By Alem Hailu
As I promised to shift focus from the New Criticism to Feminist Criticism, here I have come up with one work. But first to get on the same page let us see the theoretical aspect from ‘Literary Criticism Today’ By Lois Tyson
In the broadest sense feminist criticism examines the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) underpin or undermine the economic, political, social and psychological subjugation of women. Some feminists call their field feminism in order to underline the multiplicity of points of view of its advocates and offer ways of thinking that oppose the traditional tendency to believe there is a single best point of view.
“Yet many of us who are new to the study of feminist theory, both male and female, have decide ahead of time that we are not feminist because we don’t share whatever feminist point of view we have found the most objectionable. In other words even before to the theory classroom…. on that basis, we have rejected it. This attitude reveals, I think, the oversimplified, negative view of feminism that still persists …for it is from the culture at large—the home the workplace, the media, and so on—that we have gathered the anti-feminist bias we bring into the classroom.”(Tyson:1999)
To see how this negative oversimplification works to blind us to the seriousness of the issue feminism raise, let us see one of the most criticized feminist claims “We shouldn’t use the masculine pronoun ‘he’ to represent both men and women. We can use s/he,she/he or the plural pronoun ‘they’ .Many people see this claim as trivial or even infantile, nature of feminist demands. For many feminists, however, the use of the pronoun ‘he’ to refer to members of both sexes reflects and perpetuates a ‘habit of seeing’ as way of looking life,that uses male experience as the standard by which the experience of both sex is evaluated. In other words, although the “inclusive he” claims to represent both men and women, in reality it is part of a deeply-rooted cultural attitude that ignores women’s experiences and blinds us to women’s point of view. The damaging effect of all this attitude could be seen in a number of areas.
For example, before the centuries- old struggle for women’s equality finally emerged in literary studies in the late’s 1960s,the literary works of(White) male authors describing experience from a (white) male point of view was considered the standard of universality—that is, representatives of all the experiences of all readers—and universality was considered a major criterion of greatness .Because the works of(white) female authors(and all authors of color) don’t describe experience from a(white) male point of view, they were not considered universal and didn’t become part of the literary canon. Opposing this trend is referred firing the canon.
“It is interesting to note that popularity was not necessarily considered evidence of universality, for many women writers who enjoyed widespread fame during their lives were not canonized in literary histories, which focused primarily on male writers. Of course those holding up this standard of greatness didn’t believe they were being unfairly discriminatory, they simply believed that they were rejecting literary texts that were not universal, that were not great.
Even today there is a tendency to under represent the contribution of women writers.
Similarly in most Hollywood films, even today, the camera eye (the point of view from which the film is shot) is male the female character not the male, are the objects gazed upon by the camera and often eroticized as if a male eye were viewing them, as if the point of view of the ‘universal’ movie- goer were male .
Perhaps the most chilling example of the damaging effect of this ‘habit of seeing’ is found in modern medicine where drugs prescribed for both often have been tested on male subjects only. Surely, the cultural habit of seeing male experience as universal played a role. Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive, they cast women as emotional (irrational),weak,nurturing,and submissive.’’ (Tyson:1999)
Tyson further notes if a woman accepts her traditional gender role and obeys the patriarchal rule she is a ‘good girl!’ if she doesn’t, she is a ‘bad girl’ these two roles view women only in terms of how they relate to the patriarchal order. Patriarchal ideology works to keep women and men in traditional gender roles and thereby maintain male dominance. In every domain where patriarchy reigns, woman is other, she is marginalized, defined only by her difference from male norms and values, which means defined by what she (allegedly) lacks that men(allegedly)have.
While biology determines our sex (male or female) culture determines our gender (masculine or feminine).In fact, all the traits we associate with masculine and feminine behavior are learned, not inborn. All feminist activity, including feminist theory and literary criticism, has as its ultimate goal to change the world by promoting gender equality.
Gender issues play a part in every aspect of human production and experience, including the production and experience of literature, whether we are consciously aware of the issue or not. Of course, the assumption listed above are related overlapping ideas, and, together, they imply that patriarchal ideology has a pervasive ,deeply rooted influence on the way we think ,speak, see ourselves and view the world in which we live.
Let us see some questions Feminist Critics ask about Literary texts
Tyson Summarizes the questions as follows what does the work reveal about the operation (economically, politically, socially or psychologically)of patriarchy? How are women portrayed? How do these portrayals relate to the gender issue of the period in which the literary piece was written or set? In other words does the work reinforce or undermine patriarchal ideology. In the first case we might say the text has a patriarchal agenda. In the second case we might say that the text has a feminist agenda. Texts that seem to both reinforce and undermine patriarchal ideology might be said to be ideologically conflicted.
What does the work imply about sisterhood as a mode of resisting patriarchy? What does the work suggest about the ways in which race, class and/or other cultural factors intersect in gender in reproducing women’s experience. What does the work suggest about women’s creativity? In order to answer this question, biographical data about the author and historical data about the culture in which she lived is required.
What might an examination of the author’s style contribute to the ongoing effort to delineate a specifically feminine form of writing (ecriture feminine)?
What does the history of the work’s reception by the public and by the critics tell us about the operation of patriarchy? Has the literary work been ignored or neglected in the past? Why? Or, if recognized in the past, is the work ignored or neglected now. What role does the work play in terms of women literary history and literary tradition.
In the patriarchal mode of thinking women are expected to strictly observe duties and responsibilities while men enjoy an ample latitude of freedom. And as such in literary works authors often punish women that goes astray leaving the man that erred scout free. For instance in Tolstoy’s masterpiece ‘Anna Karenina’ take the protagonist Anna and her brother. Though both proved guilty of extra marital affair it was only Anna that suffered the punitive measure of the author.
Works done by men author were considered as the standard ones having a universal significance and as such women’s works despite their popularity and merit were not given due attention.
Now much said about the fundamentals of feminist criticism, let us see ‘The Ribbon of the Heart’, a book bearing 27 English poems. It is co-authored by Lulit Kebede and Wessen Mulatu in 2004 G.C. As the book,among others, lends itself well to Feminist literary criticism let us see it via this lens.
In the poem ‘He’ (P8) Wessen draws attention to the irresponsible act of narcissist men that drown themselves in liquor at the cost of harm to their wives and family members. Aside from the financial loss the family incurs the wives,forced to sit idle past midnight and open door for their topper husbands, suffer psychological crisis. Sadly such men are condoned by the society. From this poem one could learn the economical and psychological oppression women suffer. Imagine what will happen had the husband and wife exchanged position–if she takes the night out at bars while he waits for her home. Ridiculing such bent of irresponsible men Wessen undermines the patriarchal ideology. See the extract below
//He has been drinking all night
With the so- called friends
Who wouldn’t turn their back
Till he runs out of buck
To alcohol and cigarette
To every women
In the famous bar
“What would you like to drink Sir?”
Asked the bartender
Poured him a glass of whiskey
And turned on the melody
Not sure of his horrifying life
Not sure of his demanding wife //
In her poem ‘I’ (P18) Lulit strengthens the issue Wessen raised above exposing the culture imposed slavish obedience expected from wives. Laying bare such tendency emasculates women’s self expression, she attacks the patriarchal order. Let us see some extracts.
//Am I my shadow
Am I your shadow
Am I your disciple
Taking your word as a bible
Doubting myself,nor reliable
I know my inside cries out loud
Waiting to be heard
Eager to reveal the unrevealed
But how do I know
While I’m busy ploughing your meadow //
It is a foregone conclusion that looking after off-springs is the responsibility of parents . Children also seek to grow up under the wings of their parents. Lulit’s poem ‘My Guardians’ (P28) drives this fact home. Let us see extracts
//I cry a smile of grace
When I feel your breath
I call you my angles
Shield me to unseen the darkness//
But when unwanted pregnancies surface or financial crisis hit most of the time it turns the responsibility of women to look after children. In her poem ‘Humble Spirit’ (P12 ) Lulit paints a woman from the lower class on whose lot such a tragedy has fallen. Let have a look at excerpts from the poem.
To win her daily bread
Shaking from the unbearable cold
Crying out loud
(In the name of Holy Virgin)
(I am hungry MaMa)
(My dinner please)//
In this poem true to the feminist agenda of sisterhood the persona in the poem smote by pity and lamenting her inability to be of much help shoves a coin into the destitute mother begging for alms saddled with the responsibility of feeding two mouths.
Shoving a penny reluctantly
Lulit had crafted another poem ‘Mother to a Child ‘ (P22) on the tenderness of women! In this poem she shows how caring the fair-sex are to children. It throws light how it feels like being a mother.
//The sight of your little face
Covered in blanket,avoiding the haze
Rhythm from your smooth breath
Swallowed in the pillow of faith
The beat of your heart
Drumming with mine but apart
Kept me alive
Makes me dive
In the bed of life
Protecting you from the cold which cuts like knife
The smile,the laughter,the funny noise we share
Leaves me with bliss knowing that I care //
Financial hurdles and the responsibility of looking after their subjects –children– are the factors that push women to do things against their interest. And as such they get exposed to works hazardous to their health or well-being such as commercial sex work. In her poem ‘Proud Ethiopian’ (P36) Wossen spotlights this sad episode. Here is the extract
//But my women are spread on the streets
Selling beauty in dollars//
If economically empowered or assisted by their male counterpart such women are willing to extricate themselves from such twists of fate. Wessen’s poem ‘Tonight’ (P52) throws light on this fact. See the extract.
//Hope you’ll hold her tight
And tell her it’s alright
Hope you will kiss her cheeks
And solve her puzzles
Hope you’ll stand by her side
And protect her from the cold
Hope you will not abuse her beauty
And leave her for the hungry
Hope you’ll dry her tears fast
And make her forget the past.//
In the past,specially here in Ethiopia, it was not usual for women to express the romantic feelings they entertain towards the menfolk and as such readers used to enjoy romance packed poems crafted only from men’s point of view. Dramas were also staged as though women were the only objects of love or as if women were incapable of entertaining a feeling of love towards a member of the opposite sex. In her poem ‘In the Library'(P20) Lulit draws readers attention to such type of feelings– a girl who became subject to a sight love in the library. Though no women poet or author dared to bring it out to the glare of print, specially among university students, such a thing does no longer seems an uncommon phenomena.
Firm and strong hands
Tightly holding the books
Ren-dez-vous with the eyes
Breaking the rules completely
Captured to the forsaken beauty
In front of me…//
In the same wavelength, Wessen, in her poem ‘The Game’ (P50), depicts a record moment of happiness and the joyful occasion of life.
You wouldn’t want to last
You have no control over
Driving your mind with emotion
Driving your body with stimulation
To the point of no return
Lulit’s poem ‘Tears of Happiness’ (P46) seems to carry across the same message. She hints on the eyeopener experience.
Breathless is the heart
Letting her dance
While making an entrance
Soft is the touch
Smile, a silent
From with in
From the heart
Making us see things from a woman’s point of view Lulit and Wessen have adopted a unique style of crafting poems –ecriture feminine.
Aside from upholding feminist agenda ‘Ribbon of the Heart’ exposes and attacks the patriarchal line of thinking. However Wessen’s poem ‘Woman’ (P60) that paints the fair-sex as exquisite creatures,though a superb literary piece, it seems a bit ideologically conflicted as it, at the closing lines, true to the patriarchal mode of thinking put women emotional(irrational) beings. Both authors,who were youngsters when the book was published in 2004G.C,are recovering patriarchal women as they, like many of us here, grew up taking the traditional gender role for-granted. Here it must be known unless feeling is suppressed by cultural programming men too could be emotional.
Similarly in her poem ‘Ms. Perfect’ (P24) Wessen paints a decent girl most sought after by men, looking for a spouse. Such a girl is a girl referred ‘the good girl’ in the patriarchal thinking.
//Hoping to get Ms. Perfect
He has gone through a lot
In big novels and movies
Do you question like him her very existence?
To find the passionate
Gentle and who truly cares
Faithful now and always.//
Here the question worth raising is ‘Is it Mr. Wrong looking For Ms. Perfect?’
Likewise in her poem ‘New Generation'(P32) about a nationalist sentiment and the need for internal beauty Lulit on her part paints ‘the bad girl’
//Every heart melts
When she smiles
Snow white is her teeth
Lips like a red rose
With an alluring fragrance
From early spring fields
Silk is her hair
Galloping like a wild horse
Blowing over her dancing eyes
With a mind so empty
Imitating alien personality
Forgetting her nationality
Abused they say
With no performed duty
Just a cover only pretty//
What about ‘bad boys’ that shedding off their national identity that imbibe the foreign ones. Such boys,like the girls that solely worry about their beauty, need be ridiculed too. To avoid ideological conflict Lulit and Wessen need have ridiculed moral decadence on the part of both sexs.
In her poem ‘New Generation’, promoting the feminist agenda, Lulit underscores women’s role in changing the universe through creativity. See the extract below.
//Where is she to share her difference
To change the universe
To make it a better place?//
In her poem the ‘Truth’ (P54) Wessen amplifies the need for women’s (hers) creativity. Here the point she drives home is God has endowed the woman folk with brain and tapping it they have to come up with something worth while– a literary product like ‘Ribbon of the Heart’.
//’What is your share to the world?’
I looked everywhere
And found the treasure
Hidden in my mind
Ready to explode
Marked with a special ink.//
Its is from this sentiment the book derived its title.See the poem ‘Ribbon of the Heart’
//Ribbon of the heart
Full of wisdom
The book is a literary work that challenges patriarch, deeply entrenched in the mentality of citizens and that still perpetuates the wrong sentiment intentionally or otherwise.
True to their claim at the back of the book, Lulit and Wessen have proved ‘Birds out of cage!
Appreciation is due to these birds. Is it out of patriarchal mode of thinking the book has not enjoyed the attention it deserves or is it because it is written in English? We expect the poets poem or article contribution to the art and culture column of the Ethiopian Herald
Once I remember seeing poems by women poets across the globe compiled in a book, sponsored by proponents of feminist. I felt terrible for no Ethiopian poet was represented. Lulit and Wessen as well as some other women poets who have a good command of the English language and whom I will introduce in the future will hopefully be our ambassadors. Translating the poem of women poets(with no less attention to the male ones) must be made a point too.
This much said about the feminist aspect I would like to throw light on the theme of some of the poems in ribbon of the heart: Love that transcends skin color,people with double face,people who nag others till they meet their ends, complacent reliving the glorious past and being a nationalist bombast despite the demanding situation in Ethiopia today as well as the beauty of the life of citizens that lead an original life style in far of beyond among others. After treating additional books or poems in feminist or new criticism way I will shift focus toMarxist critical approach in my next works.