Whenever blacks and women are linked in discussions by Western feminists, black women are ignored in two ways - as black people and as women (Hooks 1981, 8). Apart from using the analogy between women and black people, Western feminism has also regularly made use of the image of colonial annexation, whereby the Western white male is presented as a colonizer not only of faraway countries but also of the woman "occupied" and colonized by him.
The woman as a victim of colonization is a tried metaphor, used by Marilyn French among others. Colonialism has been equated with the relationship between men and women and, in line with colonialism's well-known power relationships "the woman" is forced into a subordinate position.
She is deprived of her voice and, like those colonized, she is called unreasonable and emotional, thus representing everything that rational men are not or do not want to be. Western middle-class women have applied this comparison to themselves without taking account of their own contradictory position of being "both colonized patriarchal objects and colonizing race-privileged subjects" (Donaldson 1992, 6).
On the one hand they are privileged beings; on the other hand they are extensions of their husbands. African discussion nowadays more often are held in the context of the notions of feminist emancipation versus the struggle against neo-colonialism. Often this trend is observed in the cultural aspect.
The aim of this essay is to make effort and feature out the treatment of woman and femininity within the context of the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
The central point of Things Fall Apart is author’s counterpoising of principles of masculine and feminine. The ground for such approach lies deep within Ibo tradition. The god, which supervises all others and governs life in Umuofia is called Ani, who is actually the earth goddess. The absence of balance between the manly virtues and the womanly virtues caused Okonkwo’s disasters.
Okonkwo lives in a culture that requires establishing equilibrium between “masculine” and “feminine”, however, he does not admit this principle of equilibrium. The part of reason for this is that he is ashamed of his father who has failed to be a “real man”, and he wants to rise above his father’s habits, idle behavior, which Okonkwo treats as weak and consequently feminine. And it is through his views that he is destroyed.
Okonkwo is presented as the absolute antipode to his father. Okonkwo displays vulgar physicality that virtually incarnates the ideal of manhood supported in his society. On several occasions Okonkwo with his behavior expresses excessive acceptance of the manly ideals.
Okonkwo’s denial to reconcile himself to the developments that bring him to his exile gives the chance to remind about the significance of the female principal, when he is given instructions by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, about the admiration of the mother as source of life in their culture:
‘It’s true that a child belongs to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in it mother’s hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there’. (Achebe 1962)
Particularly in this statement some contradiction in the women’s place in Igbo society can be observed. According to Igbo cultural tradition the nurturing property of women is opposed to the destructive feature of men, the tender is opposed to the violent, the aesthetic is opposed to the practical. Igbo culture associations of femininity with the vital center are enounced in the saying Nneka - mother is supreme.
Woman or just what is implied by the notion of woman keeps on high level as a caretaker. However, the qualities attributed to a woman within the society, such as weakness, submissiveness, emotionality are vilified. Derisively, Okonkwo, the truly embodiment of the social concept of a ‘manly’ ideal, is vanquished by the society due to his committal of so called ‘female ochu’:
‘The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent’. (Achebe 1962)
From this it follows that only females in Igbo society were capable to commit an accidental crime, while males usually pre-meditated, thoroughly planned and carried out a crime.
While the novel highlights the real situation with male dominance as an element of the social system – from the episode with trial ‘...it was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders’ (Achebe 1962).
The story of killing of Ikemefuna implies that under the cover of artificial confidence in his male determination Okonkwo feels uncomfortable in the presence of femininity. Okonkwo is ‘dazed’ with fear at the time Ikemefuna appeals to him.
Okonkwo’s fear is a fear of failure, of situation where one is equated with a man scorned by the society and it makes him oppose with violence, in his unwillingness to be treated as ‘weak’ he assassinates that which has been made to be loved.
The assassination of Ikemefuna is reflected throughout the story by means of the attitude of Okonkwo’s son Nwoye. Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is caused by sorrow engendered by his father and community’s denial to admit an individual to possess such qualities as those of his grandfather and himself.
To Nwoye, ‘The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul- the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed. He felt a relief within as the hymn poured into his parched soul’. (Achebe 1962)
Thus the debate is focused on the established connotations the society imposed on the concept of woman and the consequences of it. There are a lot of examples inside the novel of the subservient position of women within the society. Being weak as has been previously mentioned is firmly associated as female quality.
The society reposes a great importance on a woman’s property to give birth to sons, after bearing her third son in succession a woman’s husband ‘slaughtered a goat for her, as was the custom’.
(Achebe 1962) Women are sold into marriage, while the man’s responsibility is to exhibit that he is able to support her, however, the fact still remains that once a woman becomes the ‘property’ of the man she becomes little more than an object; ‘...no matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children he was not really a man’ (Achebe 1962). Igbo society justifies violence against women.
In his essay Kristen Peterson maintains that Achebe’s conventional women are ‘happy, harmonious members of the community, even when they are repeatedly beaten and barred from any say in the communal decision-making process and constantly reviled in sayings and proverbs’ (Peterson 1995, 252)
The depiction of a ‘woman’s place’ in African society in Achebe’s novel is rather grim. However, the aim of Achebe’s work was not to attempt and criticize Igbo society, it was just an attempt to describe it in scrupulous details. Things Fall Apart presents an image of African society, an image of a consistent social system shaping the own standards of values and beliefs. One may not like or agree with these values or beliefs, they might even be questioned but Achebe’s sole purpose was to capture them.
With this novel Achebe tries to allow African society to give expression to itself in terms of its own cultural experience and of course he provides the future feminist discussions with prolific Africa-oriented material.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1986
Donaldson, Laura E. Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender and Empire Building. London and New York: Routledge, 1992
French, Marilyn. Beyond Power: On Men, Women, and Morals. New York: Summit, 1985
Hooks, Bell. Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. 1981. London: Pluto, 1982
Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe's Myths of Origin. London: Pandora, 1986.
Peterson, Kirsten Holst. "First Things First: Problems of a Feminist Approach to African Literature." The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds. London: Routledge, 1995, pp.251-254.
Schipper, Mineke. “Emerging from the Shadows: Changing Patterns in Gender Matters Emerging from the Shadows: Changing Patterns in Gender Matters” Research in African Literatures. Volume: 27. (Issue: 1, 1996): 155