Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) and the American Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) has started the struggle for identity of women writing imposing the socio-political, economic rights of women. These writers and their works formed the base for feminist criticism and gender studies. A lot of questions were raised against the primitive notions of man-woman relationship inferiority of women imposed by the norms of society. The subjugation of women in socio-political and economic construct all over the world is disclosed in later writing of women. In 1960s, there formed a Women’s Movement to make women aware of their status, rights, duties and responsibilities towards society and it is also maintained that she is the integral part of all the activities around her. The movement increased the confidence of women and made them able to fight against injustices to them. Krishnaswami highlights the traditional role of women and the view of society towards women: ‘In all traditions women have always been considered inferior and incapable of any serious thinking; irrespective of religion, country, race, the period in which they live, more or less the same perception and sex-stereotyping is seen in language and literature.’ (Krishnaswami, et al. p. 74).
The traditional point of view towards woman is erased by the movement and new conceptions and norms about women started to set. Gender studies is one of the off shoots of feminist criticism, more feminist criticism includes Gender Studies as a chief branch. Here it is necessary to make distinction between gender and sex to understand the Gender studies at length. The difference between sex and gender is made by Kate Millet’s in Sexual Politics published in 1970. Krishnaswami argues: ‘Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) makes a distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’; sex is determined biologically where as gender is culturally/ socially/ psychologically constructed through sex-role stereotyping and historical conditioning. Millet argues that women as much as men are responsible in perpetuating the sex-role images. She analyses the repressive role of the male and submissive role of the female.’ (Krishnaswami, et at. pp 75-76).
This article explains and tries to reconstruct the role of women, ill-treatment given to them and discrimination in societies like Igbo representing societies existed all over the world. Things Fall Apart is a novel published in 1958 in English Language by Nigerian postcolonial writer Chinua Achebe portraying the life development and fall of the protagonist Okonkwo. With the main plot of the novel, Achebe dared to unmask the follies and foibles in Igbo cultural society. He also adhered the traditional cultural heritage of the Igbo society with its goodness. Achebe depicted the role, position and status given to women in Igbo community. There we find many nuances as well as vivid references in the novel marginalizing the role, status and position of women.
Patriarchy is a system having the rule of father in family or the head of the family is a male person. Male is a dominant in all in family and society. Women or female doesn’t have any authority to lead a family or society, according to Igbo belief. Igbo considered that women should not interfere in social, political and economic matters. Man is able to handle all the things without the help of woman, she is only a sharing partner to man. She must agree with each and every opinion of man as man always takes right and good decisions regarding all. These facts are shown in the novel.
Okonkwo is the protagonist of the novel as he is a male. He is the supreme person of his family. His development as a successful and powerful person of the clan and his fall as a man cover all patterns of gender discrimination. A successful and powerful person must have more than one wife. This is the symbol of power, prestige and after all success.
‘Okoye (neighbour to Okonkwo’s father) was also a musician. He played on the ogene. But he was not a failure like Unoka (father to Okonkwo), He had a large, barn full of yams and he had three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third highest in the land.’ (Achebe, p. 6).
Okoye’s wealth and position is not complete without mention of his three wives. Again we have same case regarding Okonkwo. ‘He was a wealthy farmer and had two barns full of yams, and had just married his third wife.’ (Achebe, p.11).
Igbo has the counting system of wives–first wife, second wife, third wife, and so on–as we count things. Even they do not mention the name of wife, just they call first, second and third wife, this is what we can say that the roots of gender discrimination lay in the deep socio-cultural psyche of the Igbo community. It is a belief in Igbo society that he is a wealthy person who has more and more wives-more wives more wealthy person.
‘There was a wealthy man in Okonkwo’s village who had three huge barns, nine wives and thirty children, His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first seed yams.'(Achebe, p. 11).
The misconception–more wives wealthier person–continued throughout the novel. Achebe does not shy from depicting the injustices of gender discrimination of Igbo society. It is said that no more or less than Victorian England and many other countries of the world of the same era, the Igbo are deeply patriarchal. Igbo is a highly men ruler society where women has to follow the rules made by men. Living in a society where men rule, Okonkwo has a patriarchal attitude towards his family and does not express his love and affection. He thinks if he shows love and affection, it would be a womanish quality and disgraces his maleness. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.’ (Achebe, p. 12).
It is vivid in the thinking of Okonkwo that one must be a fiery tempered person so that he can rule, especially over woman. To beat woman is a common thing in Igbo society, once Okonkwo’s youngest wife went to plait her hair to neighbor’s house and okonkwo came to know that; with this trivial reason of going out of the house, Okonkwo has beaten his wife severely. He didn’t mind the Week of Peace in which one could not beat or make violence to anyone. It is a traditional, cultural rule of Igbo, but Okonkwo never thought about that and violated the tradition. After the event, he repented for his miss-behave. Okonkwo is a furious and woman dominant person. The dialogue between Okonkwo and his wife indicates that how the power of expression accumulated in the hands of male person in a family, Ikemefuna, a small 5 boy brought to Okonkwo’s house, Okonkwo called his most senior wife and handed the boy to her; the dialogue runs as: ‘He belongs to the clan’, he told her, ‘so look after him.’ ‘Is he staying long with us?’ she asked, ‘Do what you are told, woman; Okonkwo thundered and stammered. ‘When did you become one of the ndichie of Umuofia? And so Nwoye’s mother took Ikemefuna to her hut and asked no more questions.’ (Achebe, p. 14).
Thus, women doesn’t have right to ask any question to men. The voice of women is always neglected and unheard. The above dialogue talks about the suppressive role of man and submissive nature of woman. The language employed here, is a language of a ruler and not the ruled one. Ezinma is the sickly daughter of Okonkwo and Ekwefi. She is Okonkwo’s favorite child; even though she is a girl but Okonkwo frequently longs and laments that Ezinma should have been a boy. Here, the contrast is seen in brother and sister, Nwoye is Okonkwo’s eldest son. He is not very much like his father and is more interested in the stories his mother tells than in stories of war. Okonkwo worries that Nwoye is taking after his grandfather Unoka, and treats him roughly, which ultimately causes Nwoye to hate him, thinking of masculinity very throughout different societies, Okonkwo views aggression and action as masculinity.
Gender differentiation also seen in Igbo classification of crimes. The narrator of Things Fall Apart states that: ‘The crime (Of killing Ezendus son) was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female because it had been inadvertent, He could return to the clan after seven years.’
Okonkwo fled to the land of his mother, Mbanta, because a man finds refuse with his mother. Uchenda explains this to Okonkwo! ‘It is true that a child belongs to his father. But when the father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its 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. And that is why we say that mother is supreme?’
Both extreme points can be seen in Igbo society one worshiping woman as a god and another demolishing her to the earth.
Hence considering the gender roles of men and women, as well as society’s conceptions of the associated concepts, are frequent themes in Achebe’s writing. He has been criticized as a sexist author, in response to what many call the uncritical depiction of traditionally patriarchal Igbo society, where the most masculine men take numerous wives, and women are beaten regularly, others suggest that Achebe is merely representing the limited gendered vision of characters, and they note that in his works, he tries to demonstrate the inherent dangers of excluding women from society, for example, the tale about the earth and sky in Things Fall Apart, emphasizes the interdependency of the masculine and the feminine. Although Nwoye enjoys hearing his mother tell the tale, Okonkwo dislike for it is evidence of his imbalance. Later Nwoye avoids beatings from his father by pretending to dislike such ‘women’s stories’.
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- Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. T.R. Publications Pvt. Ltd. 2006.
- Showalter, Elaine. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Pantheon. 1985.