When my father sees me reading Nivedita Menon’s Seeing Like a Feminist (2012), he makes a remark full of sarcastic disapproval. Menon, in her conclusion to the book says, “Feminism is not about that moment of final triumph, but about gradual transformation of the social field so decisively that old markers shift forever.” Perhaps it is this gradual shift that invokes such a reaction, one triggered by the possibility of a change they aren’t comfortable with.
Menon’s book is based on the premise that "‘woman’ is neither a stable nor a homogenous
category. This question of the entanglement of ‘gender’ with other identities arises in a variety of contexts globally.” Feminism then is an intersection of other identity struggles or movements– be it racism, casteism, classism, colonialism or any other ‘ism’ one can think of.
The place where female oppression and colonialism converge is the idea of “biological
determinism” about which Menon talks about, mentioning racism and casteism, and says,
“[both ideologies] are based on the assumption that certain groups of people are superior by birth…that justify their power in society.” Biological determinism has been a tool to legitimize female oppression perpetrated by patriarchal institutions. Emily Martin in her essay "The Egg and the Sperm" (1991) says that “biology relies on stereotypes central to our definitions of male and female.” This relationship between scientific vocabulary and cultural perceptions is a two-way road.
Talking of feminism and colonialism together, the starkest parallels that become visible are the way the colonized are euphemistic to femininity and the colonizers to the hetero-patriarchal structures, which I will look at through The Book of Secrets by M.G. Vassanji (1994), a diasporan account of colonial Africa from an Indian perspective, one that lies on the premise of colonization and its markers.
Africa is clearly a heterogeneous land, with a rich history of diaspora and settlement. Yet, when you see it from the colonial gaze, it seems that Africa is ahistoric. The colonizers seem to deem themselves responsible for the formation and civilization of this land. Africa is constantly compared with the Western world (“Venice has its gondola, London its cab, and Mombasa has its gharry…”). This gaze tells us how the Western world constantly sees Africa as a “savage, foreign land”, and is in constant anxiety of how it might make them “lose their minds”. Despite clear indication that Africa had settlement and civilization before the arrival of the colonizers, the colonial gaze maintains, quite subtly, that then history of Africa began with their coming. This ignorance, at large is indicator of the colonial westernization.
It is in these descriptions that one finds metaphors entangled with feminine overtones. Africa is feminized as a space; the figure of Mariamu in the novel becomes an allegorical figure for Africa. Alfred Corbin, whose diary is the titular “book of secrets” in the novel, saves Mariamu from an exorcism and becomes quite infatuated with her and for a brief time, Mariamu nurses him when he gets sick with a blackwater fever. He is Mariamu’s savior, and during their acquaintance, takes up the paternalistic role of “guiding and disciplining” a savage land.
The ideas of colonization are rooted in the deeply patriarchal idea of mastery of and
penetration into a “virgin” or untouched land. Colonization is hence connected deeply to
patriarchy, and Africa becomes a feminine space that is being taken over and “tamed” by the colonizers. Specifically the character of Mariamu becomes a marker for the land of Africa itself– also visible in the way both the space of Africa, and the figure of women (Mariamu and Rita) are seen as in the book: like sirens, that suck you in; that call out to you and compel you to look.
The word ‘siren’ here doesn’t hold the mere meanings of sexual appeal as the postcolonial
slang does; the word here borrows from a long, patriarchal history of beautiful women
“destroying” men. This stands in contrast to the ways Africa was described by the colonizers in the book – Maynard says in the novel, “This [Africa] is a savage country, and it could turn you into a savage. It is so easy to be overcome by its savagery, to lose one’s veneer of Western civilization. This is what I’ve learned, what I dread most.” 3 The land is said to do the western colonizer what the woman is said to do to man. The colonizer/patriarch parallel here draws two distinctions: the controllers and the controlled. In the case of colonization, it is the Whites who are the controllers and the Blacks who are controlled; in the case of patriarchy, the roles are held by men and women respectively. Alison Toron (2009) in her essay says, “…Mariamu serves symbolic purposes in the text while also functioning as the key locus around which gendered power relations operate. By using a female character as an allegory for Africa, Vassanji panders to traditional colonial discourses that view the land as a feminine entity to be penetrated and conquered…”.
In her essay she also references Amin Malak, who grants Mariamu central importance in the text by referring to her as “the novel’s pivotal point” but restricted his interpretation by his inability to see her as anything beyond an “enchanting, enigmatic figure” who is “rescue[d]” from a “harrowing exorcism” by Corbin.
Another way in which this intersection is visible in the novel is through the perceptions of a pre-colonial (metaphorically virgin) Africa being described as “ahistoric”. The colonizers seem to deem themselves responsible for the formation and civilization of this land. Parallel to this, Mariamu’s husband Pipa’s reaction to the possibility that Mariamu is not a virgin – not
untouched. He rages, then eventually settles into his marriage by sweeping the fact under the rug. Just like Africa’s pre-colonial identity didn’t exist, Pipa ignored the idea that Mariamu could not be a virgin – both have the same patriarchal-colonizer gaze of a controller, becoming the figures that “tamed” and “penetrated” the woman and the land. Mariamu is raped in the novel, which becomes the point of literal control on her femininity, the starkest reminder of colonialism – an attack on female autonomy and bodily integrity, and that of the colonized land.
Colonialism isn’t patriarchy, however, just like woman isn’t land. Mariamu is allegorical to
colonial ‘penetration’ but it is also fetishized by the male colonial subject as Pipa places himself in power – tonight I’ll be the teacher.
Anne McClintock says “within patriarchal narratives, to be virgin is to be empty of desire and
void of sexual agency, passively awaiting the thrusting, male insemination of history, language, and reason” thereby highlighting the important consideration that sexuality is both a metaphor and a reality in colonial history.
Martin’s idea of biology and culture here becomes important to think of – the way the egg and the sperm are described are similar to these ideas of colonization and patriarchy. The sperm “penetrates” the egg and the egg is acted upon, they can “burrow through the egg coat”– a vocabulary commonplace for patriarchy/colonization.
Vassanji, however, works cleverly around the image of Mariamu becoming the marker for Africa. For instance, Mariamu approaches Corbin with food, making her the agent beginning their relationship. There’s also the ambiguity of whether or not Mariamu was a virgin, if she had sex with Corbin and if yes, was it consensual?
Mariamu’s silences in the face of infidelity accusations by Pipa and her communal exorcism
may be the muteness of the oppressed, or it may just be that she lacks the vocabulary for
subaltern speak in a patriarchal colony. Important here could be Mariamu’s introduction –
“stood tall, her red pachedi having fallen on her shoulders, revealing her long thick black hair, her eyes dark and deep—a vagrant with the bearing of a queen, as she refused to turn away a second time.”
Menon mentions “Individuation…the process of recognizing oneself as primarily an individual – is always an on-going process…” which is characteristic to Mariamu. Her identity is an intersection of patriarchy and colonialism, but whether it is that of complete oppression or has some agency is one that can be debated. It is Vassanji’s refusal to make Mariamu the centre of the novel that separates these two from becoming a single identity.
Menon says, “…women are nurturing, women want peace…women can be combatants, they
can be violent…just like men, they too can have a range of motivations.” This becomes
important talking about the entanglement of colonialism and female oppression as a marker of the post-colonial spirit and of feminism – how the revolution continues still.
Martin, Emily. "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles." Signs, 1991: 485-501.
McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 1995.
Menon, Nivedita. Seeing Like a Feminist. Zubaan; Penguin Books, 2012.
Rhodes, Shane. "Frontier Fiction: Reading Books in M.G Vassanji's "The Book of Secrets"." Ariel: A Review of International English Literature , 1998: 179-191.
Toron, Alison. "Refusing to Tell: Gender, Postcolonialism, and Withholding in M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets." Postcolonial Text, 2009: 1-15.
Vassanji, M.G. The Book of Secrets. Emblem Editions, 1994.