Woman: Whose Slave Are You?

In Kelemo’s Woman, Nigerian author Molara Wood tells the tale of a woman in love with an idealist, a freedom fighter in a time of military coup and the subsequent downslide of the country.  It is a short story – succinct, pungent, and leaves you with a question about Iriola: who’s woman is she now?

Kelemo is caught up in his zeal of resisting the forces of suppression.  He comes from a family where sacrifice for the country is ingrained.  It is a noble cause, but Iriola is tired of following him around, from one rebellion to another, risking her life.  Why should his cause be hers?  Because she is a woman?  What if a woman did not support her man and his ideals?  What if she thought of her own survival?  Is that such a bad thing?

Iriola decides to leave.  She takes her dying mother’s advice and focuses on her own needs.

Because, as her mother says:

Iriola, allow yourself to be pulled down by no one.  Don’t be like me, slaving all my life to stand by men and for what?  To die of a wasting disease before my time?  Now you will have no mother.  The person to watch over you, is you.

How many mothers tell their daughters this?  Take care of yourself, your life is important. You matter.

Iriola decides to offer favors to the men in the system to get herself a job (she is educated and trained in nursing).  They think they are using her, but perhaps she is using them?

Why should women take on wars started by men?  Were women given a choice before starting any war?  Did their opinions matter?  So, if they join the fight, they need to ask themselves: Whose fight is it?  What are we fighting for?  If it’s freedom and democracy, then yes.  If it’s a power driven agenda or an endless loop of regimes, why should we risk our lives for someone’s thirst for control?  A game in which we become glorified pawns, who have no role to play after the dust settles.  (And these questions apply to men too – the ones who fight on the front lines.)

Iriola’s decision to break away from this “noble cause” makes you think about choices.

But the last line leaves you wondering: And I always obeyed my mother.

My friends and I were discussing this in our book club.

Tina is the one who brought up these last lines:

I pray Kelemo survives.  I suppose he will wonder why, when he learns about the choices I have made.  But Kelemo was not in the hospital room when Mother breathed her last.  And I always obeyed my mother.

Tina asked, “Do you think she’s being an obedient daughter?  Like generations of daughters?  Or thinking for herself?  Is Iriola really a free woman or is she now following in someone else’s footsteps?  What if a future situation arises?  Who will she turn to for advice?  Will she find her inner voice?”

But, Sajel, my other friend, thought the opposite of it.  She reasoned, “For a change, a mother advices her daughter to focus on her own needs.  For a change, a mother’s words are an inspiration to her daughter. We are so tired of hearing stories of men being inspired by their fathers, their captains, and their kings. This is very much about Iriola shaping her own destiny.”

Did the author intend for us to debate this – hence the provocative last line?  Is Iriola free?

15 thoughts on “Woman: Whose Slave Are You?

  1. we are all influenced by someone or something. sure we think but our thoughts are colored by someone or something. As long as she gets what she wants and gets to do what she wants and she feels what she does makes her happy does it really matter?

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  2. I think Iriola was set free by her mother’s last advice. Until then she relied on both her husband and her mother maybe. And she always obeyed her mother, and did the same this one last time too, to listen to herself and emerge a free soul.

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  3. So what makes women (and many men too) not think think for themselves? Why do they take things stated by their parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses, “elders”, people in places of authority or control over them, at face value? Why do they not care to dig deeper beyond what appears on the surface? Why are they afraid to ask questions? What stops them from developing their own judgement skills based on rational, objective and unbiased analysis of every situation. We know part of the problem (in India at least) is the patriarchal set up (and all that it entails) and the strong direction to follow the herd inculcated in kids from the time they learn to communicate.

    The education system too plays a role. A system which encourages memorizing over learning, which blindly reveres all parents, elders, teachers and persons in places of power, regardless of their true capabilities, where your academic score matters more than any actual learning done, does nothing to encourage independent thinking. So what is the solution?
    I wish schools curriculum would include an hour per week for observation, analysis and developing critical judgment skills. Where topics are selected each week -could be fictional stories, could be pictures, could be current affairs and have each student voice their understanding of their topic. Ask open questions that make them think. Ask them to come up with solutions of their own. Encourage out of the box/unconventional thinking. Encourage looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Start early – even first graders can be presented simple topics from daily life. With increasing age, kids can be presented topic that have increasing degrees of conflict and contradictions in them, that requires them to assess the situation in depth and come up with fair solutions.
    Exercises of this nature will go a long way in developing independent thinking in our kids, youth and future adults. The benefits are boundless. Such thinking is the foundation for developing a free, fearless and respectful society, for innovation, for strong leadership, for better utilization of resources, for the betterment of all living beings.

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    • Yes in the Indian context, following elders’ wishes is second nature to both men and women. For women, it’s triple this phenomenon – listen to parents, listen to in-laws, and listen to husband.

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      • Yep .This ” Listening to elders” thing is a big part of our culture. I still have problems with this at home when my son questions my husband and my husband flies off the handle because questioning your parents is just not done in his book.
        Thankfully I have been trying to explain this to my husband who still has such moments but is coming around.

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  4. This short story reminded me of how Sita followed Rama into a 14 year exile, something he “nobly” signed up for, without consulting her. What if Sita refused? What if she, like Iriola, decided she would make her own destiny?

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    • Based on my knowledge, Sita was given an option to stay back, instead she chose to be with her husband (at least, the movies that I saw says that).

      I think, unless you are brought up the way to listen and do things what works for you, it is given, that one will follow the person who sets the rules. In this case, Iriola could have stayed with her husband no matter what, as that’s what a married women does as per societal norms isn’t? , but I feel, she chose to obey her mother because that must be her inner desire all along?

      Also, we do not just have our own thinking, unless we are exposed to options and opportunities – very few have their own ideas and ideologies of living one’s life and even fewer go on to lead their life on their terms.

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      • Perhaps the option of staying back came with severe consequences. There is active discouragement and subtle punishment (social isolation, emotional abandonment) even today (several thousand years after the time of Sita) for a woman for not obeying or being compliant. Very few people can face this type of pain to break the barriers.

        Perhaps in Sita’s case, she complied out of fear of an unjust society, and while her fear is not acknowledged (which would be honest and lead to some real understanding and learning), it is dishonestly portrayed as ideal for a woman and glorified.

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  5. Women must stop playing second fiddle for men…And they should not treat their husbands like their Father, Elder or boss…Thats just too intimidating and only serves to maintain the unjust patriarchy…And from my point of view as a man, it would be very embarassing and intimidating for me to see my wife treat me like her elder or boss…eewwuu…I am just her partner, and I would like to be treated so…nothing more..

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    • Thank you for saying this Amian. We need more secure men to speak up here. If I were a man, I would want a partner who can be my equal and my best friend, not my subordinate. It’s so much more fulfilling that way – why do people not get it?

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  6. “So what makes women (and many men too) not think think for themselves? Why do they take things stated by their parents, grandparents, teachers, bosses, “elders”, people in places of authority or control over them, at face value? Why do they not care to dig deeper beyond what appears on the surface? Why are they afraid to ask questions? What stops them from developing their own judgement skills based on rational, objective and unbiased analysis of every situation. We know part of the problem (in India at least) is the patriarchal set up (and all that it entails) and the strong direction to follow the herd inculcated in kids from the time they learn to communicate.”

    Amen to this. I am starting to realize that maybe not following the herd maybe a good thing, because all I know is if “culture and society” dictates that everyone has to be the same in thought and behavior, it will stunt our people as whole and separate us from developing and further progressing. However like usual, introducing a new idea or being different is not tolerated in Indian society…ay.

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    • A lot of this is unconsciously learnt behavior. Most people belong to some sort of a ‘culture’ – and if it’s a culture of compliance and hierarchy, then we tend to work within that. Sometimes moving to another place (bigger city or different friends’ circle) opens people up to new ways of thinking and acting and reacting. You have just given me an idea for a post – about someone who went through this transformation. Thank you J1289:)

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  7. Same goes to me Priya, If I were a woman, I would dump my Boyfriend/spouse immediately, if he ever expects me to treat him like my ‘superior’ or my ‘authority’….

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