The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

Patriarchy and the representation of women in Africa and Asia

Catherine Olutoyin Williams

An increase in awareness for women’s liberation, and changes in practices concerning family relations (domestic violence), education, and media advocacy with respect to the representation of women, have as yet failed to yield the desired results in Africa and Asia, mainly because of the resistance to change that is firmly entrenched in patriarchal ideologies handed down through socialization as an undocumented memory of the people.

This reality for the vast majority of women in Africa and Asia was described by Lynne as “the timeless truth of women’s lives”. 1 Lynne, S. 1987. Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism. London: Virago. Socialist feminists argue that oppression of women is rooted in class structure, unpaid labour, sex and reproduction.2 See for example, Haraway, D. 1991. Simians Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.  African women have always been noted for their salient activities such as procreation, child care and collective preparation of the young ones for communal co-existence. Oppong identified seven roles played by women in Asia: parental, occupational, conjugal, domestic, kin, community and individual.3 Oppong, C.M. 1980. A Synopsis of Seven Roles Status of Women: An Outline of a Conceptual and Methodological Approach. World Employment Working Paper. Geneva International Labor Force (94).  Yet, specific economic and cultural issues leave most women at the mercy of men. These women are in many cases confined to the four walls of the family home, in which their activities are restricted to procreation and household chores. Within African and Asian societies, being married is a sign of respectability, whilst single mothers, unmarried and divorced women are stigmatized. Many women struggle to attain economic independence, and socio-cultural and political encumbrances steeped in patriarchy put women in a position of bondage. In a patriarchy, authority is exercised by the male head of the family and inheritance occurs through the male children. Patriarchies define the constructs of masculinity and femininity, and as a practice they foster the political differences between freedom and subjugation.

This paper, presented at the second ‘Africa-Asia’ conference (Dar es Salaam, 2018), explores issues raised in the memoir by Mukhtar Mai, In The Name of Honour, in the biography Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, and in Emecheta’s autobiographical Head Above Water.4 Mukhtar, Mai. 2006. In The Name of Honour. New York: Atria Books; El Saadawi, N. 1983 (English translation). Woman at Point Zero. London: Zed Books; Emecheta, B. 1986. Head Above Water. Portsmouth: Heinemann.  It looks at how women are represented and treated, and at the values that are placed on the girl child. The discourse is foregrounded in Homi Bhabha’s post-colonial theory and post modernism within a patriarchal and socio-cultural context.

Female subordination in Africa takes intricate forms grounded in patriarchal tradition and culture. Though education is accessible to women in Nigeria, culture still subordinates women. After her father’s death, Emecheta’s brother sold their mother to a relative, so he could afford a ‘khato siliki’ head scarf for his coming-of-age dance festival. Emecheta left her violent husband when she was just twenty-two even though she had 5 young children in tow. She successfully moved on and eventually obtained an Honours Degree in Sociology from the University of London, yet even so continued to wish that her irresponsible husband had fulfilled his societal role as the head of the family. At one time, to secure accommodation for herself and her children, she had to lie about her marital status because no landlord would readily rent an apartment to a single mother.

Portrait of Buchi Emecheta. Artwork in batik for “Head Above Water”, by Marina Elphick.


Within the contexts of both Woman at Point Zero and In The Name of Honour the future of the girl child is highly compromised as her existence relies on the benevolence or malevolence of the males who cross her path. These females’ wellbeing, essence and happiness are entirely dependent on the mood and disposition of their male companions, whether father, brother, uncle or husband. The men in Woman at Point Zero are gainfully employed, while the women are mainly confined to the home. Firdaus, the protagonist of Woman at Point Zero was married without her own consent to a man old enough to be her father, while Mai in In the Name of Honour was sacrificed in an act of honour revenge, for a crime allegedly committed by Mai’s 11-year-old brother against the local Mastoi Baloch clan. She was dragged into a shed, gang raped by four ‘upper class’ Mastoi males, while her relatively lower class and certainly less powerful family members helplessly awaited her release. Patriarchy, the driving force behind Mai’s Pakistani village’s traditions and class divisions that guide daily activities led Mukhtar Mai to conclude in her memoir, that “A woman is nothing more than an object of exchange from birth to marriage, according to custom she has no rights”[p.28]. In despair, and as tradition would expect from her to restore her family’s honour, Mukhtar was ready to commit suicide, but her mother persuaded her not to. She rose to the challenge and sought redress in the court of law. With the assistance of local and international activists and journalists she eventually received monetary compensation, awards and recognition, but her rapists have remained unpunished by law. 

In most communities in Africa and Asia, there exists a great preference for male children. Saha & Saha illustrate how women are not accepted and do not receive proper regard from their husband’s families until they give birth to a male child.5 Saha,K.B. & Chatterjee, U. 1998. ‘Reproductive Rights in Contraceptive Practices’, Health for the Millions 24(5):31-2. New Delhi: Health for the Millions Trust.  Buttressing this fact, Firdaus (in Woman at Point Zero) commented that when a male child dies, the father will beat the mother, eat his supper and go to bed, whilst the death of a female child attracts no violence [p.18]. Firdaus was beaten for the death of a male child, as she had failed to provide the expected high level of health care and nurturing for the male child. Supporting Firdaus’ account of going hungry alongside her mother, whilst her father ate in times of food shortage, Cain demonstrates how females in South Asia are discriminated against with regard to the allocation of food and healthcare within the family.6 Cain, M. 1984. ‘Women's status and fertility in developing countries: son preference and economic security’, World Bank Staff Working Paper No. 682; Population and Development Series No. 7. Washington DC: World Bank.

Violence as a tool of control in patriarchal societies is evident in the three texts. Firdaus was battered by her husband, forced into prostitution, and was continuously on the move in her attempts to escape violence and abuse. Eventually she committed murder in self-defence, and was hanged for her crime. In this biography, Saadawi depicts men as unscrupulous and hypocritical bigots who sexually exploit defenceless women. The men in Mukhtar Mai’s autobiography, In The Name of Honour, have little or no regard for women; they are exposed to the whole world as predators who use rape as a means of punishment while hiding under the protective arm of patriarchy and religion. Emecheta presents her male characters as simple-minded opportunists who take advantage of the patriarchal society to exploit, cheat, oppress and dominate their women.

Catherine Olutoyin Williams, Tai Solarin University of Edcation Ijagun Ogun State Nigeria