OUT OF THE SILENCE: IGBO WOMEN WRITERS AND CONTEMPORARY NIGERIA
Despite the substantive research on individual Nigerian Igbo women writers, little is known on the growth and transition of their writing from the first generation of writers to the present contemporary third-generation. The overall image that emerges from the literature is that Nigerian Igbo women’s works redress stereotypical images of female characters in male writings. This thesis analyses the changing woman subject in family and the nation in the works of eight Nigerian Igbo women, from first generation Flora Nwapa, second generation Buchi Emecheta and Ifeoma Okoye, and third generation Akachi Ezeigbo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Unoma Azuah, Chika Unigwe and Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. An analysis of selected novels reveals the female subject in each generation changing within the family and nation to be more pronounced and strong-willed than in the writings of the generation before. Female characters are no longer depicted in archetypal images of victims but rather portrayed playing active roles within their family and nation. Womanist theory is applied to expound the female characters’ quests for self-determination and agency within these spheres. In the domestic realm of the family a distinct progression can be detected in the concerns and themes of the novels; but in the representation of nationalism in the Biafran War, the corruption and criminality that followed the war, and the spread of sex trafficking, the three generations are in strong agreement. Since the publication of Flora Nwapa’s Efuru the silenced and stereotyped Igbo woman has found a voice in women novelists that has impacted greatly on contemporary Nigerian life.
Table of Contents
Why Igbo? 5
Womanist Theory and Contemporary Nigerian Women Writers 13
Feminism Critiqued in Postcolonial Feminist Theory 13
African Feminism and African Womanist Theory 17
African Feminism and African Womanism
in Nigerian Igbo Women’s Writings 26
Dispelling the Myth of the ‘Silent Woman’:
The Igbo Woman In Flora Nwapa’s Writing 31
Nwapa’s Forerunners - African Male Writers 33
Five Strategies for Dispelling the Myth of the Silent Woman 37
Representation of Female Characters 37
Male Characters 48
Gender Relations 49
Female Solidarity 52
The Emerging Igbo ‘Woman’:
The Changing Concepts of ‘Wife’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Woman’
in Buchi Emecheta and Ifeoma Okoye 55
Womanism, Motherhood and Polygamy 58
Inscription as Liberation 61
Contesting the Stereotype of Motherhood 67
Barrenness and Sterility 84
Rethinking Family Relationships:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Unoma Azuah 98
Third Generation Igbo Female Characters’ Process of Self Assertion 100
Challenging Patriarchal Dominance 101
The Absent Mother 105
The Complex Relation between Tradition and Modernity 108
Metamorphosis and Self-Actualization 111
The Biafran War and Igbo Women Writers:
Deconstructing the Male Discourse of Nationalism: 116
The postcolonial nation and the critique of neo-colonialism in Nigeria 119
Nwapa, Emecheta, Adichie and Igbo nationalism 122
Pan-Igbo ideology, tribal separatism and Pan-Africanism 124
Neo-colonial Influence and the Biafran War 129
The representation of ‘masculinist’ political leadership 133
Rape: The War on Women 137
Womanism, Women and War 139
Post-War Nigeria: Corruption and the Modern Slave Trade 147
The Nigerian Male Character and Corruption 152
Sex Trafficking in Nigerian Women’s Writings 165
The Dynamics of Trafficking in Nigerian Women’s Writings 168
Rescue Agencies 180
Womanist Theory and Contemporary Nigerian Women Writers
Feminism Critiqued in Postcolonial Feminist Theory
Postcolonial feminism 3 has consistently criticized Western feminism’s universalizing of women’s issues. Despite the assumption of a shared identity, a common global sisterhood, it failed to postulate the specific conditions of the various races and classes of women, and the various material conditions of women’s oppression. Postcolonial feminism, sometimes referred to as Third world feminism4 or minority feminist criticism, addresses the race, class and colonial problems faced by Third World women. Postcolonial feminism overlaps theories of black feminism because they both argue that women are marginalized by race as well as gender.
The objection has been that western feminists 5 have habitually defined ‘woman’ from their own experience of womanhood without including the experiences of women of color. Women of color were therefore put in the position of ‘other’, their
3 Postcolonial feminist criticism is wide and changing. The field explores the representation of women in previously colonized countries and those living in Western countries.
4 The phrase ‘Third world feminism’ is fraught with problems. It implies a peripheral subjection.
5 When I refer to Western feminist or Western feminism, it is a reference to White feminists.
experiences incomprehensible to Western feminists and therefore left undefined. In Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference (2002) Audre Lorde argues that “white women ignore their built-in-privilege of whiteness and define ‘woman’ in terms of their own experience alone, then women of color become ‘other’, the outsider whose experience and tradition are too ‘alien’ to comprehend” (Lorde 2002: 376). Western feminists also placed women of color in the ‘other’ position by using them as foils to define their own experiences and to gauge their progress. Ania Loomba gives an example of this in her article “Dead Women Tell No Tales: Issues of Female Subjectivity, Subaltern Agency and Tradition in Colonial and Postcolonial Writings on Widow Immolation in India” (2003) asserting that “the silence of Indian women enabled British feminists to claim a speaking part for themselves” (Loomba 2003: 250). Drawing on ‘suttee,’ British feminist Josephine Butler compares the silence of the Indian woman about this ‘monstrous’ act to that of the resistance shown by Western women in their experiences of womanhood. Loomba argues that by British feminists “representing their mute sisters… legitimize themselves as ‘the imperial authorities on “Indian womanhood” (Loomba 2003: 251). This attitude provoked strong criticism against feminism: the assumption of women’s shared oppression, of the idea that Third world women are a powerless group, and of the continual disregard of Western feminism in understanding ‘difference’ among women of color or Third world women.
The first criticism against Western feminism is the assumption of women’s shared oppression. Generalizing women’s oppression fails to account for the specific experiences, and the range of different experiences among various groups of women, neither does it account for assertive and self-affirming women. In Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse (1991), Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues that “a homogenous notion of the oppression of women as a group is assumed…produc[ing] the image of an ‘average third world woman’. This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender…and being ‘third-world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc)” (Mohanty 1991: 261). The image of the Third-world woman is one of oppression, and by extension, the Third world woman is seen in contrast to the “Western women as educated, modern, as having control over their bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions” (261). The
Western feminist representation of the Third world woman is fallacious because the Third world woman is not merely to be seen as oppressed and subjugated. Mohanty’s article critiques this assumption of shared victimization, arguing against the notion that all women share similar oppression regardless of class, race location or ethnicity.
In Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women (2002), bell hooks states that feminist bonding based on shared victimization does not create a space for assertive and self affirming women and perpetuates sexist ideology through feminist theory. She asserts that,
sexist ideology teaches women that to be female is to be a victim. Rather than to repudiate this equation…women’s liberationists embraced it, making shared victimization the basis for woman-bonding. This meant that women had to conceive of themselves as ‘victims’ in order to feel that the feminist movement was relevant to their lives…assertive, self-affirming women were often seen as having no place in the feminist movement” (hooks 2002: 397).
Thus, according to hooks, feminist theory tended to create space only for women who were powerless against their circumstances.
The second criticism against Western feminism is that by bonding as victims, Western feminism places women in a stereotypical position of powerlessness. Mohanty argues that Western feminists have tried to find “a variety of cases of ‘powerless’ groups of women to prove a general point that women as a group are powerless” (Mohanty 1991: 262). This is a misconception that can be seen to be equivalent to colonial subjugation, an assumption that results in women being seen as “an always-already constituted group, one which has been labeled ‘powerless’,’ exploited’, [and] ‘sexually harassed” mirroring sexist ideology of women as the weak, emotional gender” (262). Trinh T Minh-Ha echoes Mohanty’s argument in Woman, Native, Other (1989), stating that Third World Women are often placed in the position of ‘other’ in First and Second World discourse, undefined and seen as “bat, dog, chick, mutton, tart…cow, vixen, bitch. Call girl, joy girl, working girl. Lady and whore are both bred to please…all under the form of the Other. All except herself” (Minh-ha 1989: 97). Rather than viewing Third world women as powerless, “exploited, looked down upon, and lumped together in a convenient term that denies
their individualities,” she argues that they should have the opportunity to express the authenticity of their struggle to empower themselves (97).
With the rising criticism of the stereotypical nature of Western feminist theory, Western feminist began inviting Third world women and women of color to educate them on their sisters’ specific predicaments. They were not included in discussions but brought in just to explain their oppression, and very often postcolonial feminist critics objected to the lack of interest in the West in understanding the differences experienced by Third world women and women of color. In The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle in the Master’s House (2003), Audre Lorde argues that it has become the “task of black and third world women to educate white women, in the face of tremendous resistance, as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival” (Lorde 2003: 27). The absorption of Third world women and women of color into world feminists theory is seen as a repetition of patriarchal subjugation, not only eliding difference but wasting energy where it can be better used to redefine women, devising realistic scenarios for altering present circumstances and constructing a future for Third world women and women of color. Thus, differences among women must not be merely tolerated, they have to be understood in order for significant change to happen through political solidarity among all women.
Another objection against Western feminists has been the assumption of the inauthentic native. In Where Have All the Natives Gone Rey Chow (2003) critiques the inability of Western feminism to comprehend Third world women and women of color’s experiences if they do not fit into the natives image stereotype: “what confronts the Western scholar is the discomforting fact that the natives are no longer staying in their frames” (Chow 2003: 325). A Third world woman and woman of color’s story is only authentic if it fits the stereotypical notion of oppression set in the minds of Western feminists. Any account of independence, fluidity, change and dynamism is not accepted as authentic and therefore is not native. This raises the question among postcolonial critics of who defines native identity, and in doing so questions who is constructing this identity. This is contested in postcolonial feminism because it places Western feminists in a political position of power – the suthority to decide native representation of identity.
The inability of Western feminists to understand and theorize difference may even be seen to perpetuate racism. In “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women,” (2002) bell hooks critiques how “white women shifted responsibility for calling attention to race onto others. They did not take the initiative in discussions of racism or race onto others…without changing in anyway the structure of the feminist movement, without losing hegemonic hold…They were not confronting racism.” (hooks 2002: 401). She argues that Western feminists have to take the initiative to understand racist socialization and forge a political commitment within feminist discourse to eliminate the racism experienced by women of color. hooks goes on to imply that women of color should neither passively accept ignorance of their difference within feminist discourse nor rely on White feminists to bring about political solidarity among women. Women of color should unite through their diversity and different experiences to create a meaningful sisterhood. These debates instituted an expansion of feminist theory to include theories voiced by Third world women and women of color.
Audre Lorde takes it further, arguing that Third world and colored women need to create a space within or apart from feminist discourse to define their specific experiences of womanhood. It is in this context that feminist theory expanded to include Black feminism, African feminism and the exegesis of African womanist theory. The latter is a theory created by and for women of African descent to express their experiences of race, class and gender. Emerging from identity politics and Black feminism, womanist theory creates a space for women of African descent to dialogue on and nurture a goal for social change.
African Feminism and African Womanist Theory
African feminism and African womanism are both theories that address the racial, class, and sexist oppression faced by women of African descent, creating space for African women to air their discontent and confront these issues in all their cultural diversity and difference in a more inclusive manner. It is also important to understand that the involvement of Black women 6 internationally in feminist and womanist studies can be related to the involvement of African-American women in the 1980s
6 ‘Black women’ is used in my discussion to describe all women of African descent, those who live in Africa and those from outside Africa.
identity politics and Black women’s studies in the United States of America which will be theorised further in the latter section of this chapter.
Distinguished African studies scholar Carole Boyce Davies reports, in Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (1986), the growing recognition of the necessity for a feminist consciousness to examine the position of women in African society following “an ever-growing corpus of literature by African women writers” (Davies 1986: 1). Davies argues that the progressive African woman witnessed the women’s struggle in which “the social and historical realities of African women’s lives must be considered” and finds a need to speak out against it (6). She defines African feminism as a theory that recognises a common struggle with African men to remove the bondage of foreign subjugation and exploitation. She states that African feminism acknowledges that African women come from an historically strong tradition and need to continue this legacy by continuing to stand up for themselves in order to make “visible the “invisible woman,” or audible, the mute, voiceless woman” (Davies 1986: 15). African feminism here is seen as a hybrid theory, combining feminist concerns with African concerns. Nigerian studies scholar and African feminist critic Susan Arndt in The Dynamics of African Feminism (2002) defines African feminism, on the other hand, as a theory that aims at “complementarity” (Arndt 2002: 74). Here she disputes existing relationships of African men and women put forward by African studies critics like Catherine Acholonu, arguing that African men and women need to complement each other and work together as they criticize patriarchy and find ways to help women overcome their discrimination and oppression.
Nigerian feminist-social critic Molara Ogundipe-Leslie asserts that African feminism should include issues such as the woman’s body, her person, her immediate family, her society, her nation, her continent and their locations within international economic order because those realities in the international economic order determine African politics and impact on the women (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994: 228). She stresses that African feminism is needed to address patterns of oppression and injustices against women. However, because of the problematic use of the term feminism, many Black women choose not to be aligned with this theory. She bluntly states that many African female writers do not call themselves feminists because of their fear of “male ridicule, aggression and backlash” (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994: 63-64). Arguments that
feminism is a foreign theory, a theory that masks power relations and espouses men hating are some of the varied reasons why Black women and African women writers are wary of associating themselves with feminist politics.
Many African women writers argue that stereotypes are created when they are linked to a certain theory or movement and they feel that they are unable to express their ideas freely. Among African women writers there are many differing viewpoints about whether these writers see themselves as feminist or womanist. Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta argues that she “is a feminist with a small ‘f’.” (Makuchi and Nfah- Abbenyi 1997: 7) She insists that she does not like to be attached to European definitions of feminist but rather “the African type of feminism. They call it womanism” (7). Highlighting the ambiguous situation of African femininism, Flora Nwapa rejects the appellation ‘feminist’ in her interviews, yet in a conference in Nsukka declares to the participants that because “feminism is about possibilities…Let us not be afraid to say we are feminists. We need one another, we really need one another. Globally, we need one another” (Nnaemeka 1998: 83). Ghanian writer Ama Ata Aidoo states that
When people ask me rather bluntly every now and then whether I am a feminist, I not only answer yes, but I go on to insist that every woman and every man should be a feminist-especially if they believe that Africans should take charge of our land, its wealth, our lives and the burden of our own development. (Allan 1996: 173-174)
She believes that feminism is an essential tool in women’s struggle everywhere, and extends this idea in her article “Literature, Feminism and the African Woman Today” where she encourages African women to not feel threatened by European feminists and African men who contend that feminism is a European ideology but instead to use feminism as a tool to speak of the racial and sexual oppression.
Molora Ogundipe-Leslie suggests the use of the word ‘Stiwanism’ an acronym for “Social Transformation Including Women in Africa” (Ogundipe-Leslie 1994: 229). Stiwanism discusses the needs of African women in the context of the traditional spaces of culture that they inhabit because “indigenous feminisms also existed in Africa and.... “STIWA” is about the inclusion of African women in the contemporary social and political transformation of Africa” (230). She argues that this
term will help better define women’s active involvement in the socio-political transformation of their nation. Thus, despite counter arguments and debates, there are aspects of African feminist theory that remain important. It addresses concerns of patriarchy, women’s oppression and discrimination, encouraging women and men to eradicate such biases by working together.
As a result of the extensive criticism of feminism, ‘African Womanism’ became the preferred theory to describe the African woman’s circumstance in the 1980’s. It is a theory developed by Black women, creating space for women to work towards methods of ending forms of social-political, economic and gender oppression without exhaustive debates on its viability. However, in order to understand African womanism, it is important to understand identity politics and Black women studies as the background from which this theory finds its development.
Identity politics emerged in the 1970’s in America as a response to the injustices faced by particular groups of people. It stemmed out of need to end the stereotyping and marginalization of minority groups 7 . When African American women began to involve themselves in identity politics, it was to secure freedom and to end their social marginalisation by white people and African-American men. Some of the key players in Black women’s identity politics were bell hooks, Patricia Bell Scott, Gloria T. Hull and Barbara Smith. 8 The discourse of these Black women echoed the cry of the early Black Activist, Sojourner Truth who in 1852 asked white men, women and Black men a significant question, ‘and ain’t I a woman?’ (Phillips 2006: 38). Similarly, Maria Stewart, an early Black Activist, challenged Black women to reject negative images of Black womanhood and instead fight for their political independence.9 She asks vehemently “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be
7 Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. In this book, Hill-Collins argues that the history of slavery not only placed African Americans as a minority group in society but also placed them in oppressive situations. Identity politics rose from a need to break away from the various race, class, gender and sexual oppressions, placing African American people beyond marginalized positions.
8 Hull, Gloria T., Scott, Patricia Bell and Smith, Barbara. “A Black Feminist Statement: The Combahee River Collective.” Some of Us are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith. New York: The Feminist Press, 1982, pp. 14. This book argues that there have always been Black women activists who created an awareness of their sexual and racial identity against oppression. Even before this, Black women fought against their subjugation. Some of these early activists are Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terell.
9 Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2000. This book highlights the fact that in 1831, Black women’s
compelled to bury their minds, and talents beneath the load of iron pots and kettles?” (qtd in Hill-Collins 2000: 1). She urges Black women to seek their self-definition and stake claim to opportunities that are rightfully theirs.
In “A Black Feminist Statement: The Combahee River Collective” (Hull 1982), Gloria T. Hull et al argued that the politics of Black women studies emerged among Black women from the Black woman’s concern for herself, her sisters and her community. This essay was significant in the development of Black women’s studies as well as the field of identity politics because it demonstrated the capacity of oppressed women to empower themselves by giving voice to their oppressed conditions:
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough. (Hull et al 1982: 16)
Although identity politics fell into disfavour in the 1990s it served its purpose as a means for Black women to address their oppression by racism and sexism. They argued that they should be recognized and identified as human beings and as women among white men, women and Black men who ignored their very existence.
The women’s movement and women’s studies before the 1980’s did not have a space for Black women so Black women’s studies emerged as an academic discourse to aid Black women in the quest to eradicate racism, sexism and attain personal freedom. In But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women Studies (1982), Gloria
T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith note that “the birth of Black women’s studies is perhaps the day of revelation…Black feminism has made a space for Black women’s studies to exist and, through its commitment to all Black women, will provide the basis for its survival” (Hull 1982: xx). Through the Black Feminist
activist Maria Stewart not only spoke out against the Black woman’s oppression but also urged women to be independent and self-reliant.
Statement: The Combahee River Collection (1982) Black women began to academically engage in Black feminism.
In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (2000) bell hooks argues that the significance of the feminist movement is derived from women everywhere rebelling against sexism when “women began to meet and talk together” (hooks 2000: x). She states that the feminist struggle takes place when women or men resist sexism, sexist oppression and exploitation as “groups of people come together with organized strategy to take action to eliminate patriarchy” (xi). Black men who believe that their freedom cannot be attained unless they attain patriarchal power and privilege in society will continue to be unable to comprehend the Black woman’s struggle for selfhood and the need for their participation in the feminist movement. If this prejudice continues to be perpetuated by Black men, white racism and patriarchy against Black people will never be dismantled.
Extending this idea, hooks asserts that for Black women to achieve self- determination and agency for themselves, they should never name themselves victim nor take on a victim’s identity: “to name oneself victim is to deny agency” (hooks 2000: 58). Naming oneself as victim denies a woman the capacity to change her situation and the situation of women in her society. This aspect of identity politics is a significant feature of the development of womanist ideas in African women’s literature. Similar conditions apply to African women, who have had to challenge their experience of oppression in African patriarchal society to gain a more authentic and self-determined position in society. Similarly, Nigerian Igbo women writers have had to struggle to create a sense of agency for themselves, repositioning themselves from marginal spaces within the traditional, social and political structures of society into positions of power and self-definition. To do this, the admonition to never take the position of victim is enthusiastically accepted, a sign of the historic strength of Igbo women as a group.
Alice Walker first used the word ‘womanist’ in her short story “Coming Apart,” published in 1979. Here, she refers to a wife, a common woman, who can never quite be a feminist and yet can perform acts of resistance against the injustices she faces in her everyday life. Walker further elaborates on this term in her review essay “Gift of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson,” explaining that Rebecca Jacksons’ close knit relationship with her female companion Rebecca Perot was not
lesbianism, but women having close knit relationships that support each other, which she terms womanist. (Philips 2006: xix-19). Walker developed the term more fully in 1983 in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens to describe both the African- American and African women’s struggle and resistance against sexist, racist oppression, addressing female traditions of culture, knowledge and survival. She defines a ‘womanist’ as “a black feminist or a feminist of color” (1983: xi). She adds that a womanist is
…outrageous, audacious, courageous or strong-willed behavior…being grown up…Responsible. In charge. Serious… A woman who loves other women… Commited to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Traditonally universalist… Traditionally capable. Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender. (xi-xii)
In Walker’s definition, womanism is a shade different from feminism. She argues that while womanism does draw its basic ideas from feminism, it builds on feminist ideas to create a theory that meets the needs of the whole Black community. Unlike feminism’s focus on gender, womanism also addresses race and class issues from a socio-political perspective, involving both men and women in the struggle for race, class and gender equality.
The concept of womanism was also defined and expanded by Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi who claims she coined the term womanism around the same time as Alice Walker in 1985. Ogunyemi asks “does feminism mean the same thing to either side? Are there overlapping areas between the feminisms? Should they keep their feminism and I start looking for mine?” She advocates a complementary theory ‘Nigerian womanism’, which etymologically identifies better with the Nigerian woman’s culture and history (1996: 106-113). Ogunyemi insists that Black women writers are not limited “by issues defined by their femaleness, but attempt to tackle questions raised by humanity” (1996: 68). A womanist also writes to “generate public awareness and understanding” (68). This means that through her writings, she is not merely concerned with highlighting sexism but is committed to addressing concerns the whole community faces around questions of race and class. Thus a womanist’s writing takes on a multi-dimensional awareness of the “different layers” of problems African men and women face (Arndt 2000: 217). Ogunyemi argues that only when the oppression and problems men face are also analyzed at the grass root levels, can
you actually get to the root cause of women’s subjugation. It is by tackling these issues of racism, classism, sexism, of social and economic injustice within the community, that womanists hope to generate an understanding of the Black woman’s plight. Like Walker who defines womanism in terms of being grown up, responsible and in charge, Ogunyemi believes that a young girl
inherits womanism after a traumatic event such as menarche or after an epiphany or as a result of the experience of racism, rape, death in the family, or sudden responsibility. Through coping with this experience she moves creatively beyond the concern of self to that concern for the needs of others characteristic of adult womanists. (72)
Ogunyemi is particularly interested in the development that women characters undergo in fiction. Womanists choose to highlight the process of transformation because it shows the progression of the woman in the context of the wider community. It is this issue of the wider community that provides the key to Womanism, because female liberation cannot occur without the involvement of all members of the community in transforming the wide range of issues that underpin sexual discrimination.
Cleonora Hudson-Weems in 1989 and 1993 respectively, extended the theory of Womanism. For her it
identifies the participation and the role of Africana women in the struggle, but does not suggest that female subjugation is the most critical issue they face in their struggle for parity…acknowledges societal gender problems as critical issues to be resolved; however, it views feminism, the suggested alternative to these problems, as a sort of inverted White patriarchy. (Philips 2006: 40)
Weems argues that Africana Womanism is a theory that better explains and identifies with the Africana oppression, ‘Africana’ being a word that includes all men and women of African descent. Like Ogunyemi, Weems sees womanism as highlighting the race and class power relations that African women and men face. Weems strongly opposes the association of Africana women with feminism and instead calls all Africana women to embrace Africana Womanism. She argues that feminism is not able to create a space for Africana women because it was a theory that never had space from the beginning for the Africana women’s agenda. Weems’ argument is
useful because it highlights the importance of Africana people having a theory tailored to their concerns, and in this respect is in close agreement with Walker and Ogunyemi.
While the theory of African womanism has created space for women of African descent to develop culturally appropriate paths toward self-determination, it has also allowed African women to challenge the ‘Mother Africa’ trope by which they are stereotyped into the role of mothers. The ‘Mother Africa’ trope is critiqued by two scholars, Florence Stratton and Mineke Schipper, who argue that African women not only need to repudiate it formally but also refuse to continue legitimizing this debilitating trope in their actions.
Florence Stratton (1994) argues that the ‘Mother Africa’ trope has been perpetuated by the African male literary tradition. African male writers like Chinua Achebe, Leopold Senghor, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembene, Mongo Beti, Cyprian Ekwensi and Nuruddin Farah through their reductive, stereotypical writings portrayed images of African women through the “pot of culture” and “sweep of history” strands (Stratton 1994: 50). Through the ‘pot of culture’ strand, male writers “[analogize women] to a bygone culture which is usually conceptualized as immutable, rendering the female figure as static, conservative” (50). In the ‘sweep of history’ strand, the African woman’s body is “produced and constructed by the male writer as an embodiment of his literary/political vision” (51). This embodiment of African women in male writings, places them in limiting roles such as ‘the good wife-mother figure’, ‘the prostitute’ or ‘the barren woman’. Stephanie Newell (1996) argues that Nigerian female characters who deviate from the norm in male writings are often punished and re-placed into their stereotypical roles, which, for her, reflects the need for masculine power and control of the women in their society.
On a similar note, Mineke Schipper writes that although women writers have been slow in coming into the African literary tradition, they too critique the ‘Mother Africa’ myth that shackles them. She cites revolutionary Senegalese writer Mariama Ba, who states through her protagonist Ramatoulaye in So Long a Letter
As women, we must work for our own future, we must overthrow the status quo which harms us and we must no longer submit to it. Like men, we must
use literature as a non-violent weapon. We no longer accept the nostalgic praise to the African mother whom, in his anxiety, man confuses with Mother Africa. (cited in Schipper 1987: 50)
Ba advocates that African women refuse to capitulate to the stereotypical roles placed upon them by patriarchal culture but rather fight to liberate themselves. It is on these grounds that African womanism is able to play a part to end the myth of ‘Mother Africa’ by encouraging women to achieve agency and self-determination. While the ‘Mother Africa’ myth places women in subjugated positions and stereotypical roles, African womanism offers women a theoretical foundation to see beyond their allotted role and lay claim to possibilities through agency and self-determination. This thesis will focus on selected works by Nigerian Igbo women writers, who depict Nigerian female characters rising against their subjugation, challenging stereotypical images..