Gender Roles: Women’s Authority

As mentioned in class, professor brought up the theme of gender roles. While this particular category is very general, I was most intrigued by the importance of the oracle’s priestess,Chielo. As Agbala’s oracle, Chielo singularly complicates the traditional woman’s role ( in this context) and stands as a possible commentary on how Achebe sees women.  

“Like a sharp knife cutting through the night,” Chielo’s voice startles Ekwefi. The use of the phrase “sharp knife cutting” seems like a very powerful image; one which might be associated with a male figure like Okonkwo. Since Achebe does a solid job in emphasizing Okonkwo’s love of violence, its interesting that this quote is describing Chielo’s voice, and not Okonkwo’s. Additionally, it sheds light on the instance in which Okonkwo begs Chielo to return at a later time to retrieve Ezinma. It doesn’t seem that Okonkwo’s nature would allow him to beg a woman for a favor. So then I wondered if maybe, that the description of Chieol’s voice in this passage is the reason Okonkwo yielded to a female. Is it in the masculinity of that description that lies the answer?

Since Chielo is the oracle to a masculine god, is that the reason Okonkwo acquiesces to her request, despite his love for his daughter? Is it because he believes Ezinma should have been a boy that makes him love her so? Later in the passage, Ekwefi declares that she will come with Chielo and Ezinma to the cave; but, Chielo responds, “How dare you woman…lest he strike you with his anger. Bring me my daughter”! Is Chielo’s declaration meant to emphasize the difference between the devine Agbala and the lowly human; or is it to emphasize the fact that because Ekwefi is a woman, her determination to challenge the divine is even more audacious? Further analyzing the phrasing of this quote, it seems rather peculiar that Chielo who is a woman, addresses Ekwefi in this manner. When Chielo decides to carry Ezinma to the cave on her back, she notes that “A baby on its mother’s back does not know that the way is long.” This is the first direct mention of a feminine characteristic regarding Chielo in this entire chapter (Ch:11). Ekwefi takes note of this and decides that it is miraculous for Chielo to carry Ezinma for that long. She clarifies her confusion by deciding that, “Chielo was not a woman that night.” These quotes signify that strength is associated with masculinity, while maternal attributes are intrinsic to femininity. Yet, when Chielo recognizes that carrying Ezinma will be a challenge, she attributes her ability to complete the task to her maternal (feminine) nature. It is possible Achebe is trying to say something about traditional gender roles. I think that these contradictions and Ekwefi’s determination to follow her daughter represent women’s strength. Maybe Achebe is trying to say that the strength of a mother’s love is comparable to the carnal strength of a man. Thoughts?


Posted on September 4, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Considering that we both wrote about the same passage, I’m inclined to elaborate on some of your ideas. Before I wrote my passage regarding Okonkwo’s fondness for Ezinma, I was considering to focus more on Ekwefi and her empowering behavior in Chapter 11 simply because this was the strongest depiction of a female character I saw throughout the novel. Her braveness was riveting, and the compromise that Okonkwo made with her (as a married couple) that evening was so memorable. Although children in Umuofia belong to men, Ezinma is as much Ekwefi’s as she is Okonkwo’s.

    On a different note, you made some intriguing points in regards to Chielo and her own vigor that evening, aspects of her character that I never considered. While Ekwefi showed undeniable strength, Chielo, too, was also a force to be reckoned with but not in a positive sense.

    Chielo shows up on the compound, galvanized with the spirit of Agbala, and Okonkwo tries to convince her to come back another time but to no prevail. Originally I interpreted his effort to make Chielo leave as a precaution for Ezinma’s safety, considering that she recently had iba. His adoration for Ezinma must have been so strong that he had the bravery (or audacity) to ask a spiritual figure of the community to leave. However, you bring up an interesting notion that Okonkwo could have seen the “masculine force” inside Chielo, and therefore surmounted to her authority. Perhaps as the oracle, Chielo is the only woman in the tribe who could take on such authority while other women are systematically domesticated. In the general sense, gender roles are typically cultural constructs, and it is these cultural creations that ultimately led to Okonkwo’s demise- the inability to embrace emotions.

    When I think about the spiritual beliefs of the Igbo, though, and consider the egwugwu, for example, or the potential wrath of Gods if austerity measures aren’t followed (like sacrifices) I believe that part of their role is to instill a sense of fear into people- the fear of consequences, the fear of retribution, etc. On page 92 we read that one of the egwugwu at the judicial ceremony “ran a few steps int the direction of the women; they all fled in terror, only to return to their places almost immediately.” We can also interpret a sense of fear on page 41 by the manner in which people respond with “Is that me?” when somebody calls their name. “They never answered yes for fear it might be an evil spirit calling.” Under the spiritual possession of Agbala, Chielo came across so strong that evening due to the ways in which she was instilling fear into Ekwefi, Ezinma, and let’s face it, Okonkwo. Does masculinity coincide with fear?

    Also, as a side note, I thought Agbala (the Earth Goddess) was a feminine god? After all, men who haven’t taken on a title (like Okonkwo’s father) are deemed as “agabala,” which comes off as an insult. Wouldn’t that be insulting to the goddess, though, to make a mockery of her? Why was it that Chielo was taking on male pronouns throughout the chapter? I found this confusing. Maybe you’re correct, but I always thought Agbala was associated with a female deity.

  2. I agree, that Achebe does show the comparison in strength between men and women revealing women do have qualities that are equal to men. Ekwefi, I think is the symbol of a mother who truly loves her child and wants the best for her daughter. Ekwefi and Enzima’s bond are shown through their secret meetings where Ekwefi gives Enzima eggs. All of Ekwefi’s strength comes from her love for her child and how she teaches her to be strong emotionally and mentally. Okonkwo never learned how to be strong mentally because he carried the memory of his father on his shoulder to deter him from becoming lazy. Okonkwo only relies on physical strength to filter his problems possible cause for why he is so abusive. But Ekwefi has inner strength that proves to be move longlasting than physical strenght.In Chapter 14, Uchendu explains to Okonkwo why they call the land his motherland and the difference behind the phrase to fatherland. Uchendu says Nneka or “Mother is Supreme” to remind Okonkwo that a mother is significant in a child’s life and that a child will go back to his mother or motherland when he or she is in trouble.

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