Analysis Of How Mariama Ba’s ‘So Long a Letter’ Portrays Feminism That Arise In Response To Betrayal
A discussion of So long a letter by the West African woman writer, Mariama Ba, is used as a basis for highlighting the empowering and disempowering effects of particular types of education for women in the traditional African-Muslim context of Senegal. An examination of this issue in the novella would seem to indicate that the marginalization of Muslim women in this and other countries could be alleviated by a religious education which would investigate the differences between Islamic principles and cultural practices as one of its key focus areas. Combined with a secular education taking cognisance of present-day hybrid identities in postcolonial and other states, this approach has the potential to empower Muslim women to become socially and politically active and thereby to reconstruct their status in societies in which the forces of traditionalism often overpower both basic Islamic principles and state legislation designed to promote women’s rights.
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by experiences of abandonment which resulted in feminist actions. Written in post-colonial Africa, I feel that Mariama Bâ uses this novel to voice her cultural and societal concerns which are still prominent issues in the world today. It relays the ‘Salt of remembrance’; the painful experiences and rejection that Ramatoulaye endures. She shares this with her closest companion Aissatou by beginning this diary, her ‘prop in distress’ through which she conveys her heart-wrenching journey of betrayal. At the beginning of the text, the reader has an impression of pain and internal conflict. However, as the text continues, feminism emerges as the positive aspect that salvages what could have been a lifetime of heartache. Mariama Bâ portrays different aspects of feminism that arise in response to betrayal such as: Ramatoulaye’s noble endeavour to find happiness, Aissatou’s extreme reactions and Daba’s mission as a radical feminist.
Mariama Bâ through her use of female characters highlights how certain experiences give rise to feminism. In this case we can observe that Ramatoulaye, Aissatou and Daba all adopt feminist stances which develop in reaction to the betrayal they encounter in different forms: Modou’s disloyalty, Mawdo’s treachery and Daba as a witness to her fathers’ unfaithfulness to her mother, with her very own best friend Binetou.
Ramatoulaye as the narrator clearly represents the most influential aspect of feminism since most of the text is written from her perspective, making it easy to comprehend her rationale for feminism. She is instrumental in conveying many women’s personal experiences and influencing the reader significantly. Mariama Bâ identifies the key cultural problems of her generation. Evidently, polygamy was, and still is a cultural norm in Senegal and in many parts of Africa. So why does Ramatoulaye consider polygamy a betrayal to women despite it being a cultural practice? Firstly, Ramatoulaye and Modou are both said to be educated scholars with a more modern understanding of the world. Because of this, Ramatoulaye had expected that Modou would take a more open-minded as opposed to traditional approach. It then comes as a complete astonishment to Ramatoulaye when Modou unexpectedly chooses to re-marry after twenty five years. This poses the idea that Modou was simply using tradition as an excuse for his attraction to Binetou. Ramatoulaye uses emotive diction: ‘With consternation I measure the extent of Modou’s betrayal. His abandonment of his first family was an outcome of a new life’ which portrays a combined sense of sadness and anger. The word ‘consternation’ shows her bewilderment and shock, while ‘abandonment’ indicates isolation and rejection. She further conveys her feelings of being cast aside: ‘He rejected us. He mapped out his future without taking out existence into account’. Clearly, the strong word choices ‘mapped’ and ‘rejected’ indicate that Modou was cognizant of his inconsiderate actions as the words suggest deliberate thought-out actions. Modou’s betrayal was even more wounding because of his conscious act of disloyalty suggested especially in the geographical metaphor ‘mapped-out’. Undoubtedly, this is the genesis of Ramatoulaye’s feminism.
After establishing the grounds of feminism, the reader can distinguish Ramatoulaye as a moderate feminist. Following Modou’s disloyalty, she cooperates with her co-wife and sympathises with the young Binetou forced into marriage by her mother in the battle of materialism versus maternalism. Moreover, Ramatoulaye continues to question Modou’s dishonesty: ‘Was it madness, weakness or irresistible love? What inner confusion led Modou Fall to marry Binetou?’. Yet again we see the reflective nature of the text through the use of rhetorical questions. They portray Ramatoulaye’s internal conflict as she continues to question Modou’s betrayal. The fact that she still asks questions and tries to blame his dishonesty on madness shows the complete shock of the revelation of Modou’s marriage to Binetou with no valid reason. Modou’s betrayal stings even more because Ramatoulaye had no indication until Tamsir, the Imam and Mawdo attacked her with the news of Modou’s marriage to Binetou. The words ‘madness, weakness’ suggest that Ramatoulaye is searching for reasons to blame Modou’s deliberate actions. To a certain extent, she is in denial. For Ramatoulaye, her love for Modou overpowers the hurtfulness of his disloyalty. This depicts her as a moderate feminist because instead of taking sole responsibility of her husband’s remarriage or the other extreme of totally rejecting him, she takes the middle ground. She tries to understand his rationale without necessarily compromising her own innocence.
In contrast to Ramatoulaye’s subtlety, Aissatou embodies the characteristics of a revolutionary feminist. Aunty Nabou plays a vital role in Aissatous’ actions: her plan was to wed Young Nabou and Mawdo because of her disapproval of Aissatou as the daughter of a goldsmith. This ‘controversial marriage’ was skilfully fragmented after Aunty Nabou trained young Nabou and emotionally blackmailed her only son to marry her approved choice. The outcome of this was Aissatou’s unexpected yet inspirational decision to leave Mawdo. She leaves behind a letter which is memorable to Ramatoulaye. Given that Aissatou’s situation occurred five years before Ramatoulaye’s, this shows that her dignified words impacted Ramatoulaye in an integral manner. Aissatou’s letter culminates in these stirring words; ‘I am stripping myself of your love, your name, clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way’. The use of the verb ‘stripping’ is instrumental in portraying Aissatou’s anger and complete rejection of Mawdo. The word implies tearing away or bitterly eradicating Mawdo from her life. Additionally, the imagery of clothing allows Aissatou to dictate her disapproval of Mawdo’s second marriage and embodies the theme of individual versus society or modernity versus culture. The metaphor of dignity is also significant, it explains that she will no longer possess pride or self-respect if she does stay with him. Thus, she departs by word of a letter leaving Mawdo and the community in disbelief. With this, one can conclude that Aissatou is truly a revolutionary feminist who values her self-worth over the dictates of society.
Aissatou is not the only strong feminist portrayed in the text. Daba, Ramatoulaye’s oldest daughter also emerges as one. This may have been engendered by her father being her best friends ‘sugar daddy’. These experiences moulded her into the radical feminist that she exemplifies throughout the book. At the start of the book when Modou’s property is being distributed, Daba fearlessly demanded the SICAP villa. ‘As for my daughter Daba, she waved about a bailiff’s affidavit, dated the very day of her father’s death that listed all the contents of the SICAP villa’. This shows Daba’s strength and fierceness. The significance of this quote underlines poetic justice – on the very day of her father’s death, Daba is more focused on protecting her mother rather than mourning her father. This also highlights the rift that developed between Daba and Modou. Ramatoulaye goes on to say ‘You know that I am excessively sentimental. I was not at all pleased by this display on either side’ . This shows the contrast between the feminist roles of Daba and her mother. Clearly, Ramatoulaye is a more moderate feminist than the radical Daba.
However, not all women portrayed in the text are feminists. Some in fact are actually so conservative, they could be labelled as anti-feminists: Aunty Nabou is viewed as an antifeminist who disapproves of Aissatou being a goldsmith’s daughter and deviously drives her away. She brings up Young Nabou and forces her only son Mawdo, to marry her. Mawdo tells Aissatou ‘if I spurn this child, she will die’, an excuse which Mawdo uses to marry Young Nabou. Yet again we see the men with unjust excuses for betrayal. Even Ramatoulaye sees the rigidity in Aunty Nabou and poses the question ‘Faced with this rigid mother moulded by old morality, burning with the fierce ardour of antiquated laws, what could Mawdo Bâ do?’. A perfect description of Aunty Nabou is given. The use of words such as ‘old, antiquated’ is used to highlight her traditional views and orthodox beliefs. Moreover ‘rigid’ suggests that she is unwilling to change. The metaphor associated with the words ‘burning’ and ‘ardour’ further outline her old-fashioned way of thinking by drawing emphasis to this particular line due to the thorough description. In some ways the portrayal of Aunty Nabou as an antifeminist is ironic- you could in fact call her a reverse feminist.
It is clear that the role of various feminists as a result of their shared experiences founded by betrayal has been conveyed very effectively by Mariama Bâ. All these feminist roles as outlined in the essay have risen in response to betrayal and pain. However, the ending of the book turns towards a more optimistic outlook as Ramatoulaye claims that ‘it is from the dirty and nauseating humus that the green plant sprouts into life and I can feel new buds springing up in me’ – A perfect ending to the novel which celebrates all feminists that refuse to succumb to cultural betrayal in their endeavour to reclaim happiness.
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