Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart explores the struggles between the old traditions of the Igbo community and the effects of Christianity on the people of different calibers within that society. While on the surface it appears that the novel narrows its focus to a single character, Okonkwo and his inner battles, it also portrays an array of assorted conflicts in the realms of human verses human and human verses society. Therefore, this paper will focus on the tangle between human verses human and human verses society in the framework of the importance and role of women in Igbo society, as well as how men assign and dictate these roles.
While the respect given to the first wife and the widow oracle is clearly revealed in the novel, Igbo society is not an ideal situation for women. However, it is hardly a misogynist society as one may think it is. Just like titled men, titled women too have great prestige and influence in Igbo society. This title is taken by the oracle (the goddess), who is respected among her people. This respect is depicted in the novel when Chielo the oracle takes Enzima Okonkwo’s favorite daughter. Okonkwo follows her and waits outside the cave, as he tells his wife that “I shall wait here.”1 Given Okonkwo’s character, he is not a man to wait for something; however, due to the respect that is required to give to the oracle, Okonkwo does not use his one typical set of reactions, willpower and the strength of his muscles to get his daughter. Rather he waited outside for the oracle to return his daughter.
Just like Chielo is influential and respected among the Igbo society, women in other African societies have been esteemed and held great political positions as well. For example, women held positions as “chiefs among the Mende and Serbro of Sierra Leone and Headmen among the Tonga of Zambia.”2 Also, women were warriors that fought for the king of Dahomey State in West Africa. Additionally, warrior queens such as Queen Amina of Hausaland and Zinga of Angola3 led their people to battles.
Another example of respect for women in Achebe’s text is demonstrated when Okonkwo visits his friend for some help. He takes with him some palm-wine and when every man has had enough, Nwakibie calls his wives for the remaining wine. Anasi, his first wife, came last, so the other wives had to wait for her to come and first drink the wine. She is also the wife to wear her Husband titles. Achebe describes she “wore the anklets of her husband’s titles, which the first wife a lone could wear.”4
Also, in Igbo society women are valued. As a result, dowry is paid to their families when they are married off. In Understanding Contemporary Africa, Gordon makes it clear that “bride wealth is not to be equated with selling daughter. Rather it indicates the high value attached to women in African society.”5 The same case applies to Igbo society, where bride wealth is very important and only great men in the society will decide it.
On the other hand, as far as women are respect to that extent in Igbo society, they are also treated as “things” to be exploited, abused, and to serve as second-class citizens to the rank of male privilege. The theme of misogyny runs throughout the novel either revealed by the absence of women in the text, the abuses women suffer at the hands of men, or the ways in which society dictates and reinforces these negative figures and images of women.
Throughout the text, women are invisible and live their lives on the sidelines. A clear instance of this is the case of Okonkwo’s mother. While the presence of his father, though negative, is prevalent in the novel, the presence of his mother is all but nonexistent. In fact, it appears only once, when Okonkwo remembers the story he terms as a silly women’s stories about a mosquito6. Thus, he suppresses the memory of his mother. Later he was comforted in his motherland as Uchedu, Okonkwo’s uncle, says, “but when there is sorrow and bitterness he (man) finds refuge in his motherland.”7 Therefore, this theme of invisibility seems to be a habitual matter in the novel, as women are regularly presented as wives and mothers, busy with the household and small insignificant responsibilities while men take on the more significance responsibilities of politics, trade, and society.
Along with the absence of women, this labor division is also prevalent in the film Caravans of Gold where men carry out the most important jobs of society and women do the least important work8. In contrast, during the slave trade women were demanded as much as men were because of their agricultural skills. Jennifer Morgan found that “African women were the primary agricultural worker.”9
Furthermore, Wife beating is a common, if not celebrated, practice amongst the Igbo. This vital show of masculinity is to keep women in line, which is shown through the mental and physical abuse. Although little is made of it, the novel shows abundant instances of wife beating. Wife beating is displayed when Okonkwo beats his youngest wife, when she does not return from plaiting her hair early enough to cook his afternoon meal.
“And when she returned he beat her heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the week of peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for the fear of a goddess.”10
When Okonkwo was punished by way of paying a fine it was because he beat his wife during the week of peace, not because of the actual act of physical violence.
The gender lines in Igbo society are demonstrated through the use of both language and agriculture. To be a man is to be violent and strong; showing any emotion is a sign of weakness or is considered to be a female trait. All that is good is considered masculine, and all that is bad is thought of as feminine. The nature of language in Igbo society is very sexist. Okonkwo demonstrates this in his great fear of becoming womanly and following the lead of powerless fathers. To be thought of womanly is to be thought of as worthless and powerless, traits Okonkwo is terrified of exhibiting. The word Agbala is used for either a man who has taken no title or a “woman.”11 Therefore, the Igbo Society system of language reinforces their cultural belief in the subservience of women.
In addition, agriculture system of the Igbo people supports the sex-type gender roles. The main crop is the yam, which is said to stand for “manliness, and he who could feed his family on yams from one harvest to another was a very great man indeed.”12 On the other hand, the female crop is smaller and has much less importance to the tribe. Once again this reinforces that to be manly is to be supreme, and that women are worthless and undesirable.
Finally, men in Igbo society use women for their own gain and appear to care little about them. Consequently, women are seen as property of men. The more possessions the man acquires, the more powerful he becomes. While one could argue that this is an important custom because women are a large part of what makes up mans’ power, it is sarcastic since women do not share nor have equal access to this power. This is shown also in the film Mastering a Continent by Basil Davidson, where the Pokot women of Kenya are properties of men and the more wives a man has the more powerful and prestigious he becomes.13
Although, many may argue that the role of women in Igbo society and many other African societies is important and appreciated, the themes in the text of Things Fall Apart dispute and contradict this at many times. Even though the book slightly shows the significance of women in the Igbo society, it shows in a greater scale the cruelty, and inequality women receive form their men folks.