Dr. Lakshminath Kagyung is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Dibrugarh University, Dibrugarh. The title of his Ph. D dissertation is “Politics of Power and Authority: a Critical Reading of the Novels of Chinua Achebe” submitted to Gauhati University.
Through a reading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), this paper attempts to examine the Igbo society’s attitude towards gender relations. The paper would study the gender stereotypes and the existing hierarchy in the Igbo society to assess the position of the Igbo women. An attempt is made to examine the provisions for checks and balances of power in the traditional Igbo society to see how it affects the genders. The paper would discuss the changes that have come to Igbo society’s attitude towards gender relations by tracing the trajectory from Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah. Finally, an attempt would be made to examine the representation of women in Achebe’s novels. The paper emphasises the importance of maintaining a balance between the male and the female principles and posits that the inability to maintain a balance between the two principles led to the tragedy/downfall of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart. The traditional Igbo society depicted in Things Fall Apart is overtly androcentric; however, the paper contends that society designed its norms and systems to balance the male and the female principles. Okonkwo could not appreciate and comprehend the balance of his culture, and that led to his downfall. The paper argues that Achebe understands and realises the importance of the balance between the male and the female principles for the proper functioning and development of the Igbo society and that he is not gendered/biased in his representation of women characters in his novels. The methodology used in the paper involves a close reading of the primary texts using African indigenous ideas on power and gender relations as the theoretical frame of references. The paper would also take recourse to Buchi Emecheta’s ideas on gender relations for a clearer understanding of the subject of research.
Keywords: Gender-relations, gender-stereotypes, hierarchy, power, androcentric and representation.
In “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Christopher Anyokwo, emphasising the importance of the balance between the male and the female principles, re-reads and re-interprets gender relations in Things Fall Apart. He does not glorify the much-eulogised manliness of Okonkwo; instead, he is critical about the same. For him, the thoughtfulness and pragmatism of Obierika are more praiseworthy than Okonkwo’s rigid and unreflecting attitude. Anyokwo believes that Achebe to highlight and justify the importance of imagination and thoughtfulness over rigidity and physical energy or brute force brings the downfall of Okonkwo. He says that Achebe has deliberately played a trick on Okonkwo by imbuing a girl (Ezinma) with male traits and a boy (Nwoye) with female characteristics. In “Achebe and his Women: A Social Science Perspective”, Merun Nasser asseverates that Anglophone African writers in their writings have often portrayed women in a subservient role. He argues that Achebe, one of the most important and well-known Anglophone African novelists, has not done much to represent women properly in his novels. According to him, in his novels, Achebe merely uses the female characters to develop his male characters. In “Sexual/Textual Politics: Representation of Gender in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Saba Shouq states that Achebe has given more significant space to and emphasis in representing his male characters in his novel Things Fall Apart. Achebe took such a stance, she opines, because of the overtly androcentric nature of the Igbo society where a man was all-important and where women played a subservient role. She claims that the novel’s structure speaks volumes about the Igbo society’s patriarchal social set up, which often subdued the voice of women. She highlights that many chapters in the novel begin with the name of Okonkwo, the male protagonist of the novel. The name of Okonkwo’s mother is never mentioned in the novel. The Igbo women also participated in the cultivation process, and the house’s running, but the society seldom acknowledged their role. Precisely, in the article, she is highlighting the gendered nature of the Igbo society. She criticises Achebe for participating and encouraging such gender-biased nature of the society and for not taking any specific measures against it in his writings. There is an ongoing discussion on gender relations in Achebe’s novels. This paper would try to participate in and continue the discussion to contribute to the domain of knowledge.
It is evident from a reading of Achebe’s novels, particularly Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah, that the Igbo societies depicted there were excessively patriarchal, which often suppressed the voice of women and made them play a subservient role. It was a lopsided kind of social set up where men enjoyed ultimate power and authority over women. Some critics believe that Achebe, as a writer, did not do much for the cause of the Igbo women of his society. According to them, Achebe, in his novels, simply portrayed the lopsided nature of the society as regards gender relations without making an effort to give an appropriate voice to and space for the female characters. However, one may argue that a deeper reading of his novels speaks otherwise. There is no denying that the Igbo society of Achebe’s novels is overtly and excessively androcentric. Achebe, who claims himself to be a novelist and a teacher, considers it his duty to provide a realistic depiction of the African society in his novels. Since the African society depicted in his novels is androcentric, it is obvious that the male characters will find greater representation in his novels. However, the fact that the male characters find greater representation in his novels does not mean that Achebe does not think and realise the importance of the female characters. It will be a biased assessment to say that Achebe did not properly represent the women characters in his novels.
By male principles, the paper refers to qualities like raw physical strength, brute energy, aggressiveness, love for violence and bloodshed, and by female principles, it refers to qualities such as patience, pragmatism, thoughtfulness, imagination and having cerebral strength. In “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Anyokwo asseverates that the Igbo traditional culture and society were phallocratic. Society prioritised male principles like brute energy, aggressiveness, love for danger and bloodshed over womanly qualities like patience, thoughtfulness, pragmatic and circumspect behaviour. Moreover, traits like talkativeness, cantankerousness, feeblemindedness, fearfulness, inconstancy and unreliability were often associated with women.
The Igbo society represented in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is androcentric. It seems men in/of that society enjoyed unlimited power and authority over their women. Physical valour and courage were respected in that society. By virtue of his physical prowess, Okonkwo rose to fame and became successful in life at an early age. His success justifies the Igbo saying: “If a child washed his hands he could eat with kings” (Things Fall Apart 6). In the Umuofian society in Things Fall Apart, the number of barns a man had determined his social position; the more the number of barns, the greater was the man’s social status. The Umuofian society was agrarian; to have more barns, a man had to be physically powerful. That was how the idea of masculinity came into being, and that was why masculine traits were adored and respected in that society. The number of wives a man had was another factor to determine the social position in the Umuofian society. A man of higher social position generally had more wives. It may be argued, to have more barns, one would need more manpower to work in the field, and having more wives served that purpose. Moreover, having more wives would also mean that eventually, one will have more children or, precisely, more hands to assist in cultivation.
The androcentric nature of the Umuofian society in Things Fall Apart has put men at the centre. Men had almost become omnipotent in that society. Many narratives/discourses were framed to valorise masculine traits and to sustain male dominance. Masculinity or manliness was associated with the ability to dominate one’s wife. “No matter how prosperous a man was, if he was unable to rule his women and his children, he was not really a man” (Things Fall Apart 37). Such kinds of narratives or beliefs encouraged physical violence in the garb of masculinity. Violence and bloodshed were regarded as manly attributes; Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart, tried to inculcate such traits in his sons. In “Things Standing Together: A Retrospect of Things Fall Apart”, Derek Wright states that Okonkwo’s cult of virility mistakes the nature of courage and confuses gentleness with weakness. That was the reason why Okonkwo abhorred anything that reminded him of his father, Unoka. Unoka did not fit into Umuofia’s idea of manliness. He liked to spend his time roaming around idly, playing musical instruments. He was a peace-loving person and abhorred violence. Umuofia did not appreciate that kind of behaviour of a man. According to Umuofian belief, a man must be strong, courageous and must love violence and bloodshed. If a man lacks these qualities, he will be regarded as “womanly” or “agbala”. The African word “agbala”1 means both “a woman” and/or “a man who has no title”. In Umuofia, the word “agbala” was often used in a derogatory manner; it referred to a weak man who did not have a title or a high social position.
In “Sexual/Textual Politics: Representation of Gender in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Saba Shouq states that Achebe, in his novels, supports and glorifies the androcentric nature of the Igbo society. By doing so, she argues, Achebe is participating in encouraging and propagating patriarchy. She asseverates, Achebe has consciously ordered his text in a way that by reading the opening lines of the first chapter, one can understand the position of males in the African culture. It has been rightly pointed out that six chapters of the novel, namely— chapters 1, 2, 3, 8, 14 and 24, begin with Okonkwo’s name. The reason Achebe foregrounds his hero’s name and gives details about his personality is perhaps to highlight the social positioning of the male protagonist and to delineate the social structure of male dominance in the Igbo society. Saba Shouq is also critical of Achebe’s lopsided representation of his male characters in relation to his female characters. She is of the opinion that the female characters in Achebe’s novels do not find the same space as that of the males. It is pertinent to mention here that Achebe, throughout his novel Things Fall Apart, do not tell the readers the name of Okonkwo’s mother. On the contrary, Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, has been described at length in the first chapter. In “Sexual/Textual Politics: Representation of Gender in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Saba Shouq criticises Achebe for such a biased representation on the basis of gender. However, it would be unfair and superficial to label Achebe gendered on the basis of the above example. For, later in the novel, one can see Achebe emphasising the significance of a mother in a man’s life. When Okonkwo was exiled, he was provided shelter in his mother’s place. That was perhaps the reason why the Igbos buried their women with her kinsman and not with the kinsman of her husband. Therefore, the mother was regarded supreme. When the father beats the child, it is the mother who gives shelter to the child.
Achebe has given greater space for the description of Unoka; however, he does not provide the same space for the description of Okonkwo’s mother. It should be noted that though Achebe has provided greater space for the representation of Unoka, however, he has not presented Unoka in a positive light. According to the social standards of the Igbo community, Unoka is not a successful man. However, it seems that in presenting the character of Unoka in such a light, Achebe is cautioning people not to be like Unoka. Thus, Saba Shouq’s argument that Achebe is gendered in his representation of male and female characters holds some ground. However, it would be too superficial an assessment to say that Achebe is taking side with the patriarchal man; he is simply trying to present a realistic picture of the Igbo societal set up.
In the Umuofian society shown in Things Fall Apart, there was a gendered division of crops. Crops were categorised as men’s crop and women’s crop. Yam, the king of crops, was called a man’s crop because of the intense muscular effort involved in its cultivation. In contrast, crops like cassava and beans were regarded as woman’s crop because they did not involve much physical strength for their cultivation. So, one can comprehend how the Igbo society upheld masculine traits like raw physical strength. In “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Christopher Anyokwu has referred to the cultivation of Yam as an exclusively sexist occupation that gave primacy to the open demonstration of strength. It is not that only men contributed their labour in the process of cultivation; woman also participated equally in the process; however, the efforts of the women were not given equal appreciation as was given to the efforts of the men.
Cultivating food crops in a distant land by clearing virgin forest was considered masculine while tilling the ground near homestead like Unoka was regarded as womanish or unmanly. In the traditional Igbo society shown in Things Fall Apart, there was a gendered division of crime. There, crime was of two kinds— male and female. Okonkwo’s crime of killing his kinsman was regarded as a female crime because it was committed inadvertently. If the crime was committed intentionally, it would have been considered a male crime. The punishment for the male crime was more severe than that of the female crime. It may be pointed out that the Igbo men did not only receive the larger share of the good, they also had to receive the greater share of the worst.
In “Sexual/Textual Politics: Representation of Gender in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Saba Shouq posits that the similes used by Achebe in Things Fall Apart to represent the African culture were also gendered. This is evident in Okonkwo’s reference to Ikemefuna: “He grew like a yam tendril in the rainy season…” (Things Fall Apart 37).
It is obvious from a reading of Things Fall Apart that Umuofian man was at the centre of the social set up and his honour was of utmost importance. However, an objective reading of the text reveals that for Umuofia, the honour of their daughter was also of equal importance. When a daughter of Umuofia was killed in a market in Mbaino, Umuofia did not hesitate to go to war against Mbaino for the honour of their daughter.
In the Umuofian society shown in Things Fall Apart, certain gender stereotypes are evident. Okonkwo shouted at Ezinma to “sit like a woman!” and she “brought her two legs together and stretched them in front of her” (Things Fall Apart 32). Further, Okonkwo always regretted that Nwoye was not manly in his behaviour. He was fond of Ikemefuna because the boy had the manly traits of the Unuofian standard, traits which Okonkwo wished his own son had. Okonkwo wanted “Nwoye to grow into a tough young man capable of ruling his father’s household when he was dead and gone to join the ancestors” (Things Fall Apart 37).
The Igbo society shown in Things Fall Apart is an androcentric and phallocratic society. That society had well defined hierarchical set up as regards its men and women. Such hierarchy is evident when Achebe mentions: “It was clear from the way the crowd stood or sat that the ceremony was for men. There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders” (Things Fall Apart 63). The above instance speaks volumes about the position of women in the Igbo society. They were pushed to the periphery, and their voices were subdued. It may very well be argued that for the proper development of a society, the opinions of both the male and the female members are important. However, when the women are not provided with an opportunity to place their opinion, or if placed, their opinions are not given due consideration, then such a practice or mindset is harmful to the good health of the society.
Hierarchy could be noticed even in the Igbo ways of eating. In communal feast and festivities, the male members were privileged to eat first and had the best part of the food; after that, the senior-most wife of the family ate and only after that the other wives could eat. Irrespective of how hungry one was, one had to strictly adhere to that hierarchy while eating.
The structure of the Igbo house or “obi” also demonstrates the hierarchical nature of the Igbo society. The Igbo society shown in Things Fall Apart was a polygamous society. The compound of the Igbo man consisted of the male member’s hut and the huts of his wives built in a semi-circular manner in front of his. Achebe describes, Okonkwo “had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red wall. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the Obi” (Things Fall Apart 10). This kind of architectural pattern of the huts, perhaps, provides the male head with a vantage point to keep surveillance over the huts of his wives. One can perhaps relate this pattern of surveillance to Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” and Foucault’s idea of “panopticism”. Moreover, the male head’s hut is strategically built near the gate so that he can protect his wives and children from any external threat or invasion. Being the male head of the family, it is his responsibility to protect them from external threats.
However, as regards funeral rights, it was the woman who got priority over the man. If a husband and a wife died on the same day, then the funeral right of the woman was done prior to that of the husband.
In the Igbo society shown in Things Fall Apart, the capacity of a woman to bear children determined her social position. Moreover, if a woman could give birth to a male child, she was admired more. That was perhaps the reason why Akueke’s suitor and his relatives, when they came with her marriage proposal, “surveyed her young body with expert eyes as if to assure themselves that she was beautiful and ripe” (Things Fall Apart 50). Two things might be interpreted from such behaviour of the Igbos. One, the Igbos believed in community life, so the more the number of children better it was for the community. That was why the suitor and his relatives surveyed the bride’s body carefully and ensured that the bride was “ripe”. The word ripe here perhaps refers to the maturity of the bride’s body to give birth to healthy children. Secondly, this kind of attitude throws light on the Igbo mindset, which perceives that the only function of women was to give birth to healthy children and preferably male children. In “Feminism with a Small “f”!”, Emecheta states that in most African societies, the birth of a son enhances a woman’s authority in the family. In Things Fall Apart, when Okonkwo’s first wife gave birth to three sons in succession, he “slaughtered a goat for her, as was the custom” (Things Fall Apart 57).
In Things Fall Apart, the Igbos had the custom of observing the “Week of Peace” before plantation. They observed the week of peace to honour the great goddess of earth, Ani, whose blessings the Igbos believed was essential for the crops to prosper. During this week, people lived in peace with their fellows and refrained from using harsh words. However, by beating his wife during the week of peace, Okonkwo had invited the wrath of Ezeani, the priest of the earth goddess, Ani. It can perhaps be said that the custom of observing the week of peace was an exercise in restrain for the Igbo people. This is a wonderful example of the checks and balances practised in the Igbo culture. The earth goddess, Ani, was revered and feared in the androcentric society of the Igbos. Further, the earth goddess had a male priest to follow her bidding. The existence of such a power structure among the Igbos establishes the fact that the Igbos cared for maintaining a balance of power in the society. Umuofia “was powerful in war and in magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country” (Things Fall Apart 8). However, it is interesting to note that “the active principle in that medicine had been an old woman with one leg. In fact, the medicine itself was called agadi-nwayi, or old woman” (Things Fall Apart 8-9).
In Things Fall Apart, the Umuofian society did not have courts and prisons. The disputes were often settled by the “egwugwu”. Egwugwu were the masked spirits, representing the ancestral spirits of the village. The egwugwu listened to both the parties before providing their judgement on a matter. They often provided impartial and unbiased judgement; they were not gendered in their judgement. The objectivity and impartiality with which they settled a case were very much evident in the statement made by one of the egwugwu: “Our duty is not to blame this man or to praise that, but to settle the dispute” (Things Fall Apart 67). In the dispute between Uzowulu and Odukwe, the egwugwu reprimanded the former for beating his wife. They told him, “it is not bravery when a man fights with a woman” (Things Fall Apart 67). Here, one may argue that the above statement demonstrates the male ego that considers a woman to be no match to him. However, the paper would contradict such an argument and opine that such a view is gendered. Rather than considering the judgement provided by the egwugwu to be gendered, the paper believes that it shows the sensitivity of the Igbos towards the trouble of their women. One should see it as a measure by the Igbos to restrict the man from committing atrocities on his woman.
Odukwe looking at the innumerable atrocities committed on his sister by Uzowulu, warns him that if he does not mend his ways and beats his wife again, he will “cut off his genitals for him” (Things Fall Apart 66). In “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Anyokwo posits that Achebe, through that statement, must have hinted “at the generally held notion that the male organ, the penis, is the symbolic signifier of power” (Anyokwo 27). By threatening castration, Oduke is telling his in laws that he would make Uzowulu “a ‘woman,’ thereby effecting ‘gender equality’” (Anyokwo 27).
Thus, one can see that the traditional Igbo society devised measures to maintain peace and gender equality in the society. Okonkwo could not appreciate and comprehend the balance of his society, and that led to his downfall. Okonkwo’s obsession with masculinity, brute energy and his abhorrence for patience and pragmatic thinking, considering those to be womanly traits, led to his disaster. Precisely, Okonkwo’s inability to comprehend and maintain the balance between the male and the female principles brought his downfall. Okonkwo was rigid and had an unreflecting understanding of the laws of the land, while Obierika was more pragmatic and circumspect. Obierika was an example of the balance between the male and the female principles. People like Obierika are the need of the hour. In “Re-Imagining Gender in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart”, Anyokwo has very rightly posited that “Okonkwo’s pathetic death signifies the demise of androcentric arbitrariness in Umuofia” (29).
If one traces the trajectory from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) to Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one can locate a change in society’s attitude towards gender relations in that course of time. In Things Fall Apart, one could see that the women did not have much say in decision making; the male head decided matters, and the women followed his orders without any protest. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe mentions, Okonkwo’s wives “lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper” (Things Fall Apart 9). Okonkwo, handing over Ikemefuna to his senior-most wife, told her that the boy belonged to the clan and she needs to look after him. When his wife asked for how long the boy was going to stay with them, Okonkwo gets angry and thunders at her: “Do what you are told woman…. When did you become one of the ndichie2 of Umuofia?” (Things Fall Apart 11). So, it very well evident that the women of the traditional Igbo society did not have much say in the decision making process of the family and the society. However, in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, we meet a woman like Beatrice who is educated, independent and empowered. She dares to question and subvert certain traditional Igbo beliefs and traditions. For instance, in the traditional Igbo society, the naming ceremony of a baby was performed by a male member; however, here, we see Beatrice performing the naming ceremony of Elewa’s daughter. Beatrice had to perform the naming ceremony because Ikem, the father of the baby-girl was dead. So, one can see, with the changing times, women are becoming educated, self-dependent and empowered. In “Feminism with a Small “f”!”, Buchi Emecheta emphasising the need for women’s education states that she very much wants “to further the education of woman in Africa, because… education really helps the women” (553). Education makes women empowered and enables them to attain a respectful position in society. In Anthills of the Savannah, MM proudly mentions Beatrice’s intellectual calibre to his friends, “that girl there sitting meekly and called Beatrice took a walloping honours degree in English from London University. She is better at it than either of us, I can assure you” (57).
Critics like Merun Nasser and Saba Shouq are critical of Achebe’s stance on the representation of women in his novels. They believe that Achebe, in his novels, deliberately takes side with the males of the androcentric African societies. However, this paper would like to contradict such a claim. If one objectively looks at the representation of women in his novels, one will realise that such claims do not hold ground. The women in Achebe’s novels have less voice than their male counterparts; however, they are represented well by Achebe. It would be too immature to criticise and call Achebe gendered. There is no denying that the Igbo societies shown in Achebe’s novels are androcentric and phallocratic. In such a social set-up, men would definitely find prominence. Being an objective narrator, Achebe presents a realistic picture of such a social set up to his readers. A close, unbiased reading of the novels reveal two things: one, the Igbo society, though overtly androcentric, was sensitive towards the rights of women and had devised measures of checks and balances to maintain gender equality in the society; secondly, Achebe realises and very well understands the importance of the balance between the male and the female principles for the proper functioning and development of the society. Achebe, an erudite novelist, who claims to be the teacher of the society, in/through his novels tries to present an unbiased, realistic picture of the Igbo society. It should be noted that Achebe does not blindly romanticise one and all customs, rituals and traditions of the Igbos. He is critical of the ill customs and traditions of African society. He does not shy away from criticising the flaws of his society in his writings. In Things Fall Apart, one can see that the women characters did not have much voice; however, in Anthills of the Savannah, one can see them having more voice and greater representation. It is so because society’s attitude towards gender relations has changed. Achebe is not gendered; he simply tries to objectively locate, highlight and represent the Igbo society’s attitude towards gender relations in his novels.
1. In Course in General Linguistics, Saussure posits that meanings cannot be produced in isolation. He further points out that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and based on convention. So, the meaning of the word “agbala” will depend on the context in which it is used. It may refer to a woman, or it may refer to people like Unoka, who did not have a single title.
2. The African word “ndichie” refers to the elders, who meet in councils and make important decisions.
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