The changing roles of women in the African novel: a comparative analysis of Ekwensi, Dangaremgba and Armah

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The African woman has suffered severely for so many centuries due to certain unfair customs and traditional stipulations. Chief among these unfair traditional practices are the issue of patriarchy, which unfairly elevate men above women. Women are thus obliged to suffer in silence by cooking, giving birth and serving their men and children. However, the welfare of women is not considered as a priority in most African societies. On account of this unfair treatment, which is, rather unfortunately, backed by certain traditional practices, women in certain African traditional societies are not given equal access to education; nor are they allowed to participate in matters and discussions pertaining to national development. This observation is applicable to pre colonial and colonial as well as the first two decades or so of the postcolonial era. This situation is, however, changing. In fact, from the nineteen sixties onwards, some women have struggled to assert themselves. What used to be written about them in novels written by Africans during the colonial era and the early part of the post colonial era has changed. In the African novel and especially those written from the 1970’s onwards, female characters are given more respectable roles to play. A study of Ekwensi’s Nana and People of the City, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Condition and Armah’s Osiris Rising clearly substantiates this argument. The African woman in the past could be compared to a ‘biological incubator’ because her identity was linked to childbearing and feeding of the family. To a large extent, she was isolated from the social, economic and political life of her country. However, the few women who benefited from education brought new hope. These educated African women used their knowledge to improve the living standards of their people and their country as a whole. They became role models for younger females. Thus, from the 1980’s through to this time, the practice of assigning menial roles to women in African novels, that is, as cooks, prostitutes and so on is changing. The women in the novels studied, especially those written between 1988 and 1999, are able to carve out dignified images for themselves by contributing their quota towards national development and living independently because they are focused and determined. With education as the key to empowerment, these women use their knowledge to free themselves from unnecessary male domination. Their newly acquired strength and authority enabled them to challenge the tradition about gender roles. The fact that they have acquired education, and are determining to succeed on their own makes these women more progressive and outward looking. They are able to assert themselves and this coupled with their newly acquired independence and respect has transformed them into role models for the up and coming African woman. The way forward for the African woman, therefore, is to work hard towards educating herself so that she can participate effectively in matters which concern her community and her country as a whole.
A Thesis submitted to the Department of Languages, Faculty of Social Sciences in Partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of Master of Arts Degree in Comparative Literature, 2003