The Enslaved Body as a Symbol of Universal Human Rights Abuse
As I have shown in the preceding chapters, contemporary African women writers highlight women’s rights by addressing the relationship between men and women, and the pain that arises from that. In drawing attention to the pain experienced by individual African women, they make a micro argument for empathy as a portent tool for human rights. In this chapter, I discuss Chika Unigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street as segue to the macro argument about human rights. In the introductory chapter, I raised the question of whether human rights are universal and a Western invention. Unigwe suggests an answer by urging a broader thinking about human rights in Africa. She does that by situating her narrative in Africa and Europe. She establishes her belief in the universality of human rights by making a United Nations agency an instrument that enhances people’s rights in Africa.
In On Black Sisters’ Street, women are sex slaves, and I read the narration as a metaphor for the relationship between men and women in societies that operate under a rigid, oppressive patriarchal order. In treating slavery as a metaphor, Unigwe has precedence in Buchi Emechata’s The Slave Girl. Slavery is, without doubt, the worst expression of failure in intersubjective relationships. The relationship is not that ofperson to person, but rather that of person to object. The enslaver does not consider the enslaved as a person with rights and dignity; the enslaved is a thing. Like Emecheta, Unigwe
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C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,
understands her project as a writer as enhancing the global understanding of women’s rights and dignity. She wrote a doctoral dissertation on the efforts of Igbo women writers before her to draw attention to the inequalities and unfairness faced by women in their society. She herself regretted that she came from a background in which women were considered as second-class citizens. But these women did not succumb to the inferior positions their tradition had subjected them to. They told stories and, according to Unigwe, “their stories first sensitized [her] to the gender-inequality around [her], as a young girl growing up in Enugu and gave [her] the first stirrings of rebellion.”1 Unigwe has discussed the works of Flora Nwapa, who is to African women’s fiction what Chinua Achebe is to African fiction in general. She has also discussed Zulu Sofola, who occupies in the world of drama the same position that Flora Nwapa has in fiction. In On Black Sisters’ Street, Unigwe fleshes out the arguments she had established in her doctoral dissertation. The novel is about the outright objectification of women. It documents the plights offemale African bodies fleeing pain and annihilation: Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce are young women from Nigeria and Sudan. They work as sex slaves in Belgium. As Jack Donnelly argues:
Human rights are not just abstract values such as liberty, equality, and security. They are rights [and they need] particular social practices to realize those values. A human right thus should not be confused with the values or aspirations underlying it or with enjoyment of the object of the right.2
To think about human rights is to think about how abstract values affect my relation to others, that is, how values are translated into social practices; it is to provide answers to the question: What are other people to me? It makes no difference whether this other is my relative or a stranger.