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How Mariama Ba Portrayed Feminism As An Escape From Cultural And Religious Restrictions In So Long A Letter

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

In her feminist Novel So long A letter, Mariama Ba uses the protagonist of Ramatoulaye and her close friend Aissatou, in order to convey her messages of the criticism of culture and religion and subsequently the implications it has on the society and women in particular. As Ramatoulaye is depicted as a conservative feminist, the addressee of her letter, Aissatou, is shown as a radical feminist and this is evident in the manner in which they respond to the situations they find themselves in. As a conservative feminist, the expectation would be not to challenge decisions profoundly but rather, assume a less hands-on approach and not act contrary to the limits which have been set for them. On the other hand, a radical feminist is one who steps out of their ‘comfort zone’ and tackles situations in a stringent manner, not standing for any form of injustice served towards them and are often characterized as people who act in a rash manner or those who act ‘upon their emotions’. Faced with similar challenges, we see Aissatou react by more independently making the contrary choice in undertaking the unexpected for a woman in that society during the post-colonial period while Ramatoulaye, in a more orthodox manner, remains content, settles for, and compromises, against the desires of her heart, in the name of abiding by culture and remaining in union with religion as presented to her. I aim to scrutinise the effectiveness of the use of juxtaposition and parallelism by Ba, to find out how far her message that feminism is a rewarding method of escaping the shackles of culture and religion imposed upon women, and that feminism is the way forward for African women in the novel was successfully delivered to her audience to fulfil her intention.

Ba introduces the nature of Ramatoulaye in the early stages of the novel, in order to present the conservative feminist. From the very beginning, she informs us of Ramatoulaye’s docile, submissive nature, where against her emotions, she refuses to react as a result of her anger, where she is evidently uncomfortable and not appreciative of her co-wife’s existence in her home and in her life as a whole. When we see Ba write “The presence of my co-wife irritates me. She has been installed in my house for the funeral, in accordance with tradition.” This quote goes to show the strong repercussions culture brought unto the women of Senegal through the writer’s choice of the words. The word “installed’ dictates of an object which has been placed or fixed somehwere forcefully, thus dehumanizing Binetou, and questioning implicitly Modou’s reasons for marrying her, while informing the audience of Ramatoulaye’s scorn for her co wife – Binetou. However, despite having expressed her disconcert, she does not do anything in protest, but rather endures, familiarizing the audience of the true nature of the conservative feminist.

Her friend Aissatou’s actions, which make a significant statement of the character, are used to convey the radical feminist nature of Aissatou. When Aissatou, against all odds, defies the cultural expectation of women in the society where – as laid down by Seynabou – “…a woman does not need much education…” and pursues further education upon leaving her marriage eventually earning herself a job at the embassy. We notice her persistent nature to advance radical feminism in this society, by going against the cultural expectation of remaining docile and submitting to the men. The unexpected nature of this decision is brought out through Ramatoulaye’s reaction. “You had the surprising courage to take life into your own hands.” The use of the word “surprising” shows the unfamiliarity of the decision. “They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you.” This shows the impeding characteristics of the Senegalese culture and the detrimental effect it had on the lives of women in this society. Through the quote “the first quality of a woman is docility” we see the society’s low regard for social progression of women. Thus, it was out of the ordinary for Aissatou even succeed let alone do it the way she did. Again, Aissatou buys her best friend Ramatoulaye a Fiat 125 when she mentions in passing her struggles with public transport. These feats show her character as persistent and independent- traits often characterized with radical feminists. Criticism from many including Mawdo’s mother and Modou who believed “…a goldsmith’s daughter had no heart.” only pushed Aissatou further to changing the norm. Ba’s vivid descriptions and concentration on Aissatou’s acts as being persistent, thorough and determined, depict her as a role model to Ramatoulaye, a feminist in her own respect, as a metaphor to represent feminism and the reward it can bring to women allowing them emancipation from the servitudes of culture.

The two sides of feminism and their respective ‘representatives’ are juxtaposed and examined to depict the more fruitful one when both their husbands, Mawdo and Modou remarry in these relationships, and exercising of the traditional practice of polygamy subsequently inducing emotions of anger in both women as it is sufficiently portrayed to the audience. Ramatoulaye perseveres and pushes through her tattered marriage despite her dislike for her co-wife who stepped into her marriage and disoriented touch between Ramatoulaye and Modou. Ramatoulaye’s discomfort was no secret and she “…cried everyday…” in despair and despite, calls from her children to divorce Modou and “do what aunty Aissatou did” , she remains in the marriage where her love for her husband has not faded, yet, his own for her, is gone. Aissatou, upon Mawdo’s marriage of young Nabou, even in despair, decided to leave the marriage which she saw as non-beneficial to her well-being as it brought sadness, even though Mawdo ‘still loved her’. These scenarios depict the burden which polygamous relationships – a prominent aspect of Senegalese culture and the Islamic religion – bore on the women such that it bound Ramatoulaye to this ‘toxic’ marriage. Aissatou’s reaction however was that of a strong, self-sufficient woman, in that she found comfort in books and immersed herself fully in them to expand her knowledge, eventually overcoming her despair, much faster than Ramatoulaye did. This statement made by Aissatou challenges an aforementioned idea that “… a woman does not need much education.” The scenario shows the difference between the two types of feminism, in showing that feminism was a rewarding method of dealing with the issues that face women and even though radical feminism bore results faster than conservative feminism, at the end of it all, the two women, eventually are freed from the hurt they suffer from and are able to move forward, and step past the challenges. This is effective in showing the collaboration of women in feminism as a whole to achieve a common goal, and to show that feminism is the route towards an equal society where men would no longer be placed above women, rather than a competition between radical and conservative feminism to show which is ‘better’.

This juxtaposition is put in place in order to question which side of feminism is more rewarding. The distinction in the reactions of the women, and the reaction of the society to their actions shows a difference in the two sides of feminism. Ba seeks to show her audience that both sides are one, and that there is no real answer as to which one is better, rather, they aim to achieve the same goal as eventually, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou’s happiness comes out on top, even though they took different routes.

In conclusion, these techniques of parallelism, juxtaposition, imagery, characterization and paradoxes, set an abundant foundation for the bigger picture which Ba sought out to encapsulate in her audiences minds, the idea of the criticism of culture and religion in the African society towards women. Through this, it is no question that her themes, ideas and objectives were attained and her intended message of ‘feminism for all’ was received by the audience the way she envisioned it. This was also aided by the epistolary form, which allowed for the readers to understand the book from a personal point of view, that of a Senegalese woman who experienced the prejudice of the society first hand.

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