Abstractions as Disablers of Women’s Rights

Lola Shoneyin and Petina Gappah

During a question-and-answer session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2010, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa defended his simultaneous marriage to four women by seeking recourse to his culture. Zuma answered: “That’s my culture. It does not take anything from me, from my political beliefs including the belief in the equality of women... Some think that their culture is superior to others, that’s a problem we have in the world.”[1] In April, 2014, the Kenyan government legalized polygamy on the grounds that it was part of their culture and heritage. My interest in Zuma’s answer and the Kenyan polygamy law is entirely philosophical as I do not judge either ofthese. I am, however, more interested in whether culture could be used to justify one person’s relation to another person. What happens to individuals when abstractions such as culture or nationalism insert themselves in people’s relations?

Consider Zuma’s other appeal to culture. During his rape trial in 2005, which made international headlines, he did not deny having any sexual contact with the woman who accused him of rape. Rather, he:

told the court that in adhering to Zulu cultural norms, he had been obliged to have sexual intercourse with the complainant because she was sexually aroused. Had he walked away from the complainant when she was in this state, Zuma said, in Zulu culture his actions would have been tantamount to rape.

© The Author(s) 2016 121

C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40922-1_5


What Zuma’s two lines of defense and the Kenyan justification for legalizing polygamy have in common, apart from their generous exploitation of the argument of cultural relativism, is their use of abstraction to support actions that affect the lives of particular individuals. The thinking of the African feminist theorists I have discussed in the introduction has the same traits as Zuma’s. For instance, in her discussion of Mariama Ba’s novel So Long a Letter, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi argues that Ba depicted polygamy from the African perspective rather than from that of the West. In her reading, Ba portrayed Ramatoulaye, the protagonist, as having accommodated herself to the fact that African men had the cultural right to have as many wives as they pleased. In the novel, Okonjo Ogunyemi argues, Ramatoulaye tells her friend:

about the polygynous situation that has ruined her marriage because of her Western expectations of monogyny. Rather than collapsing, she remains undaunted, with little acrimony... Having accepted men with their libidinous disposition, she can create a stable life around her numerous children, male and female, along with their spouses. This is womanism in action; the demands of Fulani culture rather than those of sexual politics predominate.[2] [3] [4] [5]

In the introductory chapter, I discussed abstractions as manifestations of ideologies such as nationalism, heritage culture, tradition, religion, et cetera. I compared these abstractions with Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of totality. For Levinas, Western philosophy, especially in the tradition of Descartes and Kant, subsumes the individual within the category of reason. He calls this category totality. He argues that for Western philosophy, in order to bring forth objective meaning the unicity of the present is sacrificed to a future thought to possess a definite goal; thought is what gives the individual meaning. “For the ultimate meaning alone counts; the last act alone changes beings into themselves. They are what they will appear to be in the already plastic forms of the epic.”5 It is therefore fair to claim that, in regard to the control of the individual, the category of reason is to Western cosmology what culture or tradition is to that of Africa. In this chapter, I argue that given the fact that people’s lives are controlled by abstractions, especially in regard to marriage, women occupy the opposite pole of polar power relations; they have no voice. In the first part of this chapter, I examine polygamy as an institution that inherently disables women because its justification is in culture. In the second part, I examine the lives of women caught in the abstractions of nationalist politics and culture.

  • [1] 2
  • [2] have quoted Okonjo Ogunyemi in greater length in order to capture theideological premise of her arguments. Her concern is to contrast African
  • [3] culture (polygamy) with that of the West (monogamy). It is interesting
  • [4] that Okonjo Ogunyemi reads Ramatoulaye’s disappointment as resulting
  • [5] from her “Western expectations of monogyny.” It seems to suggest thatthe idea of equality between men and women is essentially Western andthat no African woman could (or should) aspire to that. To be sure, SoLong a Letter is more complex than Okonjo Ogunyemi characterizes it.More than anything, it portrays Ramatoulaye’s pain in the face of herhusband’s betrayal. Okonjo Ogunyemi’s ideological need to defendAfrican cultures seems to trump the necessity to explore the pain of anAfrican woman who has been abandoned by her husband, and has to takecare of their nine children all alone. Given the historical contexts of thetime, one can understand why she would read So Long a Letter as supporting polygamy. But third-generation African women scholars and writersapproach the issue from a different perspective. Even while not castingthemselves as pro-Western, they seek to interrogate the premises of someof those African cultural practices; they question the abstraction in whichthe justifications of these cultures are couched.
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