African literature is rich in the manner in which it addresses various issues in the society. Most of these issues are cultural such as the role of women in the society and how the society perceives them. With most countries in Africa being patriarchal, different authors and artists have dealt with the issues in a more pertinent manner. Of all the African authors, none has touched on the concept of women in the society like Chinua Achebe does in his book Things Fall Apart. It is a novel that explores the different problems in the society such as how women were viewed in the negative sense despite their significance in the African culture. It is thus a novel that highlights the societal attitudes towards women in the African society. The book touches on the role of women through various means such as the interaction between characters. One character who helps in bringing out the concept of women in the society is Okwonkwo who highlights the strength of masculinity at the expense of femininity. This highlights the plight of women in the African society as envisioned by Chinua Achebe. While men had an important role in the African society, the essay here looks at the importance of women in the society as presented in the novel.
The African society is highly patriarchal as evident through some characters in the book such as Okwonkwo. He embodies the fact that the African culture is one that values masculinity over femininity (Harold 56). He represents the highest form of misogyny in the society as seen in the manner in which he treats his wife. The wife suffers much abuse and violence because of the fact that Okwonkwo thought of women as weak species. Even at a point when he was taunted as Unoka agbala, Okwonkwo did not like the name because of the belief that the name was representative of any individual who did not have a title. It could also mean women, thus implying the nature that they are weak. It is because of his hatred for anything weak that he developed a tendency of likening anything weak as presenting a woman. Anything strong was thus treated as masculine in the society. The manner in which he treats his son, Nwoye after conversion to Christianity, Okwonkwo deliberates how he a flaming fire could have begotten a son like Nwoye, degenerate and effeminate (Achebe 143). This shows his perception of women in the society as weak creature. His love for his daughter, Efzima is evident in the manner in which he treats her. He however points at the fact that if Ezinma had been a boy (he) would have been happier (Achebe 63). This explains the nature of African families where the normal culture dictated that the girl child was always going to be weaker than the boy child. The killing of Ikemefuma also provides an incident where Okwonkwo started trembling. In a sarcastic tone, Okwonkwo asks himself when he had become a shivering old woman?(Achebe 62). He even recalls on the times when men were men. All his actions and words are only there to demean the role of women in the society.
One of the most striking aspects of Okwonkwos misdemeanor towards women is in the nature in which he treats her child Ezinma (Harold 60). She is his favorite child and means the world to him. His adoration for the child would have been mistaken for the respect and appreciation for women (Harold 61). This is a very wrong case because of the manner in which through his monologue, one can see Okwonkwo thinking of his girl. He states that she should have been a boy(Harold 62). The sentiments are good but very hurtful to any parent in the society. The statement is important because of the manner in which Achebe was able to create the contrasting expectations and sentiments shared by majority of the parents in the earlier times. It was therefore prudent for Achebe to use the case of Enzima as a way of bringing out the case that a woman is only good in the society if she is the only option. Whenever a man gets into the picture, the tables turn and the woman becomes insignificant just like Okwonkwo thought of Enzima as important because he was her child and would have been even happier had the child turned out to be a lady. The situation helps to show the gender roles in the society. He believes that women are cowards and weak creatures who should be accorded some domestic chores such as kitchen (Shouq et al., 31). They are also objects of sexual gratification by men and ought to respect men in the society. Failure to comply, Okwonkwo believes that a womans place is in the kitchen where she can serve the male figure in the house. His view of women is also twisted as can be seen in the manner in which he viewed the case of Agala. This shows his derogatory perception of women in the society. In another incident in which Okwonkwo presents the concept of gender role is in the manner in which he makes attempts to defeminize his sons. He perceives them as lacking the masculinity in them and thus as a way of encouraging them to be more manly asks them to plant yams (Shouq et al., 39). By planting yams, he believes that they will be more outstanding and manly. In this way Achebe is able to bring out Okwonkwos discriminatory attitude towards women in the society. He even assaults his wives on the basis of showcasing his strength and that of the men in the society. For instance, in the week of Peace, Okwonkwo beats his wives. One of the first instances he dies this is the point at which his third wife fails to come home to prepare him meals.
Achebes novel takes different stances on the role of women based on their gender. For instance, women are expected to subordinate themselves to men. They have no right to question men in the highly patriarchal society of the Ibo. For instance, the society does not outlaw the punishment and torture that women go through in the hands of men. It is one that encourages the abuse of the rights of women. For instance, according to the novel, Okwonkwos wife is beaten for refusing to come to cook him meals. This shows that she was supposed to subordinate herself to the husband. The punishment meted on Okwonkwo was not because he had battered his wife but because of the fact that he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. This is thus a society that does not regard the rights of women as important. Despite the negative role and discriminatory roles the female gender is assigned in the society, there are other roles that women have in this patriarchal society. The woman is the primary educator in the family. She plays an important role in educating her children. This happened through stories and other traditional means such as folk songs and other rituals. This is done to improve on their artistic creativity as seen in the case of Okwonkwos wive when they were teaching their children.
Low voices, broken now and again by singing,
reached Okonkwo from his wives huts as each
woman and her children told folk stories. Ekwefi and
her daughter, Ezinma, sat on a mat on the floor. It was
Ekwefis turn to tell a story. (Achebe 67)
Women are also presented as caretakers of their children. They have the role of loving and taking care of their children to ensure that they are protected from any harm in the society. This was one of the most important roles of women in the society as can be seen in the case of Efwemi and Ezinma as seen in the quote:
she swore within her that if she heard Ezinma cry she
would rush into the cave to defend her against all the
gods in the world. She would die with her. (Achebe 76)
The novel also takes as stance on the role of women as being assistant farmers in the society. They are important in helping to fill the food basket in the society as can be seen in the manner in which Ekwefi and Ezinma use to wake up early to go farming. This shows that women had a duty of feeding the family through farming in the Ibo society. This is seen in the manner in which Achebe states:
His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they
grew womens crops, like coco-yams, beans and
cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a mans crop. (Achebe 16)
It is also evident in the society presented in the novel that women had other duties that were specifically assigned to them such as religious duties. This can be seen in the manner in which the book brought about the concept of the priestess or role as goddess. The novel presents this case in the character of Chika:
The priestess in those days was a woman called
Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she
was greatly feared. (Achebe 12)
Pursuant to the above roles assigned to the female gender, it is evident that there are instances where the character and rights of women are violated in the society through the actions of some characters such as Okwonkwo. These characters extend the retrogressive culture of the Ibo such as wife battery among others. The novel is however not short of important roles assigned to women in the society as seen above. This shows that women can do great things for the society if granted the opportunity to do so especially in patriarchal societies such as the one presented by Achebe.
Bloom, Harold. Chinua Achebe's Things fall apart. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
Chinua, Achebe. "Things fall apart." (1958).
Shouq, Saba, and Shirin Zubair. "SEXUAL/TEXTUAL POLITICS: REPRESENTATIONS OF GENDER IN ACHEBE'S THINGS FALL APART." Pakistan Journal of Women's Studies= Alam-e-Niswan= Alam-i Nisvan 22.1 (2015): 65.
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