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The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power

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In this study it is revealed that although African women writers depict female protagonists in their prose, it is not always the protagonist who is depicted as having absolute control of her life but another female character who remains in the category of primary characters.  For example, in So Long a Letter, the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is a strong woman who is rather acquiescent in nature; however, her alter ego, Aissatou, is the character depicted as not only strong but actively resisting the cultural status quo.

Although the above notion may be attributed to acquiescence towards a male-dominated literary world, the researcher believes it also to be a result of literature reflecting reality.  It is true that, in real life, two women with similar capabilities would react differently to same circumstances; one may choose to resist and to bring about a change whilst the other may decline to react believing that resignation is the better option.  The depiction of Ramatoulaye and that of Aissatou therefore serves to reveal differing reactions of women to restrictive situations and the researcher believes that as long as this is reflective of reality then it is acceptable.

In Nervous Conditions and Far and Beyon’ one recognises main characters that are depicted as strong and thus able to work through barriers to cultural emancipation.  For example, on realisation that she is overlooked on an opportunity for schooling, Tambu, the main character in Nervous Conditions decides to grow crops to sell in town, which is a self-enterprising venture.  In a similar way, Mosa in Far and Beyon’ is depicted as self-empowered, as she is able to rally fellow students against sexual harassment in her school.  In this manner, African women authors do portray women who are strong, educated and powerful.

Moyana in Jones and Jones (1996: 20) explains Tambu’s realisation of her circumstances as a process of “becoming” and quotes Broughton’s reflection that Nervous Conditions is a “hopeful book, both in the sense of impending change…and in the scope and subtlety of its critique of gender relations…”  The women in the novel are said to undergo some struggle and to emerge as different people at the end; as people who have grown in character.  The author explains that it is through analysing the struggles and the changes these women go through that readers can understand why she says that the woman’s voice is new and revolutionary.  Moyana (1996) further quotes Dangarembga as saying that she deals with women who break away from oppression but find themselves caught in a guilt trap.

Education is crucial to the emancipation of women’s lives in terms of culture and in terms of power.  It is necessary to show this aspect in literature as authors can use it as a powerful weapon to educate the discerning reader.

The depiction of Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood offers insight into how the lives of some women can turn out if they are not afforded an education.  They would have been able to make better decisions in their lives, as they would have been aware of available choices in life.  Education frees the woman from entrapments of culture that is accepted without question, that is not analysed and reviewed even though culture is considered dynamic.  It further enables both male and female to recognise that their roles in society do not have to be on opposing sides but that they should work well for the betterment of society.

The women exemplified in the texts selected for purposes of this study have varying educational levels.  Some are illiterate, others are attaining an education, whilst yet others already have a tertiary education.  In light of this aspect of the depiction of women, African women authors contribute to the importance of education in the liberation of women.  For example, Maiguru in Nervous Conditions, and Aissatou and Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter all hold a tertiary education and while Mainini in Nervous Conditions and Nnu Ego in The Joys of Motherhood are illiterate, Tambu, Nyasha and Lucia in Nervous Conditions are attaining an education.  Firdaus, in Woman at Point Zero, is depicted as very intelligent.

According to African culture, power in women is deemed unbecoming and so aspirations for status are deemed unladylike.  This influences some women’s choices, in that the woman might have capacity for a position of power, however, she may opt not to reveal this for fear of reprisal.  In this way, the woman forfeits personal empowerment in order to be seen as conforming to cultural expectations of her community in and to be accepted.  Ramatoulaye is a prime example of a powerful woman who observes cultural practices, as she is aware of the repercussions that would result from any show of resistance.  The researcher concludes that the depiction of female characters in this way serves as a tool by African women authors, to reveal the true nature of the circumstances of women in society.

There are characters, however, depicted in the primary sources used for this study that opt to empower themselves and to face their circumstances head on.  A character such as Aissatou is one, as she not only opts out of a polygamous relationship, but empowers herself and circumvents retribution by moving out of her community.  The researcher’s contention stems from the fact that Aissatou has to relocate in order to experience self-fulfilment, yet realises that the depiction vividly reveals what women in real life have to contend with.

Firdaus’s realisation of power, after a lifetime of abuse, also raises questions, as she kills one of the men who abuse her and is ultimately sentenced to death.  El Saadawi uses this extreme situation that can be found in real societies, where desperation translates into measures that may not be socially acceptable.  The researcher argues that as cultural trends experience change, this aspect should come through in the literature of African women authors.

The depiction of women portrayed in the texts that were used for this study has revealed that women are still subjected to a culture that negates their capacity for high levels of participation in society.  However, these texts have also revealed that more and more women are gaining awareness of their oppression and choosing to resist it.  In terms of education, the women are portrayed, in ways that reflect real life situations, in that some are educated whilst others are not.

The researcher realises that if these women were all uneducated or if the opposite were true, this would not reflect real situations.  In relation to power, the women are portrayed as not as powerful as their male counterparts who have access to high positions in their communities, another resemblance to real life.

It is in light of the above that the researcher concludes that African women writers reflect real-life situations in the depiction of female characters in their prose.  The portrayal of women as protagonists draws readers’ attention to the plight of women through female characters in the texts who are characteristic of a cross-section of real women; some educated, others not, some powerful, others not.  The researcher believes that as the dynamic changes and more and more real-life situations reveal successful women in terms of power and education, African women writers will also begin to depict female characters reflecting the change.

African women authors contribute to the empowerment of women through their writing hence there is a need for more writers on the African woman’s condition and thus a focus on women, by depicting them in primary character roles.  Emerging African authors, both male and female, should be aware that they could further contribute to African literature by enhancing the female character depiction alongside that of the male character, if this is so in reality, as literature is said to mirror reality. 

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power



 1.1 Background

The portrayal of characters in the works of African writers of prose reveals a preference for male characters as protagonists while female characters are often depicted as supporting characters.  Male heroism is more dominant in the writings of African male authors and Kumah (2000: 6) attributes this to male dominance of the literary world.  The author states that:

As a consequence of the male-dominated literary tradition, many of the depictions of African women are reductive – perpetuating popular myths of female subordination.  Female characters in male-authored works are rarely granted primary status – their roles often trivialized to varying degrees – and they are depicted as silent and submissive in nature.

One example of male heroism is reflected in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, where Okonkwo, the protagonist, is male (Achebe: 1958).  Stratton (1994) states that female characters in this novel are mentioned alongside property, as if to say their male counterparts own them.  For example, Okonkwo and another male character, Nwakibie, are said to have barns of yams and wives (Achebe: 1958).

Stratton (1994: 25) states that the status of women in Umuofia is very low and argues that this gives the picture that “they are mere objects, willed, for example, by a father to a son as part of an estate or traded for a bag full of cowries.”  The author argues that with the exception of Chielo the priestess, the women are depicted as “down on one knee before their menfolk.”  Kumah (2000: 7) quotes Buchi Emecheta, a female writer from West Africa, as saying that “the good woman in Achebe’s portrayal is one who drinks the dregs after her husband.”

In Eddie Iroh’s Without a Silver Spoon, the main character, Ure Chokwe, is a young man who possesses good traits that, although inherited from both parents, are said to stem especially from his father (Mokgosi and Seboni 1998, 22).  This presents the picture that Ure Chokwe’s goodness is attributed more to his father’s influence than to his mother’s.

This depiction of positive traits attributed to a father’s influence downplays the importance of the role played by female characters.  Although fathers play a role in their children’s lives, mothers have initial influence over their children as they are the ones who often provide early childcare.  Both parents play a dual role in their children’s behavioural traits and should thus be accorded equal recognition.

A few exceptions of female protagonists in prose by African male authors can be cited.  One such example is depicted in the novel Jagua Nana by Cyprian Ekwensi, in which the main character, Jagua, is portrayed as an ageing, yet very beautiful prostitute (Ekwensi:1961).  Kumah (2000: 7) argues that this is a “prostitution trope that is exemplary of the debasement African women suffer at the hands of male authors.”  Although Jagua is the main character, she does not exhibit the traits of a conventional heroine.  Ekwensi paints a picture of a woman whose beauty is admired by all; however, he depicts her as no better than a common prostitute who depends on male customers to provide for her.

A significant number of African women writers follow the convention of the male character as protagonist.  For example, Mokgosi and Seboni (1998: 25) state that the main character in Bessie Head’s novel When Rain Clouds Gather is a man called Makhaya.  However, more 20th and 21st century African women writers have tended to portray women as protagonists.  For example, in Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego, the protagonist, is female.  Another novel, Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer, also depicts a female protagonist, Rosa Burger.

The study focused on the notion that the portrayal of females in the work of African women authors could depict women in terms of reality, such that if depicted in this era, for example, then they should also reflect African women who are dignified, grounded, successful and powerful.  The study recognised that women have faced and continue to face obstacles to self-fulfillment as a result of cultural restraint, lack of education and barriers to power.  In reality, however, more and more African women have successfully overcome these barriers.

For example, Mmushi (2005: 24) cites a powerful woman in Sindi Zilwa, and describes her as a “real dynamo”.  The author characterises Zilwa as a prime example of woman power.  Zilwa is the Chief Executive of a professional services company called Nkonki.  Mmushi further states that she was awarded the Top Women Business Award “for demonstrating the greatest commitment to and achievement in the promotion of workplace equality for women.”

Another example of a woman who is educated and powerful is Attaliah Molokomme, who has been appointed Botswana’s first female Attorney General. Piet (2005) states that Molokomme is the first woman to be appointed Attorney General in Botswana and in the same article, interviews held with colleagues and friends consistently describe Molokomme as a hard worker who is well known as a legal activist and scholar.

A further example of an educated woman who has overcome gender barriers to power is Judge Unity Dow, the first female judge appointed to the High Court of Botswana.  She is an African female writer of fiction herself and has had two novels, Far and Beyon’ (2000) and The Screaming of the Innocent (2002) published; the main characters in these novels are female.   Far and Beyon’ is a novel depicting a 19 year old young woman Mosa Selato, whose intelligence and determination give her the courage to question tradition and challenge abuse.  The researcher of this study observes that the positive portrayal of Mosa Selato in Far and Beyon’ exemplifies a heroine to be admired and emulated by readers.

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power

The premise of this study was that literary work reflects what happens in real life.  Kumah (2000: 1) quotes Ogundipe-Leslie as having stated that “although literature may be imaginative, it can be used for a systematic study of society.”  A further premise was that beyond the obstacles faced by female characters in the plots of African women authors, they should, as evident in reality, also be shown to experience wholesome levels of personal achievement.

The tendency for African women authors has been, for example, to portray the woman character as educated yet lacking self-empowerment.  For example, in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, the protagonist Tambudzai aspires to become like her educated aunt, Maiguru; however, she eventually discovers that although educated, Maiguru is a subservient wife who leaves most of the household decision-making to her husband, Babamukuru.

If depicted as powerful, the female character may lack substantial education.  In Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, the female protagonist, Firdaus, holds a secondary school leavers’ certificate but she is a prostitute who realises her power only after she has killed a pimp, and is sentenced to death.

Studies such as done by Kumah (2000) and McEldowney (1999), attribute the subservient role of female characters in prose, to adverse literary biases.  McEldowney (1999:1) states that women writers face hardship in regard to their portrayal of female characters due to expectations of critics who are often male, and publishing houses which are often male-dominated.

Kumah (2000: 2) quotes Boyce-Davies, who observes that African literature was initially critiqued by European academicians who used Western, male-orientated modes of creating and evaluating literature.  The author further mentions that the critics of the West were then succeeded by African male writers who “perpetuated the phallocentric criticisms that were previously ascribed.”   As a result, Kumah (ibid) concludes that critiques of African literature are founded on the marginalisation of African women’s issues such that the characterisation of females and the political significance of their portrayal remain unacknowledged.

African women authors write on themes that effectively relay their message on gender disparities: for example, contemporary women writers, as exemplified by the five primary texts used in this study, write on women’s concerns.  The study assumes that contemporary African women writers would depict female protagonists such that, within these recurrent gender themes, they reflect the changing status of women in current political, economic and social spheres. 

1.2 Statement of the Problem 

The portrayal of women as powerful, grounded and dignified in the works of African women authors is subverted by issues of culture, education and power.  McEldowney (1999) examined the cause of under-representation of female characters in literature and attributes this to the fact that critics and publishing houses, often male-dominated, are harsh when dealing with the writings of women.

The author further cites Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions, as having been rejected by four African publishers because they believed it depicted the lives of black women too negatively and states that several African male authors and critics disowned Buchi Emecheta for being too bold in her portrayal of women characters in her novels.  The researcher presumed that in the writings of more contemporary female authors, although the protagonist is often female, she is held back from a wholesome and more positive portrayal by aspects of culture, education and power. 

1.3 Rationale

Studies on African women and literature, for example Kumah (2000) and McEldowney (1999), have generally covered issues on the discrimination, under-representation and misrepresentation of African women in literature.  This study explored further, the depiction of female characters by African women writers and how these depictions reflect aspects of culture, education and power. 

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power

1.4 Aim of the Study

The main aim of the study was to investigate the depiction of women in selected prose by African women authors in relation to culture, education and power. 

Objectives of the study

The following objectives were based on the primary aim of the study:

  1. To explore the depiction of women characters in prose in relation to culture.
  2. To examine the portrayal of female characters by African women writers of prose in relation to formal education.
  3. To determine power relations in respect of women characters as displayed in prose.

1.5   Significance of the study

The study contributes to the field of literary criticism by presenting the role of women writers as an important part of literary criticism and discussion.  The study demonstrates character growth of female characters in prose, by focusing on them.  Kumah (2000: 1) states that the status of women’s authorship and the nature of their depiction in the African literary tradition are studies of great relevance.  The study investigated the portrayal of female characters in the writings of African women and is a contribution to on-going research and discussion on African women and literature, with focus on the three objectives mentioned above. 

1.6 Definition of Concepts

African Women Writers:  In the context of this study the phrase “African women writers” refers to authors of prose who emanate from Africa and are therefore African by descent.

Depiction:  How characters in the primary texts are portrayed. Prose:  Prose is written language that can be distinguished from poetry by its lack of marked metrical structure.

Culture:  A way of life of a society; culture extends to a response to external environments and in this way it is said to be dynamic.  For example, a society will adapt new ways of survival and integrate them into their ways of life to then become a part of their culture. Education: The development of character and mental powers.

Power: The ability to do something.  A force of influence.  Powerful therefore means having great power or authority and powerless would mean without power. 

The Depiction of Women in Selected Prose by African Women Authors In Relation To Culture/ Education and Power

1.7 Methodology

The researcher used both primary and secondary sources in this study.  The primary sources are Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter (1981), Nawal el Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero (1983), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979) and Unity Dow’s Far and Beyon’ (2000).  Secondary Sources include Kalu’s “Women in African Literature” (2000), McEldowney’s “African Women in Literature” (1999), Kumah’s “African Women and Literature” (2000), Ruthven’s Feminist Literary Studies (1984), Stratton’s Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (1994) and Newell’s Writing African Women: Gender Popular Culture and Literature in West Africa (1997).

The researcher conducted a close analysis of both primary and secondary texts, journals, critical essays and studies on the depiction of women characters in relation to aspects of culture, education and power.  Conclusions, which form chapter six of this study, were drawn from this data.

The primary texts represented three regions of the continent of Africa: the North, West, and Southern regions.  The study brought in these different voices and representation from the continent, thus proving that African cultures may have similarities, but are not the same.  The five texts are relevant to this study in that they are written by African female authors, and have women portrayed as protagonists.   The texts are all contemporary as they are published in the latter twentieth century between the years 1979 and 2000.

 1.8 Limitations of the study

 In line with the topic, the study focused on the depiction of female characters specifically and on African women authors.  The study did not cover all the regions of Africa owing to the unavailability of current texts of appropriate length from the Central and East African regions.

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