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So Long a Letter

While women in western countries have traveled halfway in the journey towards freedom, women in Africa are still searching for the way. There are many factors that make it easier for one group than the other. Culture, customs and religion are among others at the foreground of those factors. The general assumption is that one of the main obstacles to progress for women, regardless of where they come from, is the pervasive belief that they are inferior and are limited because of their biological role in reproduction. These beliefs are held, consciously or unconsciously, by the majority of men and women the world over.

In Mariama Ba’s work So Long a Letter, Ba creates two central and strong female characters who contradict the standard role of women in African communities dominated by Islamic doctrines, like that of Senegal. The author recognized the significant gender-biases that existed it the culture and expressed them through the development of her characters. But rather than taking the standard view and assimilating her characters within the culture from which they were raised, Ba attempts to challenge the notion of female subjugation and dis-empowerment by irecting and solidifying the characteristics of the her two main character.

In Senegal, the traditional view of woman, which values her entirely based on her son-bearing role, is still present. The first role of women is to stay at home and take care of the children. The inequality starts at a very early age. The rate of girls going to school is by far lower than that of boys. Parents’ choices of investment in their children completely depend on their view of the latter’s worth as adults.

The relationship between Ramatoulaye (Rama), a Senegalese women, and her friend, Aissatou, who left the familiarity of Senegal for life in the United States after a divorce from here husband, is the defining relationship in the book. Both women have taken on roles that are not in direct line with the traditions of their culture, and Ba clearly veers away from painting a standardized picture of the African women, except through a distinct process of comparison.

Ba recognizes the plight of Senegalese women influenced by the patriarchal culture and “often muzzled”… Ba suggests that even her two main character are not strong enough to struggle free of their affliction, and she asserts that “all women have almost the same fate” (88). The relationship between Rama and Aissatou bring the two together in a kind of community that is unlike the predominant focus in the Islamic groupings of Senegal. The two friends describe their lives in complicity and state things like “our lives developed in parallel” (19), and ultimately, the reader is able to observe a verbal unification that brings the women into a collective that makes the two appear in some ways to be inseparable.

We are true sisters, destined for the same mission from emancipation” (15). But Rama is a woman controlled more by the Islamic faith than her friend (or other women in the novel) and the requirement that she participate in the activities that afford her the title of widow is central to her disdain for men. Rama takes on the trap of the Islamic faith as an internal exile, and is swept into the controls and roles of the Senegalese women, and so she moves away from all of those elements that she once valued above all others, including a unified identity, a sense of self-identification, and self-reflection.

It is overly simplistic to state that the plight of the Islamic women in Senegal is simply an extension of the male dominated culture and regards the subjugation of women as a natural extension of this. Though this is true in part, each of the women in Ba’s work appear to have been recruited into some kind of a sistership, and that their atrocities reflect both the positive and the negative of this kind of centrality, while underscoring the fact that many women have accepted and nurtured their roles as Islamic women and have refuted the perspectives of others that have ridiculed the natural order of things.

Rama and Aissatou represent both escape and inclusion, struggle and harmony within the process of accelerating change, and the perspectives offered by Ba reflect not only the problems for women in creating an Islamic identity in Senegal, but in remaining autonomous external from societal expectations. It is evident that the language utilized to demonstrate the conflicts can also be used to devise a means of recognizing and relating to the different views on women presented within Ba’s So Long a Letter.

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