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

As the Family Goes, So Does the Nation

It is troubling that Sunny Taiwo does not seem to have noticed the direct correlation between his allegiance to patriarchal tradition and his wife’s pains. He sees his wife as a person whose meaning is exhausted in her role as the bearer of male heirs. The circumstances of the birth of Arinola’s son expose the barren moral conditions against which her mental breakdown can best be understood. After giving birth to Enitan, Arinola attempts to no avail to convince her husband that they should not bear another child because of the danger of sickle cell. Her effort is destined to fail because she is going up against an intractable tradition. And so she succumbs; she gives birth to a son with sickle cell.

One might not blame Sunny Taiwo for not being a hero in the face of a strong tradition. His moral failure, the wretchedness of his intersubjective attitude to Arinola is, however, revealed when he blames her for not sending their son to the hospital even though he knows that there is no cure; he secretly marries another woman, who gives birth to a healthy son.26 Perhaps the seeming intractability of the patriarchal tradition succeeds in producing insincere humans. Thus, Sunny Taiwo, an otherwise loving, educated man, who even gives Enitan the feminist impulse of selfesteem as a woman, is shown to be a hypocrite and one who disables Arinola.

The philosopher Martin Buber suggests conditions under which human rights can flourish. He differentiates between experience and relation. One experiences the world of things, but stands in relation to the world of humans. When we relate to people, we cease to see them through the lens of utility; rather we begin to understand that they make our existence whole. Relation is not a one-way attitude; it is reciprocity, and reciprocity recognizes the dignity of the other.27 Experience, for Buber, is “remoteness from you,” but relation reduces that remoteness.28 If the remoteness between me and you is nullified, there is then the possibility of encounter, which is the basis of actual life.29 In this encounter, the individual, “I,” could meet the other, Той, as “my You.” The phrase “my You” seeks to present the other, who is otherwise an indifferent “You,” as very close to the subjectivity of “I” to the degree that there is no longer an estranging distance. We exchange positions, so to speak. When I confront the other as my You, our world is basically guided by the I-You operational model. When this is the case, according to Buber, the other:

is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is You and fills the firmament.30

The phrase “he is You” puts us in the mindset of perspective switching. We put ourselves in the position of the other to the degree that we feel what he feels. This can be achieved if, as Buber argues, “nothing conceptual intervenes between I and you, no prior knowledge and no imagination; and memory itself is changed as it plunges from particularity into wholeness.”31 When Buber prohibits the conceptual from intervening between two persons he, like Gabriel Marcel, suggests that no ideology or prejudice should hinder one person from encountering the other as a being in whose position they can easily imagine themselves. This corresponds to what Emmanuel Levinas calls the command of the face of the other.

Martin Buber’s differentiation of experience and relation helps us to understand what has happened between the characters, the men and the women whom Atta writes about. The men’s relation to women is controlled by what Buber has identified as experiencing, which we do to the world of things. When we experience people, we do not see them as possessing rights and dignity, and this is because we see them as means to our ends. The men fail to relate to the women the way humans are supposed to relate to the world of humans. Atta exposes how men see women through the lens of utility in the society she describes. That society is dysfunctional because men experience women rather than relate to them. In that way the men’s existence is fragmented, unfulfilled, and morally deficient, just as women are disabled by the abstractions of ideologies. The same can be said of society in general.

With the violence surrounding the lives of these women, Atta suggests that it is impossible to talk about human rights where people fail to encounter one another; when they see one another as means to their individual ends. The ends to which people (in this case men) put others (women) are often hidden in society’s norms, values, heritage, and other concepts that merely embody a particular ideology of the dominant class or gender. As I argued in Chapter 4, with reference to Jacob Zuma, it is easier for a man to have a concubine, or even marry several wives, if he can find an excuse in his tradition or heritage that allows for that. That tradition already gives him an upper hand in any ethical confrontation with his wife. Unfortunately, that heritage completely ignores the subjective world of woman, her feelings of pain or her right to pleasure. The tradition literally puts a wedge between the I and the Thou of the world of men and women. As Nfah-Abbenyi suggests, we can recover the dignity and rights of these women by paying attention to their subjectivities.

In what could be seen as an allegory, Atta suggests a connection between the family and the nation. The nation is the family writ large. For her, the failure of intersubjectivity on micro levels such as that of the family (for example, a man ignoring the discomfort of his wife and children) parallels, or even directly leads to, that on macro levels such as that of the nation (for example, dictators tramping on the dignity of citizens). Over the course of the story, Enitan matures morally and politically, and deriving this from the riches of her experience, she makes the connection between individual actions and the fate of the society/country very clear. The military government has become extremely repressive, and Sunny Taiwo is now a victim of violence. He dares to challenge the authoritarian army regime, and is consequently incarcerated. Enitan, now a lawyer, is faced with challenging the military government the way she challenged her father on behalf of her mother. Before this, though, Atta allows us a glimpse of Enitan’s mind; how she sees the connection between the country and the family. This becomes evident in a scene of intense encounter between her and her husband, Niyi. They talk about her father’s being in detention. Niyi is eager to blame the Northerners for the mess in the country, but Enitan thinks that the problem cannot simply be explained using the North versus South dichotomy: “We have all played a part in this mess, not caring enough about other people, how they live. It comes back to you. Right back. Look at us in this house, paying Pierre pittance.”32 Enitan puts her finger on the core of the problem in her country; the problem of how people relate to one another, how they care or do not care about one another. The issue is that they live in a society that lacks empathy. Her observation does not sit well with her husband, who does not see any parallel between his bossiness and that of the military dictator. He believes that the situation is just how things are meant to be. He responds: “That’s life, o-girl, unless you want Pierre to come and sleep in our bed tonight.”33 When Niyi makes that comment Enitan feels a strong aversion for him. But she quickly controls her feelings, knowing that he, too, is a child of his time. He is like the rest of the country. “There was a feeling that if people were at a disadvantage, it was because they somehow deserved it. They were poor, illiterate, they were radical, subversive, and they were not us.”34

In Enitan’s thinking, disregard for the pain (abuse of the rights) of one’s immediate relative almost always leads to a disregard for the common good of society. If a man gets used to his pregnant wife cooking for him while he amuses himselfwith his colleagues in his sitting room, soon he also gets used to seeing hundreds ofbeggars, who are mad men and women whom society has obviously forced to their miserable fate by its lack of care. In Enitan’s musings, we understand that dictators do not jump fully formed into existence as adults, nor are they creations of the gods; they are groomed by a society that fails to nurture a caring ambience in families where individuals, men, women, and children are given their due respect and dignity. In families where men beat or fail to respect their wives, children cannot suddenly become adults who are sensitive to other people’s pains. For Enitan, children bear the brunt of society’s misperception of human rights.

Teachers beat, neighbors beat. By the time a child turned ten, the adults they know would have beaten out any cockiness that could develop into wit; any dreaminess that could give birth to creation; any bossiness that could lead to leadership. Only the strong would survive; the rest would spend their lives searching for initiative.35

Atta addresses the reader as part of society, drawing attention to the vicious circle of violence between the private and public spheres. If people can understand the root cause of society’s decadence as the failure of intersubjectivity on a micro level, then it is possible to heal society, not by engaging in mega social projects, but by readjusting individual moral compasses towards intersubjectivity. That could break the vicious circle of violence and oppression in the social order.

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