In today’s society, women are given the same privileges and respects as men. However, gender equality is a relatively new idea, and differs among various nations, cultures, and historical periods. In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe explores the controversy over women’s roles in the Nigerian society of the Ibo people. Achebe’s main character, Okonkwo, finds himself caught in the struggle between his own misogynistic views and the more complicated interpretations of femininity in his society. Although the women in Things Fall Apart seem to be an oppressed group with no power, the deep-rooted beliefs of the culture reveal an attitude of reverence and respect toward the female roles in Ibo society.
At first glance, the women of Umofia appear to be completely powerless. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo frequently subjugates the women in his life, beats his wives, and shows that he does not think very highly of the female gender. When a man contradicts him in a meeting, he snaps back saying, “this meeting is for men”, implying that in his mind being called a “woman” is a nasty insult. In fact, when Okonkwo feels guilty for killing his adopted son, he attributes his emotions to weakness that is typical of femininity and says to himself, “when did you become a shivering, old woman?” This shows that Okonkwo views women as incapable of so called “masculine” strengths and powers. Such gender stereotypes are perhaps shared by others in the Ibo society; nonetheless, a closer look reveals that the culture actually treasures the women in their world.
An excellent example of the value placed on women in the Ibo village is illustrated in the role they play in the culture’s religion. For instance, women routinely perform the role of a priestess. The narrator recalls that during Okonkwo’s boyhood, “the priestess in those days was woman called Chika. She was full of the power of her god, and she was greatly feared.” The present priestess is Chielo, who is also a woman. This ability of women to occupy roles as spiritual leaders elevates them and commands respect from their society. Another example of such reverence for women is unveiled in the depiction of the earth goddess, Ani, as a female. Ani is described a playing “a greater part in the life of the people than any other deity. She was the ultimate judge of morality and conduct.” In a society that viewed its female members only as inferior beings, it would be illogical to represent their most powerful deity as a woman. When Okonkwo breaks the Peace of Ani and beats his wife once more, he is told, “The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” Clearly, if a female spirit wields such incredible power, the society truly holds a degree of respect and even worship toward the female role.
Lastly, esteem for the role of women in Ibo culture is evident in the most basic traditional beliefs of the society. When Okonkwo returns to his mother’s clan after being exiled from his village, he is “full of sorrow” about returning to his “motherland”. However, the leader Uchendu reproaches Okonkwo for his sadness saying, “Be careful or you may displease the dead.” Uchendu explains that Okonkwo should not be sad about living in his motherland because “Mother is Supreme.” He goes on to say, “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme.” Uchenda’s words reveal that traditionally, women are viewed as the foundation of the clan. They are the constant that can be relied upon – the nurturers and caretakers of the people. Truly, the saying “Mother is Supreme” confirms the significance of the power and authority traditionally held by women in Umofia.
Apparently, the role of women in Things Fall Apart is not limited to misogynistic gender stereotypes that appear in the novel. The women of Umofia hold some very powerful positions: spiritually – as priestesses, symbolically – as the earth goddess, and traditionally – as the nurturers of their children and families. Thus, the female role is noticeably regarded with reverence and respect.