Models of Femininity in Africa’s Popular Fictions

imagesI would think of a woman’s body as a battle ground you know, but it’s not only her body, it’s her identity and her dignity. Writing this week’s column, I thought about what makes a female a woman.  I realize how many times I hear that word ‘…like a woman’. It’s either talk like a woman, sit like a woman, behave like a woman, dress like a woman… On and on it goes. I began reflecting through my first paragraph;

‘Woman! Thou art only a ribbon taken from a man’s chest. Your worth is in your dowry, your honour is in your virginity, your pride is making a man’s tummy quit rumbling with your sweet meal, and it is in sexually massaging his ego by giving freely of yourself. Your respect is in being called a wife. That is the story of your life and so has it been.’

To be a woman, you have to become an appendage to a man; this has been the predictions of our literatures from the times Things fell apart through to the days of the Lion and the Jewel. Even the Gods are not to blame for this as men alone told the stories. And what do you expect if our husband has gone mad again? He will write in a language of patriarchy, painting the world only in the colours of black or white. There is never a grey colour in between or any other colour.

This remains a burning issue in international development; gender equality! It has become an analytical category for virtually everyk3468324 development activity. We have made a gender case for domestic violence, for agriculture, for health and every other constraints of progressive development around the world. I know many development practitioners like Gloria Steinem, are feminist. They hope for a future where everyone’s individuality and dynamism has expression without discouraging the balance of human right. Thus we continue to appreciate studies that explore the constructions of femininity and masculinity to know precisely where to focus our interventions and alter some undesirable realities in our society.

In trying to bridge the gaps between fiction and development on the issue of gender constructions, I took a look at how femininity has been modelled in our works of fiction. Works of our renowned authors Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka amongst others were ??????????????????????????????????????explored. In their books grown women carried the pot on their heads as Obiageli in ‘Things fall apart’, twisted and untwisted their The Gods Are Not To Blame tnwaist with the smoothness of water snake like Sadiku in ‘The lion and the jewel’, competed and fought their sisters to own the man and capture his straying affection like Lizzy and Sikira of ‘our Husband has gone mad again’. Indeed, women in the era of these works were presented as having small brains, as tools of reproduction, they were possessions of a man, bought and sold by men, promoting polygamy, caressing the man’s ego and enhancing his social status. The characters of Sidi, Sadiku and Ailatu, showed that women helped men build their world. They were defined according to their responsive roles to a man and their domestic diligence. These women were always docile; rarely did they show excitement or speak from their depth to the audience in a voice that conflicts the constructions of femininity portrayed above. I have wondered why there was no woman that sometimes felt like screaming, that told her husband when she did or didn’t want sex. Was there none that sincerely got tired of her marriage sometimes? How about sharing pain and the joys of motherhood? Then I remembered that when men tell the story alone, history is altered.

Flora Nwapa’s ‘Efuru’ came into the literary stage capturing an exact voice for women, be it when they spoke of love, malice or anger. Then Buchi Emecheta was like a breath of fresh air. She brought to the scene a new model of femininity presenting women whose destination was Biafra, who could tell ‘the joy of motherhood’, who shared the pain in being ‘second class citizens’, who were working 11613648-african-womanhard to sustain themselves even though it meant increasing the value of the bride price. Feminine models who questioned conventions burst the scenes. ‘God when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?’ Nnu Ego cries out.  Emecheta’s belief in individuality of human beings showed in her feminist view that laces all her work.

Reading through some of them three decades after they were published, it echoes strongly the thoughts of more women in this generation than in the era it was written. I am tempted to say that most of Emecheta and Nwapa’s works were forecasting and portraying different models of femininity in the future. It is a future where most women like ‘Amaka’ in One is not Enough will express their frustrations and speak out precisely for what they want. ‘… I don’t want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife. There is something in that word that does not suit me. As a wife, am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife, am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul… I don’t want to go back to my ‘wifely’ days. No, I am through with husbands. I said farewell to husbands the first day I came to Lagos.’joysofmotherhood

But how have these models impacted the world of today’s woman? Does Buchi Emecheta’s work represent a certain calibre of women while the depictions of the male authors represent another? Do we have an eclectic combination of the above models in today’s woman? The latter may be the case as our women still set very high premium on children even where they reject the roofs of patriarchy looming over the marriage institution. Like Debbie, many are tired of playing the prescribed wifely role but may play it until they know the joy of motherhood. While morality hangs on conventions of the femininity of the past, it is not seen as a strong driving force for the choices that women make today. Motherhood remains a drive in the definitions and identities women give to them self. It creates the space they need to live a fulfilled life and often their agency is expressed strongly through it. Hence being a wife is still important and honourable but is less honourable than being a mother. That seems like the story of today’s woman.

400_F_42582281_ZUNp1Kbliek4wVQ5lOoVIw9WSABV14qQIt’s amazing how two roles a person plays can strongly define the dignity of an identity. In Flora Nwapa’s character ‘Efuru’, we see how all of her success collapses under the weight of not being a wife or a mother according to a divine order. While being a wife and a mother is a role females can choose to play, it has strongly defined the identity of every female making them worthy or unworthy. I would begin to wonder how happy a female can ever be if she were none, can she just be a woman without being a mother or a wife or does it make her less human? This is the burden of identity women carry through their lives as they live in societies that hold the values that the authors have portrayed in the literatures above. Maybe one radical act a female may adopt, is to claim ownership of her body and her identity, but it seems we were groomed from the cradle not to.

-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Things Fall Apart: Modeling Masculinity

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1231947178e6SVpwFiction writer Paulo Coelho once twitted a question asking ‘What do you consider a ‘real man’ though?’ It evoked many responses. Thinking through, it occurred to me that a real man might be someone who can provide for his family or maybe someone who can impregnate a woman or be sexually in charge like Baroka the chieftain of Ilujinle (in ‘the lion and the jewel’). Then I thought I might want to see a real man as one who has a good head on his shoulder. What makes for a good head and how the shoulder carries that head is yet to be ascertained. I have thought through many men I know to find a ‘model man’ that has stood the test of time but my search suffers a dearth. Indeed all things fall apart, that precisely is the fate of life.

Things fall apart, Chinua Achebe’s magnus opus became my focus for its conceptualization of what many of us understand as a ‘man’ through the character of Okonkwo. In my memories, Okonkwo is one man that equalled so many. He graced our reading tables through novels and our television sets in the 1980’s.

okonkwoUnlike Unoka his father, Okonkwo was the heroic wrestler, a stoic clan leader, economically mobile through resolute hard work, tirelessly toiling the earth, sexually in charge enabling him to take over Ekwefi who was another man’s wife. He is the funder and defender of his household, father to male and female children, owner of lands, and the companion of more than one woman. Though showing flashes of affection, he didn’t subscribe to showing mild emotions even after a machismo slashing of his son’s (Ikemefuna) head. If it was not a show of extremely aggressive emotions like beating his wife and children, fighting for his culture amongst others, then it was too womanly for him to identify with.                                                                                                  The brutally fearless  Okonkwo in different ways had a presumption of what a man should do, have, and be like. It is seen in his assumptions that his son Nwoye is (feminine just like Unoka) having the predilection of a woman.  Ironically, his daughter Ezinma in her sickly body had ‘the right spirit’ of a man.

Chinua-Achebe-71 In Okonkwo’s ideologies, there were indeed men trapped in women’s bodies and women trapped in men’s bodies. His ideologies extended to religious issues where part of his anger with the Christian God is because it was feminine; men are living fire, women are the impotent ashes so are the Gods alike. He hated everything feminine, including living with his mother’s people on exile in Mbanta after committing a female crime in Umuofia. He hated Egonwa for being feminine and discouraging a war against the white

Set in the land of Umuofia where they had male and female crimes, the character of Okonwo in Chinua Achebe’s ‘things fall apart’ is an exciting model of masculinity in the world of literary fiction. The character of Okonkwo is well put together in an admirable way encapsulating the resilience of the Igbo man (if not Igbo people). Though years have passed, yet Okonkwo is an idol to many, sculpting many expressions of a ‘man’ in our society today.

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More than before in development, interest on the constructions of masculinity has risen. Institutions are trying to decipher precisely how roles and identities collide to produce what different societies call a ‘man’ and the expectations thereof. This is traceable to many gender influenced crimes that accrues into the abuse of human rights in recent times. At the centre of such is gender based violence manifesting its self recently in the violent rape of women in different parts of the world. The gang rape of Jyoti Singh by five men struck a cord with the media amongst other and galvanized huge rage in the international community requesting that the anti-rape laws be revised. This raised questions and actions as it is seen to emanate from a lack of respect for the women by men.

Looking at the character of Okonkwo and considering his many protege in the light of international development concerns, some pertinent questions come to mind. Given the time and the number of years that Okonkwo has lived amongst us, has masculinities been redefined or its still primitive covered by modern clothing? How is the adoption of major traits in this model fracturing the human right of individuals in our society? What are the possible pathways it presents and how sustainable is it? Will the dance of time predict new models of masculinities for future generation or will they remain Okonkwo’s protege?

17097444-exhausted-african-man-sitting-in-chair-over-white-backgroundIt is my theory that maybe following Okonkwo’s model of masculinity may give insight into why men have shorter life expectancy than women. I also agree that the strength of Okonkwo’s model of a man is fragile, being built more on roles rather than identities. This way, many external factors can impact negatively and rupture its cells.  The struggle with the Gods over ownership of Ezinma (the only one with the right spirit of a man amongst his children), connotes the struggles of defining masculinity. This might be suggestive of the fact that the masculinity Okonkwo sought may be phantom and may only be found in dead men or the unborn children.I may get it wrong, I am however open to learning…

-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye