In the works Midnight’s Children, The God of Small Things and Things Fall Apart by Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and Chinua Achebe, respectively the roles of women in societies can be both empowering and oppressive. Throughout these works women struggle to find and obtain power within their defined roles with the, often, oppressing conditions of Indian and Igbo societies.
In Rushdie, Roy, and Achebe’s works the societies in which the characters live and interact contain blatant and subtle examples of the factors of female oppression. In the India society of Rushdie’s novel the women are owned by their husbands and fathers, often being objectified by standards of beauty. Naseem Ghani and Jamila Singer are both characters who are objectified by men and hailed as pure ideals of chaste beauty though they’re true identities and faces are not openly known. This objectification of women lessens the value of women as people and increases their value as possessions.
The similar Indian society which Roy portrays has clear factors of female oppression in the form of mentioned love and inheritance laws. Roy states “Ammu, as a daughter, had no claim on the property” of her father and brother “thanks to our wonderful male chauvinist society” (Roy 56). Chacko joked about the inequality of the inheritance law when he said “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is also mine” (Roy 56). Since Ammu had no legal claim on her family’s business she was forced to work elsewhere to earn a living to support her twin children. Much of the sexist inequality originated from an insecurity or fear of what is other. Like the Untouchables who were of a lower class in the Indian class system, women fell below men in the hierarchy of rights and power. Roy explains that violence occurred and injustices were made because of “men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness” which creates “man’s subliminal urge to destroy what he could neither subdue nor deify. Men’s Needs” were the root of action in the Indian community (Roy 292). The men in the novel feel insecure about their level of power over women; therefore they must oppress women in order to clearly establish a visible superiority. This androcentric view of human equality automatically oppresses women and people of lower classes. So long as men were continually established as inherently better than women, injustice to women will prevail.
Achebe’s novel illustrates oppression of women in the compound of Okonkwo and the rule of the white men when they infiltrate the Igbo society. The Igbo society revolves around a balanced society of relatively equal power given to men and women, though when this balance is upset with the arrival of western ideals and laws, female oppression becomes more apparent. The white missionaries and officers who reside in Umuofia illustrate the values that old customs must be changed or removed from Igbo life. This disruption creates a sense of unjust among the men and women of the community. The white Imperial officers come into the women’s sphere of the market place and challenge the equal ways of Igbo life. The roles of women in the Igbo society start to shift as old customs are changed.
In Rushdie’s novel the roles of women tend to be those of wives, mothers, and tamers of men. Marriage for women is very important because they gain financial and individual power through marriage. These marriages were usually arranged by the woman’s father. When Mumtaz marries Ahmed Sinai he declares “I’ll choose you a new name. Amina Sinai” to which Mumtaz-Amina replies “whatever you say, husband” in true subservient fashion (Rushdie 68). The women of Midnight’s Children are often caught between positions of power. A single woman is free to follow her desires within moral reason, yet does not hold as much societal power or importance because she was not desirable to a man. Women of higher classes seem to have more power or freedom to choose activities because they have hired help to complete the household tasks. Pia Aziz, tired of her marriage life, exclaims she is being treated “like a wife of the masses, I have stayed; here, now, I am rotting!” (Rushdie 277). Pia believes she should be acting on the screen and not acting like a menial housewife. Other female roles include nursing and being a nanny like Mary, secretarial work, or cleaning work. All female roles are subservient and less important than the male roles.
Female roles in Roy’s work are illustrated through the legislated Love laws and well and inheritance laws. Women are only allowed to love those who are born into their class. Women are expected to marry, produce children, and care for the children while being supported by a male husband. When Baby Kochamma obtains a “reputation” for once living at a convent her father decides “since she couldn’t have a husband there was no harm in her having an education” (Roy 26). Women were trapped in the life of mother in order to gain any sort of higher standing in society. Unfortunately for characters such as Ammu, her divorce and love of an Untouchable denied her possibility of gaining power. Women can also work in the pickle factory or have lesser jobs in the city. Mammachi was denied the opportunity to become a great violinist because it would have increased her power, nearly equaling her to her husband.
The Igbo society’s female roles in Achebe’s novel are quite equal to those of the male roles. Women were expected to become mothers and wives but they had more choice in who they married than the Indian culture examples in Roy and Rushdie’s works. Women are the head of the agriculture and food production within their home compound. Some women, like Cheilo, were priestesses who carried out religious duties. The market was a place where women effectively held the economic power of their respective households. Women were able to manage their household and join social groups of differing powers. These roles were quite healthy to both men and women and allowed many women to find power within their own female roles.
Though women are confined to a certain sphere or role in their society, a certain amount of power can be accrued raising the women from the base level of subservience. In Rushdie’s novel the Brass Monkey is a fine example of a female child who obtains power over her family by acting negatively to gain attention and getting away with it and receiving special privileges despite her bad behavior. Amina Sinai asserts power when she deflects a crowd from killing the Hindu Lifafa Das (Rushdie 84). Rushdie mentions that the “Hindu Succession Act…gave Hindu women equal rights of inheritance” (Rushdie 211). This right to inheritance allows women to have a somewhat equal standing with men on the issue of financial security. The Reverend Mother also displays her power of voice and choice when she becomes silent for 3 years as a way to keep her old-fashioned ideas. These are all acts depicting the possibilities of women obtaining some sort of slight power within their spheres of the home and local community.
The women in The God of Small Things have little success achieving power in their spheres due to the strict laws and social practices of the small town of Ayemenem. Baby Kochamma may obtain some power as she becomes the owner of the house when all other family members die. This power is not something that Baby Kochamma worked for, but one that happened to befall her. Ammu does not find substantial power aside from her brief choice to marry a man of whom her parents disprove. Ammu is restricted from loving Velutha because of the Love “laws that lay down who should be loved, and how, and how much” (Roy 33). The women of Roy’s novel are depicted as mostly powerless and subservient in the Indian society.
The society which Achebe creates allows women to find power within their roles in society such as Ekwefi and Cheilo. Cheilo was the “priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves” (Achebe 49). She commits religious rites and speaks with the Oracle, a power given only to the priestess. Ekwefi is also an example of a woman with power. Ekwefi gives advice to Okonkwo and has economic control of the household because she works in the market and helps tend the farming. Ekwefi illustrates her power and determination as she breaks the rules to follow Cheilo who has taken her daughter Ezinma to the Cave of the Oracle. In the Igbo society women are permitted to leave their husbands if the men are beating them. Women also have the power to divorce their husbands to marry other more powerful men. Achebe’s female characters obtain the most amount of power because their society is not androcentric but views all people as relative equals.
The female characters in Rushdie, Roy, and Achebe’s works have different societies in which they live and function therefore their possible ascension to power differs greatly. The Indian societies which have been infused with western androcentric ideals are less equal than the African culture which gives equal rights to most all members of society. The presence of western ideals seems to be the factor which oppresses women most in these works of literature.