Fear of Femininity:
Umuofian Perception of Womanhood
In the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the Ibo society is a patriarchal society which functions on masculine strength and strong devotion to traditions. Manliness and fearlessness are traits that great men are expected to bolster. Although men are “dominant” in the Ibo community, Achebe's portrayal of women questions whether one gender role was truly more important than the other? Achebe’s novel also has undertones of Umuofian society suffering partly because of the way they viewed femininity. Because of the great value placed on masculinity, women are to a great extent inferior to men in the Ibo society. Basically, the role of women in African society was to serve their husbands and produce children, as shown by the fact that the birth of children is “a woman’s crowning glory” (Achebe, 77). However, Chinua Achebe in his book Things Fall Apart shows that African women, despite having only a few rights are actually strong and important parts of the religious ceremonies and life in general. They are needed even by zealots (who embody aggression and masculinity) such as Okonkwo, who doesn’t hate women but hates everything related to them. For certain characters, women are not persons, but rather "things" that are to be used and exploited. Females were abused by their male counterparts, forced into submission, almost as if they were indentured to their men. Their main duty was to give birth to children, as many as possible. Their responsibility for the nurturing of their children was considered the most important thing in life. Subconsciously Umuofia had come to respect and admire women, for they were perceived as the source of life. Achebe immortalizes the real role of women in Ibo society through Uchendu’s questioning of why one of the commonest names given to children is Nneka, meaning "Mother is Supreme." Okonkwo is unable to answer this question, so his uncle answers himself. He says: "A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme" (Achebe, 134). Uchendu’s speech serves to explain the irrational love a mother holds for her child, and hopefully dismiss Okonkwo’s loathing for femininity. Women were responsible for educating their kids by sharing with them the folktales passed down from previous generations. Such folktales, rich in moral, greatly influenced the mindset of children and formed their outlooks on life. Mothers inspired intellectual curiosity about life values, human relationships and the world around them. Women gained importance through their roles as mothers. For example, the name of Nwoye’s mother is never revealed. Despite her being Okonkwo's first wife, a position highly respected, everyone casually refers to her as "Nwoye's mother" exalting her role as a mother (Achebe, 14). A great example of woman playing an important role in the society is the Priestess of Agbala. In normal life her name is Chielo, she is a widow and an ordinary woman. But she is also a spiritual leader of the clan and one of the most powerful figures there. Her authority is unquestioned. There is no important decision that can be made in the clan without her approval. Everyone respects and sometimes fears of her, even though she is just a woman. But this is really rare in such society as Ibo's. For instance, even though women painted the house of the egwugwu, they did it under the supervision of men and they were not allowed to go inside. "These women never saw the inside of the hut. No woman ever did... No woman ever asked questions about the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan" (Achebe, 88). The little respect that woman rarely can get in the Ibo society is actually double-faced. It is more like another form of exploitation by the men, rather than display of respect. Throughout the story, Okonkwo is "afraid of being thought weak" and he strives to eliminate any feminine characteristics within him and the people around him (Achebe, 61). Although Okonwo is an exception from the Ibo society, and sometimes exaggeration of it, he has strong relationships with his wife and daughter, Ekwefi and Ezinma. Their support helps Okonkwo overcome all the omens that befalls him. Unlike his relationship with his other wives, Okonkwo displays certain levels of affection for her, praising her for her courage and beauty. Okonkwo love for Ekwefi trickles down to her only child Ezinma. When Ezinma grows sick, nearly dying, Okonkwo remains stationed by his bedridden daughter. Ezinma’s strong personality promotes her to being Okonkwo’s favorite. He always wished that Ezinma could be a boy, because "of all the children she alone understood his every mood. A bond of sympathy had grown between them as the years had passed" (Achebe, 172). It is obvious that Okonkwo with his oddity on masculinity and hating womanly things needs and loves his wife and daughter. Although the Ibo community is viewed as a patriarchal society, women hold great importance as well. Through their labor women became an important pillar of society, they were the nurturers and caregivers in the community. They were the ones who taught children about life and relationships. Women were simply "supreme" in so many ways.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart: A Novel. 1st ed. Anchor, 1994. Print.
Mezu, Rose. "WOMEN IN ACHEBE'S WORLD." Womanist Theory and Research. .