Aspects of Feminism that Arise in Response to Betrayal in so Long a Letter by Mariama BA
So Long a Letter, written by Mariama Bâ and published in 1979 is a novel that talks of an abandonment of a beloved husband which later affected Ramatoulaye’s life and commencement into feminist actions. Through the story the painful experience Ramatoulaye goes through, Mariama Bâ uses this novel to present cultural norms and social problems between men and women in Senegal. In the book, Ramatoulaye shares her concerns, growth and recovery from the rejection of her husband with Aissatou, through various letters, in which she conveys her grievous journey of betrayal. At the beginning of the book; the diary, which happens to be the first letter written to Aissatou, gives the reader feelings of pain, emotional break-down and inner conflict faced by Ramatoulaye. However, as the book continues, a feminist voice arrives in comfort and positive impact to her heartache. In the book, Mariama Bâ decides to portray different aspects of feminism that arise in response to the betrayal through the healing of Ramatoulaye. Under this, she talks of her will to find happiness and uses female characters.
To start with, the use of female characters is to highlight the effect of marriage experiences women endure and how it leads to feminism. In this case, the betrayal encountered by Ramatoulaye, Aissatou and Daba all lead to feminist point of view that all develop as response to the betrayal they endure through different ways: Modou’s disloyalty to Ramatoulaye by marrying a younger woman after 25 years of marriage which in a feminist’s point of view was betrayal; Mawdo’s treachery and Daba as a witness of her fathers’ unfaithfulness to her mother with her very own best friend Binetou.
Ramatoulaye and Feminism
Secondly, Ramatoulaye, as the narrator herself, holds a more influence to the aspect of feminism as almost all the text is written from her own perspective. This makes it easier for us to understand her argument for feminism. Her encounter in the book could be interpreted as a symbol to the many women’s personal experiences, mostly in marriages based on unfaithfulness hence influencing the reader more significantly. Even though in the Senegal and Muslim’s context, polygamy is considered a culture yet Ramatoulaye sees this as a betrayal to women. In the novel we are presented with Ramatoulaye and Modou as educated scholars with a more modern understanding of the world. Because of this, Ramatoulaye had expected Modou to take a more open-minded decision as opposed to the cultural norms hence Modou’s choice to re-marry after 25 years of marriage comes as a great surprise to Ramatoulaye. The use of strong words like ‘mapped’ and ‘rejected’ declare that Modou’s betrayal was very wounding because of his conscious act of disloyalty and what could be called treachery without even hesitating while he is perceived to be an educated individual. As we see in the novel, this leads to the commencement 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?’ (12). 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’ (17) 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’ (33). 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'(11). 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’ (11). This shows the contrast between the feminist roles of Daba and her mother. Clearly, Ramatoulaye is a more moderate feminist than the radical Daba.
Aunty Nabou and Anti-Feminism
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'(31), 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?'(31). 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'(95)- 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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