By Emeka Jonathan
With no intention, whatsoever, to disregard feminist critics and scholars on their holds and ideologies, the concept or theory of feminism is an overrated issue. Thus is so in respect to the knowledge that (even) from time immemorial, women have proven to be problem solvers and strategic thinkers behind successful men. For instance is the tragic play of Shakespeare, Hamlet, where a character of same title is “motivated” into fulfilling prophesies by his strategic and thinking wife. Or in the Nigerian tragedy, Once Upon An Elephant, where an old woman, Iya Agba, serves as the problem solver in a village wrecked by havoc. Indeed, behind every successful man is a woman. But, what then do feminist critics propagate? In short, why feminism?
Wise to say that different theories and definitions of feminism surface; however, my definition of feminism is like that of Marie Shear— the radical notion that women are also people. Some have considered it as a bid to voice the injustices and unfairness metted out to women by men in society. One thing to consider is that both men and women are products of a society ( which is made of both men and women) where gender roles are being ascribed to them. What then happens when a man begins to perform the roles ascribed to a woman? Preferably, as is the focus here, what happens when a woman begins to “be” a man? Exactly what is a “female man”?
Basically, and in its simplistic form of simplicity, a female man is one– a female— who performs the roles of a man in the home or in a society. That is, she has, in every sense of the word, become the breadwinner of her home, while the man has become the bread-eater. In effect, she is the thinker, the strategist, the money-maker, the risk-taker, the figure in the home. The man, who is now the ” male woman” or one Okonkwo and his village people refer to as ‘effeminate’ in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There are ,indeed, certain things a man must do as stipulated by society and culture. But what happens when a woman does them? This is the situation of things in Emecheta’s The Slave Girl.
This portrayal is encapsulated in two major characters, one of which is Ma Palagada. To begin, Ma Palagada cuts across as the breadwinner of the home in every sense. For instance, we find her as the decision maker in the family, while the man, her husband, Pa Palagada, performs ceremonial roles.
Also to that is that she is the provider of the family. Traditionally, men are to provide for their homes while women are to cater and look after the home. In essence, while men are family providers, women are expected to be home nurturers. But that is not so in this novel. Ma Palagada has become so wealthy (owing to the amount of stores/shops she has) that the major income comes from her. It is for this reason that even when Ojebeta wants to leave the home, she must take instruction or leave of absence not from the man, but from Ma Palagada.
Also, the stereotypical role of women as being too emotional and weak as evidenced in many cultures and literatures are debunked as we see the women in this novel as rational and strong. Indeed, they have come to play as men (probably in other to survive in such a Patriarchal society). It is of note that it is the men characters —Okueku Oda, Okolie (the man who sells his sister to slavery because of a dance), and PA Palagada—- who take arbitrary decisions out of emotions. Why, for instance, will PA Palagada love to whip the girls for no reason at all? Or Okolie selling his sister for a price just to partake in a dance. The women, on the other hand, appear to be strong emotionally and physically. Ojebeta and the other girl slaves receive the beatings of their lives in the hands of Pa; yet, their faith isn’t weakened. Chicago, a young girl, also toils with the feelings of PA Palagada (an older man). That these young girls can do all these things reverberates the female masculinity in them.
If we were to consider other factors that society has labelled “manly”, one will find its representation in at least one of the female characters. Is it Chiago’s maturity and leadership charisma? Or Ma Palagada’s physique and strength? Or even Ojebeta’s resolve? One thing is certain. That even though the novel ends with an idea that the female will always be slaves to men, even in marriage, women have become men themselves in order to survive in such hard times. Does this not have something to do with what Akachi Ezeigbo called ” snail-sense feminism”?