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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

Violence and the Curse of Silence

Everything Good Will Come has attracted much discursive attention at international conferences and in some scholarly publications. Ayo Kehinde and Joy Ebong Mbipom see the novel as dealing with the “smallest unit of the society,” the family as a microcosm of the nation.11 Jonas Akung argues that Atta has given the African woman a voice. She “must speak out because silence is no longer golden; it has become a destructive metaphor.”12

Everything Good Will Come is about three women, Sheri, Enitan, and Arinola, Enitan’s mother. These women struggle not only to raise their voices, but also to save their lives in a world closely guarded by patriarchal norms. Arinola’s world disintegrates when she loses a son whom she had hoped would assure her a permanent place in her husband’s heart and home. Her husband, Sunny Taiwo, eager to have a male heir, has a concubine who eventually fulfils his wish for him. The loss of her child and Sunny Taiwo’s infidelities drive Arinola insane. She eventually dies broken-hearted. Another traumatic incident that exposes the poverty of intersubjective relationships in society is the rape of Sheri by a group of boys. She never recovers from the resultant trauma. She learns to cope in her unfriendly world by being like the rest of the population. Swallow, on the other hand, is about Tolani and Rose, two young women who fall prey to the capitalist and patriarchal excesses of Lagos. Rose is not only sexually assaulted; she is also used as a drug mule. Mr Lamidi Salako is the manager of Federal Community Bank, and he sexually assaults Tolani. She files a complaint, and she is dismissed. While Rose dies pushing drugs for her male boss, Tolani goes back to her ancestral home, Makoku, in what could be seen as an effort to draw inspiration from her place of birth. In these stories, Atta shows the interrelatedness of the private and social spheres.

What binds all the women in these stories in a common fate is the near absence of intersubjectivity in their relationship to the menfolk of their society. Arinola’s personhood is reduced to her function as the producer of an heir for her husband. She is therefore a means. On the basic human level, Sheri’s rape reveals the degree of the boys’ relation to her.13 They are driven by male-oriented, patriarchal thinking that sees women as a means to the satisfaction of men’s carnal desires. When women are subjected to the position that patriarchal ideology has foreseen for them, they are literally violated by the totality and totalitarian dictates of that ideology. Levinas argues that ideology obliterate the face. This ideology only manifests itself in a concrete format in the very instance of violence such as rape. If totality subsumes the unicity of the present within the conception of an end, the face acts as a foil; it resists containment. He states:

The face is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched—for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content.14

We can also understand the violence of ideology with the help of Fanon’s examination of the effects of racism on the black body. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of control of a people is the control of knowledge about them (epistemic violence), which emerges from theory, constituted over the years through anecdotes and rituals that are passed from generation to generation so that with time they assume an air of essence. As Fanon argues, when a white child points at a black man and tells his mother, “mother, look, a Nigger,” the child merely makes present all the negative ideas his culture has woven around the black man.15 What is said of the black man in the West can be said of women in patriarchal societies; they are constituted by anecdotes and mythologies that shape their identities so that it becomes very difficult to see them as individuals with distinct feelings, dreams, and aspirations. Their faces are obliterated by the mere fact of their being seen through the spectrum of patriarchal ideology.

Sheri is seen not as an individual in her own right, but as something that belongs to an amorphous group already categorized (and totalized) by patriarchal thinking. The thinking of the boys who raped her had already removed her from their range of empathy. The rape, vicious as it is in itself, assumes a symbolic relevance to the degree that it is a microcosm of society’s violence on women. It is in this regard that Sheri is synecdochic of women of that society, and she is so in the sense that she is a part of a group whose members the system rarely recognizes as individuals with unique pains and pleasures.

Augustine H. Assah calls rape of women “a horrendous aspect of patriarchy and dominator ideology.”16 Commenting on the devastating effect of rape in society, he argues:

Since the determining principle in the perpetration of rape is force, and women have been socialized by the patriarchal order to accept subservient and non-assertive roles in society, it stands to reason that most rape victims are girls and women.... Rape becomes then a form of phallocratic violence, that is violence prompted by the use of force and the dictates of male hegemony.17

A particular detail stands out in the narration of the incident of rape as observed by Enitan. She describes what she sees in a seemingly harmless way: the portly boy on top of her friend Sheri. His hands are clamped over Sheri’s mouth. “It was a silent moment; a peaceful moment. A funny moment, too. I didn’t know why, except my mouth stretched into the semblance of a laugh before my hands came up, then tears filled my eyes.”18 Why does Enitan feel like laughing? We have a classical instance of trauma and helplessness in Enitan’s reaction. One would have expected her to call the police, but she knows she cannot do that. Her society has no provision for this, and this is part of her trauma. In her helplessness, she turns to blame Sheri:

If she hadn’t smoked hemp it would never have happened. If she hadn’t stayed as long as she did at the party, it would certainly not have happened. Bad girls got raped. We all knew. Loose girls, forward girls, raw, advanced girls. Laughing with boys, following them around, thinking she was one of them.19

Perhaps the major reason the boys raped Sheri was precisely because she refused to conform to the docile image society has of women. At this juncture, Enitan could be seen as an extended arm of her society, which also sees raped women as having brought their condition upon themselves. Sheri therefore experiences double violence. She is violated physically by the boys. She is also violated morally when Enitan blames her for bringing rape upon herself. Ironically, in condemning Sheri, Enitan condemns herself as a woman. Atta seems to suggest that society has succeeded in distorting not only women’s relation to one another, but also to their individual selves, especially in regard to rights. They blame themselves when they are assaulted.

Sheri’s crimes are self-confidence and her sense of freedom. She therefore has to be cut down to size. Thus the symbolic and actual function of rape is to put women in their place. Rape is implicitly seen as a corrective means through which women who “go astray” are brought back to order. We recall the exorcism scene in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Women who dare to go beyond the parameters society has defined for them are forced back, especially by that special patriarchal tool: the phallus. They are reminded of the defined space in which they are meant to be.

Atta obviously draws attention to the violation of women. But she also sees such violation as figurative of that of the Nigerian people by the military, which could be seen as the crystallization of patriarchal privileges. In a discussion with two other female Nigerian writers, she acknowledged:

I was in my early thirties when I wrote Everything Good Will Come. I was frustrated about what I was seeing in the Nigerian community in America and what I had witnessed growing up in Lagos. I just needed to vent. As you know, the novel is about a girl/woman at odds with patriarchy and reads like angry rants in parts.20

She declared in an interview that “fighting for human rights is a sacrifice rather than a luxury.”21 I read Atta’s anger as a cry for justice. Her narrative asks why these young men raped Sheri; it also interrogates the society whose system allows for such violence. She wants to liberate Nigerians from themselves, and she does it by highlighting the pains of individuals. These pains are caused neither by colonialism nor by the military, but by friends and relatives of the victims, enabled by their systems.

Though Sheri is figurative of women in society, she is also an individual in her own right, especially when she chooses to respond to her experience in a manner that betrays the dignity of her gender. She take recourse in her body, not as a way of pleasing herself, but as a pornographic item. She would go on to “become part of the sugar daddy circuit in Lagos, hanging around senators, and going on shopping sprees abroad.”22 She eventually becomes a full-time concubine of one of the rich sugar daddies, Brigadier Hassan, a man “who collected ponies and women as young as his daughters.” Her life circles around the monotonous duty of cooking for him, and then the rest of the time she spends preparing for his coming: “her hair, her nails, dabbing perfumes and cooking meals.”23 As an indicator of the general moral decadence in her society, Sheri, a victim of rape, chooses to be a passive facilitator of her oppressive patriarchal system; she believes that it’s easier to walk around a rock, to get to your goal, than to break it down.24 Indeed, hers is the philosophy of generations of women of that society, particularly in regard to their men; it is also the philosophy of men. For these women, the gender relation in their society is set by tradition, and it should not be disrupted regardless of the pain it inflicts on them. In Sheri, Atta demonstrates the mutual relationship between private and public spheres in regard to human rights abuses. Sheri is a kept woman, one who has elected to live with the fact of her subjection, very much like her society has.

Monogamy is often seen as the form of marriage that, despite its weaknesses, goes a long way to assure women some grounds for equality with men in their marriages. Sheri, however, becomes suspicious of this very system, believing it is a Western import;25 here she is the exact opposite of her former self, who had easily mingled with boys as evidence of her belief in her equality with them. The total change in attitude towards herself and those who look like her should therefore not come as a surprise to us. As Althusser and Butler have demonstrated, often victims of oppression help to perpetuate the system that oppresses them. This is largely due to the consequences of the trauma they suffer. They are frightened into self-spite. Their attitude, in turn, empowers their oppressors all the more. Nigerian society has no mechanism in place to address abuses such as rape. It therefore lets Sheri down. Sheri, in turn, believes that the appropriate attitude for her to take is to turn her back on society and approach life without much consideration for it. She, too, lets society down. There is therefore a pernicious dialectic between the society that disables the individual and that individual. The society disables itself indirectly through the actions or indifference of the individual. Atta has established a hermeneutical circle as far as the relationship between an abused individual and an abused society is concerned: As it goes with the individual, so it goes with society. It is not accidental that Sheri runs into the arms of a military man.

 
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