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

Baba Segi’s first three wives accept the conditions he lays out for them after his sterility is made known; this effectively reduces them to the status of house slaves. They have no claim to dignity and human rights because such are simply inconceivable in their world. The fact that they accept the conditions spelt out for them by the patriarch, who has been revealed to be impotent and empty, suggests that women’s bodies are controlled by an abstract construct, nullity. For Bolanle, living under the new restrictions imposed by Baba Segi is unacceptable; she divorces him. In this regard, she stands in sharp contrast to the other three. She turns her back on the past, understood as tradition, and as symbolizing abstractions that have defined her body. She thus embraces the future, understood as open, and that in which the individual makes choices that might contrast with traditional expectations, choices based on her awareness of her rights and dignities.

Given that Bolanle is a well-educated young woman, one might wonder why she chose to become the fourth wife of a polygamist in the first place. One answer is that she chose a life of polygamy with full knowledge of what she was getting herself into; she thus asserted her individuality specifically because she exercised the full extent of her freedom to choose, even if that choice is a retreat from what could be seen as the modern lifestyle of monogamy. Bolanle does not dismiss polygamy out of hand as a Westerner might. She thinks for herself. In refusing to judge a lifestyle or an aspect of tradition from a distance, she asks not to be judged, but rather to be understood. She wants people to listen to her story, which is unique to her. She was raped at 15, she had an abortion, and she has lived with a deep pain ever since then. Her mother wanted her to live a modern lifestyle by being the only wife of a young, rich man. Her mother, however, went about it by ignoring that important aspect of Bolanle’s life: choice. Bolanle chose an older man, hoping that his maturity would suit her own circumstances. “Baba Segi wouldn’t be like younger men who demanded explanations for the faraway look in my eyes. Baba Segi was content when I said nothing.”27 In her thinking, marrying a man who accepted her, one who did not ask too many questions about her “quietness,” would definitely help her on her way toward healing. Ultimately she rejects her mother’s dictatorial impositions. It might appear to some that she is, indeed, running away from her life so that marrying a polygamist becomes a way to avoid confronting her trauma. We may not agree with her decisions, but we need to understand their context. On a more profound, aesthetic level, it is only logical that Bolanle is a disruptive tool in the hands of the author; she interrogates the culture from within, and in so doing, raises questions that direct our attention to the humanity of the women in polygamous marriages. It is at this point in the narrative that we feel the triumph of Bolanle’s journey. In a way she becomes a means with which Shoneyin lays bare the structure of the traditional marriage arrangement, especially how it denies women their rights and dignities.

Bolanle is aware of herself as a desiring being. It is ultimately fulfilling that Bolanle’s actions are deliberate; she asserts her freedom to determine the course of her own life:

I chose this family to regain my life, to heal in anonymity. And when you

choose a family, you stay with them. You stay with your husband even when

friends call him a polygamist ogre. You stay with him when your mother says

he’s an overfed orangutan.28

It is instructive for our understanding of Shoneyin’s ethical goal that, even though Bolanle finds herself surrounded by forces and norms that impinge on her life as a woman, she harbors no anger. Rather she focuses on affirming herself with the means available to her. In her choices she demonstrates her moral maturity. She touches on several important issues, the most obvious of which is the woman’s self-perception as a human that can and should steer the course of her body. Her body is not an object at the disposal of society. That body feels pain just like the bodies of men do.

 
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