The Use of Personal Relationships to represent Cultural Oppression of Women In The Story of Zahra by Hannah al-Shaykh and So Long a Letter by Mariama B

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In the novels The Story of Zhara by Hanan al-Shaykh and So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ, personal relationships are used to highlight the oppression of women in different cultures. Relationships, in each novel, show female oppression in different cultures, how oppression is fought and how it is escaped. Both novels show the reader the reality of female oppression and its effects on women’s lives. Using relationships between characters is an effective way to achieve this shared theme of female oppression in each novel.

Both al-Shaykh and Bâ show the reader different cultures and how women are oppressed by its traditions. The marriage of Zahra’s parents, Fatmé and Ibrahim, is used in The Story of Zahra in order to show the reader the horrors of patriarchy in Lebanese culture. The couple represents a traditional Lebanese marriage: Ibrahim being the head of the household while Fatmé the housewife. Ibrahim is described in the novel as “…always brutal.

His appearance seemed to express his character: a frowning face, a Hitler-like moustache… He had a stubborn personality. He saw life in black and white” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 24). Ibrahim is portrayed as a symbol of the standard patriarchal husband in Lebanon: cruel and ignorant. A scene created by al-Shaykh is described on page 15 of her novel: “My mother was sprawled on the kitchen floor as my father, in his khaki suit, his leather belt in one hand was beating her. In the other hand he held a Qur’an” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 15). This quote shows the reader the reality of patriarchy in Lebanese culture and the physical and emotional pain that it can cause. Fatmé and Ibrahim were created by al-Shaykh in order to represent the standard Lebanese marriage and to demonstrate the harsh reality that is patriarchy in Lebanon. In So Long a Letter, Bâ likewise uses Moudo’s polygamous marriage to Binetou in order to show the effects of polygamy on women in African cultures. When Ramatoulye receives the news that her husband Moudo has married a second wife she thinks to herself “I acquiesced under the drops of poison that were burning me: ‘A quarter of a century of marriage’, ‘a wife unparalleled’ ” (So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. Page 37). Moudo’s second marriage is described as physically and emotionally crushing for Ramatoulye, but because it is an accepted African tradition, Ramatoulye is incapable of fighting the marriage and forces herself to “check my inner agitation … Smile, take the matter lightly, just as they announced it” (So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. Page 38). Even though Ramotoulye believes that polygamy is a dated and unjust, she must stifle her pain because it is an accepted African tradition. Bâ demonstrates the effects of polygamy on and African woman through the Ramatoulye’s response to Moudo’s second marriage. Through these relationships in each novel, the authors show that both polygamy and patriarchy, even though parts of African and Lebanese cultures oppress woman in similar ways.

In both novels, Bâ and al-Shaykh illustrate that they believe sacrifice is necessary for women to oppression. Zahra’s relationship with Sami, the sniper, is used to show the length that women must go in order to fight oppression. Zahra volunteers at a casualty ward as a small way to help stop the violence of the war. Through this, Zahra sees the reality of war and comes to the conclusion that, “This war shall end! I shall finish it! No cause can be won until the war is stopped.” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 135). Zahra sorely desires to be independent but believes that until the war has ended, her cause of being able to “… live for myself. I want my body to be mine alone” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 93) cannot be won. Zahra is limited so much by oppression in Lebanese culture, however, that she must sacrifice what is so valuable to her in order to achieve only a small amount. Zahra finds a way to directly stop a part of the war through her relationship with Sami. Through having sexual relations with Sami, Zhara is able to stop him from killing people for a brief period. She sacrifices her freedom and her body for the greater good. This is what a woman must withstand in al-Shaykh’s novel in order to fight oppression. In comparison, Ramatoulye’s denied marriage to Dauoda Dieng revealed Ba’s beliefs about sacrifice for a greater good. In order for the problem of polygamy in African tradition to be fought, a woman must relinquish her person desires. Ramatoulye married Moudo, but had always loved Dauoda. She did not marry Dauoda because “To his maturity I had preferred inexperience, to his generosity, poverty, to his gravity, spontaneity, to his stability, adventure” (So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. Page 59). After Moudo’s death, however, Dauoda, who was already married, asked Ramatoulye to marry him. Ramatoulye answered Dauoda in a letter: “Esteem is not enough for marriage, whose snares I know from experience. And then the existence of your wife and children further complicates the situation. Abandoned yesterday because of a woman, I cannot lightly bring myself between you and your family” (So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. Page 68). Ramatoulye sacrifices love and happiness in order to fight polygamy, however small the effect of her stand. In each novel, women are not only limited in their fight against female oppression, but also must sacrifice personally in order to fight for their causes.

Bâ and al-Shaykh illustrate contrasting opinions about whether a woman can overcome oppression from her culture. In The Story of Zahra, Zahra tries to escape her culture and traditions and the oppression of it all by moving to Africa. Zahra hopes Africa can be her safe haven. However, when Zahra arrives in Africa she marries Majed. Majed is a sexually ignorant man, as seen when he says that “When I was eighteen, I thought it would be a good idea to marry for the sake of sex” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 82). Majed represents Lebanese traditions and the oppression of Zahra. When Majed meets another Lebanese man in Africa, he believes that “A Lebanese met another in Africa. What should I do but greet him and invite him?” (The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh. Page 76). His constant involvement with anything Lebanese turns Africa into a second Lebanon for Zahra. This relationship created by al-Shaykh shows the reader that she believes women cannot escape female oppression of a culture simply by relocating. In contrast, the character Aissatou’s issues with oppression are used by Bâ to show that a woman can escape the oppression of her culture. In So Long a Letter, Mawdo is pressured into a second marriage by his mother. He still loves Aissatou, but he continues with the second marriage. Aissatou asserts herself and divorces Mawdo, fighting back against polygamy. Ramatoulye recounts how Aissatou preceded after the divorce in a letter to Aissatou: “You had the surprising courage to take your life into your own hands. You rented a house and set up home there. And instead of looking backwards, you look resolutely to the future” (So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ. Page 32). Bâ uses this relationship in order to show the reader that she believes a woman can escape cultural oppression by being strong and independent. However, Bâ’s Ramatoulye does not emulate Aissatou and instead devoutly fights polygamy. Both authors take a different stance on whether a woman is capable of escaping cultural oppression, but through each novel’s protagonists we see that each author believes that a woman should not simply move away from the problem of cultural oppression.

Both al-Shaykh and Bâ’s novels share the theme of female oppression caused by cultural traditions. They each show how women are oppressed in different cultures through personal relationships between their characters. The oppression of women in different cultures does vary, like the patriarchy of Lebanon or the polygamy of Africa, but all types of oppression towards women have the same effects. Even though polygamy and patriarchy are different cultural practices, we see the protagonists of each novel suffer great emotional and physical pain, sacrifice their personal happiness and feel compelled to relocate. The Story of Zahra and So Long a Letter both deal with the great problem of the cultural oppression of women in Lebanon or Africa, and both are extremely successful in purveying this problem through personal relationships.

Bibliography:So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ.

The Story of Zhara by Hanan al-Shaykh.