Representation of women in African literature

Representation of women in African literature

Representation of women in African literature : Women’s place in society is thought a lot in contemporary studies. As well in literature, women’s representation is observed and criticized with feminist approach.

Representation of women in African literature

Like most literature around the world, African literature also portrayed women in different shades. Incomplete and inaccurate female characters littered early African works. The fact, like other literature, African literature was first written by men. Educated African men not only come from patriarchal society but were educated by colonizers, who also come from patriarchal society.

Some feminist critics say that male francophone African writers routinely portray their female characters in the stereotype of an oppressed and subjugated wife who has little if any say in shaping her destiny or changing the system that deprives and oppresses her.

Feminist critics argue that male writers depict female characters as “defined by their relationships to men – someone’s daughter or wife, or mother, shadowy figures who hover on the fringes of the plot, suckling infants, cooking, planting their hair … they fall into a specific category of female stereotypes of… men appendages, and prostitutes, or courtesans.”

Female characters have not their own identity or story to be called or celebrated. But they are always portrayed as less heroic than men and in periphery.

“Black male writers portray women as ‘passive’ mothers with neither personality nor character or problems, accepting their condition and thus exhibiting no spirit of revolt or freedom.” Male writers routinely portray “voiceless resigned and docile woman.”

But still in some cases, as a stereotype, the idea of an ‘African dilemma’ is there with representation of women. African women have to choose between being true to their traditional culture and embracing the colonizing western culture and having equal rights is an interesting one.

The study of women characters, portrayed in African colonized literature is an interesting, with that, one can know human nature of colonizing, marginalizing or making other race gender religion subaltern.

Does African culture do the same with their women? Do they also colonizing women? How is she portrayed in African literature, how is it capturing their woman characters and men’s behaviour with them?

For that, I selected three famous novels from our course, Things Fall Apart, A Grain of Wheat, and Waiting for Barbarians. The writers of these novels are renowned and much popular. Let’s see how woman is represented by these writers one by one.

Representation of women in African literature

‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe

One of the earlier and well-known writers is Chinua Achebe. His novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ is also famous one. He has been criticized for neglecting to represent women almost completely. Many women in the novel are flat characters who are satisfied with oppressive structures like polygamy. Like Okonkwo’s wives. (He is having multiple wives!!!)

While critics are condemn Achebe for being too male-focused, there could be many reasons for this lack of female representation. One is that, readers are seeing the culture and events largely from Okonkwo’s point of view, who could be said to have unenlightened gender views by Ibo standards.

For example when he is sent to his mother’s village, he cannot answer to his uncle why a common name and saying is “mother is supreme” Uchendu, his uncle, replies, “A man belongs to his father land 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 that’s why we say mother is supreme.”

In these words women as mother is respected.

The portrayal of Okonkwo’s daughter, Ezinma, is the only visible rounded female character in the novel. There is evidence in the novel which suggests that Achebe was showing ridiculous nature of a strong patriarchal society. Ezinma was intelligent enough to eventually run the family the way Okonkwo wanted. As Okonkwo says,

“She has the right spirit”

Okonkwo is unable to think outside of his cultural paradigm, when Ezinma offers to carry Okonkwo’s chair to the wrestling match, traditionally a boy’s job, okonkwo says, “No, that is a boy’s job.” Instead of finding a way to let Ezinma run the home, he only comments that, “she should have been boy.”

It shows Achebe’s poverty in describing woman character in patriarchal world. Still there was not much female representation in the novel. It is important to realize that Achebe wrote this novel to justify his native culture, where women become victims, to European audiences, who were patriarchal themselves.

Overall, with the exception of Ezinma, Achebe’s female characters in the novel were not rounded or visible. In the novel, Okonkwo carries more space and female characters are marginalized in narrated patriarchal culture.

Representation of women in African literature

‘A Grain of Wheat’ by Ngugi Wa Thiongo

Ngugi Wa Thiongo is an internationally acclaimed African writer and human rights activist. He has usually championed for the promotion of African women and other marginalized groups in African society.

‘A Grain of Wheat’ is political narrative talking about Mau Mau Kenyan movement placed in forest. The movement included both men and women against British colonizers. Women played remarkable role directly or indirectly in that rebellion.

Ngugi pays respect to these women and celebrates their limitless sacrifices, their contribution and struggle for freedom of the homeland in this novel, ‘A Grain of Wheat’.

The novel describes heroic women as providing the invisible backbone to the movement. The writer also made use of traditional African values of womanhood to fight with the enemies.

Wambui, the major character in the novel, is a model of the resistant woman during emergency; she carried secrets from the villages to towns. Incident of Wambui and policeman is very significant in portraying her character.

Charles A. Nama argues that, “ Ngugi’s heroines occupy a special place in his fiction, especially with respect to their function as custodians and defenders of traditional Gikuyu culture.”

For example when Karanja, Kihika and Gikonyo encounter Mumbi at Gikonyo’s workshop, she is addressed respectfully as Karanja calls her “mother of Men, we have come make us some tea.” Kihika, the Mau Mau hero in the novel, refers to the homeland as mother as he proudly says, “With us, Kenya is our mother”

Female identities and anatomies become symbolically bound to motherhood and to the nation. We can find privileging of motherhood in Ngugi’s fiction.

In the novel, where Gikonyo has an inferiority, Mumbi is more self-assured and capable of action. Gikonyo’s mother, Wangari, refuses to accept defeat when her husband beats and rejects her, accusing her of sexual coldness. She displays undaunted courage when she settles in Thabai with her baby son.

As already described, Wambui introduces the active role role of women in the movement, while Karanja’s mother mirrors Nyokabi’s defiance of the traditional female role, as as she questions the action of men.

So, Ngugi Wa Theongo enrich African literature with portraying his woman characters strong, courageous and patriotic who equally, sometimes more, than male characters, participate in struggle for freedom.

Ngugi’s this novel is the best example of women’s heroic portrayal and his women characters become inspirational from traditional one.

‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ by J. M. Coetzee

‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ set in an indeterminate place and time. It is an allegory about the evils of colonialism. The story is told with point of view of a Magistrate.

The novel has one woman character, Barbarian girl, with whom portrayal of woman character can be studied. Actually Barbarian girl is a symbol of colonized. Her relationship with Magistrate is of slave and master. She is tortured by colonizers much. She is not only colonized by empire but as a woman by the Magistrate as well. He uses her body as an object.

The narration never gives the view point of the Barbarian girl, but the magistrate attempts to understand feminine viewpoint. He is even at one point dressed as a woman by his torturers who are servants of the empire. This event can be very symbolical.

The empire and the barbarian culture are symbolically represented by the magistrate and the barbarian girl and their relationship the same. The magistrate sometimes sympathizes the girl but it is also true that he uses as an object, he becomes cause of her sorrows.

Sometimes the girl plays a role of catalyst for the change that takes place in the magistrate; she fulfils the role as colonized woman.

Coetzee’s choice to put a girl as symbol of colonized, slave and subaltern indicates woman’s position in society and in men’s mind. Choice of woman instead of man like Robinson Crusoe symbolically shows gender inequality. It also fulfils men’s wish to see women as slave or inferior with portraying these two characters.


These three famous African novels represent women differently. One has no significant space for women. One made women courageous, strong, and even greater than men; and one made it slave, colonized, inferior. These different portrayals shows women’s role in different situations and different cultures, which is moving not static.

Read it also: Shakespeare’s contribution to English Literature

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