The Struggles of the Female Gender in the Light of the Socio-cultural Realities of Traditional African Society
This paper examines the struggles of the female gender in the light of the socio-cultural realities of the traditional African society from a feminist perspective. Adopting a content analysis as its methodology, Joys of Motherhood mirrors the attitude and perceptions of the male gender against the females. It also unearths the disparities that exist between both genders thereby leading to undue subjugation of women. Thus, a feminist literary criticism shall be undertaken to bring to light the various forms of discrimination and gender biases.
The term ‘feminism’ is relatively modern, though there are debates over when and where it was first used. However, the term ‘feminist’ as put forward by some scholars like Fraisse in 1995 was first used in 1871 in a French medical text to describe a cessation in development of the sexual organs and characteristics in male patients, who were perceived as thus suffering from ‘feminization of their bodies. This term was later adopted by Alexander Dumas; a French writer in his pamphlet I’Homme Femme to signify various women emancipation movement. Feminism is a socio-political movement chiefly concerned about the plight of women in the society which is basically patterned along patriarchal configurations with little or no regard for the female gender. Before expanding in terms of scope and interest, feminism largely began in the West as an institution with the women’s suffrage movement; a movement begun by a group of liberal white women advocating for women’s right to vote at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This landmark event provides an insight to understand and grasp the tenets or concerns of feminism. It is a term that emerged long after women started questioning their inferior status and demanding an amelioration in their social position.
The motivations behind the development of feminism borders on the need to advance the position of women through such means as achievement of political, legal or economic rights equal to those granted the opposite gender (men). These aspirations form the basic thrust for the development of feminism in the West and other parts of the world, Africa inclusive. Defining feminism can be challenging but does not suggest that the diverse opinions and contributions as regards the concept are unacceptable as feminism chiefly centres around advocacy for the right and dignity of women. Vasquez in Reddock views feminism as ‘the struggle to end sexist oppression’ (28). He goes further to opine that feminism does not solely aim to benefit women or any group of women neither does it privilege women over men rather it hinges on the notion of equity amongst the genders and not equality. In order to entertain and perhaps welcome broader concerns of feminism, Reddock defines it thus: the awareness of the oppression, exploitation and subordination of women within societies and the conscious action to change and transform this situation (26)
On a wider and general perspective, feminism is a proposal for social transformation and a movement that strives to end the oppression of women in the society. Nwamaka stresses that ‘feminism seeks a subjective identity, a sense of effective agency and history for women which has hitherto been denied them by dominant (male) culture, (14). Nnolim asserts thus, ‘feminism as a movement and ideology urges in simple terms recognition of the claims of women for equal rights with men…’ (114). In other words, it is a conscious attempt aimed at liberating the female gender from the inherent cultural and socio- political subjugation and conditioning of the female gender in the society. The society is chiefly fashioned along lines of gender discrimination such as assigning or confining certain roles to women by the men who feel that that is a limit to which a woman can go far as far as the society is concerned. Thus, the advocates of feminism see it as a strong response to stereotypes and misgivings held by the lot of the society against the female gender.
Historically, feminist thought and activities tend to be classified into three waves. These are first wave feminism, second wave feminism and the third wave feminism movement. The first wave feminism had vocal women like Mary Wollstonecraft; an author and thought leader in the early 19th century Britain, at the forefront for feminist cause. It was later organized by group of middle class women who focused their attention on issues ranging from education, unemployment and marriage laws of the time. This group now referred to as feminist never choose the title for themselves as such, but their struggle paved way for the married women property Act of 1870.
The second wave which began in the late 1960s continued to fight for equality and calling for the protection of women’s. It also witnessed the development of a range of approaches that drew attention to the specific needs of women. Lastly, third wave began in the 20th century to check the short comings of the second wave. These feminist groups consist of upper and middle class white women who focused on racial prejudices and work place inequality. It is what is now known as modern feminism and practiced by most feminist.
In the same vein, feminism in Africa responds to various forms of discrimination against the female gender which has permeated the continent’s social and political landscapes. It provides a forum for the intellectual activism to wither down the chauvinistic state of the typical African society. In other words, African feminism asserts the African women’s narration and view as routes to understand her experiences.
Feminism in Nigeria
Although the origin of feminism is traced to the West, it is not alien to Nigeria especially as now commands a huge following and popularity in the nation’s political, academic and socio-economic spheres. The concept of feminism has largely featured in the works of many prominent Nigerian writers like Zaynab Alkali, Buchi Emecheta, Zulu Sofola, amongst many others. However, it is important to know that in the work of some first generation writers like Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart, there is adequate portrayal of the role of women in a typical African community which obviously portrays women as second class citizens in the African community. This may be the reason why most Nigeria female writers and even the male writers such as Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, J.P Clark and many others have been writing to empower their female characters in order to correct the ill-notion of culture about the women.
These works capture the reality of the Nigerian society with strong patrilineal manifestations but also demonstrate the underlying strengths and relevance of women. Feminism in Nigeria looks at the peculiarities of the Nigerian society as regards the place, role and position of women as conditioned by the social and cultural parameters and conditioning.
Background to the Study
The situation of women in African societies particularly Nigeria has never been easy but it has improved a lot over the years as more attention is drawn towards the plight of women. It is not uncommon to find cases of the female gender being at the receiving end of multifaceted forms of violence and discrimination. Most worrisome is the fact that many of these victims go on without any form of reprieve. It is against this backdrop of events that spurs writers like Buchi Emecheta to address many of these obnoxious practices against the female while also presenting the stereotyped gender (females) as capable of achieving dreams and goals in life. Through her works, she advances the notion that women can actualize their dreams regardless of their marital or socio-economic challenges. Thus, in her novel Joys of Motherhood, we see the misconception and neglect of the girl child in traditional Igbo society which is a microcosm of the Nigerian society. Sadly, undue emphasis is placed on the male child who is seen as the chain that would continue to sustain the link and name of a family. On the contrary, we also see women emerging as strong achievers in spite of the social-cultural configurations against them. For instance, Nnu Ego and Adaku turn out to realize their dreams and break away from the confines of relegation to the background. In this regard, Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood is indeed a literary masterpiece that centres on feminism in every regard. As such, the feminist ideologies explored and presented in the novel will be subsequently examined.
Brief Synopsis of the Novel
The story centres on Nnu Ego, the heroine. She is the product of a lone relationship between Chief Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona; the only surviving child of Obi Umunna. For Obi Umunna, he has decided that his daughter, Ona would not marry but could stay in his house and have relationship with any man she so desires in the hope if she has a son, the child would bear his name and continue his lineage. Fortunately, Chief Nwokocha accedes to this request and Ona ends up as his mistress. Thereafter, Ona is delivered of a baby girl named Nnu Ego and the death of Ona’s father necessitates her moving to Chief Nwokocha’s house. The novel however begins with the traumatic experience of Nnu Ego who has just lost her first child after several years of unsuccessful attempts to bear a child. The death of this child drives her to a state of madness so much that she is seen trying to jump into a river only to be rescued by one of her kinsmen. Nnu Ego later gives birth to another male child as more children follow in quick succession and she ends up having seven living sons and daughters. Meanwhile, her family’s living conditions worsen partly occasioned by her husband’s irresponsible behaviours. Against all odds, given the state of poverty that confronts her and her children, she is able to feed and train them in the hope that they will later take care of her. She succeeds in given them education and they turn out well. Sadly, her children abandon her when she needed them the most. Although Nnu Ego eventually dies like a pauper, she succeeds in giving her children a head start in life just like Mama Abbey her neighbour.
Sexism, Male Chauvinism and Female Identity in Nigeria: A Feminist Approach
Buchi Emecheta brings to bare the sexist nature and customs of the typical Nigerian society. It is one whereby premium is placed on the male child who is considered as the sustainer of a man’s lineage. As such, the male child is given the utmost form of preferential treatment while females are obviously meant to perform the whims and caprices of the men. First, a woman is afforded respect if she conceives, and not just that but when she gives birth to a male child. Unfortunately for Nnu Ego, she fails to meet any of the expectations and this puts her marriage to Amatokwu in jeopardy. After three years of marriage without conceiving, Amatokwu takes a second wife who conceives just after their marriage. Thus, Nnu Ego’s position as the senior wife is being taken over by the new wife with the birth of a son. To spite her, Amatokwu treats her without regard;
…Amatokwu, who only spoke to her when it was necessary said crisply: you will go and work with me on the farm today. Your young mate may be having my child any time now… (32)
It is obvious that a woman loses her dignity when she fails to meet any of the demands of her almighty husband as is Nnu Ego’s case. Therefore, the love that once attracted Amatokwu to her becomes sour because she could not bear a child for him. Consequently, he reduces her status to the role of a servant- ‘…but now, if you can’t produce sons, at least you can help harvest yams’ (33). Sadly, Nnu Ego’s marriage deteriorated to the level of physical abuse and wife battery- ‘…she felt was a double blow from behind.’ (35). Incidents like these typically mirror the sexist nature of African societies which denies women of hope. In other words, the society places the female gender on the lowest echelon of social class. The girl child is derided and often considered inferior. It is therefore not surprising that Nnaife; Nnu Ego’s second husband chides Nnu Ego for giving birth to a set of female twins. He spitefully refers to the twin girls as object when he says ‘Nnu Ego, what are these? Could you not have done better? (127). In essence, a woman without a male child is not respected. In fact, upon her death, she is taken back to her father’s house because she is considered incomplete. Fortunately for Agwunga; Nnu Ego’s step mother, she is given a befitting burial (buried n her husband’s house) because she is considered complete.
Also, the author x-rays the patriarchal configuration of the traditional African society. Such a system is one that undermines the woman. The man is treated and made to believe he is unequal and above the woman in every respect. For instance, Oshia at a tender age refuses to go fetch some water with Dumbi because he sees her as inferior and himself as the Lord of the farm. Thus he yells back at Adaku ‘I am not going! I am a boy. Why should I help in cooking? That’s a woman’s job. Rather than be allowed to have a say, the woman is considered an appendage to the man. The man’s opinion on any issue is final and therefore cannot be challenged. For instance, Nnu Ego was not consulted when she was given out in marriage to Amatokwu. Three years later when her marriage crashed, she is also married off to the Owulum family by proxy. Her consent was not sought when her father decided that Nnaife, one of the sons of the Owulum should be her husband. Agbadi only tells her ‘you will be leaving next Nkwo day. The first son of Owulum family will take you to his brother in Lagos’ (38). Although she is satisfied with her marriage to Amatokwu, she is disappointed by Nnaife’s appearance but cannot opt out.
Nnaife could tell that Nnu Ego did not approve of him… and what anyway was she going to do about it? (43).
From Nnu Ego’s disappointment about Nnaife, it is obvious that had she a choice, she will not marry Nnaife. Furthermore, Agbadi and Nnaife’s lifestyle depict the male chauvinism of the African society. Both of them marry more wives at will without being questioned. For Agbadi, he plays god to his many wives and mistresses who dare not challenge him. Nnaife as well goes on to marry Adaku and Okpo despite his dire financial situation. However, Nnu Ego lacks the effrontery to challenge him because the society is fashioned to given him dominance.
Furthermore, a feminist criticism of the novel reflects the condition of the female gender. Women are saddled with the responsibility of taking care of their family regardless of the little or no support they receive from their spouses. Nnu Ego bears the brunt of catering for the family as a result of Nnaife’s irresponsible behaviours and excesses. He does not leave enough food money yet expects to come home and find his meal ready. The conspiracy against the women folk in captured in Nnu Ego’s travails as a dutiful housewife in Lagos ‘…but finding the money for clothes, for any kind of comforts, in some cases for the children’s school fees was on her shoulders.’ (53). In the absence of Nnaife, Nnu Ego would toil from morning till evening buying cigarettes from the sailors at the wharf. When this business had low prospects, she delved into selling firewood, all these in a bid to provide for her children. Unfortunately, she is still blamed by the society and her husband for her children’s misbehavior. Thus making her die like a pauper. Nnu Ego did not have many friends as she ‘had been busy building up her joys of motherhood’ (224).
In sum, Buchi Emecheta reflects the struggles and challenges that consistently confront women in African societies as well as their struggles to live up to expectation and avert rejection. We see the heroine taking the burden upon her to ensure she pleases her husband and kinsmen even by going to the length of appeasing her ancestors. Nnu Ego overlooks her husband’s excesses and does her best to ensure that she lives up to the expectation of motherhood. In order words, it is plausible to say that her ultimate dream and goal revolves around building up the joys of motherhood as that is seen as the ultimate fulfillment for women in traditional societies. Anything short of this is tantamount to failure and such a woman is treated with scorn.
Emecheta, B. Joys of Motherhood. London: Heinemann. 1979. Print
Nnolim, Charles. Issues in African Literature. Nigeria: Malthouse Press Limited. 2010. Print
Reddock, R. “Diversity, Difference and Caribbean Feminism: The Challenge of Anti-Racism”. A Journal of Caribbean Perspectives on Gender and Feminism. Vol 23. 2007. p 24-40