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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

African Feminism: Old Wine in a New Wine Bottle?

In the preface, I explained that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many women writers of her generation have revived interest in feminism by drawing attention to the bodies of women in pain. I work with Susan Moller Okin’s definition of feminism, which is “the belief that women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equally with men, and the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can.”11 As far as this definition goes, the different generations of African women writers and activists pursue the same goal. The obvious difference between third-generation African women writers and their foremothers is the formers’ bold embrace of feminist identity.12 Whereas, for instance, Buchi Emecheta claimed that she was a feminist with a small “f’, Adichie declares herself to be a happy feminist.13 Susan Z. Andrade has rightly argued that Adichie and others of her generation are indebted to Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, and Mariama Ba, among others.14 Unlike the Nwapa-Emecheta generation that was much concerned with the nation as a construct that must be defended against the onslaught of the West, third-generation African women writers are less occupied with concepts of the nation as a space.15 They are more interested in the woman’s body as a violated entity.16 They see their bodies not as symbols or allegories of something else, but rather as homes to their individual selves. This is the dominant idea that runs through the works of these authors. When they write about polygamy, female genital excision, rape, spousal abuse, or other forms of gender discrimination, they do so because they are acutely aware of these bodies as exclusively theirs, not as belonging to society or their culture. They therefore contest the physical and psychological pain inflicted on them. Most importantly, they draw attention to fundamental ethical questions, one of which is the relation between the African man and the African woman. The contemporary African woman writer therefore understands her feminism to be an ethical statement; it involves people relating to people as individuals and not merely as members of groups.

Ethics, broadly defined, is a science of morality.17 Morality, in turn, deals with what is good or bad, permissible or forbidden. Whereas morality might be personal, ethics is always about the quality of one’s relations with others.18 Ethics defines right or wrong ways of being or relating to others.19 Ethics as relationship is intrinsically a recognition of the other. For Judith Butler, the story of how we arrive at the recognition of the other is as important as that recognition itself, for it is the genealogy of the recognition that gives it its ethical character. Underlining the structure of morality as a quality generated among people, she states in an interview that pursuing a moral mode of being is not “something that is exclusively ‘mine’ and so will have to be a mode of being that is bound up with others with all the difficulty and promise that implies.”20 She uses Adriana Cavarero’s idea of recognition; for Cavarero the ultimate question central to recognition of the other is: “Who are you?” Butler interprets Cavarero as suggesting that the subject encounters the other as already essentially “exposed, visible,” and as “existing in a bodily way and of necessity in a domain of appearance. ” This bodily existence is what constitutes the individual’s sense of own life and because this corporeality is exposed “it is not that over which I can have control.”21

Butler’s interpretation echoes Alasdair MacIntyre’s in Dependent Rational Animals.22 As embodied beings, we are vulnerable, exposed, and therefore are dependent on others, that is, we rely on them for recognition. In Butler’s understanding, the recognition of the other takes the singularity and vulnerability of oneself and the other into consideration; this includes the fact that recognition is not an event fixed in time. It is a continuous process that is best captured in the question: “Who are you?” Butler argues that the ethical stance consists in asking that question:

without any expectation of a full or final answer. This Other to whom I pose this question will not be captured by any answer that might arrive to satisfy the question. So if there is, in the question, a desire for recognition, this will be a desire which is under an obligation to keep itself alive as desire, and not to resolve itself through satisfaction.23

To ask “Who are you?” is to indicate interest in relating to the other; it is to invite the other to narrate. Narration assumes an audience, a listener; the narrator/audience sets up the paradigm for relation/recognition. Every individual is a story, which in itself is open-ended, that is, subject to interpretations and discourse. But the narrator tells her story in the knowledge that the act itself is imperfect because it is contingent and relies on the listener to make sense. Listening implies being open and receptive; it also means not settling with whatever answer is given as if it had provided all the information about a person. On the contrary, it establishes a certain degree of dialectical relation between the questioner and the narrator. Butler captures the nature of this dialectical relationship in her suggestion that “the norms by which I seek to make myself recognizable are not fully mine.”24 In other words, I depend on the others to be complete. “So the account of myself that I give in discourse never fully expresses or carries this living self. My words are taken away as I give them, interrupted by the time of a discourse that is not the same as the time of my life.”25

Lawrence Buell believes that the meeting point of ethics and literature is the relationship “between texts and readers.”26 It is in the texts that readers are asked to imagine the lives of people (characters) they will never meet. As Wolfgang Iser has shown, the act of reading implies a continuous dialogue between the text and the reader.27 In narrating the stories of women in sexist or patriarchal societies, contemporary African women writers present women who demand that their world asks them the simple question: “Who are you?” instead of providing answers in forms of ideologies.

Ethics as relation and recognition occupies a central place in Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy. Ethics is activated in the presence of the other. For him, it is “the calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other.”28 Spontaneity means acting as one desires; it implies the activities of self-existent person, a for-itself. When ethics calls my spontaneity into question, it means that I am no longer free to act as I wish. The presence of the other necessarily limits me. But this limitation is not to be understood in a negative sense; it is rather the imposition of responsibility on me. For Levinas, “the strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possession, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.”29 In a conversation with Philippe Nemo, he explains that the “face speaks... It is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse.” This discourse is a call which the other’s face initiates and which I am obliged to respond to, and in responding, I assume “responsibility which is this authentic relationship.”30 Thus the face is definitively ethical. If ideology totalizes the individual, the face restores her infinity, that is, releases the hold that time and definition have on her. The face prevents us from seeking to capture the being of the other in abstractions such as culture or heritage. Levinas’s conception of infinity reflects what Butler means by the desire that keeps itself alive as desire.31 The notion of the face as ethical expresses my uses of ethics to foreground my discussion of the feminist and human rights concerns of the African women writers in this book. How, for instance, does the face (the body) of the woman in pain urge us to confront the totality (abstraction) that has forced her into that condition? This question is precisely what the writing of contemporary Anglophone African women does. The writers recognize the fact that totality or abstractions disable women’s bodies. My project therefore engages the question of how they address women as disabled bodies in African patriarchal societies.

By disabled bodies, neither I, nor African women writers suggest that women are inferior by nature or, as Aristotle argued “mutilated males.”32 Any action, condition or system that renders a body or mind incapable of exercising its freedom or realizing its possibilities, disables that body or mind. It is in this sense that I use the term disable, or that I refer to women in patriarchal societies as disabled. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson states, “more recently, feminist theorists have argued that female embodiment is a disabling condition in sexist cultures.”33 Being a woman is not a disability, but being so in a sexist, patriarchal culture is a handicap. As Iris Marion Young argues, “women in sexist society are physically handicapped.”34 Young argues that women’s lives are shaped by society’s idea of femininity, which exists as a “set of structures and conditions which delimit the typical situation of being a woman in a particular society.”35 Women are forced into a socially constructed limitation by the roles and expectations their societies place on them. Some of these expectations are packaged in moral or religious languages. They are therefore not living to the tune of their biology, but rather to the tune of social constructs. Within those social constructs, to be feminine is to live as your patriarchal society deems fit, and, given that men establish the paradigms of social existence, they always construct them to their own advantage, to serve their biology. When the socio-cultural apparatuses are designed to serve men’s biology, they unavoidably work to the disadvantage of women, by reshaping their comportment to the tune of patriarchal imagination.

Pain is an integral part of being human. To inflict pain gratuitously is inhumane. Unwarranted pain (female genital mutilation, forced marriage, et cetera), which is often legitimized by culture and tradition, disables women’s bodies and therefore constitutes an abuse of women’s rights. A central argument in this book is that each time a woman is subjected to needless pain, she is violated, and her rights are denied her. The questions, therefore, are: How do African patriarchal and sexist cultures handicap women? What is the morally appropriate response to a culturally handicapped body? How do I relate to the body that has been denied rights? I argue that the easing of the unnecessary pain that the African women experience is a primary concern of contemporary African women writers. These writers demand a response from their readers. How might we understand that response?

I suggest that empathy is a tool by which these women writers draw attention to the condition of women in their societies and elicit responsibility from their readers. I therefore argue that African women writers tell stories about women in pain so that readers can put themselves in the position of those women.36 This is what I mean by feminist empathy, which I define as the ability to feel oneself in the experience of a woman in suffering because of her gender. The goal of empathy, in this case, is to address the conditions that cause such suffering and therefore impede human flourishing.

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