Lola Shoneyin: Polygamy as a Disabling Institution
In The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives,6 four women, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle are married to one man, Ishola, known as Baba Segi. Ishola is confident in his virility and standing as a patriarch. The apparent barrenness of Bolanle, his beloved and educated fourth wife causes him much concern. His three other wives had, unbeknownst to him, solved the problems of childbearing in their own unique, crafty ways. But Bolanle insists that she and her husband do a test. In the course of a series of medical tests, he learns that he is, indeed, not as virile as he had claimed. Why did these women resort to secrecy in their lives with Baba Segi?
The narrative begins with a problem that, given traditional epistemologies, can only have been caused by women. “When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something drastic about his fourth wife’s childlessness.” Baba Segi makes it clear to Bolanle: “Your barrenness brings shame upon me.”7 In this overture, Shoneyin hints at the philosophical and, indeed, moral thread that will run through the narrative: the body in pain. Here we have two bodies.
One of them, Bolanle’s, is supposed to be deficient, yet it is in the body of the other, Ishola, that pain is felt and taken seriously. Shoneyin does not intend to show Baba Segi’s pain as a classic lesson in empathy; Baba Segi does not feel the pain of his wife’s supposed barrenness because it disturbs his wife, but because it apparently makes people think that he is no longer a man. His concern is to prove his virility, and that blinds him to whatever pain his allegedly beloved wife might have felt.
Shoneyin seeks to achieve one particular goal with the structure of the narrative: the interrogation of patriarchy, and she does it by drawing attention to particular stories of individual women living in that system. That alone, listening to the women’s stories, should recast the paradigms of relationships in society, and this is more important than seeking to crush an ideology, or to erect another in its place. Understanding the individual narratives of these women could aid us in our critical appreciation of the institution of polygamy.
For Terry Eagleton, feminism has been the paradigm of morality in our own times largely because it “insists in its own way on the interwovenness of the moral and political, power and the personal. It is in this tradition above all that the precious heritage of Aristotle and Marx has been deepened and renewed.”8 Eagleton reminds us of the difference between moralism and morality. Moralism is narrow and “believes that there is a set of questions known as moral questions which are quite distinct from social or political ones.” Morality on the other hand, means “exploring the texture and quality of human behaviour as richly and sensitively as you can.” This implies that one cannot talk about morality or about existence in general “by abstracting men and women from their social surroundings.”9 In order to examine the texture of the lives of her female characters fully, Shoneyin employs the riches of the first-person point of view, and allows each woman to tell her own story. She, in a way, gives each woman a voice: Iya Femi lost her parents as a child. Her uncle sold her into “house slavery” with the justification that a “girl cannot inherit her father’s house.” A woman is denied her father’s property because, as her uncle says, “she will marry and make her husband’s home her own.”10 Iya Femi spends more than 20 years in the household into which her uncle sold her. She meets Taju, Baba Segi’s driver and begs him to help her find a husband. Taju tells her that only Baba Segi has enough money to marry several wives. Iya Femi pleads: “Then make him marry me. Convince him and put me in your debt forever. I have no relatives so there is no one for him to pay homage to.”11
Iya Femi’s story reveals a lot of things about the condition of certain women, one of which is that their only escape from the misery of their life is marriage to a man. In examining her life, we are allowed to interrogate the cultural patterns that denied her access to her own father’s estate. The source of her economic dependence lies in her inability to inherit her father’s property. Would she have needed to beg a man to marry her if she had had the means to sustain herself economically? We understand her seeking to be wedded to a married man as an effort to stay alive in a culture that has limited space for her. Hers is therefore a life-and-death struggle; she is fighting to stay alive within the narrow structure her culture has for her. She has limited choices; indeed, her choices have already been made for her by her culture. This is one of the instances in which abstractions disable women. In defining her needs and desires, Iya Femi’s culture literally freezes her in an ontological category because of her gender. In line with Levinas’s critique of Western philosophy, the unicity of Iya Femi’s presence is sacrificed to maintain the culture’s presumed goal.
Iya Tope’s conditions are not much different from those of Iya Femi. Iya Tope’s father was a hired farmer in the service of Baba Segi. That year, drought destroyed the crops. Iya Tope’s parents presented her to Baba Segi as compensation for “the failed crops.” Her father praised her in the presence of Baba Segi as being “strong as three donkeys” just as if she were on the auction block. He thus underlined Iya Tope’s utilitarian value. Influenced by the way her father narrated her, Iya Tope, now telling her story, describes herself as being like the tubers of cassava in the basket.12 Certain that he has secured a valuable commodity, Baba Segi describes Iya Tope in the same mercantile language. For example, when he begins to worry about her failure to conceive, he tells her, “if your father has sold me a rotten fruit, it will be returned to him.”13 Without alternatives and hemmed in by the identity conferred on her by her father, acting on behalf of her culture, Iya Tope seems to be reconciled to her fate, recognizing that Baba Segi, the master, is her only saviour.14 She thus falls under the protection of one man or another without her consent. Is she therefore a true African woman to whom her culture is more important than her own rights and dignities? Based on just the stories of these two women, it is perhaps no longer a secret why Shoneyin shows the pain and humiliation of women in societies where culture determines people’s relation to one another.
Tracing the development of the idea of human rights, Lynn Hunt argues that eighteenth-century European novels provoked a “torrent of emotions”15 in their readers because of the way they shed light on the pains of their protagonists. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Heloise, Julie sacrificed enough for love that people empathized with her. Hunt suggests that such novels like Rousseau’s and Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48) contributed to the thoughts captured in the proclamation of “the rights of man,”16 the cornerstone of the ideas of the French revolution. The writers put people’s identification with the pain of others in easily graspable narrative formats. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, Hunt argues, presaged the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 1 of which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. ”17
Could we compare what African women writers do for the African world with what the European writers of the eighteenth century did in regard to the pains of their fellow citizens? Literature does not prescribe how people should live. Strictly speaking, literature exposes the “texture and quality” of characters as figurative of the way we live. Martha Nussbaum sees the relationship between philosophy and literature, and draws attention to the important connection between form and content; she points out that in narratives, “a view of life is told.”18 We respond to this view of life and its characters as if they existed in (our) reality. In this regard it is justifiable to argue that Shoneyin exposes the objectification of women and thereby insinuates associations with the absence of these women’s rights. The fact that Baba Segi refers to his wife as a thing reveals the quality of their intersubjective relationship. Of course, he has the impetus to do so because he knows how dependent she is on him. Her dependence on him was necessitated by the socio-cultural structure that froze her in a category. Assessing their relationship to one another, we get the impression they are not two free adults; they are master and indentured slave.
Iya Segi is the first of Baba Segi’s four wives and over time has acquired a prominent role in the family. She is nearest in rank to the paterfamilias and therefore is a symbol of authority. The other women take orders from her. But none of this makes her condition as a person, whose existence is already overdetermined, any more tolerable. She too, came from a poor background. She worked hard and “aggressively” like a man. She was able to make a considerable amount of money, enough at least to buy a place in Baba Segi’s home.
As Cavarero and Butler have shown, the ultimate question central to recognition of the other is: “Who are you?” This question is the basis for stories. In having these women tell their stories, Shoneyin assumes the relation between text and reader, that is, between the reader and the women whose stories are an answer to the question implicit in our reading. We listen to them and in so doing establish a condition for relation. Their stories calls us to meet them face-to-face, that is, engage them ethically. Shoneyin allows us to feel the different traumas that women experience because of their bodies. The women’s individual narratives highlight their poor backgrounds, suggesting that their only hope of escape from their insignificance and the curse of their poverty and gender is their having a husband, any husband. And they are grateful to have found a husband, even if it means sharing him. They are grateful to be alive. Their lives or what could have been perceived as their subjectivities are subsumed within the abstract, ubiquitous presence of the man.
Hegel’s dialectic of master and bondsman reveals that it is in the nature of the master to desire. The slave, on the contrary, does not desire; he is there to fulfill the desires of the master since the slave has no claim for recognition.19 In a patriarchal society in which the relationship between man and woman can be represented in Hegelian terms, the woman is considered to have no desires.20 A woman who desires rejects the subservient, traditional role meant for her. In The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, women, from the perspective of tradition, have no desires. They affirm the master, and satisfy his desires; the master does not affirm them. To affirm them would imply acknowledging that they, too, have rights and therefore are no longer at the service of the master; affirming them would make them his equal, and therefore negate his condition of being.
We have a better understanding of the women’s self-perception in relation to their husband at the moment Bolanle, the fourth wife arrives. The other three grumble among themselves about her. Bolanle will make their already scarce commodity, their common master, even scarcer. Iya Femi complains: “Is it that our food wasn’t tasty enough? Why would Baba Segi marry another wife? Has he condemned our breasts because they are losing their fists?”21 It is revelatory about Iya Femi’s self-perception that her frustrations are focused on her services to her master; she is concerned with his pleasure: the food she prepares for him and her breasts that she presents to him. Only after mentioning the master’s desires does she remember herself as an individual that deserves attention, and even more so only in relation to another woman: “I will not be cast aside because she is a graduate... I do not want her in this house.”22 Shoneyin’s presentation of the women’s concerns reveals some of the inner workings of polygamy. From the perspectives of these women, we learn what it feels like for different women to compete for the favor of one man. The condition that results from that arrangement incapacitates women. Iya Tope takes her inferior position in life as given. Her
only worry was that Bolanle’s arrival would disrupt the sex rotation. Baba
Segi normally went from wife to wife, starting each week with Iya Segi. By
Thursday, he’d start the cycle again, leaving him with the freedom to choose
whom to spend Sunday night with.23
In his relation to his wives, Baba Segi is the one who exercises some form of freedom. The women have no access to him the way he has to them. Shoneyin seems to be suggesting that African polygamy turns women into objects in their relation to their common husband. Theirs is not a relation founded on reciprocity and mutual respect. In the spirit of the early proponents of human rights in the eighteenth century, Shoneyin raises fundamental ethical questions: what is my relationship to this other human being of a different gender? Do I consider her as a means to an end or as an end? How would I want to be treated if I were in her position?
As a result of the conditions into which they are forced, the women turn against one another; they especially taunt and mock Bolanle. They scheme against her, hoping that she will be chased out of the house, especially when it becomes clear that she is barren?4 Knowing that Baba Segi is a man whose world is controlled by traditional narratives and idioms, the women plant a juju—a totem thought to possess evil magical powers—in his room, and accuse Bolanle of having done that because she wants to get rid of Baba Segi in order to cover her barrenness.25 The dramatic turning point in the narrative is when the truth of Baba Segi’s infertility becomes known. The problem that was introduced in the first scene of the narrative is, after all, not the fault of the women in Baba Segi’s life; rather it is with the patriarch himself. But even after Baba Segi has been shown not to be who he presented himself to be, his power over the family is undiminished. On the contrary, his power increases dramatically. He threatens his wives with a nuclear option in the exercise of authority in order to bring them under his total control; he wants to send them back to where they came from, knowing full well that they have nowhere to go. He spells out the conditions under which they can stay:
You can stay if you promise to be the wives I want you to be. He promptly banned them from leaving the house without his permission. Iya Segi was instructed to close down all her shops and relinquish every kobo she had saved to him. Iya Femi was forbidden to wear makeup and there would be no more church.26
Again Shoneyin exposes the peculiar social and economic conditions women are subjected to. They are the conditions that make polygamy possible in the first place. The conditions portrayed raise the question: would these women marry Baba Segi if they had more options in life? Might it be that Shoneyin is not against polygamy per se? She is against the circumstances that lead to four women vying for one man. Her primary concern is that the women’s unhappy life is made possible by culture and tradition. It is precisely their culture and tradition that prevent Baba Segi from seeing them as having rights and dignity.