Features behind the Marginalisation of Women in Chinua Achebes's Things Fall Apart and Ousmane Sembene's Xala
The two novels; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Xala by Ousmane Sembène have striking similarities as well as differences with regard to the way women are treated. This treatment is both from societal and authorial perspectives. The two novels are however, completely different in terms of setting both in time and space. Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s, in the Nigerian village of Umuofia during the coming of the "white man" to Nigeria while Xala is set in the 1960s in Dakar, Senegal when most African countries, including Senegal, became independent. Despite the different settings in both space and time, we observe that in both these novels, women are generally marginalized. In this essay therefore, we try to compare and contrast the features behind the marginalization of women in the two novels.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart portrays Africa, particularly the Nigerian Igbo society of the 1890's, right before the arrival of the white man. Things Fall Apartanalyzes the destruction of African culture by the appearance of the white man in terms of the destruction of the bonds between individuals and their society. The novel portrays the clash between the whites' colonial government and the traditional culture of the Igbo people. The novel is about a very strong man, Okonkwo, and his rise to great prestige, fortune and power which in the end were overshadowed by his inevitable death. Exiled for seven years, Okonkwo, a tribal leader returns to his village only to find that colonial laws and the Christian religion have weakened the identity of the tribe. In the end, he took his own life and hung his lifeless body to a tree. Okonkwo's demise was not because of colonization, but rather his downfall was attributed by his obsession with masculinity. Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, partly in response to what he saw as inaccurate characterizations of Africa and Africans by British authors. Achebe, who teaches us a great deal about Igbo society and translates Igbo myth and proverbs, also explains the role of women in pre-colonial Africa.
Ousmane Sembène's Xala examines the paradoxes which colour an African world emerging from a history of French colonial rule. Xala is basically the story of El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a Muslim business man living in Dakar, Senegal, and the misfortune he suffers after his third marriage. The novel follows several weeks in El Hadji's life and his "rapid decline from affluence to total humiliation and ruin." After the wedding ceremony, El Hadji is unable to consummate his marriage to N'Gone. He believes himself to have been cursed with xala (pronounced "hala"), a condition which leaves him impotent. El Hadji agonizes over this dilemma and sees numerous ‘marabouts' (healers) suggested by his trusted friends and colleagues. None are able to help him and El Hadji continues to obsess over his sexual loss, ignoring his business and financial affairs, which he later discovers are failing miserably. El Hadji, is a member of the ‘Businessmen's Group,' a coalition of Senegalese businessmen who have come together to gain control of their country's economy and combat the invasion of foreign interests. In travelling the ‘road... to certain wealth,' El Hadji and his cohorts have used corrupt and dishonest tactics in attaining their present positions. In Xala, the weaknesses of Senegalese economic structures are mirrored by Sembène's depiction of the social world - in particular, the relationships between men and women.
With this background, we now compare and contrast the features underlying the marginalisation of women in these two novels. To begin with, we observe that in both Things Fall Apart and Xala, having more than one wife was seen as a status symbol. Women were in this respect regarded as mere appendage or property belonging to a man. Women were bought and sold into marriage. In Xala, whilst the onus was upon the man to show he could provide for his women, the fact still remained that once a female became the ‘property' of the said man, she become little more than an object. In Things Fall Apart, the women did not merely wait for the husband to provide but did some considerable work themselves.
Women in Xala can to a certain extent be viewed as ‘gold diggers. We see in the text where one woman, speaking to her friend, on El Hadji's wedding said, "strings or not, I'd marry El Hadji even if he had the skin of a crocodile" (Sembène, 1976:5). The woman would get married to El Hadji, not for love but for his money and this is the same for N'Gone who, young as she was, married old El Hadji simply for monetary and material gain. Women in Things Fall Apart cannot be said to be ‘gold diggers' because they knew well from the start that as they went into marriage, they were expected to support their households by growing ‘women's crops' unlike in Xala were all El Hadji's wives did was sit at home. The skill they were only good at (especially Oumi N'Doye) was how to spend their husband's hard earned money. When El Hadji lost his money, he lost his wives along with it. Only his first wife, perhaps because she herself owned her villa, remained until the end.
In both novels, we see that the more wives one married, the higher they got on the social status ladder. Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart had married three wives and Abdou Kader Beye in Xala had just married his third. Obsessed with masculinity, Okonkwo aspired to get the highest title in the land. He was obsessed with status, in an area in which ‘title-less' men were scornfully thought of as women. Acquired a number of titles already, and with three wives in his possession, Okonkwo knew he was on the right track. However, he was very crude to less successful men. For instance, he publicly insulted Osugo, a less successful man, by calling him a woman during a kindred meeting. In Xala, El Hadji boasted to his friends, "I have now married my third wife, so I am ‘captain' as we Africans say" (Sembène, 1976:3). This third marriage, as Sembène (1976:4) puts it "...raised him to the rank of the traditional notability; it represented a kind of promotion." Old Babacar, N'Doye's father, had only one wife. "The fact too that he had not taken a second wife made him vulnerable to male criticism" (Sembène, 1976:6). Contiguous with this is the assumption that if men are so preoccupied with masculinity and sexuality, then women are simply a tool with which they (men) gratify themselves.
As we see in Things Fall Apart, ‘...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, 1962:37). The world in Things Fall Apart is one in which the patriarchy intruded oppressively into every sphere of existence. It is an endrocentric world where the man was everything and the woman nothing. And so Okonkwo ruled his family unit with an ‘iron fist' and expected everyone to act on his commands. We see in Things Fall Apart, that authority completely lied in the men. The women therefore, just had to dance to the men's tunes. Women in Things Fall Apart were stripped off their authority due to societal norms. Okonkwo was so obsessed with masculinity to the extent that his family, especially his wives suffered greatly at his hand. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo did many things to prove his masculine quality and one thing that Okonkwo repeatedly did throughout the novel was beat his wives. Similarly in Xala, we see that El Hadji also could not allow himself to be commanded by a woman. When Rama, his first daughter tried to oppose his marriage to N'Gone, a girl her own age, El Hadji gave her a slap and retorted, "You can be a revolutionary at the university or in the street but not in my house, Never!" We also see in Xala that when Yay Bineta the Badyen instructed El Hadji to take off his trousers and sit on a mortar, he refused. As Sembène (1976:20) puts it "Being ordered about by any woman was not in the least to El Hadji's liking and he was sufficiently westernised not to have any faith in all this superstition. ‘No!' he replied curtly and walked out...." However, we see that unlike Okonkwo, El Hadji is not so successful in exacting his authority over his women. Muslim women are often envisioned as playing the role of humble servant to a dominating male figure. El Hadji's second wife, Oumi N'Doye, however, employs powerful skills of persuasion and mental torture to exact what she wants from her husband. Often, it appears as if El Hadji simply plays the role of economic provider for his three families, enjoying neither the love nor companionship of his wives and children.
In both Things Fall Apart and Xala, we see that despite the general marginalisation of women, some women particularly stand out as powerful. We see in Things Fall Apart that on a general scale, however voiceless and powerless she might have been, an Igbo woman historically had some important roles. Women constituted the core of the rural workforce. Okonkwo made his wives and children work strenuously though they were not as strong as him. And, as Uchendu told Okonkwo, a woman has a life giving power that is to be revered on some level; this is why "Mother is Supreme" (Achebe, 1962:94-95). And this mysterious power is also why a woman, Chielo, can be priestess. Uchendu says, "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, 1962:94-95) It is in this statement that we witness the contradictory placing of women within Igbo society. As a caretaker, as a comforter, woman, or what the notion of woman denotes is held in high esteem yet the quality that the idea of woman connotes within the society, such as weakness, is vilified. Ironically, Okonkwo who embodies his society's notion of a ‘manly' ideal is vanquished by his tribe by the committal of what they consider to be a ‘female ochu': "The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent." (Achebe, 1962:86)
In Xala, Sembène reveals the true nature of gender relations in Senegal, a world in which it is widely assumed (especially by westerners) that women are completely powerless under the domination of men. In fact, the female characters in Xala, most notably El Hadji's wives and the domineering figure of Yay Bineta, the Badyen exhibit the power that many women in fact yield over their male counterparts. El Hadji's marriage to a third wife, N'Gone, occurs not as a result of his own volition, but rather due to the scheming of the Badyen (Yay Bineta). A headstrong and eloquent woman, Yay Bineta is able to manipulate El Hadji into accepting a third bride. Playing a game in which she was "well-versed," the Badyen "did battle with El Hadji in the ancient, allegorical language preserved by custom." In her exchanges with El Hadji, the Badyen alternates from sweet and subtle hints to outrageous accusations in order to pressure the man (Sembène, 1976:7). N'Gone's mother, Mam Fatou represents yet another example of a powerful woman. Her husband, Old Babacar, admits that "his wife's authority was limitless," and Friends of his own age-group all said that "it was Babacar's wife who wore the trousers in the home..." (Sembène, 1976:6) Rama is another powerful woman we see in Xala. Empowered through her education, she was rebellious and could not allow herself to be marginalised or manipulated either by men or society. For instance, she told Adja Awa Astou, her mother that, "...I will never share my husband with another woman. I'd rather divorce him." (Sembène, 1976:12)
To sum up our essay, we can say that the features behind the marginalisation of women in the two novels are diverse. Despite this however, masculinity towers above the rest as the most significant. Having more than one wife was seen as a status symbol in both novels. To men, women are mere property and therefore, tools for their sexual gratification. Unlike those in Things Fall Apart, women in Xala can be seen as gold diggers, ready to marry anyone with money. Authority (especially in Things fall Apart), lies in the men and women are not expected to challenge them. Despite this marginalisation exacerbated by the men's sense of masculinity, some women stand out prominent as powerful. These include: Yay Bineta the Badyen; Mam Fatou, N'Gone's mother, and Rama, El Hadji's first daughter in Xala and also Chielo the priestess in Things Fall Apart.
Achebe, Chinua (1962), Things Fall Apart, Ibadan: Heinemann.
"Achebe Chinua" Microsoft® Student 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2006.
Sembène, Ousmane (1976), Xala, Connecticut: Lawrence Hills & Company Publishers.