Understanding the plight of the Francophone African woman writer goes beyond colonization and the degradation accompanying it… it is a universal plight that has burdened women throughout history, and has especially burdened the women of Africa. Before we can look at the colonized woman, we must look at the woman herself.
One of the transcendent universalities of human relations has been gender roles. Men are the heads of the household and women are the subservient wives and mothers. Comparatively, the questioning of these gender roles is a new thing, and if it is a relatively new thing for Western societies, it is exceptionally new for African societies, in which the domains of gender have historically rarely been crossed. It is one of the few concurrent themes of African women writing, known as the “sexualization of space”, as noted in the 1987 roundtable discussion of “Male vs. Female Narrative Theory” at the African Literature Association Conference at Cornell University.
However, the separation of domains (women’s being domestic, and men’s being outside of the house) did not keep women silent historically; their roles as orators, as griottes, were notable in the keeping of oral history. Yet even there, the hierarchy of patriarchy (a system under the control of men) prevailed: women were only allowed to be taught certain forms of poetry and satire, in order to keep them from being distracted from their more important roles as mothers and wives.
This mindset carried on through the years of colonial occupation, and, in my opinion, could be a reason women transitioned from being vocal (though restricted) in orature to being almost completely silenced in literature. It is one thing to share even a limited spoken word with a community… it is something entirely more challenging to share a written word with the world. Female access to the French colonial education system, one already devoted to a male colonial agenda, was restricted and denied by African society for generations, and once resentfully allowed, was directed more to molding better wives and mothers than citizens and intellectuals.
Even after the planets aligned and a woman gained both a valid education in the French language (and the key word here is valid), her struggle has yet to have begun. If she wishes to be heard, she must now bear the yoke of the colonized writer. After generations upon generations of fighting to find a voice, she has only reached the starting line, as her male counterparts have already halfway completed the race. She must slip into the skin of her linguistic illegitimacy and learn to speak in the words of the colonizer, long after her initial conquerors have been heard. The prisoner has found her key, but the question remains: who was the jailer?