Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: July 23, 2019
Taku Catherine Arrey-Ngang
B.A. (Hons) English, M. A African Literature, Ph.D in View
PGD Women and Gender Studies, University of Buea
South West Region – Cameroon, Central Africa
The burden of being a woman in Africa is a heavy weight to bear. The man claims authority over the woman, and since the woman is economically dependent on the man, she succumbs to all the anguish metted on her. Tsitsi Dangarembga in Nervous Conditions and G.D Nyamndi in Facing Meamba have both shown the African woman as one whom patriarchal impediments have reduced to a voiceless nonentity. Guided by the African feminist approaches to literary criticism, this paper has argued, supported by the selected texts, that the social pressures which silence women in African societies are often the product of patriarchal power. Today, the emphasis by feminists is on creating a society free of economic exploitation and all forms of oppression; a society where there is equality and justice for all; where women have a voice and can transcend socially imposed limitations on them. While it is generally agreed that African women live in the shadow of men, this work contends that through the revolutionary actions of some female characters, women employ violence as one of the strategies to deconstruct themselves as a cultural ideology. Dangarembga and Nyamndi are voicing the voiceless women in Africa by creating a new woman whose voice is ground-breaking and revolutionary.
Keywords: Voicing, Voiceless, Appraisal, Aesthetics, Violence, Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Women are valuable in the sight of society. They bear life, they nurse, they cherish, they give warmth and they care for life. All human life passes through their own bodies. In some African societies, women are highly treasured and esteemed as wives, mothers and economic agents. This multiple role of the African woman as mother, spouse, educator, life-giver and peacekeeper, makes her the surest gauge of family dignity and pride. She is the foundational pillar upon which all the family and community structures rely. Directly or indirectly, it is actually the woman who manages the entire community.This is so because the family is the nucleus of every society. She can even be said to be more efficient and proficient than any First Lady or Mme Minister.
According to John Mbiti in The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion, women feature very prominently in African Mythology. The woman was highly regarded as the mother of creation and giver of life. Some myths speak about an original Mother of mankind, from whom all people originated. For example, the Akposso (of Togo) tell that when Uwolowu (God) made men, He first made a woman on the earth and bore with her the first child, the first human being.
The main idea here is to link human life directly with God through the woman. She is created by God, and in turn becomes the instrument of human life. She rightly becomes the one who passes on life. This is beautifully illustrated in a myth of the Tutsi of Rwanda. According to this myth, the original pair of human beings was in paradise. But both the man and woman were sterile, andcould not bear children. So they begged God to help them. God mixed clay with saliva and formed a small human figure. He instructed the woman to put the figure into a pot and keep it there for nine months. Every day the woman had to pour milk into the pot, mornings and evenings. She was to take out the figure only when it had grown limbs. So she followed these instructions and after nine months she pulled out what had now become a human being. God made other human beings usingthis method, and these later increased on the earth.
This shows the important place that the woman has even in God’s sight. She has to nurture and groom to life. Mbiti opines that:
The pot is here a symbol of the womb of a mother, in which a baby takes shape and after nine months it is born. The woman shares directly with God in a personal way, the secrets and mysteries of life and birth. This role of the woman in sharing in the mysteries of life started already in the mythological time. (6)
Unfortunately, however, the reality for many women in Africa is an ugly picture of impoverishment and battering. Many women are victims of violence and have for a very long time suffered oppression, subjugation and repression. Their basic human rights are violated and many are indeed denied their dignity. Chimamanda Adichie in “Africa’s Women Speak Out”, a BBC News programme, perceives the role of women in this modern time as “economic”. She says that women still lack the economic power brought by equal opportunities. The challenge women face, she contends, are caused by the “male dominated societies that are suspicious of change”. However, she maintains that African women have shown that they are “capable of excelling in positions of real influence…they need only to be given the opportunity”. Adichie believes that women can bring about change most successfully by questioning assumptions, by being informed and by speaking out and taking responsibility for their own lives.She queries in her interview with BBC: “who benefits where a woman is silenced in the name of African culture or religion? The men.”
Silence, it is assumed, has an energy to it like no other source. It has the power to get people to think and to act; it can help slow the mind down, and it is a powerful ally in the likes of counselling and making a real breakthrough in life. Silence helps turn our thoughts and focus inwards and we gain the power we need to refuel our minds. Our ego is temporarily switched off or at least made to be quiet for a bit, and we start to see the real world as it should be. Sometimes our thoughts get in the way of our reality and we do not see the beauty of the world around us. So when there is silence there is time for introspection and to allow our true self to speak, not theego or the conscious mind, but the real person connected to the flow of energy around us.
This is however not the silence that this paper refers to; this work refers to silence as in having no freedom of expression, not allowed to speak out. Silence which means voicelessness; someone who has been indoctrinated to not speak about happenings around him/her. In this article, silence will not simply mean ‘not speaking out’, but will be used in a more dynamic, transitive sense to imply the social pressures exerted on women by patriarchy and culture.
Sexist and gender-based insults are levied by men on women who dare to venture beyond their specified space. To such men, women are inferior creatures and should be denied positions of power and influence. The result is that they are silenced in society. As Mary Eagleton says,
when women speak of being silenced, they don’t mean they are incapable of adequately speaking a language: rather they are referring to those social and cultural pressures which undermine their confidence and make them hesitant about speaking. (16)
These social and cultural pressures which silence women are often the product of patriarchal power in the African societies. Today, the emphasis by women is on creating a society free of economic exploitation and all forms of oppression; a society where there is equality and justice for all, a society where women have a voice.
As a result of the plight and predicament of women, feminist critics largely agree on three pertinent points: 1) to expose patriarchal premises and resulting prejudices, 2) to promote discovery and re-evaluation of literature by women, and 3) to examine social, cultural and psychosexual contexts of literature and criticism. As feminists re-read male texts, they describe how women in those texts are constrained by culture and society; the second and third purposes thus follow naturally from the first. The male exclusivist and autocratic worldview is beginning to tear up under the surge of female pressure.
In relation to education and power dynamics in Cameroon and Africa, Emmanuel Konde in African Women and Politics: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Male-dominated Cameroon argues that,
The absence of women from political structures of colonial Cameroon resulted from the fact that access to western education was opened to them very late. Colonial reforms introduced to benefit women were few, half-heartedly implemented, and slow in materializing. A major factor that contributed to this outcome was the strong opposition that emanated from the indigenous male community. (3)
This opposition is proof that men do not want women to share in their patriarchal power.
With new perspectives, feminist literary critics quickly find themselves moving towards the study of sexual, social, and political issues once thought to be exclusively the reserve rights of men. Sandra Gilbert’s definition of Feminist Criticism corroborates the point this article sets out to examine, namely that:
Feminist criticism at its most ambitious seeks to decode and demystify all the disguised questions and answers that have always shadowed the connections between textuality and sexuality, genre and gender, psychosexual identity and cultural authority. (36)
The point above is further expatiated by bell hooks who states in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre that: feminism is “a movement that aims at making women equals of men” (238). Elaine Showalter reinforces the above contention by identifying three historical phases in women’s attempt to regain their voice: the feminine phase, (1840-1880), during which writers imitated the dominant tradition established by men, the feminist phase, (1880-1920) during which women protested and advocated minority rights; and the female phase, (1920 to the present) marked by a turn inward for identity and a resulting rediscovery of women’s texts and women.
This work preoccupies itself with the feminist literary criticism from the late 1980s to the early 2000. It is possible to trace the concept’s gradual development from a vocabulary of silence, absence and hiding to that of revelation, uncovering and revolt against the androcentricism that had dominated literary discourse in African fiction. In America, feminist activism found fertile ground in the Civil Rights Movement. Before this time, women had been subjected to violent oppression and subjugation. One of the Movement’s key achievements was the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993. It covers physical, sexual and psychological violence as well as violence both at home and elsewhere in society). This Declaration is the first international human rights instrument to exclusively and explicitly address the issue of violence against women. It affirms that the phenomenon violates, impairs and nullifies women’s human rights and their exercise of fundamental freedoms. The Declaration, published by the United Nations Department of Public Information, defines gender-based abuse as:
Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life (online).
The scourge/ nemesis of violence against women has been emphasized over the last decade through the holding of expert group meetings sponsored by the United Nations and other international bodies to draw attention to the extent and severity of the problem.
Distinguishing between sex as determined biologically and gender as a psychological concept that refers to culturally acquired sexual identity, Kate Millet in Sexual Politics argues that “…the essence of politics is power… and the most fundamental and pervasive concept of power in our society is male dominance” (qtd in Wilfred L. Guerin, 187). This male dominance is reflected in novels, plays, poetry and short stories by men where women are culturally defined and constructed. Against this backdrop, Helen Chukwuma says:
…the female character in African fiction hitherto is a facile lackluster human being, the quiet member of a household, content only to bear children, unfulfilled if she does not, and handicapped if she bears only daughters….Docility and complete submission of will is demanded and enacted from her. This traditional image of a woman as determinate human being, dependent, gullible and voiceless sticks especially in the background of patrilineage, which marks most African voices. (131)
It is this image of the African woman that African writers like Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, George Nyamndi, Tsitsi Dangarembga strive to deconstruct. The woman who was represented and presented by patriarchy as inferior, voiceless and good only for work and procreation has been deconstructed here. Woman, who had to be silent, has suddenly burst forth. She has become assertive and knowledgeable; and moved from subservience to eminence.
Before this radicalism and rebellion against patriarchy, literary representations of women came mostly from the pens of men and were nearly always critiqued for their gender prejudices. Literature was seen as a key location for the creation, expression and maintenance of a sexual politics that oppressed women. For this reason, literary analysis has come to be viewed as an essential means of reinstating the woman. This is one of our major preoccupations: to examine women’s place in society and the role they have played in it, the reasons for this role, and the ways that it can be changed.
1.1 Statement of Problem
In Cameroon and Zimbabwe, which are largely patriarchal societies, women live mainly in the shadows of men and are for the most part perceived and treated by them as objects. It is the major contention of this work that the two writers under study decry the injustices done to women and girls in their societies, and challenge patriarchal values that work against women and excludes them from the socio-political, economic and cultural domains. And so having been excluded from public life and still occupying largely peripheral and powerless positions, women have developed a different voice; a voice that is intended to undermine the male dominant voice and sustain their own voice.
From the above stated problem, this paper will attempt to answer the question “What is the place of the woman in a patriarchal society?”
In view of the statement of the problem and research question as stated above, this article hypothesizes that in a dominant male society that is patriarchal in perception and execution; women live in the shadow of men and are subjected to many forms of oppression and repression. The work contends that women have been silent for too long and are now fighting to unfetter themselves. One of the strategies that authors employ to bring women’s voices alive in a patriarchal system is the use of violence (which may be subtle or overt) by the women against their oppressors. Such violence has its specific philosophy and intentions: the liberation of the oppressed.
1.3 Rationale for the Choice of Texts
Two novels have been chosen for this study, one written by a female author, Tsitsi Dangarembga and the other by a male author, G.D. Nyamndi so as to analyse the women’s struggle from both female and male feminist perspectives. The novels are Nervous Conditions and Facing Meamba respectively.
This researcher chose to analyse Nervous Conditions in particular, firstly because Tsitsi Dangarembga was the first Zimbabwean female author to be published and she received such acclaim for her work and secondly, because we believe that the central themes and problems that are explored in this novel are relevant to the struggles that women in Africa are facing every day.
The choice of Facing Meamba was informed firstly by its relatively fertile ground for exploration since it is newly published; and secondly because its major theme is gender inequality and patriarchy. This theme is at the forefront of all the sub-themes in both novels and is illustrated through the relationships between the men and women in the novels, that is to say both family and spousal relations. Many young girls and women living in both urban and rural communities in Africa choose or are forced to put their education on hold or drop out of school due to family responsibilities or a lack of financial support from their families. It is also a fact that many African families are headed by older men who hold a dictatorship over their families. They are the sole decision makers, making women voiceless and compelling them to live in passive silence, making them victims of emotional and sometimes physical abuse. This is a reality for many women in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and many other African countries. In fact this is how it has always been, is taught and passed down through the customs and traditions of the people. These two novels depict these themes well and open up debate about the happenings that many people are unaware of. In the patriarchal society that we live in, many African women who lack education believe that it is the duty of a good woman to be submissive to her male counterpart and community. This article is thus hoping to make the reader aware of the goings-on of these unjust practices, their physical consequences as well as the psychological impact these biased attitudes have on the women they affect. It is equally to show how African women’s problems and struggles are the same whether in East or Central Africa.
The choice of these two novels is determined by the authors’ examination of the burning issues of women’s subjectivity and voicelessness, and how the female characters adopt survival strategies in order to give meaning to their lives in a dominantly patriarchal society.
The dual influence of tradition and patriarchy perpetuate the supremacy of men over woman in the traditional African communities. While tradition prevents the woman from carrying out certain functions or being liberal in her behaviour, patriarchy imposes the man’s influence over her lingering liberty. As a result, the woman and the girl child live at the periphery while the man takes the central roles. Women are held down by traditions and cultures that keep them from attaining their goals, (including early marriage, motherhood, gender roles etc) and which define spheres and spaces for them. Patriarchy on the other hand gives the man privileges that endow him with authority, power and supremacy over the woman. According to bell hooks,
Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence. (18)
Such violence may take different forms including dowry murder in South Asia and ‘honour killing’ common to Muslims.
2.1 The Male Gaze
The male gaze refers to power relations that imply marginality of the feminine sex by the male. The female sex is often termed the weaker sex and isexpected to carry out functions that do not involve the use of force or physical strength; while the man is expected to be physically more powerful and ready to embrace challenges. In his book Masculinity and Power, Arthur Brittan reiterates the interrelation between gender and power when he opines that, “At any given moment, gender will reflect the material interests of those who have power and those who do not (ix).
Laura Mulvey relates the male gaze to watching cinema and ascribing the women in the film to sex objects for men. She argues that cinema provides a visual pleasure through scopophilia and identification with the on-screen male actor. David Allen equally notes that scopophilia is “a desire to look at sexually stimulating scenes especially as substitute for actual sexual participation…”(6). In this study however, we shall take scopophilia to mean treating some people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and/or unobserved gaze. Mulvey argues that Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is the key to understanding why film creates a space where women are viewed as sexual objects by men. According to Mulvey, the combination of the patriarchal order of society and looking as a pleasurable act (voyeurism) creates film as an outlet for female sexual exploitation.
The feminist interpretation has, however, modified the importance of the male gaze in the years after 1975 and has formulated certain applicatory conditions for its effective use. At the same time, feminist theory has shown that due to changes in conditions of production and reception, men may also become the object of voyeuristic gaze. The inclusion of the texts by Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes has opened the possibility to assign subjectivity even to the gazed-atobjects. The masculine look can be reverted, albeit not always as an equal.
While Mulvey perceived the male gaze as a means to present the female body as an object for a voyeuristic and sexist practice of the spectators, Michel Foucault conceptualizes the male gaze as a form of societal power at the brink of modernity. The male gaze in this study will follow the thoughts of Michel Foucault and will be used to mean male power and authority especially over women. Foucault argues that patriarchy serves to put women in a weaker position, making them subject to the male gaze, to male desires and purposes. In the article ”Body Politics and the Muscled Woman”, Honi Fern Haber posits,
Women act in collusion with patriarchal power because they are constituted within discourses that give ‘woman’ meaning as subjects of male gaze. In the classical genres, the female body is sexualised, providing the exotic object for the male spectators…(141)
The above thought always occurs as a result of socialization. The woman has been so nurtured and groomed to accept the fact that the man is more powerful and has an overriding authority over her to the extent that she accepts to play any role ascribed to her submissively.
This is what happens in Susan Lori Parks’ Venus, a play based on the journey of SaartjieBaartman, an African woman taken from South Africa in 1810 to exhibit herself in London and Paris. It is a story of commercial, scientific and sexual exploitation that reveals the cultural consequences of imperialism. Baartman’s story is thatof an exploited young African woman exhibited at a freak show attraction in Europe from 1810 until her death in 1826 under the name Hottentot.
Parks’ Venus reveals the inhumanity residing at the black heart of imperialist culture. For Saartjie Baartman, like many oppressed African women, there could be no salvation, no exit from complete degradation. No redeeming sentimentality can be called forth from this romantic European early-nineteenth-century fantasy of scientific progress during which human beings were reduced to objects for the pseudo-scientific scrutiny of people who used them to slake their sexual desires. This is what Honi Fern calls ”exotic object for male spectators.” Baartman becomes an object for male gaze and sexual pleasure.
In the world at large, it is assumed that men everywhere and at all times have been women’s superiors and the work men do is more highly valued than that which women do. As such, power, bravery, and authority are mostly attributed to the male sex while powerlessness, weakness, timidity and silence are seen as the qualities of the female sex. Claire Renzetti and Daniel J. Curran in Women, Men, and Society point out traditional traits identified as feminine. If you are a woman, most people expect you to be rather passive and dependent, also emotional and given to crying easily. They will think of you as nurturing and happiest when you are caring for children, preoccupied with your appearance, disinterested in business affairs and world events and inept with things mechanical. It is against such a sexist backdrop that most men ascribe marginal spaces to women. On the other hand, they also identify traditional traits seen as masculine. If you are a man, you must be assertive and independent, always in control of your emotions. They will think of you as ambitious and happiest when pursuing your career, preoccupied with your studies or your job, well informed about business and world affairs and mechanically inclined. (2) All these attributes are found in the male characters of the two texts under study. However, some female characters refuse to stick to the feminine traits prescribed for women; they go out of their way by venturing into male domains in a bid to free themselves from the ”burdens of being woman”. While Tambudzai in Nervous Conditions is bent on having a sound education, Lemea in Facing Meamba is a no-nonsense girl who fights patriarchy overtly, refusing to be intimidated by boys and rejecting being forced into marriage.
The male gaze in this work will be used to mean male power and authority especially over women. It will refer to those structures of power in patriarchy that perpetuate the “othering” of the African woman in both novels and which cause limitations to their physical and psychological development.
In a typical African society, the woman’s place is in the home (kitchen) and the duties ascribed to her are those of child bearing, nurturing, and caring for her family. The woman is expected by culture to be submissive, dutiful, enduring and caring to her husband and his family. This is what obtains in the two novels under study.
Karl Marx believed that all of history could be reduced to two tiny words: class struggle. In any period of time a dominant class exploits a weaker class. Marx defines a dominant class as one who owns or controls the means of production. The weaker class consists of those who don’t (online). In Marx’s day, the age of the Almighty Industry, the means of production were factories. But as a literary theory Marxism needs no factories to act as means of production. All that are needed are words, specifically chosen to justify an official view of a dominating class, in our case, men dominating women. This official view is sometimes disguised as what we might otherwise call culture.
Marxist theory can be applied to Nyamndi’s Facing Meamba. First let us examine the story itself. Facing Meamba tells the story of a little girl who is denied an education, forced to accept early marriage, and groomed by culture to believe that men should dictate the way of life of women. In this fictional world of Nwemba, the dominant class is the male who think that they have a right to control not only the women’s actions, but also even their thoughts. Boys intimidate girls, men beat up their wives and patriarchs dictate the way of life of the women. This is what Marx calls class domination. However, when the members of a class become aware of their exploitation and the conflict with another class, according to Marx, the proletariat will then take action against those that are exploiting the lower classes. So when Lemea realises that her tradition is prejudiced against women, she takes action by fighting back. She refuses to be intimated by boys or to marry someone she has no affection for.
In Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga focuses in particular on a small group of five women who struggle to be heard and to succeed in a world that often aggressively seeks to silence and control them. Though in a way these women are successful in their struggle, their victories are not grand. They do not openly challenge the status quo (patriarchy) or topple repressive systems (colonialism); neither do they alter patriarchal behaviours and men’s ways of thinking. However the female characters stage a fight, that of challenging the notion of culture, gender and even religion.
All the female characters are portrayed as victims of patriarchy. There is the central character, Tambudzai, who is initially denied an education because she is female; Maiguru earns a salary which is spent entirely by her husband; Mainini, by custom, cannot sit in a meeting that determines her children’s future because she is female; Lucia is sexually exploited by the men around her because she is female and unmarried – she is perceived as an object for the satisfaction of the men’s sexual and libidinal desires; even Nyasha, the westernized kid, is often scolded by her parents for lack of respect to her elders.
The concept of patriarchy has been used within the women’s movement to analyse the principles underlying women’s oppression. The concept itself is not new. It has a history within feminist thought, having been used by earlier feminists like Virginia Woolf, the Fabian Women’s Group and Vera Brittain. The anti-Marxist sociologist, Max Weber, has also used it. Theoretically the concept of patriarchy has been used to address the question of the real basis of the subordination of women, and to analyse the particular forms that it assumes.
At the most general level, patriarchy has been used by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics to refer to male domination and to the power relationships by which men dominate women. Eisenstein on the other hand posits in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism that patriarchy is a sexual hierarchy of the man, which is manifested in the woman’s role as mother, domestic labourer and consumer within the family.
Unlike radical feminist writers like Kate Millett, who have focused solely on the system of male domination and female subordination, Marxist feminists (Marxist feminists are feminists who ally themselves with the philosophical and economic theories of Karl Marx) have attempted to analyse the relationship between the subordination of women and the organization of various modes of production. In fact, Marxist feminists have adopted the concept of patriarchy in an attempt to transform Marxist theory so that it can more adequately account for the subordination of women as well as for the forms of class exploitation. The concept of patriarchy has been used in various ways within the Marxist feminist literature. To take an example: Juliet Mitchell uses patriarchy to refer to kinship systems in which men exchange women, and to the symbolic power which fathers have within these systems, and the consequences of this power for the ‘inferiorized… psychology of women’. (402) The defining characteristic of a patriarchal culture for Juliet Mitchell is that within it the father assumes, symbolically, power over the woman, and she asserts that it is fathersand their ‘representatives’ and not men(as in radical and revolutionary feminist analyses) who have the determinate power over women in patriarchal culture.
Heidi Hartmann equally retains the radical feminist usage of patriarchy to refer to male power over women and has attempted to analyse the inter-relationship between this and the organization of the capitalist labour process in the article ‘Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex’.
According to Carol P. Christ in ‘Patriarchy as a system of Male Dominance Created at the Intersection of the Control of Women, Private Property, and War, Part 2’, she suggests that patriarchy is a method of male dominance that has been rooted in the spirit of war which justifies violence which is approved by religious symbolism, in which men control women and their sexuality, with the purpose of passing wealth and assets to male heirs only thus insuring their dependability and loyalty of their women. Christ also states that men were taught from an early age to be ruthless heroes of war, and this would guarantee their success. They were told to kill men and rape women in order to assert their dominance. They were taught to seize land and steal treasures, to exploit resources and to own and dominate slaves (online).
There have been great attempts to explain the phenomenon of female oppression in biological terms. Sociologist Steven Goldberg suggests in The Inevitability of Patriarchy: Why the biological difference between men and women always produces male dominationthat men are more competitive than women because of the testosterone they produce.This therefore makes them more aggressive and hungry for power and status and this inevitably leaves women in a more subordinate position. Goldberg further states,
Whether we are referring to woman’s response to male aggression or to the emotions underlying woman’s universal role as life creator and life sustainer, feminine behavior and the institutions that are related to this behavior are as inevitable as patriarchy and are inevitable for the same reasons. (25)