Polygamy and Feminism

So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ

This semi-autobiographical short novel, from 1979,, is a fascinating expose of attitudes to life in an emerging post colonial Senegal. Written in the form of a letter from a recent widow to her friend who now lives in America, she looks back on her life as a teacher, mother of twelve, wife and widow of a polygamous man.

She appears on first reading to write with acceptance of her lot. An unusually highly-educated Muslim woman, she writes about the customs and traditions, including the restrictions and indignities of her life and how she has come to terms with them through love. She loved the father of her children immensely even though after twenty-five years of monogamy he abandoned her to marry his daughter’s best friend from school.

She was herself inspired by the love of her teacher at school who made sure she continued her education. She devoted herself to her children and she put up with sharing her widowhood with her co-wife. Yet when the suitors come knocking thick and fast, arrogantly believing that she will thank them for rescuing her and her wealth from her aloneness, she makes it clear that she is totally independent and will not unite with anyone except for love. For this she is heavily criticised.

Very subtly throughout the novel she reveals the unusualness at the time of her feminist thinking. The moment of real truth about her inner independence comes when her daughter falls pregnant while still at college. She has to make the decision whether to accept her as a woman in her own right, who will make decisions for herself, or whether to follow custom and tradition and reject her.

Her thoughts on motherhood I found most moving:
“And also, one is a mother in order to understand the inexplicable. One is a mother to lighten the darkness. One is a mother to shield when lightning streaks the night, when thunder shakes the earth, when mud bogs one down. One is a mother in order to love without beginning or end”

Quietly, she accepts her daughter’s fate, confident that she has been true to her convictions.

9 comments on “Polygamy and Feminism

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