend and wanted to share her feelings of being a victim of deception.
Ramatoulaye’s husband Modou marries a young girl, Binetou, their daughter, Daba’s classmate, without consulting or informing her or the twelve children in the marriage that lasted for twenty-five years. She writes to her friend, Aissitou, who is also an educated woman working, a teacher like her. We also learn that in Islam, women have no say in this issue of polygamy and that they do not even have the option of going out of the marriage. In the novel, the Imam, (one of the religious elders) says that, “there is nothing that one can do when Allah the Almighty puts two people side by side.” (p. 36)
Ramatoulaye cannot endure this pain of betrayal, not only to her but to her children, especially to the eldest daughter, whose former friend is now her stepmother. Unlike her friend Aissoutou, Ramatoulaye was not going against her culture to divorce her husband, as she did not want to give up the identity as a married woman and the wife to Modou. There was a notion among people in general that the African women are mistreated as they are hyper-sexual and erotic. Ba disapproves this and through her heroines proves that they are individualistic and can stay alone with dignity.
Ba chooses writing as a medium to counsel women to be educated and write their stories to dispel darkness and experience the aura of liberation. Women who have only been in the inner sphere of life, are capable of handling situations and people in a better way being in a profession. Ramatoulaye takes pride in being a teacher and compares teaching with the Army service: Teachers according to her plant the flag of knowledge and morality.
Ramatoulaye expresses her dairy of events as a widowed heroine using flashback technique. The virtue of friendship is treated as above even love, by these two friends, who share their experiences of marriage and failure of it to the second wives. They both feel cheated by their Western educated husbands who have not changed for better. In a protest against polygamy they both make the change .The custom of polygamy allows a woman to remarry her husband’s brother, if the husband dies. After her husband’s death, Ramatoulaye’s brother-in law, Tasmir, comes with the Imam to marry her. Ba’s contempt for polygamy takes a straight plunge when she makes Ramatoulaye defy the tradition and reject the offer of remarriage thus: “you forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from one hand to another hand.” (p. 58)
So long a Letter is thus an educative story, telling the young readers that education is the way to shun certain practices and be the change that the writer had dreamt of. The two women in the novel make this change possible. While Ramatoulaye prefers to stay inside the marriage, Aissoutou takes a bold step by divorcing her husband. She could not bear the indignity of living with a second wife. She writes a letter to her husband thus:
I cannot accept what you are offering me today in the place of happiness we once had. You want to draw a line between heartfelt love and physical love. I say that there is no union of bodies without the heart’s acceptance, however little that may be….I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way. Goodbye. (Ba, 31-32)
The decision Ba’s two women take sets the trail for the African women in general. Using Literature as a true and unfailing weapon, Ba presents the reality prevalent in African societies. Both Ramatoulaye and Aissoutou become positive role models not only to their children but to the children of Africa in general. Their advice is to blend knowledge and education within tradition in a positive manner. Ba ends the novel with the transformed women who face life in a rather clear manner, setting as examples for a better Senegalese society. This was the dream that Ba had and she set the right path for the future.
The two women achieve by liberating their self by breaking traditions in the following ways: First, the two women marry progressive and educated men opposing their parents; Second factor of defy takes place when these women did not accept dowry in marriage; Third and most important factor of defying tradition was when Aissoutou divorced her husband, in a land where divorce for women is a non-entity. Ramatoulaye for her part, tells the Imam clearly that she had borne twelve children to her late husband with whom she shared a span of twenty-five years. She would prefer to remain as his wife and be the change that she desired to have against the system of polygamy. Ba has proved in word, in her writing to awaken her society against traditional practices which do not have any meaning in the modern times. Ba strongly felt that Polygamy is a social evil and it should be erased off. If Ramatoulaye and Aissoutou could do it, every African woman could do this, in Islam or in any other tradition. With this message Ba’s text echo the words that “Personal is Political”. Ba set the torch of liberation through education and the fire is still burning, spreading its wings in Areas of Darkness. Let There Be Light in the world of women!!!
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