South Africa has witnessed unprecedented infringements of liberty, particularly that of women and young girls. Women’s Month comes after a wave of increasing cases of femicide, FeesMustFall naked protests, and the EndRapeCulture movement in many universities.
A great deal of feminist literature has been written to challenge the status quo, allow for contestation and powerful lessons, to realise the importance of self-sufficiency, and to pose a question to practices which may threaten individual freedom and fulfillment. I have selected some of this literature to review in this article.
Dissatisfied with the way women are portrayed by male authors, these selected writers have exposed various forms of authoritarianism and subordination as well as mapped ways to overcome them. These books encapsulate human efforts for the imperatives of survival and women’s citizenship. Suffice to concede that these texts set a feminist agenda par excellence through the development of a feminist voice and female emancipation, as is evidenced by the characters in the books. These creative arts do not merely seek to entertain the audience; they are intended to trigger, to educate and appraise the institutions and practices that may hinder the both individual men and women’s prosperity.
Changes: A Love Story, novel by Ama Ata Aidoo (1991)
The concept of marital rape is quite new in the African lexicon. Asare-Kumi reminds us that it “names a probable situation women face in their various marriages but are unable to name or afraid to speak about since sexual intercourse is the prerogative of [a] man”. In her writing, one of the characters, Esi, is in deep thought on how to deal with this, as it is evident that such an idea does not exist in any of the indigenous languages. One cannot understand what one cannot name; that which has no name does not exist. Hence there is no synonym for marital rape in traditional African contexts. Through this appraisal, the writer questions men‘s sexual dominance attempts over women‘s sexual independence. The point that Aidoo intends to drive home is that a woman has a right to do as she pleases with her body, and does not require permission from anyone else.
Aidoo‘s novel does not conceal the dilemma of women’s professional advancement in relation to their personal lives. This is better articulated when Fusena abandons her studies and career ambitions in pursuit of becoming a full-time wife and mother, which in essence allows her husband more room to focus on his burgeoning career.
At the end of the book Aidoo expresses an obvious concern – that society is not ready for an assertive, strong-willed and educated woman. Even though Esi’s economic independence and courage to take charge of her life is commendable, she is on the receiving end of strong criticism from both her family and her husband’s for eschewing her role as a mother since African society does not favour the neglect of constructivist roles as a woman.
Purple Hibiscus, novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
On many occasions, Eugene beats his wife and children when his wife Beatrice fails to obey his orders. Eugene resorts to violence as a punitive measure, and Beatrice miscarriages as a result. When his children share a room with a heathen, they boiling water is poured on their feet.
The legitimate form of power Eugene wields (as head of the family and as a provider) heralds his will over his family. According to Foucault (1983) “… the mechanisms of power enables certain persons to exercise power over others.” It is with this in mind that one learns that Beatrice has become accustomed to her husband‘s violent behaviour, therefore, she remains stoic. Whenever a fight ensues between Eugene and his daughter Kambili, Beatrice pleads with her husband to stop. This is indicative of the glaring power structures in an institution such as marriage.
Through the relationship between Eugene, his wife, and children, Adichie examines the complicity between power and oppression. The employment of violence is a mechanism designed to help keep women ‘in place‘ and discourage them from challenging patriarchy. Eugene Achike‘s violent endeavours is a reflection of how some men as heads of families resort to violence in an attempt to enforce obedience from their families. Adichie puts forward an important theme of female education to raise women‘s consciousness and independence, a theme aptly expressed by many writers such Aidoo in Changes where Esi‘s economic self-sufficiency because of her education always allowed her to move away from her matrimonial home, when marriage became inimical to her human progress.
The Joys of Motherhood, novel by Buchi Emecheta (1979)
As she articulates, manhood in a traditional Ibo society is a privileged position. As a man you are entitled to polygamy and the man benefits through his wives’ labour. Consequentially, it becomes the man‘s responsibility to bear male heirs who will carry the family‘s bloodline. If a man is infertile, albeit concealed to protect him from public ridicule, his manhood is in question.
The more children a man has, the greater he has achieved and is extolled.
There are other privileges that are associated with this achievement, such as drinking palm wine and being installed at the peak of the social food chain. But according to Emecheta‘s writing, traditional culture evolves as a result of colonialism. Ultimately the main character, Nnaife, finds solitude in his progenies and feels like his wives have mistreated him. Emecheta’s book is an oblique to recognition of choice as an instrument to freedom.
Should you buy these books? Most certainly; not because they are insightful, but call for changing perceptions and seeing women as a powerful and human social group. These books, most importantly, birth a project of writing and righting women’s narratives.