When it comes to the places and roles of women in Sundiata and in Malian society as depicted in the book Sundiata, women are held in a place very much unattached and unequal to men. Their roles, throughout the book, are defined only in relationship to men who hold higher positions of authority and often control the women with whom they are in relations with. Basically, the book takes place in a sort of patriarchal society while allowing women very few rights and powers. Like I had said before, they essentially view the women as their relations and not very much anything else. In this society women are also excluded from official positions of power.
To begin with, the epic in fact is related by a man, and there is not one indication of any woman griots anywhere within the novel. Right after a recitation of the kings of Mali leading up to Maghan Kon Fatta (Sundiata’s father), a female character is mentioned for the first time: “Oh that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, and she bares on her back a disfiguring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely laid on her face, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal forever” (Sundiata, 6). Seemingly right after the first female character is introduced, she is “picked apart” describing her physical appearance, and then to her what would be future roles of wife and mother. Admittedly, the prior is certainly to provide contrast with Sundiata
father who “Was renowned for his beauty in every land,” but further concern with her looks, including the king’s embarrassment, suggests an inordinate concern with women’s physical beauty. The second point however, the roles of wife and mother, or the relationship between a woman and the men who control her destiny, play a much more important role.
While it does seem that women could control some degree of property and receive inheritance, in general, it seems that they were still kept from positions of power. Even Sassouma Berete, the first wife of Sundiata’s father wondered “What would become of her . . . if her son were disinherited (Sundiata, 13)”, assuming that without her relationship to a male power-figure she would be removed of her privilege. Later, after Maghan Kon Fatta’s death, rather than rule herself, she does so through her son. She is referred to as “all powerful (Sundiata, 18),” but is not granted any official position of power, nor does she seem involved in official decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, Sogolon, Sassouma Berete’s rival, after Maghan Kon Fatta’s death, takes on the role of mother to Sundiata. In fact, it is because she is Sundiata’s mother, not because of any aspect of herself that she is at odds with Sassouma Berete. In a way, the goals of women in Sundiata arise from the conflicts in the kingdom of men, and play themselves out in that area. Later on, Sassouma’s daughter Nana Triban provides another example. She is able to take action not completely, but by betraying her husband, Soumaoro, to his enemy, Sundiata. In addition, the betrayal is only workable because of her readiness to pretend submission to Soumaoro, and to play the role of wife to its fullest.
Nana Triban was not freely married to Soumaoro, but her family forced her to do it: “My brother sent me by force to Sosso to be the wife of Soumaoro. I wept a great deal” (Sundiata, 57). There is indications as well that marriage was largely communication between the groom, and the male family of the bride: “The two hunters were considered as being relatives of Sogolon and it was to them that Gnamkouman Doua bore the traditional cola nuts. By agreement with the hunters the marriage was fixed for the first Wednesday of the new moon (Sundiata, 9).”
In the case of Sogolon, this contract between her male “family” and her future husband is held as a reason of rape. Sogolon took clear action to indicate that she does not want to consummate the marriage. The king, on the other hand goes so far as to threaten her life, causing her to faint. Then while she is injured he continued to impregnate her. Within the institution of marriage this is obviously seen as legitimate, and the incident is related by the male griot without any sympathy.
The only role which women seem to play in the novel that is not defined in relationship to men seems to be the powerful witch. However, the witches are all described as old women. They are stripped of their sexuality, and they may be free of males, by that they are reduced to “hags”. They are associated with violent sorts of magic; Sassouma addresses the “nine hags” saying, “You who rule supreme at night nocturnal powers, oh you who hold the secret of life, you who can put an end to one life (Sundiata, 24),” and their leader is described as “dangerous” (Sundiata, 24).
All in all, women did have very little involvement in the Malian society. As I had stated earlier, women are held in a place very much separate and unequal to men. Their roles, throughout the book, are defined only in relationship to men who hold higher positions of authority and often control the women with whom they are in relations with. They have very few rights and powers and it was indeed a rough living experience for women.
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