Down And Under The Plight English Literature Essay

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Women in Africa are subjected to many predicaments since the African society is mainly dominated by men. The plight of women in this context means the unfortunate situation women are forced to face because of their sex, often reffered to as the 'weaker sex'. Examples of these unfortunate situations include subjugation, ostracism, imprisonment in marriage and the struggle for identity.

Mariama Ba's So Long A Letter is set in Dakar Senegal during the post colonial times. This is the period when the European Western cultures were just being inducted into Senegal. These ways of life caused a lot of controversy since they conflicted with the Senegalese culture. The Senegalese culture was based on Islam as a religion. Islam is the main religion and Islam follows the Quran which is the Islamic holy book. Islam as a way of life can be noted even from the way Modou Fall, Ramatoulaye's husband, was buried in the seven metres of white muslin, the only clothing Islam allows for the dead, according to the Quran. The European Western cultures caused an introduction of education which changed some views of the Senegalese people especially the women who now realized they were being treated unfairly and greatly limited. This realization also increases on the plight of women because they have now realize how unfair society is being to them, therefore they want to be appreciated for who they are and their struggle to do this causes more pain and feelings of unfairness which therefore aggravates their plight. Mariama Ba cleverly uses the first person narrative a lot to bring out the emotions of the speaker throughout the book.

The first challenge of African Senegalese women, in So Long A Letter, is the appalling betrayal by their husbands which wounds them emotionally. For instance; later in the book, Ramatoulaye muses about the sacrifices she made to marry Modou because she loved him. She describes how she tolerates Modou's family members despite their manners for example when she says; "I loved Modou. I compromised with his people. I tolerated his sisters, who too often would desert their own homes to encumber my own." [1] Ramatoulaye uses a bitter tone to express her pain towards her Modou's decision to take on another wife. Ramatoulaye is therefore betrayed by the fact that she compromised with Modou's people for the love of her husband and he went ahead and married another woman. This is a plight because Ramatoulaye has to suffer emotional pain through her marriage. She even goes ahead further in the book to express her feelings of pain and unhappiness towards her husband's polygamy for example when she goes ahead to say; "You think the problem of polygamy is a simple one. Those who are involved in it know the constraints, the lies, the injustices that weigh down their consciences in return for the ephemeral joys of change" [2] This shows that she was unhappy and emotionally wounded due to the injustices mentioned that she faced during her polygamous marriage. Aissatou also faces betrayal by her husband Mawdo. Aissatou is forced to abandon her husband because she feels crushed and betrayed by the fact that he married another woman. Mawdo's mother did not want him to marry Aissatou but rejected his mother and married Aissatou. He went ignored most of the opinions of society which were against his marriage to Aissatou and married her. Ramatoulaye even mentions this in her letter to Aissatou saying; " Mawdo raised you up to his own level, he the son of a princess and you a child fromthe forges. His mother's rejection did not frighten him." [3] After making Aissatou feel honoured and wanted, Mawdo back tracks his decision and later marries another woman without consulting Aissatou; this insensitive behaviour leaves her so crushed, betrayed and disappointed hence accentuating her abandonment of her marital home and later departure from the country.

Woman subjugation is another plight which is also presented in So Long A Letter. When Moudou dies, Ramatoulaye has no say in how the burial should take place. Islam dictates that she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; she has to follow the Islamic traditional way of burial. Ramatoulaye dreads this;

"This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and, worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable" [4] 

Ramatoulaye uses a bitter tone here to portray her disgust of the system that oppresses and subjugates her. Ramatoulaye is forced to sacrifice her possessions even if she worked for them herself. This is an injustice to her and worse still, she has no say in it which is subjugation. Woman subjugation can also be portrayed by Ramatoulaye's statement which she makes to Daouda during their conversation.

'Still very critical, Ramatoulaye! Why this ironical statement and this provocative

epithet when there are women in the Assembly?'

'Four women, Daouda, four out of a hundred deputies. What a ridiculous ratio! Not

even one for each province.' " [5] 

She argues about the fact that there are fewer women than men in the assembly. Ramatoulaye uses an assertive tone to strengthen her point. She is not happy at the fact that women are not as many as women who are deputies and that is just because they are women. This is because the woman's opinions and ideas in the Senegalese society were not held as important as the man's which is unfair. Ramatoulaye is also subjugated because of her refusal to marry Modou's brother. She refuses to marry Modou's brother after modou's death and yet Senegalese tradition states that she should marry him. Society criticizes her because of her decision. She quotes; "My successive refusals gave me in town the reputation of a 'lioness' or 'mad woman" [6] Ramatoulaye is given the name "lioness" because of her actions. This is symbolic for her rebellion against society. She prefers to marry for love which is not the way of the Senegalese as is stated by Ramatoulaye's mother in the initial stages of the book. She has to deal with what society has to say just because of what she believes in.

Another plight suffered by the women of Senegal is the struggle for identity. Towards the end of the novel, it is shown that the women of the new generation, who are symbolized by Ramatoulaye's daughters conflict with what us required of them. They have already been categorized with stipulated dos and don'ts so when they decide to wear trousers and smoke cigarettes, they are scrutinized. Ramatoulaye is puzzled by their actions;

"But to grant themselves the right to smoke! They were dumbfounded before my anger.

The unexpectedness of it gave me a shock. A woman's mouth exhaling the acrid smell

of tobacco instead of being fragrant. A woman's teeth blackened with tobacco instead

of sparkling with whiteness! Yet their teeth were white. How did they manage the

feat? I considered the wearing of trousers dreadful in view of our build, which is not that of

slim Western women. Trousers accentuate the ample figure of the black woman and

further emphasize the curve of the small of the back." [7] 

The girls must struggle for their identity as "modernized" girls. They must deal with all the scrutiny they will receive.

Ramatoulaye continues;

"Since my daughters

wanted to be 'with it', I accepted the addition of trousers to their wardrobes.

Suddenly I became afraid of the flow of progress. Did they also drink? Who knows,

one vice leads to another. Does it mean that one can't have modernism without a

lowering of moral standards?" [8] 

Ramatoulaye uses a rhetorical question to show that women who live in the new generation will be faced with a problem of having to struggle with whether to follow the African traditions and not have modernism or go with the Western traditions and risk being shunned by society since their actions are "a lowering of moral standards".

Women in the Senegalese setting are also face with the problem of ostracism. Aissatou represents the ostracism women face in So Long A letter as she is shunned for leaving her husband.

"You were advised to compromise: 'You don't burn the tree which bears the fruit.'

You were threatened through your flesh: 'Boys cannot succeed without their father.'"

This is evidence that society is not in agreement with the decision Aissatou made to leave her husband. The use of metaphorical language implies that Aissatou shouldn't leave her husband because in Senegalese culture it is the men who "bear fruit" in the family that is to say they are the ones who provide therefore it is an abomination to leave him and therefore Aissatou is cast out from society because of her actions.

I also identified the point of entrapment in marriage.  Ramatoulaye wrote of how Modou's neglect for her feelings and the feelings of their children almost destroyed their lives. She wrote of how she wished she had the strength of her friend to just walk away, but she felt that the sanctions of her religion, Islam, were too strong to allow her to that, not to mention having twelve children to raise alone. Ramatoulaye goes on to say;

"You were advised to compromise 'You don't burn the tree which bears the fruit.'

You were threatened through your flesh: 'Boys cannot succeed without their father.'

You took no notice. These commonplace truths, which before had lowered the heads of many wives as they raised them in revolt"

These "commonplace truths" that the line suggests are the ones that caused the women not to leave their marriages because they were bound to these beliefs. This means the women face a plight of imprisonment in the marriages they had chosen which isn't fair according to the new Western cultures that were being adapted in Senegal at the time.

I personally feel pity for the women that had to live under such conditions. I find it very unfair and inhumane but on the other hand I am appalled by the lack of assertiveness by most of the women towards their situation. If the women had been braver, I believe they would not have suffered a plight.