Language In Feminist Literature: A Study Of Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

Language In Feminist Literature: A Study Of Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter


Feminist literature has been a subject of much research in recent years. It has been the subject of a great deal of research in the field of feminism. The aim of this work is to identify how Mariama Ba uses language to portray female subjugation–the reaction of females against the oppressive and discriminatory culture experienced by them- in her novel So Long a Letter. This work will serve as a good research material to students and other researchers.

Chapter One


1.1 Background of Study

The struggle for women’ right began in the 18th century during the period of intense intellectual activity known as the Age of Enlightenment.

In traditional Africa the woman is an object of constant scorn, degradation and physical torture. In the past, women did not exist as individuals with personalities to defend. They rather existed as mere docile and exotic accompaniments to the males. Throughout that period, women lacked a voice to articulate their dilemma and their points of view. They, thus, accepted their fate without resistance. Such passive stance results from societal conditioning through questionable cultural practices. From birth, through childhood and adolescence, to adulthood, Africans receive from society and others around the messages and feedbacks which launch them into roles and behaviors considered appropriate for males and females respectively. Most often, female are accorded inferior roles and such long years of cultural suppression and intimidation, unfortunately, misled the women into an underestimation of their capabilities and self worth. Encased in such a cultural mystique, the African women were particularly driven by a community sense since culture obviates individualism.

In those days, these women, in addition to experiencing the same oppressive social condition as their male counterparts in a developing world, were subjected to extra repressive burdens arising from the socio-cultural structures of patriarchy and gender hierarchy. These years of subjugation have, however, produced in today’s women relentless questioning of the status quo. They protest against dehumanization, political enslavement and social oppression. They rationalize that the running of the Africa world is not the preserve for males and thus there should be absolute equality of both sexes in all spheres of life. Such a reaction is termed feminism, which is an ideology that urges, in simple terms, recognition of the claims of women for equal rights with men.

According to Cora Kaplan (162) Literary text are constructed from within ideology, and the reality they articulate is dependent on the historical culture which surrounds them; so too are the literary critical claims about their truthfulness or authenticity determined by the culture from which they arise. Helen Chukwuma (xiv) specifically contends that African feminism is dedicated and informed from within, from social realities that obtain. One of such realities is the persistence of sexist socio-psychological paradigm despite the efforts to overcome “the androcentricism which informs social life”. (Uko, 33)

The persistent sexism in Africa is, however, matched with women’s continued aggressive demand for equal places in men’s former citadel of power and privilege. The chorus African women say to men “whatever the case maybe, you will never again hear us pronounce the words of the Virgin Mary, ‘thy will be done’ while smiling at your despotic power”. (Josephine Felicite in Moses, C.G. and Rabine, L. 308-309). They argue that it is better for men to desire from them those noble and generous feelings which must exist between equals than those mercenary feelings which a slave has for his master. Consequent upon this quest and argument, there is a recent definition of womanhood in the context of the African cosmic order: “A human being endowed with all the capabilities and talents required to effectively function and make impact on all levels of life within society” (Adeife Osemeikhiam, 21).

Notwithstanding the above stance, there still abounds in Africa, evidence of gender stereotypes which simply means a collection of commonly held beliefs or opinions about what are “appropriate” behaviors and activities for males and those that are “appropriate” for females. As a result of this, even though men support women’s condemnation of their (women) societal deprivations, men’s language still betrays subtle inclination to sexist socialization.

The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, Sexism is exemplified firstly as attitudes and institutions, often unconscious that judge human worth on the grounds of gender or sex.

It is explained as prejudice or discrimination usually against women, based on their gender. Sexist socialization, therefore, refers to the process by which infants and children are brought up to imbibe attitudes and practices that discriminate against women on the grounds of their gender.

This work examines So Long a Letter with a view to highlight its characteristic language usage and as well as the psychological disposition that informs such use of language. Research findings by anthropologists, educationists and sociolinguistics show that traditionally, males use non-standard language; females use the language of rapport while males use the language of report; discursive language style is meant for women while men are given to the language of theories and abstractions; females use polite language meant to maintain harmony and strong relationship as well as to keep conversations open whereas males use the language of assertiveness and insistence. Women use the language of solidarity but men use the language of the expert.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

Men in Africa make women understand that they, the men, are the head of the family that is, they are superior to women. They see women as being weak and as a result, women have no say in the activities of the community. They have no rights and are subjugated to do whatever he the men want them to do especially in Africa. Women are made to feel inferior and this breeds some sort of ill feelings in women.

1.3 Objective of the study

The aim of this is to identify how Mariama Ba uses language to portray feminism – the reaction of females against the oppressive and discriminatory culture experienced by them- in her novel So Long a Letter.

1.4 Significance of the Study

The topic Language in Feminist Literature: a study of Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, will serve as a good research material to students and other researchers.

This work will throw more light on the language of feminism and its impact to society.

1.5 Scope of the Study

This project is restricted primarily to the study of the Language in Feminist Literature in Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter.

1.6 Research Methodology

The primary material of this work is Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter while the secondary materials include the various works from the library.

Chapter Five

Summary and Conclusion

The African tradition disapproves criteria, which damage women’s equality with men. In African society and culture, the male is regarded superior, as the central and neutral position from which the female is a departure. This aligns with Simon de Beauvoir’s (16) assertion:

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him: She is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to men and not with reference to her: she is the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the absolute- she is the other.

Women’s sensibility to the needs to rediscover their wounded dignity has, however, been heightened. Such sensitilization has led to the relentless questioning of patriarchy. The case they make is that through men and women show marked biological differences, they are equally talented and as such the issue of sexist socialization should e condemned. The supply of information of feminism not only brought the feeling into the female consciousness but led them to break the shackles of patriarchy through writing. Notwithstanding this shared preoccupation, the language with which each category of writers pursues the female issue highlights an enduring sexist paradigm.

Ba’s language in So Long a Letter indicates that of conversation/ rapport; standard language; polite language achieved through the use of questions; the discursive language style; as well as the language of solidarity. The male-female linguistic dichotomy reflected in So Long a Letter is attributed to patriarchy. Cameron (7), states that gender-specific linguistic differences leads to gender specific conversational strategies. Steinem (60) specifies that conversational pattern between male and females have been found to reflect social inequalities existing between them. Daly (57) states that the language use by females historically stems from oppressive structures whereby women address men as their master. Meunier (1) states that a man could also address his wife as a master his wife as a master his slave and a king his subject, that is, using a clear rhetoric of authority. This implies that language plays a great role in amplifying lines of gender distinctions. This contention is confirmed by Spender (20) who states that:

The semantic rule which has been responsible for the manifestation of Sexism in the language can simply be stated; they are two fundamental categories, male and minus male. To be linked with male is to be linked to a range of meanings which are positive and good. To be linked to minus male is to be linked to the absence of these qualities…
the semantic structure of the English language reveals a great deal about what it means to be female in a patriarchal order.

Webster (79) adds that language is constitutive of knowledge as

Discourse and it is possible to see the privileging of the male position and the establishment of a patriarchal order in broader historical and discursive ways as well as in everyday or literary language.

Women’s lamentation over male subjugation has in recent years filtered into a determination to abnegate sexism. With this stand, their former conciliatory position becomes superseded by a current of revolt against man and tradition as highlighted through semantic compounding and linguistic parallelism in So Long a Letter.
We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the farthest limits of our intellectual capacities. We have a right to equal well-paid employment, to equal opportunities. The right to vote is an important weapon. (61)

The linguistic pattern here is:



  • Education
  • To + Equal opportunities
  • Vote

In this pattern, the NPs which are in syntagmatic relationship with the preposition “to” are positionally and naturally equivalent. They are intra-textually cohesive and share in common the semantic feature / privileges /. They, therefore, constitute a semantic compound, a special semantic image which reflects Ba’s view of the desire of women in the world of the novel. For her, women should enjoy equal privileges with their male counterparts. In other words, the running of the African world is not preserved only for males rather there should be absolute equality of both sexes in all spheres of life.

With the present stance of the African, women compromise is replaced by criticism and condemnation of the male victimize as illustrated with Ramatoulaye’s revolt against Tamsir’s offer to marry her:

What of your wives, Tamsir? Your income cannot meet their needs nor those of your numerous children. To help you out with your financial obligations, one of your wives dyes, another sells fruits, the third untiringly turns the handle of her sewing machine. (58)

In this text, the three verb phrases;


Dyes – (Cloth)

Sells – Fruit

(untiringly) turns – Sewing machine

are in paradigmatic connected/relationship with one another just as the three noun phrases also belong to the same paradigm. That is, the three VPs are related synonymously under the general semantic feature / petty trade /. Similarly, the three noun phrases share the semantic feature / little value /.

Acting in line either societal dictates and expectation, Tamsir’s three wives fill his home with numerous children. As is usual with African polygamous homes, Tamsir who has married them not out of love or affection, but merely to meet his own selfish desire for variety, cares little to meet their needs. These women, therefore, strive to fend for themselves and their children since their lack of education to find reasonable money-yielding job has left them in engaging in petty trading which scarcely yield enough money for their needs and those of their children. For this reason, they suffer untold hardship. Notwithstanding the embarrassing situation to which Tamsir has exposed his wives, he further seeks Ramatoulaye’s hand in marriage in order to add her to the number of women he has to humiliate. But Ramatoulaye spits her venom to the shameless man.

In further portrayal of women’s reputation of male egotism, with the use of linguistic foregrounding, Ramatoulaye who is shocked into incomprehension by men’s unrestrained exploitation of women questions the former’s right to polygamy.

  • But to understand what?
  • The supremacy of instinct?
  • The right to betray?
  • The justification for the desire for variety? (34)

The parallel structures are the noun phrases



The supremacy of instinct

To understand + The right to betray

The justification of the desire for variety

The NPs which are in syntagmatic relationship with the VP “to understand” are paradigmatically associated. They have in common / humiliating /; / selfish / in the human society of the author. The repetition of the noun phrase “what?” would serve the same purpose as the four. It would have depicted the various selfish reasons for polygamous inclination which women vehemently oppose. However, the stylistic significance of the repetition is that it outlines these reasons so as to bring the message that women completely reject the cultural conceptualization of the polygamous nature of man since this is a clear indication of egocentricism.

With women’s determination to transcend the status quo, devotion to marriage is buried by divorce. They consider marriage as an option not a compulsion and loathe polygamy. “Mariama Ba does not give polygamy any chance. Her stance is- polygamy is a bane of marital bliss in the African culture” (Chukwuma, 212). To this, Femi Ojo-Ade (14) adds that polygamy underscores African savagery and men’s dehumanization of women. Aissatou, Ramatoulaye’s school friend demonstrates her contempt for polygamy by putting an end to her life with Mawdo Ba who defies her dignity by marring another woman merely to satisfy the wishes of his ageing mother. This boils Aissatou’s anger.
Princes master their feelings to fulfill their duties. ‘others’ bend their heads and, in silence, accept a destiny that oppresses them. That, briefly put, is the internal ordering of our society, with its absurd divisions. I will not yield to it. I cannot accept what you are offering me today in place of the happiness we once had. You want to draw a line between heartfelt love and physical love. I say that there can be no union of bodies without the hearts acceptance, however, little that may be. If I can procreate without loving, merely to stratify the pride of your declining mother, then I find you despicable… I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I got my way. (31-32).

For the modern woman, therefore, marriage should be a relationship that is based on equal partnership and love between men and women. If not so, it should e brought to an end.

Feminism generally deals with the theme of female subordination and its attendant invisibility. Women over the years have shown a marked resentment of the limitation and circumspection of their traditional roles which included finding mates and thereafter bearing children. Every other thing is secondary: education, a career, material wealth, social alaim. All these are subsumed in marriage and motherhood. The marriage system is not a partnership but unequal alliance where the wife is under pressure to prove her femininity through procreation. So in traditional Africa, procreation is the prime reason for a union of a man and a woman and the woman as the vessel is the core of procreation. Failure of this function is generally thought of as failure of the female, even though it could be traceable to the man. The pressures of procreation on the female do not end with fertility/fecundity but fecundity with the right sex aggregate. She is required to perpetuate her husband’s lineage with at least a male heir. With this, children become a woman’s asset in the home, her means of recognition and power. (Nnolim, 26).

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