So Long a Letter as a Work of Feminist Literature
Over the past century, women of the Western world have made incredible strides in closing the gap of equality which separates them from men. While western women are starting to enjoy the freedoms that their mothers did not share, women from less developed countries still fall behind in terms of equality. There are many elements that solidify this difference between the west and developing nations. Religion, culture, and history are some of the main elements, but many would agree that the largest hinderance on women’s rights is the belief that women are inferior to men due to their biological role in reproduction.
Mariama Ba’s novel, So Long a Letter, is unquestionably a work of feminist literature.
The Two Female Characters
Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter is set in Senegal, a West-African country located just north of Guinea and west of Mali. This setting is important because it is where Ba was born and raised. From an early age, she began to recognize the harsh inequalities between the sexes and formulate criticisms for which she would later integrate in this book. She expresses these criticisms through the development of two central female characters who contradict the traditional role of Senegalese women. Ba attempts to challenge societal norms that promote the dis-empowerment of women by solidifying the ideals of her two main characters.
Even today, the Senegalese view of women prioritizes a women’s ability to produce and raise many children. The character, Ramatoulaye, bears twelve children within a thirty year marriage. After child bearing, the roles of women include household tasks such as cleaning, childcare, and cooking for the family. The education rate for women is far lower than that of men, furthering the divide between the sexes and strengthening the patriarchy.
Ramatoulaye or “Rama” is a recently widowed school teacher that recounts her emotional struggles following her husband’s death in the form of a letter. She isn’t so much upset with the passing of her spouse, but rather his decision to take a much younger second wife and leave their family with nothing. It is commonplace for men to take up multiple wives in Senegal. The more wives you have, the more powerful you appear.
Aissatou finds herself in a similar situation. She leaves her husband after he marries a second woman after years of marriage. She clearly expresses her disapproval of polygamy as she sees it as a lack of respect toward the dignity of women. “I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed my dignity, the only garment, I go my way.” (Page 32). She leaves the familiarity of Senegal and travels to the United States to start a new independent life.
The Comparison of the Two Women
Both women have veered away from the traditions of their culture. Ba refrains from painting a standardized picture of African women and instead puts forth two strong independent individuals that become self-aware of their worth. Ba recognizes the quandary of the Sengalese women who fall subject to the patriarchal influence over them and claims that women are, “…often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.” (Page 88). This relationship between Ramatoulaye and Aissatou creates a new community that does not follow the norms of the Islamic groupings in West-Africa.
Rama describes their relationship as developing in parallel, “We are true sisters, destined for the same mission from emancipation.” (Page 15). However, she follows the Islamic faith very closely where as Aissatou is more loose with her beliefs. Aissatou embraces a modern feministic attitude. She didn’t let the fear of tradition keep her in a relationship that she felt was degrading. With her education to aid her, she moved on to become an independent woman. This is where Ramatoulaye differs from her friend. No matter how unhappy she is with her marriage situation, she chooses to stay with her husband. Understandingly, leaving your only source of income with twelve children to support is not the easiest thing to do. In reading the letter, a sense of jealousy is apparent. Aissatou’s ability to drop everything and move on while Rama stays behind is likely to cause some resentment.
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