01 December 2004

Women's protest through the pen


“The history of mankind is a history of respected injuries and usurpation of the part of man towards woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
(Elizabeth Cady Stanton Declaration of sentiments)


Quite recently, the daily observer published an article entitled ‘Men still dominating: Gambian women worried’ on Thursday, September 9, 2004. This became quite a thought provoking article and that is what brought up this essay on the Women’s protest through the pen. Literature is a powerful weapon through which women are able to voice out their pains and worries as well as enlighten their women folk. They are able to express feelings of love, anger, fear and confidence nobody knew they have. With the use of poems and short stories, essays and novels, they speak out:

“Women are now beginning to think and do more about development of self, of their individual resources.” (Betty Rollin)
“…but women can no longer be primarily mothers and nurses for man: we have our own work cut out for us.” (Adrienne Rich)

The women above arouse feelings to the world; feelings of anger and betrayal, feelings of oppression and domination, and particularly feelings for freedom, self-recognition and identity. Fiction writers, essayists and poets take up the pen fully backed by feminist’s movements who give them moral and intellectual support. Three major themes exposed by North American women will be the subject of analysis: social domination, cultural oppression and intellectual suppression over women. Most of these themes will be compared to the African context.

Social Domination

When social domination becomes a burden, the women reacted like cornered cats. They struck out. In her essay Hunger, the Canadian writer Maggie Helwig wrote, “Women are taught to take guilt, concern, problems, onto themselves personally; and especially onto themselves”. They need recognition as human beings with equal privileges. One of the most discussed topics under social domination is marriage, which is labelled as the institution of hell. In Neil Bissondath’s story The Cage, one discovers the woman’s lack of choice of a husband in the Japanese traditional marriage.

My mother does not have the ability to create where there is none. {…}. My mother and women like her, my father and men like him, will tell you that the man’s world is in the office, the woman’s in her home. But in my parents’ home designed by my father, built by him, his word is law. My mother, if she really believes in the division of domain, lives in a world of illusion.

The husband is lord and master in the home. The simplicity and explicitness of the meaning above is easily grasp by someone living in our part of Africa where the man not only constantly asserts his authority in the home but also finds all the necessary means of maintaining that authority and not lose it. American feminists and women’s rights activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her essay Declaration of Sentiments wrote:

In her covenant of marriage, {the woman} is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, t all intend and purposes, her master – the law giving him power to deprive her f her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

Mary, Lady Chudleigh stressed on the same point in her poem entitled “To the Ladies” an excerpt of which is given below:

Wife and servant are but the same, / But only differ in the name: / For when that fatal knot is tied, / Which nothing, nothing can divide, / When she the word Obey has said, / The man by the law supreme has made, / Then all that’s kind is laid aside, / And nothing left but state and pride.

Mary continues to define the degrading role of the woman and the godly role of the man. At the end of the poem, she exhorts the woman to value herself and despise men of this kind for she, the woman, should be proud if she is to be wise. In the story The Cage, the protagonist’s mother becomes a good example of such domination. The same applies to the mother in So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba and Abdou Kader’s first wife in the story Xala by Sembene Ousmane, who, finding themselves in a situation where their husbands chose a second or third wife, were neither consulted nor their opinion asked for. In the Japanese society for instance, particularly in the traditions of the shrine worshippers – as portrayed by Bissoudath – even if the woman is educated, her rights are limited or non-existent. In fact, she is educated to better serve and obey her husband, who could (or would) use such advantage to make unnecessary decisions affecting the woman. The protagonist mother, for example, took permission to spend her vacation in Kyoto. The father had to play the game of refusal to force the mother to beg, fawn over him and cajole a little to convince the husband to accept them to go. Even if she had realised the deception of her husband, the mother was used to this kind of game and had long before accepted it. Women worldwide respond massively to the struggle against such inhuman treatment in their marriages which can only be qualified as slavery. In So Long a Letter, however, the man hardly considers an educated woman useful elsewhere despite the growing number of educated women. In a conversation between Daouda and Ramatoulaye, the first nurtures the idea that women are destructive once outside their homes. A large number of women in the National Assembly would be disastrous to the country. Ramatoulie retorts, “No, we are not incendiaries, we are stimulants! We have a right, just as you (men) have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities.”
A very famous and successful writer and poet of her time, the American Adrienne Rich – whose principal strength lies in social and political issues – centred her themes on women’s consciousness and their societal roles. With a firm and clear voice, this very distinguished lady reflected in her work a necessity in change of the social conditions by altering social, political and philosophical attitudes toward women, especially Americans. Snapshots of a Daughter in law, one of her most successful poems, pictures a woman haunted by voices telling her to resist and rebel, voices which she can hear but not obey. This is a clear image of the caged woman.

Until we {women} can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge for women is more than a search for Identity: it is part of her refusal of the destructiveness of male dominated society (A. Rich, “WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN: WRITING AS REVISION)

In the story the cage, Michi the protagonist clearly specifies:

In Japan, women marry not for love but for security. The man acquires a kind of maid-for-life. For a person with my ideas, marriage means compromise, an affair not of the heart but f the bank account.

This can be related to the African context where parents decide who marries their daughter, the daughter obeys and never complains. In fact in some cases, the daughter is bartered for financial gratification for the family. Through Bharati Mukherjee’s A Wife’s Story we discover and Indian traditional marriage,

My parents, with the help of a marriage broker, who was my mother’s cousin, picked out a groom. All I have to do was to know his taste of food.

Even in marriage, it is sometimes too difficult to cope and thus the rebellious actions of certain women ensures. Where she endures, such traditions weigh heavily on the woman’s shoulders. In most cases the husband hardly cares for the family, leaving the mother at home to handle the children becoming a servant as Lady Chudleigh describes in the early part of this text. In D. H. Laurence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums, a woman is portrayed living in a loveless marriage and becoming a mother and a servant. The Wolof will call this Meubal meaning a decoration of the house. “He and she are only channels through which life had flowed to issue in the children.” Betty Rollin, in her essay Motherhood, who needs it firmly states that “It doesn’t make sense anymore to pretend that women need babies when what they really need is themselves.” Women eventually found such situations uncompromising. They are not objects or toys. They need freedom and consideration, but above all they need to establish an identity. She is not there to be reduced to an object, her soul and individuality discarded, thereby enabling the man to handle her with greater safety, and making her a toy. She may well prefer to live alone and and rebel against such treatment. One can then say there is little harm in living unmarried. If marriage does not promise happiness, then living alone could be the most advantageous.
Yet living unmarried is more difficult for the woman than the man. In expressing the American society (which is quite similar to the other societies studied here in a way), Evelyn Fox Keller, in her essay Women in Science: A Social Analysis clearly confirms this when she writes, “Our society does not have a place for unmarried women. They are among the most isolated, ostracised group of our culture.” Is this not a fact too in the African context? People tend to be shocked once an elderly respected woman is found unmarried. In most cases, one may be labelled a witch, abnormal or unmarriageable. Like a songbird, the woman is caged and her freedom – which cannot be considered as freedom at all – is to obey and accept social domination and cultural oppression.

Cultural oppression

This has played a primary role in social domination. The reason why Michi in The Cage wanted to flee from cultural oppression was when she realised she had no rights at home. Her strict father and submissive mother were not the ideal image of a free culture. James Joyce’s story Evelyn also portrays a woman, who is brutally handled by her father and very lonely in her surroundings, decides to run away with Prince Charming who will give her a life in paradise. In Michi’s case there is at least no intellectual oppression.

Intellectual oppression

Through the last three centuries, intellectual oppression has been one of the most powerful force against women’s domination. For instance in A Wife’s Story, Panna succeeds in getting educated but her mother was deprived of going for French classes at the Alliance Fran├žaise. Exposing this point in her essay entitled Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes; “He has denied her the faculties for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.” The little right women had in education was so minimal, so insignificant that there was no right at all. Gradually, women began to get access to education and time proved that educated women can be as productive as men an in some cases more responsible. Adrienne Rich in her essay Taking Women Students Seriously gives a confirmatory note when she writes:

But long before entering college, the woman student has experienced her alien identity in a world which misnames her, turns her to its own uses, denying her the resources she needs to become self-affirming, self-defined.

On the contrary, the Japanese tradition as shown in The Cage saw education as a means of tagging a woman’s value for marriage. The better the woman is educated, the better a husband she gets. But that education is not to give her work but it is because men want educated wives.
Today, educated women have proved beyond doubt quality in their work. Where the man is pompous and proud, the woman is gentle and simple. Where the man, though educated, feels it more advantageous to oppress the woman, she on the contrary uses her education to build an understanding and create a harmonious life between them. The man believes the woman cannot live in a man’s world. The woman believes the man alone will find the world a burden without my intellectual assistance. Isn’t it said that educate a man and you educate an individual but educate a woman and you educate a whole nation?


Gambian women such as Dr Isatou Touray of the MDI, Mrs Adelaide Sosseh of Worldview, Hannah Forster of the ACDHRS and Mrs Emily Sarr of FAWEGAM have raised concerns about women’s rights the future of women in national development during their consultative workshop of the AU Women’s Protocol. Issues raised are quite pertinent and they need serious reflection. From the above essay, it has been proven without doubt that women have the motivation, the determination and the will to make Gambia quite liveable and the world around us paradisiacal. Men excel more in self aggrandisement and personal gratification. With an equal dose of the two, equilibrium may be created where the tasty and the sour can douse life’s vicissitudes. Women should be given all the chance they need in all levels of national development. To begin with, bravo to the Editor-in-chief of the Daily Observer who is the first female to occupy such a position in the Gambia. There goes a new productive change and men should not feel unsecured by this. To prove their dedication evaluate the excellent work under women leaders such as Mrs Isatou Njie-Saidy the VP, Ms Maimuna Taal of the GCAA and the former SOS for DOSE Mrs Ndong-Jatta.

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