Transitional Faces Of Modern African Women In Mariama Ba’s Novel So Long A Letter
In our interactive oral, we discussed the cultural and contextual considerations of Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. Through our discussion, we explored the impact of westernisation on Islamic women in post-colonial Senegal and the role of women in a polygamous Senegalese society.
Mariama Ba wrote this epistolary novel to demonstrate the practice of polygamy and its influence on women. The integration of particular events in Senegal’s history such as its independence from France in 1960, resonate with the realities and make the novel more representative and appealing. Through the discussion, we learnt that France introduced language and an educational system when they occupied Africa but the cultural traditions such as marriage and the place of women still followed African traditions. The Senegalese culture, a chauvinistic society, and the Islamic religion, which favoured men, created room for women to be oppressed. After acquisition of independence, Senegalese women had a shift in their way of life. This created conflict between their traditional culture and the western lifestyle that most young Muslim women tried to adopt. The foremost issue was women’s new interest in education and politics that were recognized as belonging to men. Furthermore, women no longer respected polygamy even though the Islam community permitted it. Polygamy is the practice of a man marrying more than one woman. Reasons for Polygamy in the Islamic community included protecting women from a punitive world and a profoundly bigot society. Polygamy had the intention of protection for the widows and orphans in the utmost considerate means. However ,this was exploited and abused by men for their own social and economic gain.
Through this discussion, I have gained more insight into the Senegalese-Muslim society which has deepened my understanding of Mariama Ba’s characters in the novel So Long a Letter. Mariama Ba sets the novel in Senegal, a country transitioning from colonisation to independence. Senegal became an independent country in 1960 after being colonised by the French. This epistolary novel outlines the difficulties faced when adapting from old traditional African ways to new adopted western lifestyles in Africa. Ba focuses on how these western lifestyles affect people but more so importantly the effect it had on women. There were very few women in Senegal that received education while under the French colonial regime as education used to be received through traditional methods such as, mothers teaching daughters what was expected from them in society. As with any change, there were people who were more open to the idea of modernity while there were others who were not. So long a letter is a novel that focuses on the story of Ramatoulaye and her hardship as a west African woman. This story is told through a letter to her best friend Aissatou who has undergone similar hardships caused by the transformation from colonisation to independence of Senegal. Both women were raised and received education under the French colonial regime. In the novel, Mariama Ba positions Aissatou and Ramatoulaye to go against the social-cultural norms and play key roles in the transition into modernity. By analysing the education that both these characters receive and other forms of liberation such as social emancipation and political power, I will explore the characterisation of both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou as transitional faces of modern African women.
Mariama Ba highlights the constraints that culture had on women in the Senegalese-Muslim community. The novel opens with Ramatoulaye and her in-laws preparing for her husband’s, Modou, funeral. The forty-day mourning period is a significant traditional event in the Senegalese community that is conveyed in the novel to depict how women are supressed. Through the choice of words used by Mariama Ba, the reader is given insight into how culture made women feel regardless of how they grew up. This is illustrated when Ba writes, “This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her…” The use of “dreaded” and “sacrifices” portrays a tone of helplessness and illustrates to the audience Ramatoulaye’s critical attitude towards her culture. The helplessness conveyed through the significant cultural events shows how suppressed these women are. In addition to the consumption of one’s identity during the mourning period, Ramatoulaye says, “Her behaviour is conditioned..” suggesting to the audience the conformity that women had to undergo due to cultural constraints. Mariama Ba presents Ramatoulaye as critical of culture to paint her as a transitional face of modern African women. Her criticism towards the traditional practices elucidates the impression that these practises should be rid of due to how helpless and suppressive it made women feel. It is through Ramatoulaye’s thoughts that the audience is given insight as to how culture forces women to conform to cultural expectations.
Mariama Ba conveys the struggle to change cultural practices in the novel through Aissatou’s marriage. Polygamy in the Senegalese-Muslim culture is a practice that is accepted and to some extent encouraged for social and or economic benefit as is marriage. This is evident through Binetou opting to marry Modou, Ramatoulaye’s husband, in order for her family to gain wealth. However, this was different for Aissatou and her husband, Mawdo, who are portrayed to be liberal characters in the novel. Their marriage was purely out of love and not for social status nor economic benefit as culture would demand it to be. The irony of Mawdo’s decision to marry another woman is depicted as he was meant to be a liberal man, yet he falls back to cultural constraints. Mariama Ba conveys Aissatou’s betrayal when she writes, “I was irritated. He was asking me to understand. But to understand what? The supremacy of instinct? The right to betray? The justification of desire for variety? I could not be an ally to polygamic instincts. What, then, was I to understand?” Mariama Ba uses rhetorical questions in order to illustrate Aissatou’s shocked tone at the hypocrisy of Mawdo’s decision. She did not expect him to accept his mother’s request to marry a woman as he had not accepted her request when she asked him not to marry Aissatou, further exemplifying the struggle to change cultural practices. Aissatou conveys how betrayed she felt when she says, “Even though I understand your stand, even though I respect the choices of liberated women, I have never conceived of happiness outside marriage.” Aissatou’s decision to leave Mawdo was frowned upon because it was not usual for women to leave their husbands after they take up second wives but as a liberal woman this was the natural choice for her to make. Mariama Ba portrays Aissatou to be a liberal character to suggest to the audience that customs such as polygamy should not be forced upon women and therefore paints Aissatou as a transitional face of modern African women in the novel.
Ba further presents Ramatoulaye and Aissatou as transitional faces of modern African women due to the education that they receive. Ba gives us insight into Ramatoulaye’s positive reflection of the western education and how impactful it was to her in order to suggest to the audience that western education would be better for women in contrast to traditional education. Ramatoulaye elucidates the impression that both her and Aissatou were appreciative for the education received when she says, “She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on endor bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.” The choice of words used when describing what their head mistress had done for them such as “loved” and “appreciate” further highlights Ramatoulaye’s tone of gratitude towards her headmistress and towards education as a whole. The choice of words such as “strengthen our qualities” and “cultivate our personalities” further illustrates how education improved both Ramatoulaye and Aissatou’s lives. The western education that they received gave them better opportunities to succeed in their lives as depicted through Aissatou getting a job in America and Ramatoulaye becoming a teacher. Furthermore, Ramatoulaye expresses how education has improved her international mindedness and exposed her to cultures outside of her own when she writes, “To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own.” This suggests to the audience that it would be important for women to receive western education in comparison to traditional education as it would empower them. Mariama Ba intentionally uses education as a liberating tool for both these women in order to position them as transitional faces of modern African women in the novel.
Ramatoulaye and Aissatou both have political influence throughout the novel in order to be positioned as transitional faces of modern African women. Ramatoulaye’s political influence is evident through her close relationship with those involved in politics such as her husband, Modou, a political adviser to the ministry of works and her close friend Daouda, a member of the National Assembly. The dialogue between her and Daouda Dieng conveys her interest in politics as she writes, “As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and revelling in space. Ah, the joy of having an interlocutor before you…” The simile used in this dialogue illustrates to the audience that women have been given no political power although it is quite evident that they have the potential to influence society. Through her close relationship with Daouda, Ramatoulaye was presented the opportunity to be engaged with politics. On the other hand, Aissatou relocates to America to further her education and thus begins working at the Senegalese embassy. Her direct political power influences the sort of woman that she is depicted to be in society and in the novel and therefore creates a sense of hope and progress for women in the Senegalese-Muslim society. Although at this transition stage the women have no influence, the author suggests to the audience that there is hope for change for women to make a difference in the future. Mariama Ba characterises Aissatou and Ramatoulaye with this political power to portray them as transitional faces of modern African women.
In conclusion, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou have been positioned as transitional faces of modern African women through the use of education as a liberating tool for them. Due to the education both these women receive, Aissatou and Ramatoulaye both succeed and are portrayed as strong independent women in the novel. The criticism towards traditional customs depicted through Ramatoulaye’s thoughts shows the constraints it had on women in the Senegalese-Muslim society. Furthermore, the defiance towards cultural-norms as illustrated through Aissatou highlights the benefits women are likely to acquire through the liberation that comes along with western education.
- Bâ, M. (1979). So Long a Letter. Heinemann.
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In our interactive oral, we discussed the cultural and contextual considerations of Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter. Through our discussion, we explored the impact of westernisation on Islamic women […]