Limits Of A Woman

’s Place: Fantasia And So Long A Letter Essay, Research Paper

Elizabeth Chang

English 121E

December 2, 2000

Limits of a Women’s Place.

Throughout history women have always had to stand behind their men (whether it be rules, tradition, etc.). In almost every history context, whether it about wars or people, they have almost been written by men for men. It is not even until this century that women in this country have gained new grounds for the equality that we hope will be as substantial with men’s equality. Despite women’s hopes for equality, there is always old traditions that are so hard to be break that they sometimes keep women in inferior positions. In these two novels, Fantasia and So Long a Letter ,we will explore how the women in these novels deal with modernity and the ways in which it conflicts with some of the traditions of their society.

In So Long a Letter, the main character of the novel, Ramatoulaye is coming to grips of the hardships placed upon her when her husband takes on a second wife. In Ramatoulaye’s case, we see her conflicting emotions for she considers herself a feminist modern woman, however she is still somewhat submissive to the ways of tradition. She ponders on the alternatives, yet she comes to one conclusion, to stay with her husband. Her marriage paralleled that of her good friend’s Aissatou, however Aissatou was able to forge ahead with a new life that did not involve polygamy. Armed with her education and her strong will, Aissatou did not let tradition or fear sustain her in a relationship that she deemed degrading. Aissatou is the embodiment of all the hopes that Ramatoulaye and Aissatou had when they were young, to become strong independent women who would hold their heads up high in times of hardship. Ramatoulaye is envious of her friend Aissatou who is able to cut all string of love, attachment, and fear and move onto a new life (one that is not tainted with betrayal or deceit by one’s husband). In Ramatoulaye’s letters, we wonder is there is a hint of jealousy? Or resentment at the fact that Aissatou was able to move on and Ramatoulaye wasn’t? Some type of underlying ill is conveyed when Ramatoulaye mentions to Aissatou that she knew her friend’s husband had acquired a second wife when Aissatou herself didn’t. Ramatoulaye will soon find herself in the same predicament as her friend. She cannot move on, although this second marriage pains her and she remains lonely while reminiscing of what love their used to be. It is supposed to be Ramatoulaye’s education and liberal mind that is supposed to prevent the abuses of the old traditions but when she is placed in that situation, she feel helpless because she divorce her husband. She is sanctioned by her feelings, insecurities, and the conditions of her family (she has 12 kids). Her liberal attitude is defeated by that of tradition, she will reluctantly stay with her man. Ramatoulaye writes, “to think I loved this man passionately, to think that I have him thirty years of my life, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else he dared commit such an act of disavowal.” and her bitterness is everlasting.

Ramatoulaye remains a liberal and open-minded person and when she comes across other hair-raising situations. She handles them with wisdom and sternness. When Ramatoulaye’s daughter, Aissatou, becomes pregnant, she does not shun her like tradition would dictate. Ramatoulaye “could not abandon Aissatou as pride would have ‘her’ do for ‘Aissatou’s’ life and future were at stake, and these were all powerful considerations, overriding taboo and assuming greater importance in ‘her’ mind and heart”. Here and throughout other parts in the novel, Ramatoulaye transcends above all that is petty and she seems to be like a wise woman, dignified, and independent. Her self-assurance and confidences is shown when Modou’s brother proclaims that he would like to take on Ramatoulaye as a wife. Ramatoulaye explodes and laments that she is “not like a piece of currency that can be exchanged.” Here she breaks tradition and holds her head up high, she will not marry Modou’s brother because she does not love him nor does she approve of the way he treats his other wives. When another love from the past comes and proclaims his love to her, she also denies the marriage proposal. She does not want to marry him and have his first wife feel the hurt that she felt. Though marrying him would mean security to her family of twelve.

Another generation of friends that choose different paths is between Binetou and Ramatoulaye’s daughter Daba. When Ramatoulaye hears about Binetou’s “sugar daddy” she tells Daba to encourage her friend to continue her education to enlighten herself. Yet she does not know that this quiet girl would soon become her rival. Binetou is the tragedy figure in this novel. Although the reader might have an instant dislike for Binetou (being the home wrecker) when one looks deeper into this situation, one cannot help but feel sorry for her. She is chained down by tradition, even though she has the opportunity to grasp the modern world and the freedom that comes with it (education, self-reliance). Although she is educated she falls victim to the whims of her family. She is forced to give up most of the carelessness that accompanies youth because tradition holds that she has obligations to her mother to marry a wealthy man that will provide security to bring them out of their poverty. In exchange for the luxuries (villa, trip to Mecca for her parents) that are the rewards for this marriage she sacrifices her own dreams of finding a man that she really loves. When Binetou goes clubbing with Modou, she can’t help but notice the other younger couples that are actually in love. She is trapped in a marriage for a man that she does not love. Her contempt for Modou is evident in the way that she “daringly” describes her new love to Daba by calling him “sugar daddy” and “pot belly”. She is a victim of tradition and her own family’s greed.

Daba is a good representative of her mother’s daughter. She holds the same liberal attitude and is thoroughly disgusted when her father takes on a second wife. It is through her, where Ramatoulaye can vicariously seek silent revenge (although she might not outright approve of Daba’s actions). Daba goes to the club where her father and new wife go and looks at them haughtily and with disgust. When she becomes the heir of father’s villa, she tells Binetou and her family to move out without any pity, unmerciless at the fact that they were the family that broke her parents up. She finds a relationship that her mother yearns for. When Ramatoulaye tells Daba’s husband that “he spoils her wife”, Daba’s husband replies, “Daba is my wife not my servant”. It is through her first daughter, where Ramatoulaye’s hopes as young girl will go on, for she has the same idealist beliefs as her mother and tries to stay true to them. She represents another generation of woman who is strong willed and independent, revoking any traditions that they feel depreciate their own value.

Throughout this novel, there is such a battle of the old and the new. This story is about how women affect each other’s life and how some are hindered to move forward because they are inherently bound by traditions that devalue women. Ramatoulaye’s writing best sums up the conflicting scenario, “ Now our society is shaken to its foundations, torn between the attraction of important vices and fierce resistance of old virtues”.

In the novel Fantasia, the author deals with the quandaries of a modern woman in a still male dominated society. Not only does she express her own discomforts, she tells stories of her less fortunate female counterparts who are still veiled and sanctioned to follow the strict rules of the old tradition.

The learning of French offers the author boundless freedoms. She can move freely (without a veil) and is able to wander the streets. Her female relatives cannot leave the house unveiled or with the complete freedom that she has. French also changes the relationships of those around her. She writes of the changing relationships between her mother and father because of the French language. After her mother has started learning some French she starts calling her father by his name. In Algerian society females must refer to their husbands in the third person. She breaks this taboo in front of the other women and they are astonished. Her mother seems to be getting a thrill of breaking from old traditions, as if she was somewhat privileged by the learning of French and wants to show off her new freedom to her still restricted family members. The author’s father also writes a letter to her mother. Tradition also dictates, that men should not write letters to their wives, least another male reads it. This letter is also shown to the envy of other women. Thus, we see the relationship of her parents transcend unto another level that surpasses the restrictions of custom. In this novel, the author also tells the story of others who try to break and deviate from tradition. When the author was younger, she was a good friend to some little girls. These girls also used French to offer them a breakage from the boredom and restrictions of their current situation. French allowed these girls to escape the drudgery of confinement at home. They accomplished this by writing love letters in French to their Islamic male counterparts. By writing these letters, the girls allow themselves to have fantasy love affairs. They can dream of a world, where customs and restrictions cannot touch them. With the ability to read and write French, the girls are able to break from their monotonous routines. Their breaking of rules (their parents would not approve) is probably due to the fact that they cannot choose their own husband and this fact adds an extra thrill for in French they can “write and dream” about whoever pleases them. Even at this early age, we’re able to see the strict restrictions on women met with a silent resistance. One of the little girls laments “ I’ll never let them marry me off to a stranger, who in one night will have the right to touch me.” By writing these letters, these girls are able to dream of actually falling in love and choosing their own mates instead of the customary arranged marriages.

These attempts to escape their future reality are pretty much useless. These girls know that they will be doomed to stay indoors and veiled, just like their mothers and grandmothers. It is a way of custom and it is the powerful taboos that are so difficult to escape from. As a child the author watches in awe and amazement as the older women go about with their ritualistic ceremonies, chants, and stories. Because of women’s restrictions to home, it is in the interior that they’re able to escape from the limitations placed upon them. It is through “their chants that [these women] are able to go free and let their sorrows of being confined be expressed.” In the Algerian culture, it is males who can go in and out as he pleases. But for the females, their place is indoors. It is only in the confines of the home where the females can go about freely (telling stories, dancing and laughing). When females are in public they must always remained veiled and has a solemn prose. They are backdrops in a male dominated world, unable to speak freely, do freely, nor live freely. In the indoor, it is the older women whom always seem to have the most rights to express themselves. It is probably because these aged ladies, after so many long years of entrapment have been granted that right. It is kind of a privilege for these ladies for enduring so many years of confinement. The author makes it clear of the dominated matricahy by writing of her childhood where she witnesses that “matrons take their place… age takes precedence over fortune… while younger women… are seated ill at ease (and barely talking)… while the loud voices of the oldest women- a merry laugh, a chuckle, then a suggestion of an obscene joke ring out.” These gathering of women allow them to bond and maybe to offer them solace that other women are in the same predicament as them “trapped in a web of impossible revolt.” They must always live their lives as shadows, never to be fully seen or heard. These feelings of repression need an outlet and it is at home where these deprived women have that audience. This is where someone will listen and watch. As a young child, the author and her cousin are “tense with anticipation as they watch her grandmother, the matricah [who] normally never complained; but this extravagant or derisory ceremonial, which she regularly organized, was her way of protesting. Against whom? But when she danced she became queen of the city. She drew her daily strength before our very eyes”. With the power of the indoors, these women who seem so calm and serene in front of their male counterparts are able to let go. The express themselves in which they cannot do in the outside world. .

These restrictions placed on the women folk let the author realize just how lucky she is. With the learning of French she is offered a ways out of her traditional prison. She can move in out wherever she pleases, she can cross the well-marked borders of the women’s realm (indoors) into the males (outside). This freedom that accompanies French has her feeling uneasy. The author is in a state of limbo, she feels certain closeness with the old traditions and with the learning of French, she knows she can never return to the old ways. She knows that it is her “father’s presence that [has decided for her]; light before darkness. [She] does not realize that an irrevocable choice has been made; the outdoors and the risk, instead of prison of my peers. This stroke of luck brings [her] to the verge of a breakdown.” She does feels a sense of guilt as to “why it is her and her alone out of all [her] tribe that she has this opportunity”. To explain her situation through a metaphor would be like someone having all these delicious foods to eat and beautiful clothes to wear while their loved ones stare at them starving and dressed in rags. The author would like to share this freedom to her female counterparts, but this is impossible, the trenches of taboo are to thick and unbreakable. She realizes that if it were not for her father’s liberated mind she would have an entirely different lifestyle. She knows that her freedom is at the whims of the male figure. She tells of fellow student, a baker’s daughter, who used to go to French school with her but was” withdrawn overnight from school… [Because] of the emergence of her women’s personality transformed her into an incarcerated body.” She knows she could have been that girl, her freedom shrouded forever in the restrictions of a veil.

Because she lives in a different world than other females in their culture, she must sometimes defend her freedom. There is slight uncomfortable feeling when she encounters a female patron who asks haughtily why a girl her age is not covered up. It is her mother who defends her, “she goes to the French school”. She is the privileged one and her uniqueness is for all to see. She does not have to cover up her face, she does not have to adhere to the same traditions as other women, but yet she is not entirely comfortable with being this liberated woman. There is no one to turn to when she has feelings of not belonging. Her mind is that of the French person’s but her heart is with the Muslim customs. She knows however that by learning French, she is somewhat breaking ties with the old traditions and ways “speaking at oneself in a language other than that of elders is to unveil oneself, not only to emerge form childhood but to leave it, never to return”. Her French, assures her that she will never return to the practices that she has grown up with, but she is having a difficult time withdrawing form her past. In a way learning, French is departing with her childhood, her memories of yesteryear of the women in the house and that of her ancestors. She knows she will never participate in those rituals and this leaves a somewhat somber goodbye to her childhood. However, she does not realize that by choosing to be a writer, she is somehow passing on that tradition of the past. She is retelling her stories just like how the women in the indoor tell others of their tales.

In this novel, the author also touches upon different historical narratives. One of them is that of Cherifa. Cherifa was just a child when she participated in the Revolution. As a child she had her strong will and one determination, to fight and overcome the power of the French. The ways she talked and moved around was that of a man and she had the courage of a man. For she didn’t succumb to all the ways of tradition. She was told she was going to be married, however she replied staunchly “no”. As a fighter, Cherifa was fearless, strong, and loyal to her cause,” I didn’t feel any fear: God made these Frenchmen seem like shadows in front of my eyes! And it was true, I would have preferred to die!” The ways in which she fought for the nationalistic cause was brave. One can imagine, that when this old lady was young she had the freedom that she probably now longs for. She could move, speak, and live how she pleased. However, this right was only under certain conditions, war conditions. During bad times, the men of Algeria allowed their women to have certain freedoms. They had to, for they needed to recruit the help of all Algerian to help them in their cause. However, as time passes these freedoms are revoked. The women are left veiled once again and domesticated to the indoor. We’re able to see that Cherifa’s freedom as a fighter has changed. As the Revolution has ended, she is no longer able to run around freely as a man. In old age “[Cherifa] is housebound, As she sets her voice free, she sets herself free again; what nostalgia will cause her voice to fail presently”.

Through these two novels, we’re able to see the quandaries that women must face when modernity and old customs come head to head. Both of these women remain brave and to try to sustain their new found freedoms, despite any difficult encounters. It is these women with their fierce ideals that would make them pioneers for all women liberation movements.


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