December 3, 2012
The Unadvertised Role of Women in Igbo Culture
Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart portrays Africa, spotlighting the Ibo society, before the arrival of the white man. It shows the devastation of African culture by the colonizing of the white man in terms of the disintegration of the bonds between individuals and their native culture. Achebe teaches us about Ibo society and interprets Ibo myth and proverbs, also explains the role of women in pre-colonial Africa. Many readers believe that Igbo society is very patriarchal, with all the power and influence within the society belonging to the men. At first glance, women are not respected as people, but as property, labourers, and the producers of children. A woman has no identity of her own; the status and position of her husband defines her. But in reality, although the Igbo society is very much based on patriarchy, women do play an important and valued role in their culture. Women are thoroughly involved in education, religion, mythology, as well as many other elementary and essential functions in society.
Referencing of women in this novel takes two conflicting forms. On one side, a feminine label is a reference to weakness and inferiority. While in another case, reference to women and mothers in particular, is a more endearing term. There are several examples of feminine characteristics being interpreted as degrading. Men are routinely insulted by being called women or feminine. For example, Okonkwo considers his father, Unoka, a woman because of his carelessness, laziness, him being an untitled man, always taking loans and surviving in debts. Also, a Coco-yam, a smaller and less valued yam, is regarded as female. Another example is when Osugo, who has taken no title, in a gathering of his peers, is told by Okonkwo that, "This is a meeting for men" (28). And yet again, when Okonkwo is feeling guitly after murdering Ikemefuna, his adopted son, he sternly tells himself not to "become like a shivering old woman" which he considers the worst insult. By contrast, the idea of women's power being attached to nature is also found, when Okonkwo returns to his mother's clan after being exiled from the Ibo village. Uchendu, scolding Okonkwo for his sorrow about having to come to live with his mother's clan, explains:
It's true that a child belong to its father. But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother's hut. A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme (134).
The idea that women are the foundation of the clan and its people show the respect for women in the Igbo culture. They represent nurturing, motherly caretakers that protect the clan when it needs them most, just like a mother is always there for her child, even when the child does not always appreciate her. Okwonko later names a newborn child of his ‘Nneka’ (“mother is supreme”) in his appreciation and respect for the values his Mbata kinsmen who helped him so much during his exile. We also see women in their role as educators of their children. The education process is done largely through the ritual of storytelling. The stories the women tell serve instructional purposes, as well entertainment. This is shown when the narrator states, "Low voices, broken now and again by singing, reached Okonkwo from his wives' huts as each woman and her children told folk stories" (96). It is by the use of storytelling that the children learn important lessons about the human condition and Ibo creation myths, such as the birds and the tortoise story, and practice communicating by repeating the stories themselves. As stated earlier in the novel, "Among Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten" (7).