Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta are two very different African novels, yet both bring attention to gender-based oppression and patriarchy in Africa. In both novels, there are several female characters who cope with patriarchy in different ways. Some women submit to the system, while others resist it. There are also women who manipulate the system to their advantage, while other women outrightly oppose it. In this essay, I will focus on an exploration of the main female protagonists, and how they resist the different types of patriarchy challenging them. Though there are other secondary female characters, I will exempt them from this exploration to keep this essay succinct. I will begin with an analysis of Firdaus’ choices and actions in Woman at Point Zero, followed by Ijeoma’s choices and actions in Under the Udala Tree. I will end this essay with a comparison of the two characters’ reactions to patriarchy.
In Woman at Point Zero, the reader encounters a prisoner named Firdaus who is on deathrow for the murder of her pimp. Firdaus is a sex worker who has a history of parental neglect, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sexual abuse. She lives in Egypt, which is governed by men who view women as subordinates. Clearly defined gender roles dictate that women should be submissive to their male counterparts in the home and workforce. In Firdaus’ home, her mother serves her father like a king (ref and quote). When Firdaus works in a corporate office job, her male colleagues feel entitled to sex with their female coworkers (El Saadawi 1975:75-76). Firdaus responds to male domination by refusing to have sex with men who do not compensate her for this privilege. She views prostitution as a way of earning her financial independence, and a means to subvert gender roles. Firdaus is of the opinion that she gains power by having men pay her for sex. She says that a women in marriages are worse off that prostitutes:
A successful prostitute was better than a misled saint. All women are victims of deception. Men impose deception on women and punish them for being deceived, force them down to the lowest level and punish them for falling so low, bind them in marriage and then chastise them with menial service for life, or insults, or blows. Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women. (El Saadawi 1975: 85)
Firdaus’s choice to be a sex worker leads to a life of abuse, fear, and ultimately death. By the end of the novel, Firdaus has given up her will to live, and accepts execution by the authorities. This narrative reveals many aspects of patriarchy in Egypt where Firdaus lives and dies.
Patriarchal ideals are displayed through multiple male characters in the story who feel entitled to control Firdaus. Each of these male characters reveals a different type of abuse. In Firdaus’ father, one can see that the men are considered the head of the household. He is entitled to all meals while the family starves. He is entitled to beat his wife when their male children die, and he is entitled to neglect the welfare needs of his children while taking care of his own needs. He places higher value on his male children than his female children – he does not mourn the losses of his dead daughters. In Firdaus’s words, she describes her father as:
My father, a poor peasant farmer, who could neither read nor write, knew very few things in life. How to grow crops, how to sell a buffalo poisoned by his enemy before it died, how to exchange his virgin daughter for a dowry when there was still time, how to be quicker than his neighbour in stealing from the fields once the crop was ripe. How to bend over the headman’s hand and pretend to kiss it, how to beat his wife and make her bite the dust each night. (El Saadawi 1975:20)
Firdaus’ uncle also feels entitled to make sexual advances at Firdaus. He touches her body without her permission. Firdaus is sold for a dowry which emphasises the perspective that women are objects and commodities to be traded and used. Firdaus is not given a voice when it comes to who she will marry. She has to accept whatever decision her uncle makes for her. Once married, her husband, who is significantly older than her, treats her with contempt and abuses her (El Saadawi 1975:48). Yet again, Firdaus is in a position where she has no voice to speak for herself, or to protect herself from harm. Through Firdaus’ father and husband, domestic abuse against women is highlighted in the novel. Firdaus resists the abuse of her husband by running away.
Firdaus carves out a life for herself that is scandalous and dangerous. However, she feels empowered in the role of sex worker, because it is the only time that men are willing to hear her voice. If she says no to their prepositions, they have to respect her decision and walk away. If she agrees to have sex with them, she can demand whatever price she wants. For Firdaus, this feels like freedom, because she has never experienced true freedom where her body is not an object or commodity for men to use and abuse. Based on the society in which lives, she sees women all around her being sexually exploited by men. Within this demeaning role of sex object, Firdaus seeks agency for herself, and she finds this by charging men large sums of money to have sex with her. In this twisted scenario, it is the only way that she can respect herself, and develop her self-worth. She feels valued by having a price tag on her body. She believes that other women are of less value compared to her, because they are sexually expolited without any compensation. The sex industry is another means by which the patriarchy commodifies and objectifies women.
Once Firdaus is arrested by the police for the murder of her pimp, and for embarrassing the prince by refusing to have sex with him, her fate is decided by the court. The laws that are created to protect men’s power and control over women, determine that Firdaus is irredeemable and deserves to die for her actions. Firdaus’ opinion of men is summarised when she says:
I discovered that all these rulers were men. What they had in common was an avaricious and distorted personality, a never-ending appetite for money, sex and unlimited power. They were men who sowed corruption on the earth, and plundered their peoples, men endowed with loud voices, a capacity for persuasion, for choosing sweet words and shooting poisoned arrows. Thus, the truth about them was revealed only after their deaths, and as a result I discovered that history tended to repeat itself with a foolish obstinacy. (El Saadawi 1975:33)
A psychiatrist is available to her while she awaits execution, but during her life of abuse and neglect, there are no social services available to support her and to get her off the streets. This reveals the lack of care for vulnerable women in society, for women who come from homes with domestic abuse. Similarly there are no laws in place to protect women from Female Genital Mutilation (also known as ‘cutting’).
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) does not benefit women in any way. It only serves to harm them, physically and psychologically. The purpose of FGM is strip women of their sexuality, thus rendering them vulnerable in society. According to (Gohar 2016:178), the cliterectomy robs Firdaus of her sexuality . Men are motivators behind the savage act of cutting. Men believe that their wives will be faithful to them in marriage if they have no sexual desires for other men. Women support FGM in rural parts of Africa because they believe it is a cleansing rite for women. This belief is misguided and dangerous, and women have no escape from it. Firdaus has no means to escape from the ritual, and the effects of it scar her for life.
Some scholars, such as Gohar (2016), Abdullah et al (n.d.), and Tugume (2021) argue that Firdaus died a free woman because she reached self-actualisation. However, I do not agree with this point of view because she was ultimately powerless to a system which took her life, leaving her dead. They killed her, they stopped her; she is no more because of them (the male oppressors). Her story brings awareness to female oppression and abuse, but it has not changed women’s circumstances in Arab cultures. The system still continues until present day, no matter how much women protest. The only women who find freedom are those who find asylum in other countries. Other scholars agree with my point of view, such as Fwangyil (2012:15) who writes:
Unfortunately, female oppression is deeply ingrained in the culture of the societies which ensures the continuation of patriarchal control. This situation makes it impossible for women to seek ways of liberating themselves because doing so will be tantamount to challenging the age long tradition and customs of the people. This study is based on the premise that patriarchal moulded structures ensure that women remain in perpetual slavery.
At this junction, I will begin my exploration of patriarchy in Under the Udala Trees. Ijeoma finds herself in a traumatised state, during the Nigerian Civil War. This is due to her father’s suicide and mother’s abandonment during the war. In her vulnerable condition, Ijeoma finds herself in the care of a very strict, religious male teacher. When Ijeoman is caught in a sexual act with her female friend, Amina, the teacher reacts with anger, and calls Ijeoma’s mother to take her away. This shows that Ijeoma is not accepted for who she is by this male “father” figure in her life; she is rejected by him for being her authentic self. According to Courtois (2018:123), the male authority figure (the grammar school teacher) who interrupts Ijeoma and Amina’s sexual intercourse, is representative of the patriarchy which divides women. Ijeoma is punished for being a lesbian by her mother too. This shows how women can turn against each other under patriarchy which is destructive to forming healthy relationships between women (whether patronic, maternal, romantic, or sexual). In Injeoma’s conservative society, homosexuality is forbidden. It is considered sinful and despicable. The patriarchal government of Nigeria, uses this as a means to exert power over women.
Women are threatened, abused, and even killed for being lesbian. The patriarchy does not feel comfortable with female sexuality being directed to each other. According to Gohar (2018:127), the patriarchy believes that a woman’s sexuality cannot exist apart from a man. The thought of a woman being sexually attracted to another woman does not make sense to them, as they see themselves at the centre of a women’s desires. The patriarchy responds with violence towards women who resist their norm. The authorities set alight the nightclub where Ijeoma and other lesbians meet to socialise. Ijeoma’s friend, Adanna, is burnt to death in this fire (Okparanta 2015:194). Ijeoma reacts to these brutalities with fear.
Due to Ijeoma’s fear, she chooses to marry a man (her childhood friend, Chibundu) despite being a lesbian. Ijeoma tries to conform to society’s expectations of her. She goes as far as bearing a child with Chibundu, which turns out to be a daughter. At this point, it is interesting to note:
The udala fruit is a symbol of female fertility: in fact, legend indicates that spirit children gather above udala trees when they have had enough of floating between the world of the dead and that of the living. In exchange, women who come and stay under the udala trees are bound to be exceptionally fertile. (Courtois 2018:125)
This symbolism is reflected in the title, Under the Udala Trees, which works to emphasise the stereotypical gender role of African womens’ obligation to be childbearers. Chibundu puts pressure on Ijeoma to have a son because he values a male child more than a female child. This reinforces the belief that males are worth more than females. The conversation between Ijeoma and Chibundu shows the entitlement he feels to control Ijeoma’s reproductive choices. Chibundu believes it is Ijeoma’s responsibility as a wife to bear him a son:
“We should try for a son.”
I let out a sigh. It came out a little like a gasp.
“If the man who goes to the farm and comes back with no cassava is a true farmer, he will return to the farm, will put in the work necessary, so that one day he can return from the farm with cassava in his basket.”
He paused. “We will try again for a son, put in the work necessary to bear ourselves a son. I will have a son. I deserve that much from you.”
I collected myself. I said, “Chibundu, I’m not really up to having another child, certainly not so soon. And besides, she’s just as good as a son.”
“Ha!” he cried out, very indignantly. “Is she really? Are you forgetting that girls cannot pass on the family name? If for no other reason at all, you will give me a son to pass on my family name.”
“Chibundu, since when did you begin to care about all that nonsense?” I asked. “She’s your child. Your flesh and blood. Your daughter.”
“Yes,” he said. “But she is no son. I want my son. I see the way you look at her, and the way she looks at you. She is all yours. I want my own. And maybe when he grows, and when you are too busy to answer my calls, he can be the one to bring me my jug of water. You’ll have your girl, and I’ll have my boy.”
“Chibundu, I’m not—”
“What are you not? What exactly are you not?” He moved closer, so close that I could feel his breath on my face and the blade of his machete on my leg. “You owe me that much,” he said in a steady whisper. “Do you hear me? You owe me that much.” (Okparanta 2015:254)
After this conversation, Ijeoma tries her best to give Chibundu a son, but as time passes, she cannot deny her true self, and cannot cave into her husband’s demands any longer.
Ijeoma divorces Chibundu and continues her relationship with her female lover, Ndidi. Although they live in hiding, without openly declaring their relationship status, Ijeoma resists the constraints placed on her by the patriarchal society which forbids lesbians from being together. Ijeoma is defiant to the laws which proclaim that a woman should not be sexually active with another woman.
By comparing Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero and Ijeoma in Under the Udala Trees, the reader can see two strong women who survive adversity under patriarchal systems which seek to oppress and taint them. Firdaus is scorned for being a sex worker, while Ijeoma is scorned for being a lesbian. Firdaus has to suffer violent sexual abuse from many men who deceive her and exploit her. Ijeoma has to deny her authentic self and suppress her true desires by pretending to be heterosexual in her heteronormative, patriarchal culture. While Firdaus loses her sexuality through FGM, Ijeoma loses her sexuality by being forced into a heterosexual lifestyle. Firdaus’ father finds more worth in male children than in female children; this is the same with Chibundu who strongly desires a male child. Both women seek agency of their bodies in different ways: Firdaus wishes for her body to be free of sexual and physical violence, while Ijeoma wishes to have the freedom to choose how to use her body for sexual pleasure. Pucherova (2019:118) makes a valid point by saying that women’s bodies are the primary site for oppression. Unfortunately for Firdaus, she loses her life as result of her resistance to female oppression. Ijeoma manages to survive, however lives in fear that at any moment her life could be taken by the male authorities who seek to extinguish women’s freedom of choice.
Within the contextual setting of Africa in both novels, both Firdaus and Ijeoma are marginalised as women. Both characters face the battle of being subalterns. Firdaus is of a lower social class, and is a Muslim woman, while Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo and a lesbian. They belong to minority groups which lack power and influence. This ensures that they remain vulnerable in their patriarchal societies, as they are exposed to multiple human rights violations. Pucherova (2019:107) summarises accurately:
Women’s victimisation through rape, forced marriage and motherhood, forced prostitution, genital cutting, veiling, beating, and other practices to discipline their bodies are all attempts to control women’s sexuality; therefore, sexuality unavoidably must be a primary focus of women’s emancipation movements, in Africa and outside it – it is the common denominator of women’s struggles globally. Women’s victimisation through rape, forced marriage and motherhood, forced prostitution, genital cutting, veiling, beating, and other practices to discipline their bodies are all attempts to control women’s sexuality; therefore, sexuality unavoidably must be a primary focus of women’s emancipation movements, in Africa and outside it – it is the common denominator of women’s struggles globally.
Through the stories of Firdaus and Ijeoma, it can be established that subaltern women lack agency in patriarchal African countries, by being denied the basic human right to experience their sexuality freely. Though both women in these stories resist the system, they are powerless on their own, without the support of a strong sisterhood, and without the support of international human rights organisations, such as the United Nations.
In conclusion it can be determined that both novels are bold in the way they tackle the problem of patriarchy in Africa. Through both women’s stories, various aspects of gender-based oppression and violence are exposed. It can thus be seen that patriarchy stretches across the continent in different ways, affecting different women’s lives in different ways. The voices of feminist writers, such as Nawal El Saadawi and Chinelo Okparanta, are giving attention to women in Africa who have long suffered at the hands of power-driven men, who control and subjugate women under the guise of many misguided religious and traditional practices and beliefs. The characters, Firdaus and Ijeoma, are representative of women in Africa, from all walks of life, who desire gender equality. These two characters highlight that women should be in charge of making their own decisions, and controlling their own bodies. They also show us the importance of why women need to have financial independence and equal opportunities in the workplace.
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