The status of women in Muslim religion revealed by cultural die-hards, and the mother-in-law!
Mariama Bâ towers in French Literature; she could have borrowed some salt from (LSS) Leopold Sedar Senghor, when her father worked for his government as a minister for health. While LSS glorified Mother Africa’s past through his Negritude literary movement, Bâ highlighted on the disparity the woman felt in general and as a mother in particular because of patriarchy and religion—Islam for her case—in this self-same society. Her work portrays women of Africa as resilient and proves that this grandmother, this mother, this sister, this daughter, this cousin and this friend is the “mother of Africa” and that she is essential to the very society that is busy alienating her.
In childhood, she was raised by her extended family, and had to struggle to get an education, like most girl children in Africa. Later in her life, her first hand brush with this traditional inequality is seen through her disastrous marriage to an MP and ended in a divorce and the experience found a vent in her ‘So Long a Letter’, what Abiola Irele referred to as ‘the most deeply felt presentation of the female condition in African fiction’. But even then, that was a poor transposition of the length the society has misplaced the woman.
And this is the scenario that gave birth to ‘Scarlet Song’, which depicts the hurdles a woman meets first as a result of a youthful lust, and later after her marriage to a man who leaves her for a younger ‘traditional and beautiful’ woman. Mireille, daughter of a French diplomat, secretly marries Ousmane, a son of a poor Senegalese Muslim family. He goes through a transformation, in Dakar to Paris, and back Dakar to embrace his roots, traditions and customs of his ‘elders’. As an Occidental, his White wife is unable to adjust and fit in easily with this lifestyle, and it gets worse when his ‘Liberal’ husband takes another wife, a veritable killer in her marriage.
It’s an ingredient of conflict and this is what Bâ , ‘a modern Muslim woman’, ridicules—despotism, chauvinism and ‘dying’ tradition, at the same time develops the anguish brought by cross-cultural marriages.
It’s a work that not only explores incompatible culture clash but also with the woman on the losing end. Their initial idyll liaison to survive against odds is shattered by the realities on the ground and climaxes with a marriage that distresses and depresses both sets of parents. And sooner than later, it’s apparent that their Romeo and Juliet escapades and romance is ‘a poor defense against the pressures of society’. Ousmane is enticed back to his roots, while Mireille is left disgraced, lonely ‘with her exquisite bathroom and expensive toiletries’.
She’s a resilient tigress and bent on saving her marriage against all odds and family and cultural bigotry. This is where the book delves deep into the significantly pressing need for women to create empowerment to dispel titles that define them and disprove the clichés of being referred to as ‘weaker sex’, and societal scapegoats but like tigresses, should pounce as Soyinka said. But Bâ’s misanthropy swings in action when things must nose-dive and plunge into an abysmal moral decay and previously deeply held beliefs confronted after we tread the road to the other side of society where absurdity lurks and enables us to consider critically sensitive issues of race, intolerance, matrimony, loyalty, and tradition into the bargain.
Their story-book romance is unable to survive ‘ruthless’ traditions and expectations of her in-laws and the general relations of the extended family. The mother- in-law, true to her Mrs. Grundy prudery, mocks her and calls her a jinni that has bewitched her son. Ousmane, now a former self, after being hen-pecked by his mother, slowly reverts into his cultural cocoon, deserting his wife for his childhood secret crush, Ouleymatou, who had despised his advances when they were young, for the young Ousmane, ‘smelled fish’ and was a ‘mama’s boy’. This is where tradition kicks in and turns a blind eye, even with his religious father and blesses the illicit union because they couldn’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Mireille hopes to have a moment of ‘reculer pour sauter mieux’ in her bid to avenge herself, but only suffers a mental breakdown.