NOT TO BE MISSED
"Femmes sans avenir", a novel by Hanane KEITA
Bamako: La Sahélienne & Paris: L'Harmattan: 2011, (146p.).
[A first version of the novel was published by Elzévir in 2008].
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If a title was a good indication of a book's content, "Women without a future" would portray a world definitely closed to women's hopes and aspirations. And it is true that in spite of much determination, the protagonist of this interesting novel is unable to escape the tyranny of social praxis. Her relationship with her husband has indeed no future when the latter betrays her and decides to take a second wife. However, the main appeal of the novel is to show that women with no future in the confines of traditional wisdom can, nonetheless, break free, reinvent themselves, and look with confidence to serendipitous times lying ahead.
Kady and Karim have been happily married for many years. Blessed with four young children, they also enjoy rewarding professional pursuits, good incomes and a busy social life. Thus Kady's discovery that her husband was cheating on her is like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. And things get even worse when she registers that her husband's indiscretion is not a fling, but a long lasting relationship with a younger woman he now wants to marry, thus abnegating his pledge to monogamy. Like so many women before her, Kady feels a deep resentment at being betrayed. She suffers bouts of severe depression alongside violent altercations with her husband who, increasingly, shows himself in his true colours. His longing for a second wife is only the tip of the iceberg, as the progressive young man he once was has become a self-centred traditionalist, well entrenched in the values of the past.
To Karim, women's subservience to men not only justifies his right to marry a new wife, but it also means that women should devote all their time to the care of their children and husband. Thus Kady's professional activities soon become a major issue. While Kady argues that "she draws much satisfaction from her work" (p.57), Karim contends that "women like her have not understood that a man does not need a spouse loaded with diplomas, but just one who takes care of him. A woman who is always at his side [...] available day and night, not one who puts all her energy in helping people on the outside and comes back home tired and upset" (p.58). In order to save her marriage, Kady eventually envisages to submit to her husband's unfair demand, if he was prepared to renounce marrying a second wife; but discussing terms with one's wife is not in keeping with the prerogatives bestowed on men by time honoured tradition. Quite the contrary, Kady's every attempt to change her husband's mind seems to increase his fierce determination to show everyone that he is the boss.
The devastating effect of women's subordination is everywhere to see, and polygamy is one of its most cruel illustrations, leading to intense pain, jealousy, in-fighting between co-wives, lack of trust between family members, desperate recourse to sorcery, escalating resentment leading to insanity and even murder. But while women, are the prime victims of outdated social mores, they also balk at challenging the status quo and its injustices. This reluctance to dispute a state of affairs so inimical to their well-being is well explained by Aunty Awa's attitude. To her and the endless string of unhappy women who, like her, spent a fortune with sorcerers trying to regain the love of their husband: with nothing to show one does not go against God's will. As far as she is concerned, "Islam says that women are inferior to men" (p.129); "Allah gave men permission to marry four wives" (p.127) and that settles the matter for all eternity.
Aunty Awa's submission to what Kady contends is a misleading interpretation of the Holy Book, does not satisfy her niece who argues that preachers, keen to invoke men's rights are picking and choosing bits of the Scriptures in support of their argument. They "ascribe to the words a meaning they never had" (p.130), she says.  But to Aunty Awa, her niece's arguments are nothing but "bizarre and incomprehensible ideas" (p.130) that can only lead to her demise. Refusal to abide, even reluctantly, by customary practice is doomed to failure as no one, man or woman, family or mere acquaintance would ever come to the rescue of a lost soul who dares to challenge society's fundamental beliefs.
Thus Kady's uncertain fate when she decides to leave her husband and to split from her family in a last act of defiance. In a country where family relationships are paramount, life is tough for a divorcee who has turned her back on her relatives. However, the woman with no future that her husband wanted her to be, is now free to take charge of her own destiny. She is ready to move forward and whatever will happen to her cannot be worse than the fate of her Aunt Maïssa who lost her mind and all her money to exploitative Marabouts; worse than Aunt Coumba's chagrin when her old husband decides to marry a second wife after twenty seven-years of marriage; worse than the two highly educated women living across the street a bank manager and a surgeon coerced into living under the same roof by their common husband (p.96). And conversely, it cannot be worse then the fate of her co-wife, the young woman who has accepted "to sacrifice her studies, make a religious marriage and stay at home" (p.72) in order to please her husband.
The divisive and destructive power of polygamy has been a recurrent theme of African women's writing from its beginnings. So long a letter by Mariama Bâ (1979), and Juletane by Myriam Warner-Vieyra (1982) are but two of the most celebrated novels dealing with this issue. Thirty years on, Hanane Kéïta's novel shows that this scourge continues unabated and still is a cause of many families' misfortune and suffering. As before, it is not so much unfaithfulness that is at the core of the issue, but rather the power of one gender to take unilateral decisions and to impose them on the other.
Hanane Kéïta's novel puts the emphasis on polygamous marriage and Kady's traumatic journey to hell and back; but it also exposes other asymmetrical power relationships that have no place in today's Mali, and indeed in any other country. Excision is one of them. At the very beginning of the novel, Kady is confronted by this barbaric custom when a neighbour barged into her house. The four year old girl living next door is haemorrhaging following her grandmother's decision to put her to the knife, against the will of the parents and her distressed mother looking for someone to drive her daughter to hospital. The subsequent passing of the hapless victim is neither blamed on her backward grandma, nor on the gross inefficiency of the medics failing to attend to the gaping wound and allowing the little victim to bleed to death; it is just put down to "God's will" (p.11). "That night, I did not sleep, Kady says. How could I, knowing that I had three small daughters of my own?" (p.11). Like polygamy, excision was not inflicted on defenceless individuals by God, but rather by backward family members oblivious to their duty of care.
Likewise, the poor state of the local economy, she suggests, is not helped by people's selfishness, lack of confidence and readiness to believe misleading tales about Europe and America's affluence. Embezzlement, nepotism and tribalism are not inevitabilities, but man-made evils that contribute to the devastation of the country and the oppression of the have-nots. Help will not come from outsiders, nor will it emerge from traditions ill-suited to modern times. It will come from a resolute shift from gender prejudices and the denunciation of those "who fudge the past in order to draw a veil over our present" . Thus, instead of thwarting his wife's professional pursuits, the narrator suggests, Karim should have applauded her resolve to work for the good of the community and applauded her dedication to family and friends; instead of confining his young new wife to the kitchen sink, he should have encouraged her to pursue her education and to take an active part in Mali's development.
The future of the country is not in the hands of the gods, but it rests with people's ability to take charge of their destiny, and their capacity to reinvent themselves in the light of the country's predicament and pressing needs. But, like the great number of Malian women who have fought vigorously for the betterment of their country, from Aoua Kéita  to Aminata Traoré  and the hundreds of other women mentioned in Adame Ba Konaré's Dictionary of famous women from Mali , Kady learns, painfully, that getting rid of die-hard inequalities against a background of entrenched tribalism, religious fanaticism and foreign exploitation is easier said than done. Thus her difficulty in convincing her nephew Issa, not to join the long queue of unemployed graduates dreaming of the West and lining up in front of the American Embassy to get a visa in order to escape a situation that offers no hope to the country's youth.
By undermining women's rightful aspirations to freedom, the toxic atmosphere of patriarchal expectations and demands is not only depriving women of their dreams, but also condemning the whole of the country to remain "a land without a future". Still, that does not put a damper on Kady's resolve to forge ahead, despite her anger and sorrow. In this regard, Hanane Kéita's novel, grief-stricken as it is, also conveys a faint message of hope.
1. In a fascinating book titled "Le harem politique. Le Prophète et les femmes" (Paris: Albin Michel, 1987), Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi shows that "Not only the Sacred Text has always been manipulated, but its manipulation has been a structural characteristic of political practice in Muslim societies", p.16.
2. Ibid., p.19.
3. Aoua Kéita. "La vie d'Aoua Kéita racontée par elle-même". Paris: Présence Africaine, 1975, 400p.
4. Aminata Traoré et Nathalie M'Dela-Mounier. "L'Afrique mutilée". Bamako: Taama, 2012, 48p.
5. Adame Ba Konaré. "Dictionnaire des femmes célèbres du Mali". Bamako: Editions Jamana, 1993, 520p.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities