“Books saved you. Having become your refuge, they sustained you. The power of books, this marvelous invention of astute human intelligence. Various signs associated with sound: different sounds that form the word. Juxtaposition of words from which springs the idea, Thought, History, Science, Life. Sole instrument of interrelationships and of culture, unparalleled means of giving and receiving. Books knit generations together in the same continuing effort that leads to progress. They enabled you to better yourself. What society refused you, they granted.”
Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter
By Neriman K.
As I was sitting in my soon “adviser-to-be” Chris’s office in Tate Hall on an unseasonably hot afternoon, I felt nervous.
If you’re a PhD student or has ever travelled the intricate path of graduate school, you know what I mean.
Asking a professor to be on your committee is a serious business–-it is like a marriage proposal in so many ways. The analogy is to be unpacked in an entirely different post dedicated to the intriguing subject-matter, and so, right now, I will move on.
I hadn’t taken any classes with Chris whose field of expertise is Postcolonial Studies and African Diaspora. So, I was elated when he said “YES” and added, “we are kindred spirits–you need support from people like yourself.”
He was right.
Chris is from Nigeria and has been living in the U.S. for a while now; I appreciated that he was ready to help me out whenever I needed help––a rare comfort to be found in the world of academia, especially as an international student.
I think Chris knows this already, but in that time frame when I popped the question in his office, he already had contributed a great deal to my research. “I’ll admit it,” he said, “I don’t know a lot about Islam, but if you want to include a novel from Africa into your work, read this.”
He walked up to his tall library and handed out a thin book to me: “It’s only 80 pages, but I think it will change your life. It’s a powerful book.” After thanking him, I got ready to leave. “Neri, wait,” he said, “let me know what you think. Also, you can keep that copy. It’s yours.” Another rare form of camaraderie in the world of academia (a professor giving you one of their books. Not lending it to you, but giving it to you? Letting you own it? Make it yours? I was impressed and elated)
This is how I was introduced to this brief yet powerful book, So Long a Letter, by the Senegalese writer, Mariama Bâ (1929-1981).
There are two reasons why I’m writing about Bâ’s novel as part of The Year of the Middle Eastern Reading Challenge + Unapologetically Muslim Reading Challenge?
Firstly, Bâ’s protagonist, Ramatoulaye, is unapologetically Muslim and challenges unabashedly the system of patriarchy that has long dictated her life as a woman in her society.
Secondly, I have mentioned here in the same post the curious practice of conflating the Middle East and North Africa in mass media and in academic circles. An analysis of a West African novel within this specific framework can help us ask questions about why, for instance, the Middle East and Africa are often conflated on platforms such as The Economist and Middle East Monitor.
You should/may want to read So Long a Letter if you’re interested in:
- contemporary African women’s fiction
- women’s rights novels
- African literature
- empowered female protagonists
- Islamic feminism
- the role of traditional values and the role of women in Senegal in the 60s
- postcolonial literature
- books in translation
- short autobiographical novels
Mariama Bâ wrote So Long a Letter in French; it was published in English a year after its original publication date in 1980.
The novel recounts the chain of unfortunate incidents that have altered newly widowed Ramatoulaye’s life. Its epistolary form allows Bâ to amplify Ramatoulaye’s voice and her perspective on the questions of women’s role, polygamy and traditional values. Through Ramatoulaye’s reflections, Bâ highlights the institution of marriage as a structural symbol of the patriarchal system, in which asymmetrical gender relations are maintained and projected as part of the Islamic doctrine.
As the novel opens, we learn that Ramatoulaye is propelled to write the lengthy letter to her close friend Aissatou after her husband Modou has died of a heart attack. As Ramatouleye recovers fragments from her childhood, adolescence, and her marriage which fails after Modou’s marriage to a second wife, her reflection on the series of agonizing and at once liberating events that follow her decision not to divorce him offers a socio-political commentary on the larger issues of polygamy, women’s rights, tradition, and religion.
Ramatoulaye reveals the ways in which Islam has been manipulated to perpetuate a male-dominated social order and family.
For instance, after Modou marries to his second wife, he excises Ramatoulaye and their children from his life. He justifies his actions through the teachings of the Koran. Ramatouleye’s reconstruction of her life without the physical existence of a male escort serves as a reactive stance to his exploitation of Islam and his family.
Her decision to stay married to him on paper in a patriarchal society proves to be strategic, “a new choice of life,” (51) as she calls it.
Following Modou’s second marriage, Ramatoulaye rarely sees her husband, and she assumes the financial responsibilities of the household. Her new position in the family enables her to venture outside the domestic sphere. She claims her place in the public space as “the only women in the queue” (51) to pay the utilities; and at the movie theater, too, we see her occupying a masculine space, deemed inappropriate for women to inhabit without the company of a man.
She is further compelled to overcome her fears of navigating her life without a husband. She transcends the boundaries that consolidate gender discrimination by learning how to drive. “From the surprised looks,” she writes, “I gauged the slender liberty granted to women” (51). However, her subversion of traditional gender codes does not deflate the moral and political importance of the family ideal which bolsters women’s roles as mothers and wives within the domestic sphere. She highlights the often-disregarded option in feminist thought: that women can practice agency by choosing to assume the domestic role. The image of “the ideal” woman who, like Ramatoulaye, “has never conceived of happiness outside marriage” (56) can still be accommodated within a school of thought that emphasizes gender equality.
Ramatoulaye demonstrates that feminist paradigms of liberation and justice as antithetical to the teachings of Islam is deeply implicated within the system of gender politics that dictates her society.
The so-called tension between feminism and Islam reproduces the rigid social discourse about gender, urging both women and men to perceive feminism as a western propaganda that disseminates immoral and unscrupulous ideals.
Ramatoulaye challenges this misperception that further oppresses women by negotiating feminist principles that advance women’s economic and political empowerment and values of Muslimness that resist patriarchal norms.
Despite Madou’s infidelity, for instance, Ramatoulaye follows the Islamic rituals of mourning as his wife by performing the daily prayers and reciting the Koran for his soul. Her goal is not to go through the motions; she truly believes that Islamic rituals allow her to cultivate a sense of empowerment. She writes:
I hope to carry out my duties fully. My heart concurs with the demands of religion. Reared since childhood on their strict precepts, I expect not to fail. The walls that limit my horizon for four months and ten days do not bother me.
In fact, she seeks refuge in the practices of her faith, her “prayer beads” (2), the reinvigorating power of the “Zem-Zem” water (3), and the daily prayers as she undergoes great hardship following Modou’s second marriage.
Her piety, however, is not an indicator of her passivity; on the contrary, she repeatedly declines Modou’s brother’s proposition to “inherit” her as his wife “according to custom” (58) after Modou’s death. She refuses all the other marriage proposals in solidarity with the men’s wives.“How can a woman sap the happiness of another?” (71), she writes, and her refusal of “the easy way because of my ideal” challenges the moral norms of her community, which gives her the reputation “lioness” and “madwoman” (70).
Ramatoulaye reconstructs her identity as an African Senegalese Muslim woman through the convergence of Islamic and feminist paradigms. In an attempt to destabilize the male-centric social order where women’s second-class status is maintained, she is determined to raise her daughters with the same consciousness that would release them from the shackles of colonialism and traditionalism whose ideals, according to Ramatoulaye, are disruptive to the formation of a female subjectivity that is intrinsically Senegalese, Muslim and African. She writes:
I am not indifferent to the irreversible currents of women’s liberation that are lashing the world. This commotion that is shaking up every aspect of our lives reveals and illustrates our abilities. My heart rejoices each time a woman emerges from the shadows. I know that the field of our gains is unstable, the retention of conquests difficult: social constraints are ever-present, and male egoism resists.
Instruments for some, baits for others, respected or despised, often muzzled, all women have almost the same fate, which religions or unjust legislation have sealed.
I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman.
Love, imperfect as it may be in its content and expression, remains the natural link between these two beings.
While Ramatoulaye anchors the feminist framework within an Islamic ontology, it is the feminist thought that enables her to detect and correct the misogynist discourse that permeates Islam. In addition to the reconciliation of the two seemingly contradictory paradigms, Islam and feminism, she emphasizes that love and equality are essential for successful marriages and healthy families–and by extension for strong nations.
Ramatoulaye’s experiences are contextualized within a larger sociopolitical narrative. Bâ situates Ramatouleye’s interrogation of the question of polygamy and misogyny which operate under the name of Islam within a wider politico-cultural context.
In a conversation with one of her suitors, Ramatoulaye acknowledges the 1973 Family code that changed Senegalese legal system. The family code deflated the authority given to religious and customary law in resolving issues related to inheritance, marriage, and so forth.
Ramatoulaye demands “a right to education, to equal well paid employment, to equal opportunities ” and “the right to vote” (61). However, she also rejects western colonial ideals that critique “our mode of thought and way of life” (24). Her goal is to engage in a type of pious feminist consciousness that is authentic and that can develop in parallel to the collective national consciousness in Senegal. She writes:
“The success of a family is born of a couple’s harmony, as the harmony of multiple instruments creates a pleasant symphony […]
The nation is made up of all the families, rich or poor, united or separated, aware or unaware. The success of a nation, therefore, depends inevitably on the family”
The success of family as a unit, however, depends heavily on the reconciliation of the two paradigms that permeate her society: Islam and feminism.
Colonial feminism’s propagation of sexual liberation, epitomized by the widespread appearance of “the sun helmet worn over the natural protection of our kinky hair, smoke-filled pipe, white shorts just above the calves, short dresses displaying shapely legs (24),” is an aberration for her community. The sexually repressive patriarchal norms, too, impede women’s empowerment. Ramatoulaye thus “insist[s] that my daughters be aware of the value of their bodies” and “emphasizes the sublime significance of the sexual act, an expression of love” (87).
Ramatoulaye then highlights an Islamic feminist consciousness as fundamental for women’s empowerment, as well as for the formation of a Senegalese national identity liberated from “the assimilationist dream of the colonist” (24).
The act of writing the long letter to her life long friend allows her to create an Islamic feminist cultural discourse and to stipulate a new moral code for her newly independent society.
Her exploration of her plight as a woman evolves throughout the novel and expands towards a feminist consciousness that is not bestowed on her by the colonial discourse. Like Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat I’ve written about here, Mariama Bâ engages in a feminism of her own, one that allows for the empowerment of women of her society. To this end, the novel ends on a hopeful note, perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the novel, as Ramatoulaye writes:
“Despite everything-disappointments and humiliation-hope still lives on within me.”
The first Francophone African novel written by a woman writer, So Long a Letter won the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. Towards the end of the ’60s, Bâ herself played an active role in women’s rights movements in Senegal. Like So Long a Letter, her second novel, Scarlet Song, published posthumously in 1986, interrogates women’s struggle for gender equality and justice in Senegal.
You can find more information about Bâ and So Long a Letter below.
Have you read So Long a Letter? What do you think?
Some of my favorite quotes from So Long a Letter:
“To overcome distress when it sits upon you demands strong will. When one thinks that with each passing second one’s life is shortened, one must profit intensely from this second; it is the sum of all the lost or harvested seconds that makes for a wasted or a successful life. Brace oneself to check despair and get it into proportion! A nervous breakdown waits around the corner for anyone who lets himself wallow in bitterness. Little by little, it takes over your whole being.”
“I conjure you up. The past is reborn, along with its procession of emotions. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of feeling: heat and dazzlement, the woodfires, the sharp green mango, bitten into in turns, a delicacy in our greedy mouths. I close my eyes. Ebb and tide of images: drops of sweat beading your mother’s ochre-colored face as she emerges from the kitchen; the procession of young wet girls chattering on their way back from the springs.”
“A nervous breakdown waits around the corner for anyone who lets himself wallow in bitterness. Little by little, it takes over your whole being.”
“A black African, she should have been able to fit without difficulty into a black African society, Senegal and the Ivory Coast both having experienced the same colonial power. But Africa is diverse, divided. The same country can change its character and outlook several times over, from north to south or from east to west.”
“Teachers – at kindergarten level, as at university level – form a noble army accomplishing daily feats, never praised, never decorated. An army without drums, without gleaming uniforms. This army, thwarting traps and snares, everywhere plants the flag of knowledge and morality.”
“We all agreed that much dismantling was needed to introduce modernity within our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the ‘hard sweat’ that would be inevitable. We counted the possible losses. But we knew that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia but were resolutely progressive.”
If you like Mariama Bâ’s writing, or if her writing sounds interesting, you may like:
- The Dark Child by Camara Laye (1954)
- Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat (1983)
- Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo (1993)
- Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (2004)
- The Suns of Independence by Ahmadou Kourouma (2005)
- The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta (2013)
More on Mariama Bâ and her writing:
Cite this post: K., Neriman. “So Long a Letter; So Long a History | Mariama Bâ, Muslimness, and Women’s Rights.” Reading Under the Olive Tree, 27 June 2020, http://readingundertheolivetree.com/2020/06/27/so-long-a-letter-so-long-a-history-mariama-ba-muslimness-and-womens-rights/