Friday, 17 September, 2021

His Only Wife: A Fairytale


Nishtha Shrestha

It is a tale of a girl from a poor community ready to get married to an eligible bachelor in town. A single mother who considers this as an end to the years of suffering. The excitement of the family members to receive the gifts and money from the rich soon to be in-laws. All the ingredients of a love story we have heard. But there is a catch.
The traditional wedding is conducted without the groom. The bride has never seen nor spoken to the guy she is about to be married to. And most important of all, the marriage is a challenge to save her husband from the spell of a woman. His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie is a book that makes one question the fairytales we have enjoyed and continue to pass on to our children.
The protagonist, Afi Temple, is a young girl who has seen the pain and misery of living in poverty. Her life depends on charity and this dependence prevents from her raising her voice when the elders decide her fate. She is like the other women in her community who have been taught that the ultimate goal in a woman's life is to serve her husband.
This learning makes her believe that the challenge put forth is a chance to prove her womanhood. Though her intuitions make her question the entire arrangement, these thoughts are silenced by a society that shows her how she has been saved and now she has to win over her husband. This character represents how young girls are trained from an early age.
Her individuality is suppressed and the honour of the family is at stake with every decision she makes. Her life is decided by the elders particularly the males who consider it their birthright to dominate over the females.
The mother who raises her daughter despite the criticisms and lack of support from the family members resonates with the challenges a single woman face in a patriarchal society.
A woman with a husband is given respect, honour and a place in the rituals of society. Regardless of how incompetent the husband might be, a woman is forced to stay within a marriage because the labels of a divorcee, single parent, remarried push the women further down the social ladder.
This experience of humiliation and servitude ingrained in the mother is passed on to the daughter. Despite being aware of the circumstances and knowing that there is a possibility of her daughter never being happy in her marriage, the societal pressures and fear of being an outcast push her to convince her daughter to accept this strange condition.
On the other side of the spectrum is a character referred to by the name of Aunty. She is an entrepreneur who commands the respect of her community. Her sons worship her and therefore when one dares to ignore her orders, she forces him to marry Aki without even consulting her son. She is a philanthropist who gives with one hand and takes with another. Aki's mother is indebted to her for housing and income.
This makes it easier to manipulate both the mother and daughter into following her instructions. This character shows how women in power need to be ruthless if she is to sustain in a male-dominated workforce.
This need to constantly embody the socially accepted characteristics of a strong male makes her blind to the injustice she commits towards other women. She is a role model to her daughter who follows in her footsteps and uses her privilege to further oppress the poor and helpless women of the community.
Amidst all this chaos is the "other woman". She is hated by the community and treated as an outsider. She is a woman who dares to be herself and does not allow customs to dictate her life. Coming from a different country, she is viewed with suspicion and when she cannot be forced to be submissive, stories of her character, behaviour, parenting, appearance etc become a topic to gossip about. Aunty does not like her as she challenges her authority.
She is the representation of the change women need to adopt in modern society. She understands her worth and is unaffected by the taunts and interference by Aunty's family. The title of "other woman" is given to destroy her self-esteem and show her place in society. The hypocrisy of society is revealed through her.
She gets all the blame for stealing a married man when it was the man who could not stop the marriage despite being in a relationship with her and who continues to receive respect from society though he is the cause for spoiling the lives of two women.
The author challenges the narrative of a fairytale that teaches young girls to ignore their needs and believe that a husband has the freedom to do whatever he pleases with her. There are many other questionable issues in the common fairytales such as lack of consent, beauty being a cause for destruction, women competing against each other for a guy and most importantly the belief that males are saviours.
This is not to criticize males who have been an ally to the women but to show these harmful lessons need to be eradicated. There are two conversations in the book that illustrate the status given to women in a male-dominated society. The first conversation happens between Aki and her cousin. The cousin reasons with Aki that her marriage is a fairytale because her husband does not beat her, fulfils her needs, is a good father and therefore there is no need to be upset that he is with another woman.
The second conversation is between Aki and her husband. She asks her husband that if he would be okay if she was in a relationship with another man whilst being married. His response to her is that it is not the same case. Both males and females are responsible for the existence of domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape etc in our society. Thus, this book teaches how girls can be independent and there can be a happily ever after even without a prince.

(Shrestha is a child psychologist)